Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas, Volume 12, Number 2, Fall, 2000 Page: 11
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Experiments in Dallas Municipal Government
in the Progressive Era
BY PATRICIA E. GOWER
In I898, business and civic leaders in Dallas
looked back on the decade with both pride
and trepidation. The city had grown rapidly
and by I890 was the largest in Texas, with a population
of more than 38,000. However, the Panic
of 1893 soon brought a sharp contraction to
Dallas fortunes. As the depression set in, agricultural
commodities fell in price and markets
shrank. Dallas saw five banks fail and a decline in
population that took until after 900o to replace.
Building and expansion did not cease during the
depression, but the economic downturn dramatically
affected the business community's outlook
and actions. As the depression eased and the new
century approached, businessmen studied their
town with some concern.1
Politically, Dallas was governed by a traditional
aldermanic system. Under a state charter
issued in I87I, aldermen were elected at-large; a
later amendment provided for ward-level elections.
The number of aldermen began at six, one
from each ward. In 1876, the number grew to
twelve with two coming from each ward. The
addition in 1889 of six new wards raised the
number of representatives to an unwieldy
twenty-four. A charter revision in 1897 lowered
the number by returning to the original one
alderman from each ward. At each election, in
addition to voting for the mayor and evershifting
number of aldermen, voters faced a very
long ballot filled with other candidates. As in
most other cities, tradition held that citizens
should elect virtually every municipal position.2
Always able to mobilize quickly and cooperate
closely, Dallas businessmen began to believe
that they needed to bring their skills into the
political arena to help Dallas recover from the
depression and to control the costs involved in
recovery and continued expansion. Many of these
leaders became convinced that municipal government
needed to be changed if Dallas was to
maintain its dominance of North Texas and
emerge as a national economic center. The
growth of reform and progressive rhetoric only
increased these desires.3
Reformers in Dallas were hardly alone in
their concerns about municipal government.
Nationally, reformers looked with growing alarm
at rapidly expanding American cities and their
overburdened and outdated administrative agencies.
In the face of growing demands for services,
they began urging community organizations to
install business principles into municipal government.
In I894, the Second National Conference
for Good City Government gathered in Minneapolis
to discuss the need for cleaning up
American cities. In the view of many, city government
in the United States represented "the
most expensive, the most inefficient, and the
most corrupt" form of government in the
country.4 Those attending heard a stirring
keynote address by Theodore Roosevelt
exhorting them to fight a stiff battle against corruption.
Other speakers called for the addition of
business ethics to city government and called on
American businessmen to carry this effort forward
on behalf of all citizens.5
The National Municipal League grew
directly out of this conference and became a
clearinghouse for dissemination of information
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Dallas Historical Society. Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas, Volume 12, Number 2, Fall, 2000, periodical, 2000; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth35101/m1/13/: accessed July 28, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Dallas Historical Society.