Dallas’ first millionaire

She (that’s right, it was a woman) lived on our side of the Trinity

The spectacular Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge officially opens this month. But it isn’t the first Dallas bridge located on this property. Well, at least almost on this property.

In 1855, Alex Cockrell built and operated the first Dallas bridge over the Trinity River. Before the wooden structure collapsed in 1858, the Cockrell bridge contributed to a significant number of pioneer families’ migration to the interior of our state and to the development of the entire North Texas area below the Trinity. Cockrell’s land purchase (where Commerce Street meets the Trinity) was the remainder of the Dallas townsite Cockrell purchased from John Neely Bryan — the “Father of Dallas.” The acquisition included Bryan’s sub-standard Trinity River ferry concession — an extremely awkward and inefficient method of fording the Trinity, but the only available option of the day. Among other ventures, Cockrell successfully involved himself in lumber mills, a brickyard, ranching operations and in the burgeoning railroad industry.

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Sarah Horton (from the Eagle Ford area) married Cockrell in 1847. Originally, they lived in a tent at what was called “Cockrell Farm,” on the rolling terrain that lies east of what is now Mountain Creek Lake. Cockrell continued to purchase adjoining properties and eventually owned the land that now anchors Dallas Baptist University and the DFW National Cemetery. Owning such an impressive property mass in this portion of the county, Cockrell was among the county powers-that-be who made the decision to route the new Dallas-to-Fort Worth road directly through the heart of his holdings. Gone long ago, White House Ranch (the large home he constructed for his family) was built on the DFW cemetery property. Then a new ranch house and quarters were built in the 1880s, which were later occupied, until 1940, as the operations center for a dairy business. The Potter’s House now sits on the site.

After her husband’s 1858 death at the hands of a Dallas sheriff, Sarah opened the St. Nicholas Hotel and managed it herself before it burned the following year. She then opened the Dallas Hotel, which later morphed into the St. Charles. Forming S. A. Cockrell & Company, Sarah Cockrell went on to own and operate flour mills and other businesses, later joining the real estate community by leasing, managing, owning, buying and selling properties and buildings — not only in Dallas County but also around the state.

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An iron bridge constructed by her Dallas Bridge Company wasn’t built until 1871, due mostly to the lack of building supplies — a result of the recently concluded American Civil War. Located on the same spot as the earlier wooden structure, Sarah Cockrell operated the toll bridge for 10 years before selling it to the City of Dallas.

Along with her sons, she continued her business endeavors and wound up as the matriarch of one of Dallas’ premier entrepreneurial families. The Dallas Morning News’s 1892 obituary stated that her funeral procession and floral tributes were among the largest ever seen in Dallas, and that the city council and city administrators attended the service as a body. Most 1892 speculation reflects her as owning one-fourth of downtown Dallas, with her holdings so extensive that her will had to be published in a 24-page pamphlet! Not a bad résumé for an Oak Cliff gal who once slept in a tent at Mountain Creek.

Most Dallasites believe all the rich folk live north of the Trinity, but we lay claim to a title of which many aren’t aware. Depending on whom you ask or read, Sarah Horton Cockrell is mentioned as probably Dallas’ first millionaire, beating out all the men and anyone else in the county. She’s also touted to be, if not the first, one of the first millionaires in Texas. And considering she was a millionaire in 19th century financial terms, the old girl surely had a big stash of cash!

Move over, Ebby, Mary Kay, Ross and Mark (Cuban)! Sarah Cockrell just may be the original “big dog” in the Dallas millionaire race.

This makes me wonder what she’d think of the new Calatrava bridge, built so close to the Cockrell’s first bridges? One thing I’ll bet: If it was hers, when you drove across, you’d probably need some change. No freebies here. Sarah’d be chargin’ a toll.

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  • One thing I find fascinating about Sarah is not just what she accomplished–she managed to be more successful that perhaps most men of that day and time, and in so many different ventures. She achieved all this and still managed to stay under the radar, appearing to conform to the women’s sphere of that day and time. 

  • Glad you liked the story, Diane. And I believe you’re right about Sarah. I think she would have given the current crop of Dallas million and billionaires a run for their moolah.

  • Thanks Gayla, nice bit of history from our hometown.  Certainly Sarah was a woman ahead of her time!

  • Frances, you probably also know that I (and a bunch of others) attended the Cockrell Hill Elementary School next door to Cockrell Hill Baptist Church for grades 1 – 5 before that local school became L.O.Donald School.  Fun, isn’t it, to see what topics Gayla will come up with  – I think my favorite may have been Red Bryan’s Smokehouse!

  •  Thank you, Sandy. It makes me happy to know you enjoy the columns and the brief history included. I’m sorry you are so far away. We’re always ready for you to make a return visit any time.

  • Thank you, Kim. I agree! She must have been quite a woman. I appreciate your added insights.

  • Sarah Cockrell dared to live her life on her own terms and
    established a precedent and a tradition for women to be significant role
    players in developing a major city. Without bridges, the best-built roads lead
    nowhere, the most impressive visions remain invisible, and the best-laid plans
    fall.  Sarah built the bridge, made
    the connection, and brought Dallas to success.  The Sarah Cockrell Chapter, DAR, was named in her honor and is dedicated to keeping her memory alive.  Thank you for the article and the connection to today’s world.

  • Thank you for another delightful column. I always learn something new from them and look forward to another history lesson on my hometown.

  • Thanks for the good words, Frances! I appreciate your continued support. And you’re most correct. There is a Cockrell Hill Elementary School in DeSoto. I think Sarah would be proud.

  • Gayla, another interesting column!  You certainly can make history come alive!  I enjoyed knowing some of the background for a name that I grew up with in Oak Cliff–Cockrell Hill Road and Cockrell Hill community.  In response to another reader’s comment:  There is a Cockrell Hill Elementary School in DeSoto, and it is located on Cockrell Hill Road.

    Frances George Phillips  

  • Glad you enjoyed the read, Donna. Let me know if you have any ideas for future columns. Thanks for posting.

  • Debbie, Why don’t you suggest that to the DISD? I don’t know how many new schools are being consructed these days, but perhaps you could put her on the list. Thanks for posting.

  • Linda, Glad you found the story interesting. Sarah sounds like she was a pretty tough cookie. A 24-page listing of her assets? Now that’s what I call a portfolio! 

  • Jan, I think you’re right about Sarah. She appears to be one of those “get ‘er done” kinda’ gals. Oak Cliff lady, for sure! Thanks for the compliment on the column. Oak Cliff history is a great subject to research…and to know.

  • I bet Ms. Sarah Cockrell would not let the Calatrava Bridge open with out being completed. She sounds like the kind of woman who would have gone to The Bridge work site and “heads would have rolled” until it was completed on time. We will have an official opening of the Calatrava Bridge, but it won’t be finished. We won’t be able to get on or around the bridge for weeks until it’s completion.
     Great Article Gayla,

    Thank you for sharing.

  • That was so interesting Gayla.  And I agree with with Debbie…there should be a school named after her.  If anyone can get that started it would be YOU!!!  Linda Shipp Moon

  • Gayla, Sarah Cockrell now has a DAR chapter named in her honor!  I have passed this link along, and I’m sure they will enjoy the article.

  • Enjoyed reading,  where is her school named after her.  She did more for Oak Cliff and needs a school named after her.

  • How interesting to know more history on the lady and the land near Mountain Creek Lake.  I enjoyed reading it a lot. 

    Donna Lackey

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