Today on BubbleLife, we have a special guest dropping by: Mark Stuertz, a Dallas-based writer who has spent the past two decades doing investigative reporting, producing articles for a variety of publications, and most recently, writing a book. His newest work, Secret Dallas: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure, dives into the strange and wonderful aspects of the city we think we know so well.
Stuertz has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his writing process and Secret Dallas. Keep reading to find out how he discovered some of the weirdest facts and which one he finds the most interesting.
BL: What inspired you to take this unusual look at Dallas?
Stuertz: It’s actually a series my publisher, Reedy Press, created and produces for several cities across the country. I jumped at the chance to add Dallas to the series because I knew there was a wealth of largely unknown events, trivia, and interesting characters scattered across the city’s historical narrative. When most people think of Dallas they think of the Cowboys or the hit TV show or the Kennedy assassination or oil. In actuality, the city is packed to the gills with stories and characters and places that have nothing to do with these conventions. It’s much richer and more varied. I wanted to explore and broadcast these nuances and idiosyncrasies.
BL: Tell us a little about the research process that Secret Dallas required.
Stuertz: The research process took a year and a half. I scoured sources at the Dallas Historical Society and the Dallas Public Library, newspapers like the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times Herald, magazines like the Advocate and D, and things I stumbled across when I worked as a reporter and feature writer for the Dallas Observer.
But just as challenging as gathering the information for Secrets was attempting to locate applicable photos and securing the rights to publish them. That’s why I ended up shooting most of the images myself—a project fraught with challenges. For example, much of the land surrounding the ruins of the lock and dam systems that were built on the Trinity River in the early 1900s is now private property with signs warning trespassers they will be shot on sight.
BL: What was the most fascinating local fact you learned while writing the book?
Stuertz: Well there was the fact that notorious mass murderer Richard Speck kicked off his life of crime in Dallas and city and county officials let him slip through their fingers after they had him in their grasp. Yet perhaps even more fascinating than that was the city’s seemingly endless quest to tame the Trinity River. Dallas is one of the precious few major cities in the U.S. devoid of a port or a navigable waterway. The only reason it grew into a commercial powerhouse was because city leaders were able to successfully finagle and maneuver the railroads into its orbit.
But escalating freight rates stoked the city’s long-simmering dream of having a navigable waterway within its confines. The crown jewel of that aspiration: the great inland Port of Dallas. Dallas, it was envisioned, could be a thriving port city with burgeoning shipping traffic coursing its way from Galveston in the Gulf to the Big D. In anticipation of the dream, new freeway and road bridges constructed over the river were built extra tall to accommodate sea-going vessels.
Only problem was that the Upper Trinity wasn't exactly vessel-friendly. Boat and barge movements were perpetually impeded by hazards such as deadwood snags, sandbars, low water, and wrecks. That’s why around the turn of the last century city leaders and the state convinced Congress to appropriate funds for a system of locks and dams to deepen the river’s upper reaches. That grand project was stalled when the U.S. entered World War I, and abandoned in 1921 after the feds decided the project was a colossal waste of money. Roughly seven lock and dam systems were built and their crumbling ruins still remain—an eerie testament to that failed ambition.
BL: What do you love about living in the Dallas area?
Stuertz: When I came to Dallas some 25 years ago, the city’s core was relatively comatose. Sure Dallas was an enterprise powerhouse, but there was little else save for a few thriving pockets and neighborhoods. Downtown was dead. Central Expressway was an undulating ribbon of onramp and off-ramp death traps. The arts district was a shadow of its current self. Recreational pathways such as the Katy Trail and the Santa Fe Trail didn’t exist. Neither did the Trinity River Audubon Center.
The Bishop Arts District had yet to begin its current flourishing and there was no DART rail, Mockingbird Station, or West Village. Every year my wife and I take a short “staycation” downtown—something that would be mostly unthinkable 20 or so years ago—and marvel at all of the dynamic ebbs and flows that have taken place over the preceding year.
But one thing most Dallas residents probably don’t realize—and I discovered this after my book was finalized—is that Dallas is the best networking city in the country. No other metropolitan area—not New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, etc.—compares to Dallas in the depth and breadth of resources available to professionals wishing to connect and build.
BL: What’s the number one thing you want people to take away from Secret Dallas?
Stuertz: Forget all of the conventional wisdom and stereotypes—big hair, big Stetsons, boots, silver and blue church clothes, BBQ fetishes—you may entertain about Dallas. They’re mostly bull—well maybe not the fetish part. The city has a rich history and character brimming with enterprise, ingenuity and, most all, soul.
A huge thanks to Mark for this chat! To learn more about his book or purchase a copy for yourself, click here.