By the turn of the century, the United States was steadily changing from a rural nation to an urban one. More than 50% of Americans lived in cities by 1920.  The transformation took a little bit longer in Texas. Nearly 17% of Texans lived in cities in 1900; by 1910, it was 24%; 32% in 1920; 41% in 1930. Displaced farm workers and immigrants (mainly from the ex-Confederate states) spurred the growth of the Texas cities. Connection with the railroad system stimulated urban development, as did the more widespread use of electricity. In 1901, the Spindletop oil discoveries spawned the growth of fuel-related industries which built up Texas towns at a phenomenal rate.

Texas urban areas, however, lagged behind northern cities in industrialization and in attracting foreign immigrants. They also lacked the tenement dwellings inhabited by the ultra-poor and the distinct suburbs settled by the rich. About the only ethnic enclaves that developed in Texas were Mexican barrios and black ghettos.


Cities were filthy. For example, as late as 1900, there were still thousands of horses in use in major Texas cities–each one producing 20-30 lbs. of manure every day.  This biological waste was a major breeding ground for the common houseflies which helped spread disease. Outhouses added to the problem. Smokestacks polluted the air. Cities and manufacturers dumped biological sewage and industrial wastes into open ditches that ran through town to the nearest body of water. Often the nearest body of water provided the town’s drinking water (like the Buffalo Bayou in Houston). This remained a problem until the cities began drilling for artesian water from deep underground. All this pumping, however, caused a lowering of the ground level (subsidence).

Garbage pickup was irregular or non-existent. Most trash accumulated on the streets, rummaged through by rag-pickers and pigs, alike, up until the 1880’s, when city dwellers began to use dump yards on the outskirts of towns (out of sight, out of mind).

Disease epidemics were high from the unsanitary conditions, but the deadliest of the Texas diseases resulted from poor drainage and standing water. It was Yellow Fever, which was spread by mosquitoes and ravaged Texans throughout many summers until the first frost killed the carriers. Symptoms included high fever, red eyes, headaches, jaundice (yellow skin), and black vomit caused by intestinal bleeding. There were no known cures. The last major epidemic occurred in 1873, but smaller breakouts continued into the 20th century.

Traffic congestion remained a problem; roads were poor. For a long time, the streets in Texas were considered as nothing more than “bottomless mud holes in wet weather and dust bins in dry times.” Rail cars pulled by mules in the 1870’s and electric trolleys by the late 1880’s were much faster and permitted some expansion of urban boundaries into streetcar suburbs.

Galveston held the worst reputation for vice among Texas urban areas, with numerous bawdy and gambling houses. Various visits by the Texas Rangers helped keep rowdiness in check. Rangers were called in when trouble grew beyond the control of local authorities, but not yet large enough to warrant the use of military force. One of the Ranger mottoes was: “One riot, one Ranger.” Rangers were said to “ride like a Mexican, trail like an Indian, shoot like a Tennessean, and fight like the devil.” On the downside, they were accused of lacking discipline and of using abusive force–especially on Hispanics. In 1919, their number would be reduced from 1,000 to 76. They were merged with the Highway Patrol to become part of the Department of Public Safety in 1935. Although many Hispanics had been on the force for years, the first black was not sworn in until 1988.

The worst urban disaster of the Post-Reconstruction period (and the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States) was the Galveston hurricane and tidal wave of 1900.

Figure 2:  Carnage from the Galveston storm.

The hurricane broke on the night of September 8, destroying about one-third of the city. It killed approximately 6,000 people on Galveston and another 5,000 on the mainland. The city faced enormous tasks of rebuilding, disposing of so many dead, and designing a plan of protection for the future.

Initial efforts, led by elected officials, accomplished little. Therefore, the state of Texas eliminated the offices of locally elected officials and imposed a team of non-partisan, expert City Commissioners who performed honestly and efficiently to rebuild the city. Such professionals generally owed no political debts and truly did know their business. They were influenced by the corporate model—striving for modernity and efficiency. These expert “middle managers” did such a magnificent job in Galveston, the so-called “Galveston Model” was emulated in hundreds of other cities across the nation.

There was never a shortage of Churches in Texas cities to help keep the heathenistic tendencies in check. All the major denominations were represented in Texas, providing both moral inspiration, educational roles, and a charitable function.

Cities became centers for sports, especially baseball, which was introduced to Texans by Northern soldiers playing in Galveston following the Civil War. Inter-city rivalries developed, and businessmen formed the Texas League in 1887 to support regular competition. It has endured to the present time but now includes teams from other states.

Perhaps the most impressive building of the period was the new Capitol in Austin, completed in 1888. The state traded 3 million acres of West Texas land to a Chicago firm in return for construction. The firm ultimately formed the XIT ranch from this land. With a floorplan loosely modeled after the Washington Capitol, the Texas Capitol building was built from Texas red granite featuring the Goddess of Liberty on top of an impressive dome.

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