Sarah Horton was born in Virginia on 13 January 1819 to Enoch and Martha Stinson Horton. She moved with her family to Dallas County, Texas near Eagle Ford in 1844, becoming one of the pioneer families in the area. In September of 1847, she married Alexander Cockrell. Alexander was a native of Kentucky and came to Texas while serving in the United States Army during the Mexican-American War. He remained in Texas after leaving the Army and was operating an ox drawn wagon freighting business between Dallas County and other locations including Jefferson, which at that time was a port where goods could be shipped via the Red River from as far as New Orleans, Louisiana.
It is said that Cockrell owned property in the Mountain Creek area south and west of the Trinity River in Dallas County. He was also acquainted with John Neely Bryan, considered to be the founder of Dallas, Texas. In an agreement around 1852 or 1853, Cockrell acquired Bryan’s “headright” interest which encompassed what would become downtown Dallas. At that time, the settlement of Dallas is thought to have only numbered around two hundred people. Alexander Cockrell was an entrepreneur and endeavored to build a wooden bridge over the Trinity River. Up to then, people could only cross the river by means of a ferry that Cockerel had acquired from Bryan. Cockrell built a sawmill and used local wood to finish his toll bridge which opened in 1858. To this, he added a grist mill and a commercial building. Regarding his death, the story appears to be somewhat unknown or unclear, but there was an incident on April 3, 1858 in which Alexander was shot to death by newly appointed City Marshall Andrew M. Moore. Many accounts include references to a conflict over the settlement of a debt owed by Moore to the Cockrells. City Marshall Moore was tried and acquitted of the charge of murder.
The death of Alexander left Sarah Horton Cockrell to continue the family business interests. She had reportedly been keeping the books and records along with managing the family finances. Sarah proved to be quite capable of running and expanding the family enterprises. One of her first additions was the construction of a hotel known as the St. Nicholas Hotel which may have been only the second such inn located in Dallas. In 1860, downtown Dallas suffered a devastating fire destroying many properties, including the St. Nicholas. Sarah was able to construct another hotel, the Dallas Hotel, and obtain a charter for the Dallas Wire Suspension Bridge Company to build a new and more substantial toll bridge over the Trinity before the Civil War put a halt to the plans.
Sarah found investors after the war and by 1870, construction had begun. The new iron toll bridge opened on March 2, 1872 at an estimated cost of $65,000. It spanned the Trinity River using two arches. It was approximately three hundred feet long, had wooden plank flooring and had an elevation of fifty-six feet above the low water mark of the river. In the 1800s, toll bridges were the way the state and counties could have such projects done without municipal financing. Toll charged repaid the risk takers for the the cost of the structures. The County of Dallas acquired the bridge ten years later for an estimated price of $41,600, making it free of charge to the public. The bridge remained in use until around 1890 when the County replaced it with still a more substantial structure.
Though Sarah was the founder of the bridge company, in the custom of the time, Sarah did not serve on the board but instead was represented by her son and son-in-law. Today, she would be chairperson and chief executive officer. After the bridge project was finished, Sarah turned to other investments including the acquisition of a flour mill and real estate, both commercial and residential. The family also built an office building and by the 1890s it is said that Sarah owned about one fourth of downtown Dallas, along with other real estate holdings outside Dallas County.
Sarah Horton Cockrell died in 1892 and is buried in the old Greenwood Cemetery in Dallas. She had been a founding member of the Commerce Street Methodist congregation that was then located at Commerce and Lamar, where her memorial service was held. A line of her obituary read, “She was an honored member of the Dallas County Pioneers’ Association and was well known for her good old-time hospitality.”