Tyler, TX

By: Christopher Long

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: March 10, 2021

Tyler, the county seat of Smith County, is one of the leading cities of East Texas. It is ninety-nine miles southeast of Dallas at the junctions of U.S. highways 69 and 271 and State highways 14, 31, 64, 110, and 155. The city was authorized on April 11, 1846, when the Texas legislature voted to establish Smith County and a corresponding county seat. The townsite, located near the geographic center of the county, was selected by a panel of commissioners appointed by the legislature and was named for President John Tyler in recognition of his support for admitting Texas to the United States. On February 6, 1847, commissioners purchased a 100-acre site from Edgar Pollett for $150, and a townsite was laid out in twenty-eight blocks around a central square. A log courthouse on the north side of the square served as the meeting hall and church. Another log courthouse was built in 1847 on the center of the Tyler square; it was replaced in 1852, when a new, larger brick courthouse was constructed on the same site. A Methodist church was organized in 1846, and the First Baptist Church was established in 1848. McDonald Lorance served as the first mayor. Tyler was incorporated on January 29, 1850, and instituted an aldermanic form of government. A Masonic lodge was organized in 1848, an Odd Fellows lodge was founded in 1851, and the first newspaper was published the same year. With the growing wave of immigrants from the Old South into Texas after annexation, Tyler grew rapidly. The rich soil of the surrounding area attracted numerous planters, and already by 1850 Smith County had a population of 4,292. Buoyed by the prosperity of the surrounding farms and plantations, Tyler quickly emerged as a leading shipping and commercial center for the region. In 1856, just nine years after its founding, one writer remarked that Tyler was "already a place of considerable importance, and contains many buildings of taste and beauty." Numerous new buildings were constructed in the decade prior to the Civil War. Alfred W. Ferguson erected five brick stores on the northwest side of the square between 1855 and 1858, and Col. George Yarbrough built a three-story building on the northeast side in which he operated a dry-goods store.

As in much of East Texas, the city's economy was heavily dependent on slavery. In 1860 more than 35 percent of the total population of 1,021 were slaves. Not surprisingly, Tyler residents voted overwhelmingly for secession, and local men volunteered for army service in large numbers. During the Civil War Tyler was the site of the largest Confederate ordnance plant in Texas, and in 1863 a large Confederate prison camp, known as Camp Ford, was built four miles to the northeast. With so much of its wealth invested in slavery, Tyler and Smith County suffered from an economic depression in the early post war period. The town's woes were further compounded when the Texas and Pacific and the International railroads both bypassed Tyler in the early 1870s. In April 1874, however, the Houston and Great Northern began service on their branch line to Tyler. In an effort to ensure the town's prosperity, leading Tyler citizens worked to have a spur built from Tyler to Ferguson (Big Sandy). The narrow-gauge line, known as the Tyler Tap Railroad, was completed in 1877. In 1879 the Tyler Tap line was acquired by the Texas and St. Louis Railway Company, which located its machine shops and hospital in the town. The Kansas and Gulf Short Line Railroad, founded the following year, also established machine shops there. Due to the influx of laborers to the railroad shops, the city's population nearly tripled from 1880 to 1890. The postwar period also witnessed other important developments. The town's first bank, the Bonner and Williams Bank, was founded in 1870. Numerous new businesses were built during the 1870s, and despite fires which destroyed several city blocks, the downtown area continued to grow. A public school system was established in 1882, and by 1885 the town had Episcopal, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, and Presbyterian churches, two private colleges, public and private schools, a plow factory, three planing mills, wagon and carriage factories, an ice factory, several gristmills and cotton gins, hotels, an opera house, a waterworks, two banks, and two weekly newspapers, the Tyler Democrat and the Tyler Courier. Tyler achieved city status in 1907, and by 1910 it had 10,400 residents. After an election in April 1915 the city adopted the manager-commission form of government. A new three-story courthouse was built in 1909; it served the county until the present courthouse was constructed in 1954.

Despite the importance of the railroads, agriculture long remained the mainstay of the city's economy. During the early twentieth century cotton was the leading cash crop, accounting for four-fifths of the agricultural income of the county. After the mid-1890s, however, truck farming and fruit orchards became increasingly important as cash crops. By 1900 there were more than one million fruit trees, mainly peach, in the county. When a peach blight wiped out much of the fruit industry, many farmers turned to growing roses, which proved ideally suited to the climate and soil of the Tyler area. By the 1920s the rose industry had developed into a major business, and by the 1940s more than half the U.S. supply of rose bushes was grown within ten miles of Tyler. The flourishing rose business gave rise to the Texas Rose Festival, which has become one of the city's major attractions. Tyler remained a small agricultural and railroad city until 1930, when the East Texas oilfield was discovered, setting off a huge economic boom. Numerous oil companies and field developers established offices in Tyler, and the city emerged as an important regional center for the oil and gas industry. The population mushroomed to more than 25,000 by 1933 and to 28,279 by 1940. During World War II the economy received a further boost with the establishment of Camp Fannin ten miles to the northeast; it had a troop capacity of nearly 19,000 at the height of the war. In the 1950s commercial dealings replaced agriculture as the city's economic base. Foremost of these was the petroleum industry. Between 1931 and 1973 more than 167,000,000 barrels of oil were produced in East Texas, contributing to an annual income of $17 million by 1973. Other industries competed with the oil industry in terms of the number of people employed. By 1966, even though the petroleum industry still represented the largest actual monetary expenditure, the metal and fabricating industries involved more workers. The city also had extensive railroad and machine shops; manufacturers of woodwork, furniture, clothing, and fertilizer; cottonseed oil mills; and various types of food-processing plants.

By the middle 1960s Tyler had 125 manufacturing plants employing 8,000 workers. The more important industries included aluminum foundries, petroleum and chemical plants, concrete block plants, a tire factory, machinery manufacturers, and air-conditioning and refrigeration plants. Other significant industries were concerned with timber production and the manufacturing of clothing. Roses, other horticultural production, and cattle and hay production accounted for the most important sources of agricultural receipts. Tyler also emerged as the leading medical and educational center for the area. Medical facilities included the East Texas Chest Hospital (now the University of Texas Health Center at Tyler), the Mother Frances Hospital, Tyler Medical Center, and Doctor's Hospital. Higher education was provided by Texas College, established in 1894 by ministers of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, and by Tyler Junior College, originally established in 1926 as part of the Tyler public school system. The University of Texas at Tyler, established in 1971 as Tyler State College, had an enrollment of 3,725 in 1990. Tyler's population grew steadily from 51,230 in 1960 to 57,770 by 1970. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the population expanded rapidly, its growth rate at times even outpacing that of Dallas and Houston. In 1992 Tyler was an ethnically diverse city with 82,316 residents; approximately 75 percent of the residents of the greater Tyler metropolitan area were White, 21 percent Black, and 6 percent Hispanic. That year the city had 2,080 rated businesses, more than twice the figure for 1945. In 2000 the number of businesses had more than doubled again to 5,557, while the population remained relatively static at 83,650 inhabitants. The East Texas State Fair, held annually in September, attracts 100,000 visitors, as does the Texas Rose Festival, celebrated each October. Also attracting large numbers of visitors is the annual spring Azalea and Flower Trails Festival. Tyler Pounds Regional Airport serves the city and the surrounding region. Tyler residents also benefit from a symphony, several theaters and museums, a planetarium, municipal parks and rose gardens, and a zoo. A daily newspaper, the Tyler Morning Telegraph, nine radio stations, and four television stations serve the area.

Gladys Peters Austin, Along the Century Trail: Early History of Tyler, Texas (Dallas: Avalon Press, 1946). Vicki Betts, Smith County, Texas, in the Civil War (Tyler, Texas: Smith County Historical Society, 1978). Morris Burton, "Tyler as an Early Railroad Center," Chronicles of Smith County, Spring 1963. Robert W. Glover, ed., Tyler and Smith County, Texas (n.p.: Walsworth, 1976). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Donald W. Whisenhunt, comp., Chronological History of Smith County (Tyler, Texas: Smith County Historical Society, 1983). Albert Woldert, A History of Tyler and Smith County (San Antonio: Naylor, 1948).


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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Christopher Long, “Tyler, TX,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 23, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/tyler-tx.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

March 10, 2021