by Paula Bosse
I was flattered to be asked to contribute something to the “Lost Dallas” issue of D Magazine (great stories and photos, by the way — it’s on newsstands now!). When asked for a topic that might be interesting or offbeat, I remembered a story I had come across a few years ago which I had always meant to write about: an 1897 event in which a professional diver and an amateur “jumper” crossed paths at the old Commerce Street Bridge in front of a crowd of several thousand. The thought of diving/jumping from a Dallas bridge into the Trinity River — unless it’s at flood-stage — is, frankly, something I would never have considered, but it happened. There is a short overview of the event in the print edition of the magazine, but my full version — “The 1897 Battle of the Trinity Bridge Jumpers” — is available to read online at D’s website, here.
I won’t repeat the story here, but for you faithful lovers of history who read the full story (and who sneer at the very concept of “tl;dr“), here are a few images and bits of background info to flesh out the story a bit.
WILSON & SEXTON
It all began with a small announcement in The Dallas Morning News:
No photographs of the main characters are available, but drawings of the two men were featured in the pages of The News on March 22, 1897. First, J. B. Wilson, the “professional” bridge-diver who traveled from town to town plying his trade. As the drawing below shows, Wilson personally walked through the large crowd in his special diving costume, carrying a cigar box, soliciting “donations” from the crowd (one man attempted to slip in a live water snake he had in his pocket — Wilson was not amused).
Secondly, the unexpected hero of the day, young Arch Sexton: candy-maker, thrill-seeker. Sexton had this to say of the drawing: “That was an excellent picture of me in The News this morning. The artist knows a good-looking man when he sees him” (DMN, March 23, 1897).
THE COMMERCE STREET BRIDGE
The centerpiece of this story is the old Commerce Street Bridge, built around 1890 (it weathered the great flood of 1908 and was eventually replaced by a new bridge in 1915). This was before the Trinity River had been straightened and moved. This is what the bridge looked like on a typical day:
photo via Legacies
And, below, the course of the river in 1897. The jump would have happened only a couple of blocks from the Old Red Courthouse, very close to what is now the edge of Dealey Plaza.
1898 map detail, via Portal to Texas History
Lastly, because I started the D magazine article with a look at the idol of bridge-jumpers everywhere (and because of this guy bridge-jumping became a whole thing), I should mention Steve Brodie, the man who attained worldwide fame and became massively wealthy as a result of claiming to have jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886 (the first person to have done so and survived). His claim of having jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge was disputed from the very beginning, but charges of fakery did not affect his celebrity — in fact, it might even have sharpened his mastery of constant self-promotion (which, in turn, inspired thousands of copycat bridge-jumpers across the country who hoped to cash in on some of that sweet Brodie moolah). When he wasn’t entertaining legions of fans at his well-known Bowery saloon, he kept his name in the headlines by devising other (also disputed) feats of daredevilry, promoting prize fights, and even appearing onstage in a version of his life’s story (complete with a nightly reenactment of the famed bridge jump). Watch a short but informative video about him here.
He was so famous that his name became a slang term: “took a Brodie” or “pulled a Brodie” meant “made a dangerous leap” or, more broadly, “took a chance.” Here’s a slang-filled cartoon from 1936 which featured the term fifty years after Brodie’s jump.
That’s the background. If you haven’t already, please mosey on over to D Magazine to read the full-length article I wrote about the Dallas bridge-jumpers of 1897! (And try to work “Steve Brodie” into a conversation today….)
Sources & Notes
The main reason this story stuck with me was that the original Dallas Morning News report was so amusingly written. I have no idea who wrote it — he identified himself only as “the News’ marine reporter” — but I hope his literary talents led him to bigger and better gigs than an un-bylined newspaper writer scouring the Dallas docks for morsels of news. His sarcastically bemused reports on this long-forgotten exhibition of bridge-jumping (and the follow-ups) can be found in the following entertaining articles:
- “A Tale of the Trinity: ‘High Diver’ Wilson and ‘High Jumper’ Sexton Split the River Wide Open; Steve Brodie Outdone” (DMN, March 22, 1897), here
- “A Day With the Divers: The Marine Reporter of The News Passes a Few Hours In Haunts of Jolly Jack Tar” (DMN, March 23, 1897), here
- “A Day With High Divers: A. B. Sexton and Nick M. Miller Created a Commotion In Marine Circles” (DMN, April 19, 1897), here
Thanks for the opportunity to share this odd tale, D Magazine! See all of the “Lost Dallas” articles (and photos) here.
All images are larger when clicked.
Copyright © 2018 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.