By: David G. McComb

Type: General Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

Updated: January 4, 2020

Urbanization is the process of becoming urban. Living together in villages, towns, and cities is a natural condition of human life that has obtained since the beginning of civilization 10,000 years ago. Cities, for better or worse, have been deeply involved in developing the main characteristics of civilization-literacy, government, high arts, commerce, technology. Urban places have been focal points for action and ideas, and gateways for trade and migration. The future of humanity is to become urban; about half of the world's population will be living in cities in 2000. Texas shares this human legacy, for in the 1990s more than 80 percent of its citizens live within city limits. For Texas, therefore, urbanization is practically complete. Although often unrecognized, the history of city building is one of the most significant themes in Lone Star history. The urbanization of Texas is mainly the result of European settlement and culture. The Indian contribution is slight, since there is little in modern Texas cities that can be traced to Indian origins except perhaps genetic matter in segments of the population. This physical heritage has had very little discernible influence upon the constructed environment. Nevertheless, Indians were in some sense forerunners of urbanization in Texas. The Caddos of East Texas lived in permanent villages and may have descended from the Mound Builders of the Mississippi and Ohio River basins. Evidence at Cahokia, Illinois, suggests that these Indians possessed an urban instinct. The Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico can also be seen as village people. They contributed adobe architecture and art motifs to the Southwest. Some Indian names, moreover, remain in the language and on the maps. Places like Waco and Nacogdoches take their names from local tribes and village sites. The word Texas, of course, was adopted by the Spanish from a Caddo Indian word for "friend." Depending upon their degree of hostility or receptivity, Indians also influenced the location of Spanish missions and presidios as well as Anglo-American forts.

Town building in a modern sense, however, resulted primarily from Spanish and Anglo-American efforts. After the entrada of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado the Spanish settled into a slow, deliberate northward movement out of Mexico. Pueblos (towns), presidios (garrisons), and missions (churches) were a part of this as well as ranches and farms. The monarchs ruled through these urban institutions. The Laws of the Indies (1573), moreover, prescribed town planning by dictating an elevated location, central plaza, street pattern, and sites for church, shops, government buildings, hospitals, and slaughterhouses. Today this is most clearly seen in downtown San Antonio, where the Spanish Governor's Palace borders Military Plaza and San Fernando Cathedral fronts Main Plaza. The plazas were built to the specifications of the old laws and have persisted to the present in shape and form. The city began as a supply depot for Spanish missions in East Texas and Louisiana in 1718. The post shortly expanded. Priests established missions, farmed irrigated fields, and laid the cornerstone of the Alamo chapel in 1744. In 1731 a small group of Canary Islanders settled nearby, started farms, parceled out town lots, and established the first official municipality in Texas, San Fernando de Béxar. San Antonio de Béxar became the provincial capital in 1772 with a ten-room, adobe Governor's Palace as headquarters for Spanish rule in Texas. San Antonio was the largest Spanish settlement in provincial Texas, with an early-nineteenth-century population of 2,500. Its success came from its central location in the province, fresh water from the spring-fed San Antonio River, remoteness from the fierce Comanches, and Spanish persistence.

Several lesser settlements also exemplified Spanish town-building. In East Texas Nacogdoches had 770 inhabitants at the end of the empire. Its history is one of abortive missionary efforts, retreat from French incursions, abandonment, fire, flood, disease, and, finally, resettlement in the late eighteenth century by a mixed group of Spanish, Cherokee Indians, and Americans. Antonio Gil Ibarvo led the reoccupation and probably used the Law of the Indies to lay out the town in 1779. There was a public square with streets leading from the four corners in the familiar gridiron pattern. Nacogdoches, however, quickly came under the influence of westward-moving Americans. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 it became a gateway for land-hungry pioneers venturing out of the American southland. James Long used the town as a staging ground for rebellion in 1819, and later inhabitants reacted to the high-handed Haden Edwards with the Fredonian Rebellion in 1826. In southern Texas the Spanish settlement of La Bahía claimed a population of 618 in 1803. It started in 1722 on Matagorda Bay at the site of La Salle's failed fort. While digging the foundations for a presidio the workers found French nails and gun fragments. To escape the unhealthful conditions on the coast and for military purposes the settlement moved in 1726 to the Guadalupe River and in 1749 to the San Antonio River. In 1829 the Mexican government changed the name of the loosely linked presidio, mission, and civil settlement to Goliad, a name made infamous in the Texas Revolution for the willful slaughter of Texan prisoners of war. In its move northward, the Spanish Empire also scattered presidios, missions, and pueblos through the Rio Grande valley. Laredo, for example, started in 1755 as a pueblo and then acquired a mission in 1762. In late 1659 Father García de San Francisco de Zúñiga, moreover, established the first of the missions at El Paso del Norte. By the end of the century this area of the northern Rio Grande was the site of six missions, four pueblos, and a presidio. The mission area at Ysleta, now a part of El Paso, is considered the oldest settlement in Texas. It dates from the Pueblo Indian uprising of 1680, when Spanish and Indian refugees retreated from New Mexico. The Spanish culture in the Valley has been sustained over time by a continuing flow of migrants back and forth across the river. Elsewhere in Texas, however, Spanish urban influence decreased following the Texas Revolution. The Hispanic population in Texas, despised after the revolution, dropped to as little as 4 percent in the late nineteenth century. Yet the flow and ebb of the Spanish Empire left a residue of distinct architecture, gridiron street patterns, plazas, Catholicism, food, and language in Southwest Texas, as well as a heritage of ranching that became the foundation for the range cattle industry. The sounds of the Iberian past still echo in the place names-San Antonio, El Paso, Amarillo, Corpus Christi, Galveston, Laredo, San Angelo, San Marcos-while the clothing, animals, and equipment of the vaquero still haunt the American West.

The arrival of Moses Austin in 1820 at the Governor's Palace in San Antonio marks the beginning of American influence in Texas urbanization. The Spanish needed population in order to hold their northern frontiers, and Austin offered willing American pioneers. Settlement began on empresario grants with small towns used as administrative points-San Patricio (John McMullen and James McGloin), San Felipe (Stephen F. Austin), Sarahville de Viesca (Sterling C. Robertson), Gonzales (Green DeWitt), and Victoria (Martín De León). The empresarios were given more freedom than the early Spaniards to determine the shape of their towns. The American and north European immigrants brought conflicting ideas about language, slavery, free enterprise, democracy, Protestantism, and freedom of speech. The culture flowed mainly from the cresting wave of the American westward movement, and it was this Anglo-American influence that set the pattern for modern Texas cities. Texas followed behind the urbanization curve of the United States. The state provided for incorporation in 1858 and then made later modifications in the law, including provision for home rule charters in 1912. Although statistics do not explain the how or why of urbanization, they do give a hint by marking the timing of events. In 1850 only 3.6 percent of the Texas population lived in cities of more than 2,500 people, whereas the national level was 15 percent. In 1900, when Texas moved from seventh to sixth largest state in the nation for population, the urban percentage was 17.1, while for the United States the urban rate was 39.6 percent. The oil discoveries in the early twentieth century uncovered a major resource, scattered small boomtowns across the state, and later supplied a sprawling petrochemical industry along the coast from Corpus Christi to Port Arthur-Orange. In 1950 the census counted 59.8 percent urban for Texas; for the United States it was 58.6 percent. In 1940 Texas had posted 45.4 percent, but World War II industry and military training camps pushed Texas across the half-way point and close to the national average. In 1990 in Texas, now the third largest state, the urban population reached 81.6 percent, compared to the 77.5 percent for the United States. Only slightly more than 1 percent of the people, however, actually worked on farms and ranches. The remainder simply lived outside a defined urban space.

The common elements of American town origins, still consequential today, include gridiron street layout; wood, metal, glass, and stone buildings; promotion by land speculators; favorable transportation locations; sufficient fresh water supply; commerce; and, sometimes, the political boost of a county courthouse or capital designation. The courthouse, a point of pride, often occupied a prominent position in the courthouse square, a block in the center of town faced by shops on four sides. In more abstract terms town building involved technology, environment, politics, economics, and individual ambition. These interacting factors can be seen at work over and over again in Texas urbanization. The urban expansion of American settlement in Texas came from east to west, along the coast, and up the rivers from the seacoast in a sequential pattern of seaports, river towns, and railroad towns. Americans were directed and limited at first by the technology of steamboats and ox wagons, then by railroads that spawned towns along the right-of-way, and at last by highways and aircraft that bound the established towns, state, and nation together into a transportation network. As they improved, these transport technologies gave ever-increasing access to the land, and carried not only trade goods and produce, but also people and ideas. They were communication linkages that worked with the technologies of information-newspapers, mail systems, schools, libraries, telephones, and telegraphs-that were the arteries of a complex interconnected urban world.

The release from Mexican rule in 1836 allowed almost unrestricted individual initiative, a characteristic of American cities, to direct the urban enterprise for the republic and the early state. One of the first endeavors was to build seaports-an obvious need-and the only large natural harbor was on the lee side of Galveston Island. Here, Jean Laffite had run his pirate base until forced out by the United States Navy in 1821, and here the renegade government of Texas poised for flight by sea in case Sam Houston failed at San Jacinto. It was a likely spot for urban enterprise. Advantage was taken by Michel B. Menard and nine associates, who bought 4,605 acres on the eastern end of the island at the harbor site in 1836. They divided the land into blocks with streets running parallel to the bay, organized a real estate company to handle sales, applied for incorporation from the Republic of Texas, and helped start a city government. Land sales began in 1838, and in the first year the company sold 700 lots. This was the American pattern: purchase of a likely site, promotion, subdivision, sale of lots, establishment of local government. Galveston was a success and developed as a rowdy port city with a variety of ethnic groups-particularly American, English, German, and African-and with a commercial focus upon the harbor. Merchants erected wharves and docks to reach the deep water offshore. Large oceangoing ships from New Orleans, New York, and Europe unloaded their cargos of supplies for farmers and took on board the products of Texas. The settlers gained all sorts of manufactured items-guns, gunpowder, clothing, and books, for example-in exchange for cotton, hides, pecans, and sugar. Galveston served as a transfer and storage point with an infrastructure of warehouses, banks, hotels, stores, and trading companies. Local newspapers served commerce, and the state's oldest ongoing newspaper, the Galveston Daily News, began in 1842. The port also became a major entry point for immigrants and slaves. Since Galveston Island was separated from the mainland by two miles of water, trade goods were transferred to small river steamers such as the famous Yellow Stone that played a role in the eastward retreat of the Texan army during the revolution. These steamboats carried goods and people to and from inland trading towns on the rivers, where once more a transfer of trade items occurred, this time unloaded onto ox wagons and carts. This slow transportation system then moved the trade goods to and from the farms over crude roads cut into the wilderness.

Other seaports developed along this same general line of "breaks in transportation." On Matagorda Bay, Port Lavaca, founded in 1840, became a shipping point for cattle and even adopted the Spanish word for "cow" as its name. It competed with nearby Indianola, established as an landing point by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, who marched his Germans inland to establish New Braunfels in 1845. Charles Morgan, a Gulf Coast shipper, chose Indianola over Port Lavaca for the Morgan Lines, and in the 1850s the port served as a military depot for the United States Army. It replaced Port Lavaca as county seat, gained a population of 6,000 by 1875, and ended in catastrophe. Railroads diverted trade to Galveston, and devastating hurricanes in 1875 and 1886 persuaded the survivors to abandon the site and make Port Lavaca county seat again. Velasco, which had served as a port of entry for Austin colonists, was also wiped out by a hurricane, as was Matagorda at the mouth of the Colorado River; the latter had a population of 1,400 in 1832. Farther along the coast to the west, military action established Corpus Christi as another port city. Henry Lawrence Kinney had built a trading post on the shallow Corpus Christi Bay in 1840, but the Mexican War brought attention to the area when Gen. Zachary Taylor used the site as a base camp for his campaign into Mexico. Later, a deepening of the channel into the bay and rail service in 1873 provided Corpus Christi the opportunity to become a cattle, wool, and cotton port. Like other Gulf Coast ports, Corpus Christi suffered from hurricanes, the worst being Celia in 1970. The city, by this time, had provided itself protection with a sea wall, which, along with warning services, prevented a death toll like that inflicted during the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. The Galveston storm counts as the worst natural disaster in terms of death in the history of the United States. When the Gulf waters rolled over the island, some 6,000 people died. Subsequently, Galveston protected itself by building a sea wall, raising the grade of the land, and constructing all-weather bridges to the mainland. The concentration of population in cities along the coast made people vulnerable to such storms; the hazard continues to the present. Arthur E. Stilwell, a Kansas railroad promoter, however, had a premonition about the Galveston disaster, refused to build there, and in 1895–99 constructed Port Arthur on the western shore of Sabine Lake with a canal to deep water at Sabine Pass. Port Arthur escaped the wrath of the West Indian hurricanes by its inland position, and its radial street layout gave it a unique appearance among the ubiquitous gridiron patterns.

The most important seaport in modern Texas, Houston, also profited from an inland position. The Bayou City started as a riverport town with a political connection. Its origins are typical of city promotion in early Texas. Augustus C. and John K. Allen, brothers, started the town with the inherited money of Augustus's wife, Charlotte M. Baldwin Allen. They bought land on the upper reaches of Buffalo Bayou, a navigable stream that pointed toward the fertile Brazos valley and emptied into Galveston Bay. They promoted their gridiron townsite with advertisements and a successful courtship of the Texas government. Houston, named after the hero of San Jacinto, became the temporary capital of the republic. In the first four months of 1837 the town boomed from a population of 12 to 1,500. After the Congress moved in 1839 to Austin, the new capital, Houston slipped into the role of a commercial river town serving as a transshipment point for Galveston. Local ambition and work, however, altered the destiny of the city. Businessmen, following the example of Manchester, England, after a long struggle succeeded in obtaining federal government support in constructing a ship channel through Galveston Bay and Buffalo Bayou to a docksite near the city. The Houston Ship Channel, opened in 1914, made Houston an inland seaport that eventually became the third largest in the United States. In the process the city bypassed Galveston and left it stagnant in growth as a medium-sized city on the Gulf.

Dredging technology also benefited Port Arthur, Texas City, Galveston, Corpus Christi, Freeport, Port Aransas, Beaumont, and Brownsville. On the north bank of the Rio Grande, Brownsville, notable as a river town, resulted from military action during the Mexican War. It started as a fort named for Maj. Jacob Brown. The town that grew up around the fort, twenty-two miles up the Rio Grande from the Gulf, became the county seat of Cameron County in 1848, proved useful as a shipping point for contraband cotton during the Civil War, and later acquired a ship channel that served both Mexico and the United States. Another river town, Jefferson, was not so fortunate. It began in 1837 and was the county seat of Cass County from 1843 to 1852. It was located on Big Cypress Creek, where steamboats traveling from St. Louis and New Orleans on the Mississippi River, the Red River, and Caddo Lake could reach its docks. Jefferson prospered from commerce, and even developed some local manufacturing of beer, boots and shoes, and canned meat. Its success, however, depended upon the deep water at its docks, the result of a longstanding log jam on the Red River. In 1874 the United States Army Corps of Engineers destroyed the Red River Raft and the water level dropped, leaving Jefferson high and dry. The town never recovered; it remains today a charming but small East Texas town that even railroads were unable to resuscitate.

Railroads, not highways, were the nineteenth-century answer for quick land transportation across the boundless space of the United States. The technology-engines, track, cars-was already available from Europe and the eastern United States. Only capital and ambition were necessary to import it into Texas as the answer to the mud that sank cotton wagons to their axles on the crude roads of the Coastal Plain. At other river towns such as Houston and Brownsville the railways enhanced the port activities. Brownsville became the terminus of the Missouri Pacific and the Southern Pacific, while Matamoros, across the river in Tamaulipas, became the terminal of the Mexican National Railroad. This made Brownsville the United States gateway into Mexico. Houston had earlier begun to acquire railroads as a means to expand its trade zone in South Texas. After a faltering start, railroad construction began in 1852, when Sidney Sherman and a group of Boston investors imported equipment and started the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway along a route from Harrisburg to the Brazos valley. After it reached the Brazos River in 1856 Houstonians voted to build a seven-mile "tap" to intersect the line and divert traffic to nearby Houston. Meanwhile, Paul Bremond, with help from small local investors, started the Houston and Texas Central in 1853. It grew slowly, but reached fifty miles to Hempstead in 1858. Galveston and French capitalists, with the aid of state land donations and city bonds, at the same time constructed the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad to tap the trade of Houston. This line used a trestle to reach Galveston Island in 1860, but Houston politicians blocked linkage in the Bayou City by refusing a central railroad station. The result was that at the time of the Civil War Houston had become the rail center of South Texas with lines reaching to the northwest, west, southwest, southeast, and east. This focused commerce upon Houston.

Towns touched by the magic rails gained population, quicker access to information, and commerce, while those that were bypassed suffered economic loss and prestige. New rail towns such as Sealy and Rosenberg, and eventually Temple, Childress, Amarillo, and Dalhart sprouted along the routes as the lines pushed out of the south to the north. When the Houston, and Texas Central reached Denison near the Texas-Oklahoma border in 1873 and joined the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway, a new era opened. Now, shipments could roll all the way from St. Louis to Houston, or even to the docks at Galveston. This meant an opening of business opportunities, an ease of migration, more information, and greater social mixing for the people of Texas cities. The northward thrust of rail lines from Houston and Galveston met a westward rail movement in North Texas. The new push began in 1873 at Marshall with grants of twenty sections of state land per mile for the Texas and Pacific Railway Company. Marshall, just west of Shreveport, Louisiana, started as a frontier community in 1839 and became a county seat in 1842. It was a headquarters for Confederate activity and a cultural center that gave it the nickname "Athens of East Texas." The Texas and Pacific, in turn, gave it railroad shops and a moderate industrial base. Marshall had reached Shreveport by rail in 1864, the only out-of-state connection at this time, and then passed through Jefferson to contact with Texarkana in 1873. Texarkana, straddling the ragged northeast corner of Texas, was the site of an ancient Indian trail and Caddo village. There the Texas and Pacific joined the Cairo and Fulton Railroad, which had built across Arkansas to the border. Texarkana, a new railroad town, blossomed at the junction in 1873. The main thrust of the Texas and Pacific, however, was westward from Texarkana to Sherman and Longview to Dallas.

John Neely Bryan had promoted Dallas at a ford of the Trinity River since 1841. It became the county seat of Dallas County as various pioneers drifted in, including French refugees from a nearby defunct utopian community. By 1872 Dallas had a population of 1,200. The town provided land, bonds, and cash to attract railroads, with the result that the Houston and Texas Central arrived in 1872 and the Texas and Pacific in 1873. The population jumped to 7,000 in that depression year, and the city responded with an iron bridge across the river, a new courthouse, a city hall, and an underground water system. The depression that gripped the nation for the next three years was fortunate for Dallas. It allowed the city to consolidate its gains and forestall further railroad building until 1876. Farmers and ranchers, no longer dependent upon trade routes southward, began to buy and sell to eastern merchants. This shift wrenched the commercial orientation away from the Gulf. This period when Dallas was the western terminus of the railroads in Texas, moreover, explains the irrationality of its location. Twenty-six miles away waited Fort Worth on the geographic boundary between East and West Texas-the same boundary that separated the Old South from the West. Logically, there should be only one large city in the area. Instead, there are two, Dallas oriented to the East, Fort Worth to the West.

Fort Worth started in 1849 as a military post to guard East Texas from the Plains Indians. The fort was placed on a bluff at the confluence of the Clear Fork and the West Fork of the Trinity River, but saw only one skirmish with Indians and was abandoned in 1853 as the frontier marched westward. The barracks were taken over and used by the merchants who had established a small village around the fort. A stage line to Yuma, Arizona, began operating in 1850 and Fort Worth became a county seat in 1860, although it was not incorporated until 1873. It had been designated as the next terminus of the Texas and Pacific, but the arrival of the train was three years late. Land, money, and the free labor of the townspeople finally brought the railroad to town in 1876. Now Fort Worth could become a shipping point, for cattle and local businessmen built the Fort Worth Stockyards, which made Fort Worth the first major Texas cowtown. As editor Buckley B. Paddock of the Fort Worth Democrat explained, "God makes the country, but man makes the town." Within ninety days the population increased three times, to about 3,000 people, and Fort Worth acquired the same sort of wild reputation as other frontier cattle towns. There were thirteen saloons to entertain the cowboys. Still, success for the town came only after the development of a meat-packing industry in the 1890s. The Texas and Pacific, meanwhile, chugged westward into the expanse of the Great Plains. Abilene and Pecos appeared in 1881 as stops along the way, but the target was El Paso. The gold rush to California and the War with Mexico brought attention to this old Spanish settlement area at the farthest western reach of the Lone Star State. Four communities on the northern side of the Rio Grande came together in the 1850s, incorporated in 1873, and felt the arrival of four railroads in 1881. El Paso became a gateway both to Mexico and to California-the rails brought industry and business to this isolated, desert land.

The urban importance of the railroad network that crisscrossed Texas was not just the starting of new towns and enhancement of others, but also the access it gave to people. The greatest decade of railroad building was the 1880s, when the number of Texas towns of 4,000 or larger increased from eleven to twenty. All were served by railroads. In the 1890s the number grew to thirty-six, and at the completion of the railroad network-13,110 miles in operation in 1910-Texas had forty-nine towns of more than 4,000 population. By 1920 there were seventy such towns and thirty larger than 10,000. The largest in 1920, all with more than 50,000 population, were Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. The railroads fixed Texas cities in a spatial pattern that remained little altered by the advent of later transportation systems, though new technologies brought airplanes and airports, electric interurban railways, and automobiles and roads. Love Field in Dallas, for example, began as a World War I pilot-training field filled with weeds, mud, and jackrabbits. After the war, barnstormers occupied the field, and National Air Transport (now United Airlines) began to transport airmail from it in 1926. The city took over the airport two years later and built a terminal for passengers. This pattern was typical of the larger cities as air transportation began to deploy across the state. Passenger service among Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston, and Galveston started in 1928. Electric interurban passenger trains flourished in the first four decades of the century between urban places and then declined with the popularity of automobiles and the onset of the Great Depression.

Automobiles appeared as curiosities on Texas city streets early in the twentieth century, but shortly began to influence the growth of suburbs and shopping areas. Horses became obsolete, and councils had to pass ordinances to regulate parking, speed, and traffic flow. There were more than a half million trucks and cars registered in Texas by 1922. Road building between towns, which had previously been left to the counties, was quietly taken over by the Texas Highway Department in 1917. Yet, in 1930 the state had only 7,300 miles of paved road. The depression brought opportunity, however, and in 1940 Texas roads totaled 19,000 miles. In 1950, spurred by the emergency of World War II, the total miles reached 34,000. In 1995, 183,150 miles of Highway Department roads served 14,046,517 registered vehicles. Within towns city councils experimented with various sorts of paving-wooden blocks, bricks, gravel, shell, stone blocks, planks, macadam-before settling for concrete and asphalt in the early twentieth century. Four-lane expressways began to slice through the large urban centers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, starting with Central Expressway in Dallas and the Gulf Freeway in Houston. They merged with the national interstate system, which began in 1956. The result of automotive technology is that Texas cities have become largely dependent upon private transportation, suburbs have grown, and the cities have spread over the landscape. Gasoline shortages in the 1970s made city people almost neurotic, and fear of enclosure promoted annexation fights between neighboring towns in the late 1940s and 1950s. Sprawl increased the cost of urban services such as police and fire protection, but also allowed the freedom of movement and living space that Texans seem to prefer. Automobiles and roads also provided access to recreation facilities throughout the state and contributed to tourism, a major industry that attracted visitors' expenditures of $17 billion in the mid-1980s. In some places such as South Padre Island, access has made possible the building of large recreation communities, a recent dimension of Texas urbanization.

The major transportation vehicles-ships, railroads, automobiles-along with factors of geography and resources, have thus placed and shaped Texas cities. In Texas history several other factors, in addition, have been influential in urbanization and deserve special mention: the oil boom, the influence of national warfare, and politics. Although petroleum had been discovered earlier it was the oil development of the first half of the twentieth century that particularly affected the cities. The gusher at Spindletop oilfield in 1901 started the rush and brought refineries and oil companies to Houston, Beaumont, and Port Arthur. Beaumont was founded in 1835, developed a lumber industry, acquired a ship channel, and became an oil boomtown in the early twentieth century. In booms, speculators swapped oil stocks in the streets, hardware stores became oil-tool suppliers, businessmen paid high prices for hallway cots in crowded hotels, oilfield workers lived in tents, people crowded into local entertainment halls, and urban facilities were overwhelmed. This boomtown phenomenon occurred over and over as small towns and villages saw the rush of oil argonauts to new fields of wealth. Corsicana, Batson, Humble, Wichita Falls, Electra, Mexia, Burkburnett, Ranger, Breckenridge, Luling, Conroe, Odessa, Kilgore, Longview, and Borger each hosted an oil rush. Forty-five thousand people arrived at Borger during eight months in 1926–27, for example, and two years later Texas Rangers under martial law had to clean up the town. The "Boogertown" jail was so overloaded that the rangers handcuffed their prisoners to a chain down the middle of the main street and called for lawmen from around the Southwest to come and claim their fugitives on the trotline.

Growth brought on by World War II resembled that of the oil booms, though earlier wars had had some impact. Austin, Marshall, Jefferson, Houston, and San Antonio had been important during the Civil War as sites of war manufacturing and military organization. San Antonio was the home of the Eighth Military District before the war, and afterwards, in 1879, became the location of Fort Sam Houston. This fort expanded during the Spanish-American War and was the largest in the United States by 1900. World War I brought large army encampments to Waco, Houston, San Antonio, and Fort Worth, and major aviation bases to Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, and San Antonio. The military tradition and bases remained in San Antonio after the war. With World War II military personnel in the city amounted to about one-third of the population. World War II resulted in fifteen military bases, forty air fields, a naval air station at Corpus Christi, and twenty-one camps for prisoners of war in the state. Defense contracts amounted to around $600 million each year during the war years, paid for the production of ships, airplanes, uniforms, steel, gasoline, and synthetic rubber. On the Houston Ship Channel, Todd Shipyards expanded from 6,000 to 20,000 employees in four months in order to construct Liberty Ships in assembly-line fashion. North American Aviation in Dallas and Convair in Fort Worth employed 60,000 people to construct B-24 bombers. As a result of all of this the state population jumped 20 percent and the large cities-Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio-doubled in population. Texas cities were now nationally important. In 1948 Houston was the fastest-growing city in the country, and in 1954 its metropolitan population exceeded a million.

In the 1940s Austin, with nearby Bergstrom Air Force Base, also doubled in population, but its existence and growth is unique in the Texas urbanization story. Austin was nourished by politics and higher education rather than by physical resources and transportation. In a minor way many Texas towns and cities benefited by hosting a political unit. The courthouse, for instance, was an anchor in the center of town that helped when towns were young. It gave them a continuing reason for existence, and attracted business and residents. The largest prize, however, was the role of capital of the republic, and in 1839 the Texas Congress awarded it to Austin. The city retained the role after annexation in 1845–46. The construction of the capitol and the various state offices ensured the success of this city on the Colorado River. Representatives, foreign diplomats, people with governmental business, and civil-service workers traveled to meet or live in Austin. The Houston and Texas Central Railroad, in response, reached the city in 1871; the International-Great Northern arrived in 1876. The capital grew respectably and is now the fourth largest metropolitan area in the state, with a significance that transcends the administration of state government. By designating Austin for the main campus of the University of Texas in 1881, voters made the city the leader for higher education in the state.

In the larger places such as Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Lubbock, Houston, Waco, and San Antonio other colleges and universities gave diversity to the economy and leaven to the culture. Towns evolved, moreover, where colleges became the dominate feature-San Marcos, Georgetown, College Station, Prairie View, Denton, Kingsville, Plainview, Abilene, Canyon, Commerce, Edinburg, and Alpine. By and large higher education in Texas was a function of the urban centers, and even in instances where a school started in the countryside, such as Texas A&M, a town grew around it to serve the faculty and students. Colleges and universities through education and example helped to build an appreciation for visual arts, music, literature, dance, and theater in Texas, but the cultural nature of urbanization is much broader. It includes cultural venues: theaters, museums, galleries, music halls, churches, schools, and stadiums; organizations that sponsor sports teams, orchestras, bands, opera, religion, and dance; information resources such as libraries, newspapers, magazines, radio, and television; and recreation facilities such as parks, zoos, walkways, swimming pools, restaurants, and saloons. Recreation, education, business, and inspiration often overlap or merge, and it is the concentration of people in cities, for the most part, that supports such efforts.

In the art of architecture, the major structures of cities take on significance. The new red granite Capitol in Austin with the Goddess of Liberty on the top of the dome, for example, opened in 1888 and was inspired by the capitol in Washington, D.C. Its form reflected an image of public power and virtue. In the same manner for a later generation the dramatic reverse-tiered Dallas City Hall, designed by I. M. Pei, symbolized modernity and efficiency in city government. The nineteenth-century iron-front business buildings of the Strand in Galveston revealed why the city was nicknamed "the New York of Texas." San Antonio's Tower of the Americas, built for HemisFair '68, stood as a reminder of cultural convergence, and the Astrodome in Houston was a dramatic example of human ingenuity that became widely imitated. The contemporary skylines of Dallas and Houston, because of the extensive construction in the past two decades along with a willingness to destroy old buildings, provide a showcase of modern architectural design.

Art galleries such as the Witte Museum in San Antonio, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston date from the first part of the twentieth century, although art in Texas reaches back to Indian rock art, the religious decorations of Franciscans, and nineteenth-century travelers such as George Catlin. The growth of museums, however-particularly historical museums-was largely a post-World War II phenomenon, a time when Texas was rapidly urbanizing. In similar manner music extends back to Indians, Spanish immigrants, and early American settlers. Music was taught in the early Texas cities and various bands performed, but the first symphony orchestra started in San Antonio in 1904, followed by Dallas in 1911 and Houston in 1913. Community orchestras have since developed in Amarillo, Austin, Wichita Falls, El Paso, Beaumont, Lubbock, Midland-Odessa, Corpus Christi, Fort Worth, and other cities.

Theater productions and other traveling entertainments were common in early Texas cities. Promoters built a playhouse in Houston in 1838, the same year San Augustine organized a "Thespian Corps." Theatrical interest has shown a remarkable persistence. Railroads provided access for the touring companies that flourished before and after the turn into the twentieth century, and Dallas built an opera house in 1872 in time for the arrival of the trains. Motion pictures began their urban appearance in the early twentieth century, and Little Theater groups sprang up to replace the disappearing touring companies. Local theater efforts later led to such organizations as the Margo (Margaret V.) Jones theatrical group of Dallas and the Alley Theatre of Houston. In 1922 commercial radio spread across the state from the urban centers to present dramas, news, music, religious services, and sports events. Television stations added to this enrichment in 1947 with the start of WBAP-TV in Fort Worth, and by 1950 the state had six stations, all broadcasting from the major cities.

Public libraries, along with the Texas State Library, flourished in the early twentieth century along with the public secondary schools that benefited from state reorganization in the 1880s. Rural libraries also existed, of course, but as urbanization progressed libraries and schools became largely urban based. The cities took up the special burden of education to raise the level of urban culture and to provide access to its benefits. Without sufficient education the opportunities of urban life mean little-a newspaper, for instance, is of small use to illiterate people. United States District Judge Woodrow Seals sensed this role when he ruled in 1977 that the Houston Public School District had to give free education to all children regardless of their citizenship status. The result is that Texas urbanization has led to enormous school districts in the major cities, with attendant problems of integration, staffing, management, expense, and facilities. Big-school problems have become big-city problems.

Other problems are part of urban development. Racial and ethnic differences have caused explosions of hatred and misunderstanding in Texas, such as the Houston riot of 1917, which left nineteen people dead and led to the largest courts-martial in United States history, and the brutal lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco in 1916. The legacy of segregation, at first instituted under slavery and then continued by law and custom, has resulted in de facto housing separation. Hispanic barrios and black residential areas are still common in Texas cities and have attracted recent study. As the Mexican-American population of Houston began to rebuild in the early twentieth century, for example, a barrio developed near the cotton compresses at the railroad tracks and became a city within a city. It has endured, along with traditional black living areas of the Fifth Ward, where poverty and crime are egregious. The stress between and even within racial and ethnic groups manifests itself repeatedly in city government, school decisions, housing, and local police relations. Crime and vice have been always a part of Texas city history, and some places gained notoriety, such as Hell's Half Acre in Fort Worth and Postoffice Street in Galveston. During Prohibition and into the 1950s the Maceo brothers in Galveston ran illegal nightclubs and casinos until finally Texas Rangers closed down the "Free State of Galveston." Lee Harvey Oswald cut down President John F. Kennedy in 1963 on the streets of Dallas, and sharpshooter Charles Whitman in 1966 killed seventeen people from the tower on the Main Building at the University of Texas at Austin. Crime statistics have generally shown the rates to be worse in the larger urban places, with Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, or Houston sharing the lead. There has always been a crime problem in Texas cities, of course, but a fairly recent dimension of this underside of urbanization is the severe and intractable illegal drug trade that infests the urban core.

As they expanded, large cities also developed problems of pollution. Houston was the first, as might be expected of the state's largest city; there, people began complaining of the bad air in the 1940s. In 1958 commercial airline pilots could track the path to Houston by simply following a mile-wide streak of industrial haze extending northward to Austin and Dallas. In response Harris County officials established a pollution-control division in the county health department. Because of industrial dumping and city sewage, in addition, the Houston Ship Channel in the 1960s ranked as one of the worst polluted waterways in the world. The water was 80 percent sewage; when thunderstorms flushed the channel with rain, there were massive fish kills in Galveston Bay. Harris County also attacked that problem as well and gained some success with sewage treatment by the 1980s. In addition, the large cities have had to contend with garbage disposal in ever-expanding landfills. As a beleaguered mayor of Houston, Louie Welch, said in the 1970s, "You know, when it comes to garbage, people want us to pick it up, but they don't want us to put it down again, especially if it is near their house." The problem continues.

Many of these difficulties are common in the other urbanized areas of the nation, and the solutions, personnel, and technology for modern Texas cities are often borrowed from someplace else. Seaports, river towns, railroad towns, college communities, boomtowns-there were places like these elsewhere. This fact raises a question: is there anything unusual about Texas urbanization? The answer is, "Yes," a few developments and circumstances are unusual, if only by degree. The racial and ethnic mix of Mexican Americans, African Americans, and Anglo-Americans, for example, is noticeable and varied. For Texas, where more of the Mexican-American minority lives in the southwest and more of the African-American minority in the east, this mix has provided both a basis for disharmony in politics and economics and the opportunity to enrich the culture with language, customs, and foods. Although it is a partly subjective exercise to assign a "character" or "personality" to a city or place, it is commonly done in popular literature to explain uniqueness. Texas has mixed the social customs of the West and the South, the cotton kingdom and the cattle kingdom. The slavery-cotton plantation system reached into East Texas, and the state shares the heritage of the Civil War. Some prejudice against Northerners lingers, along with some reverence for colonnaded architecture, Confederate flags, and a leisurely pace of life. In polite conversation city people still ask about family ancestry, a Southern trait, as well as occupation. Children are still sometimes taught to say "Yes sir" and "No sir," "Yes Ma'am" and "No Ma'am" in speaking to adults, and "you all" is a permanent plural form of "you." Juneteenth, long an informal Black holiday to celebrate emancipation, is now a state holiday. At the same time cowboy hats, boots, and jeans are regularly seen on the streets of the cities, particularly in the west. Single-story ranch-style homes are as popular as two-story Georgians everywhere. Livestock shows and rodeos are presented along with formal equestrian events and major sports matches. The customs from a rural Southern and Western past linger and mix on Texas sidewalks.

In the area of politics, Galveston developed the idea of the commission form of city government. Against the backdrop of the 1900 hurricane Galveston business leaders devised a form of city government whereby a designated official took charge of a specific urban function. The electorate put the scheme into effect a year after the storm, and the idea became a favorite of reformers during the Progressive Era in the United States. Commission governments spread nationwide, but because of intrinsic inefficiencies they declined in number after 1920 in favor of the traditional mayor-council and council-manager form. In 1913 Amarillo became the first Texas council-manager city; it was followed by more than fifty others by 1950.

Perhaps the greatest distinctive Texas feature of Texas cities is determined by physical resources. Oil discoveries brought wealth to the state and attracted industry. This, combined with petroleum technologies and warfare, hastened the move to the cities. The quick fortune extracted by oil rigs resulted in gleaming office towers, new-rich suburbs, petrochemical plants, secondary industries and services, tax revenue, and literary stereotypes of the wealthy Texan such as Jett Rink of Edna Ferber's Giant (1952), or J. R. Ewing of the television show Dallas. During the oil depression of the 1980s, however, petroleum dependence cut in the opposite direction and caused wide economic suffering, unemployment, and urban slowdown. Another major physical resource has been abundant land. There are few geographic barriers in Texas, and as a consequence cities have spread out across the landscape as far as commuters will drive. People could afford it. Single-family houses on large lots have been possible for the middle class; shopping malls have arisen in the suburbs; office clusters in suburbs have led to polynucleation; mass transportation, which depends upon density of population, has largely failed; air pollution has been dissipated. Though other American cities have built in a similar manner, particularly in the West, the pattern is more notable. The density of population in metropolitan areas of the country in 1990 was 332 people per square mile; in Texas it was 301. There was some political control of this expansion, however. Planning and zoning of the cityscape began with Dallas in 1910 and has spread to most of the larger cities, with the exception of Houston, which stubbornly has chosen to remain the nation's largest unzoned city. State urban-renewal and planning-assistance legislation, passed in 1957, moreover, has enabled Texas cities to control and alter their growth. Space, oil, commission politics, the racial and ethnic mixture, and the mingling of Western and Southern cultures have given Texas urbanization a distinctive history, while Spanish and Anglo-American principles have guided it. Most Texans now live in urban places and are a part of city culture. Texas urbanization is largely complete; only refinement and expansion remain for the future.


Sam Hanna Acheson, Dallas Yesterday, ed. Lee Milazzo (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1977). Lawrence L. Graves, ed., A History of Lubbock (Lubbock: West Texas Museum Association, 1962). Oliver Knight, Fort Worth, Outpost on the Trinity (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953). Robert L. Martin, The City Moves West: Economic and Industrial Growth in Central West Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969). Coleman McCampbell, Texas Seaport: The Story of the Growth of Corpus Christi and the Coastal Bend Area (New York: Exposition, 1952). David G. McComb, Galveston: A History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986). David G. McComb, Houston, a History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). David G. McComb, Texas: A Modern History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989). Char Miller and Heywood T. Sanders, eds., Urban Texas: Politics and Development (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1990). J'Nell Pate, Livestock Legacy: The Fort Worth Stockyards, 1887–1987 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1988). John W. Reps, Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning (Princeton University Press, 1979). Bradley Robert Rice, Progressive Cities: The Commission Government Movement in America, 1901–1920 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977). C. L. Sonnichsen, Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande (2 vols., El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1968, 1980). Kenneth W. Wheeler, To Wear a City's Crown: The Beginnings of Urban Growth in Texas, 1836–1865 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968).

  • Urbanization
Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Communities

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

David G. McComb, “Urbanization,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/urbanization.

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February 1, 1996
January 4, 2020