I have been gathering history on the Trinity River since I was at graduate school in Iowa City in the late 1990s. I’d cross the Iowa River every day at the University of Iowa. Yes, the river sometimes flooded campus, causing our professors to make jokes about opening up riverboat gambling casinos in their offices. But that was the price to pay for living near the river. It was not surrounded by high earthen levees in some remote spot. You could stand on a bridge and space out watching the water flow beneath, something almost unimaginable n Dallas. So I went back to Dallas for a semester to figure out why that was. And that’s when I fell into this historical sinkhole, the story of what Dallas has done to its river in pursuit of navigation.
What follows are some documents/photos that didn’t make it into my Port of Dallas story for the podcast 99% Invisible.
The photo above shows the course of the old Trinity River, which now collects run-off or is buried completely as it passes by downtown Dallas. But note the one high span on the bridge above. This is the Houston Street Viaduct, opened in 1912 to withstand all kinds of flooding, such as the one that had inundated Dallas four years earlier. The high span is to allow boats underneath, but the boats never came, even after the river was moved. So ghost bridge over ghost river alongside…
The Fuel City corral. I don’t know why this fantastic truck stop/car wash/taco stand also features long-horn cattle and donkeys and zebras grazing along the levees. But it does, and Dallas is better for it.
So back to the beginning. This plaque on Dealey Plaza talks about the founding of Dallas at this spot (yeah…I know) on the banks of the Trinity River. It doesn’t explain why there’s no Trinity River in sight here now.
The river’s gone from downtown because of this project shown below. I copied this schematic from The Engineering News-Record, Nov. 21, 1929 (musty & bound on the University of Iowa library shelves!). Note the X-Y plan to bury the part of the river that went near downtown.
Dealey Plaza is a little north of Union Station noted on the map. Here’s a before/after of the Triple Underpass being built at the base of Dealey Plaza. (photo scanned from my crumbling copy of “35,000 Days in Texas” by Sam Acheson, 1938).
I am not completely sure, but the curving dirt road in the top photo seems to correspond with the bend in the Trinity that would’ve been buried at that spot.
Here below is the river-moving in progress, from an aerial photograph (held in Dallas Public Library archives) taken south of downtown Dallas, which is in the far upper right. The levees on the west side of the new channel have been built but not the eastern side. New concrete bridges are marching across the floodplain.
There, now you know a lot more about the Trinity than I did growing up in Dallas!