The McKinney News
A HISTORY OF PRESTON ROAD
The Plano Journal, 1984
The story of Dallas is the history of its land, from pioneer settlement to financial empire to sprawling urban/suburban mecca. So writes historian A. C. Greene in the introduction of Dallas Rediscovered.
Lacking any other naturally exploitable assets, land was all Dallas had and the men who sold it bought it and developed it, Greene says, "designing the destiny of Dallas."
At once the most powerful public and private figures, land developers pointed the way; where they went to speculate and build the people - and the city - have followed.
From the very genesis, the eyes of Dallas have looked northward. For a long time, long before the Dallas North Tollway, long before the nightmare known as Central Expressway, even before State Highway 5 (more popularly known as Greenville Avenue), there was but one major path to follow: Preston Road. Older than the State of Texas itself (if only by a few years), Preston Road evokes more images of Dallas than any other single thoroughfare.
Preston Road's history is, in a very real sense, the history of Dallas and, after years of being a fairly isolated country highway, it today has a major role in the development of Dallas' neighbors to the north.
Ages before European explorers first stepped ashore on the North American continent, the route that became Preston Road was already well known by native Caddo Indians. Called 'traces', such routes were used by Indian hunting parties as they ventured north and west into buffalo country. The main Caddo trace ran along relatively high ground through north Texas and avoided major stream crossings so it was an obvious path for early Spanish and French gold searchers to follow. These trails were later used by traders, hunters and pioneers.
In 1840, the Congress of the Republic of Texas, then a mere four years old after winning its independence from Mexico, wanted to build a military road between the capitol in Austin, and the Red River to the north, in order to establish a string of forts in which arriving settlers could take refuge from the menacing dangers of the wilderness.
A survey expedition, plagued by drought, by lack of water and food, by Indian attacks and by sudden cold weather, was led by Col. William G. Cooke. Hoping to establish a somewhat straight line between Austin and Bonham (then called Fort Inglish), Cooke and his men ended up roughly following the Caddo trace to the mouth of the Kiamishi Creek on the Red River in Red River county, near the northeast corner of the state. The fort established at the head of the road was Fort Preston, after the first commanding officer, Ranger Captain William G. Preston.
The town where the fort was built was also called Preston, on the site where a trader named Col. Holland Coffee had some three years earlier established a trading post.
One of Col. Coffee's first employees was a wandering pioneer named John Neely Bryan. Several years before Preston Road was built, Bryan followed that same Caddo trace to found a trading post just north of where the three branches of the Trinity River converged. That trading post became, two decades later, the city of Dallas.
It took the Republic of Texas engineers and workers three years of toiling through the plains, forests and thickets to build Preston Trail; upon completion, it covered 360 miles of territory between the Red River and Austin and provided the Republic with the only true link between North and South Texas. The next year, in 1844, Texas mandated the construction of the National Central Road, which originated in San Antonio and picked up Preston Trail just north of Bryan's original settlement, following the road north to the Red River. The National Central eventually became the first overland connection between St. Louis and Texas and an important landmark for immigrants and settlers.
In the decades immediately following Texas' annexation into the Union in 1845, Preston Trail was widely used for a variety of purposes and, in the process, its configuration shifted to the point where the original trail's precise location is now little more than a matter of intelligent conjecture.
From the 1850s to the 1870s, the Shawnee Trail picked up Preston trail in Dallas and became a crucial path for the Texas-Kansas cattle drives. By the 1880s, more than 1,000 wagons were passing through Fort Preston each year as word of ripe virgin Texas land was publicized throughout the United States and Europe.
Many small farming communities sprang up outside Dallas at this time. When and where they originated were the whims of local landowners and the communities were loosely joined under the banner of North Dallas. The land on both sides of Preston Trail had an abundance of natural springs and many of these early communities were clustered around them.
One such community was Cedar Springs, which is said to have been an important watering stop for travelers along Preston Trail. At that time, Cedar Springs was a tiny village that boasted a streampowered flouring mill, a small whiskey distillery and a general store on what is now the corner of Cedar Springs and Kings Road. Cedar Springs, Oak Lawn and other separate communities were incorporated into Dallas in 1890.
Sporadic and haphazard in its development, Dallas did not begin to think seriously about long-term planning until after the turn of the century, when William David Cook, the landscape architect who laid out Beverly Hills, California, drew up plans for what was envisioned as "the finest residential city in the South" - Highland Park. Nestled mostly between Preston Road and today's Central Expressway, Highland Park and its sister city, University Park, are exclusive entities unto themselves. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, the Park Cities set the tone for what is now Preston Road.
The road now technically begins at Armstrong Road and Oak Lawn Avenue, several miles north of Downtown Dallas. The change from Oak Lawn Avenue to Preston Road, though, is more than one of name. Oak Lawn is a commercial strip that winds up on its north end with specialty shops, restaurants and high-rises, but crossing Armstrong is like stepping into another world; Preston Road is lined with blocks of palatial estates, sheltered by old trees and high hedges. Old Money.
Beyond the Dallas Country Club there's new money mixed with the old, St. Mark's School and The Aerobic Center and shopping galore. Nearing LBJ Freeway, apartments smother the land amid the occasional high-rise and Preston Road loses its charm of several miles south.
Forty years ago, the land north of LBJ on Preston Road was a sea of grass, the undulating hills sprouting only a few stores here and there. Now, though, Preston Road is Dallas personified; shopping malls, specialty stores catering to the well-heeled, automobile dealerships and acres upon acres of apartments and condominiums, separated by a few picturesque stream crossings.
Low-rise and medium-rise office buildings alternate with more shopping centers, with some of the high-rises appearing out to capture the title of 'most unusual looking building'. Some commercial buildings try not to look like office buildings at all.
The trip from Armstrong to the Dallas city limits (just south of Plano Parkway in Collin County) is 16 miles, more or less. The acres of commercial and residential development in Plano and further north in Frisco foretells the future of the land alongside Preston Road for years to come.
These days one must drive out past Frisco before the north Texas country once again becomes rolling plains and farmland. On past Prosper and Celina, the land hasn't changed much and Preston Road is just another country highway.