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.

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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.

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.