For supporters of an improved and expensive Trinity River, everything old is new again
By Julia Barton
Let’s start with a round of Trivial Pursuit: What year is it? The voters of Dallas have recently approved a multimillion-dollar bond issue to tame the Trinity River, which threatens to flood large swaths of the city. The work has already begun, but some civic groups are grumbling that the whole project is nothing more than a boondoggle for powerful interests, including higher-ups at The Dallas Morning News, who own cheap land in the floodplain. The same men also want to turn the riverbed into a thoroughfare, though they promise, paradoxically, that it will soon hold a park filled with trees and bluebonnets and pretty lakes. An opposition paper takes up the protesters’ cause, and the ensuing feud starts to smell worse than the river on a hot night.
OK, what year is it? 2000? 2002? Try 1930.
The history of Dallas and its river seems custom-built to uphold that old, cynical cliché: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Some people can make serious money from things staying the same. The trick is getting people to think they’re changing.
Thus, welcome to the AT&T TrinityFest this Fourth of July. The organizers, a three-month-old group called Trinity Commons, are spending close to a million dollars on the event, scheduled Thursday at the Houston Street viaduct and a couple of parking lots around Reunion Arena. Musicians Randy Travis, the Commodores and La Mafia are to entertain the crowd, followed by massive fireworks over the riverbed.
It sounds fun enough. But Trinity Commons board member County Judge Lee Jackson admits the underlying goal of the festival is essentially political: to keep up public support for $246 million worth of Trinity-tinkering that city voters approved in 1998. He knows many Dallasites are only faintly aware of the river, and he wants them to get a little closer.
"If we have a large crowd looking at fireworks, many of those people will be in the river basin on foot for the first time in their lives," Jackson says. "It looks different from that vantage point. They’ll see how wide it is."
And why is wide important? Because the fireworks gawkers will see, Jackson hopes, how the 1,800 to 2,000 feet between the levees could hold not only a lake, a series of trails and baseball fields and other amenities, but also an eight-lane, high-speed toll road.
Oh, yeah, and a river.
That would be the same river that, since it drains an area the size of Connecticut, fills its floodplain like a wall-to-wall bathtub when too much rain comes. That doesn’t seem to be happening this year, so people at the festival probably will be treated to the Trinity’s usual state, which is more like a big, muddy creek.
Judge Jackson, something of a history buff, is tapping into an old river-party tradition. Citizens of yore were invited down to the water to cheer on all kinds of things, from steamboats to dredging machines to—far less pleasantly—public hangings.
Now that the water is walled off behind 30-foot levees, it’s a little less convenient for such events. Still, check out TrinityFest. Just take a stroll down the city’s memory lane first. We’re talking Repressed Historical Memory Lane, a very important place when it comes to the Trinity, because if enough people went down there, things might change for real.
True or false: The seven miles Dallas calls its segment of the Trinity River is not, geologically speaking, a river at all.
True, if by river, you mean a conduit that water creates as it drains over the earth. What we have in Dallas is the “Trinity Floodway,” a 1920s-era, man-made civil engineering project built by sweaty guys and bulldozers. As for the actual Trinity River, the one made over centuries by nature? That’s now a wide runoff ditch that winds behind places like the Anatole Hotel and strip bars on Industrial Boulevard, or it’s buried beneath highways and railroads.
Certainly, a city messing up a river is not unique to Dallas. Chicago made its river run backward; Cleveland set its on fire. New Orleans gets the Army Corps of Engineers to spend millions of dollars controlling the Mississippi’s natural urge to leave Fat City low and wet. Meanwhile, Los Angeles paved its river into aconcrete sluice so it could terrorize Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.
But no other city has been so shaped by messing-up-its-river dreams that never actually happened. Yes, we have a floodway, and you will read how all that came about. But that was just a small part of a mightier dream: the great inland Port of Dallas. By now, we should have barges gliding under our soaring river bridges (many of which are, in fact, built to accommodate barges). Hell, we should have riverboat casinos down on Industrial.
The effort to make the Port of Dallas real has, over the years, enlisted seemingly everyone the city’s ever named a freeway, park, downtown street or log cabin after. Fewer than 30 years ago, these folks were still talking seriously about things like docks in South Dallas and a 98-mile pipeline that would pump 80 million gallons of Trinity water a day back upstream to keep the canal between Fort Worth and Dallas from getting too polluted.
And none of that sounded any more fantastic to residents back then than does the recent offer of a $6 million “anonymous donation” for a Spanish-designed river bridge the city wants real bad. All the city has to do in return, Mr. Anonymous has stipulated, is approve that multimillion-dollar toll road along the levees.
To appreciate that kind of move, you need what few Dallas residents, many of them newcomers, seem to have, and that’s a knowledge of local history.
With that, maybe you could have a freeway in your family name someday. Odds are Secret Donor Man already does.
First we need hop in the Way Way-Back Machine to 1841. That’s when Tennessee lawyer John Neely Bryan built a lean-to shack on a bluff above what was then a twisting Trinity River. Bryan didn’t just plunk down his stakes at random. The bluff was only a mile from another to the west across a muddy floodplain, and this was where Indians crossed the river some tribes called Arkikosa.
Bryan envisioned more coming through his settlement than Indians and Army troops on their way to slaughter them. He expected boats to arrive in Dallas from the Gulf Coast. French utopians who settled the other side of the river expected the same. But the Upper Trinity wasn’t exactly boat-friendly, especially after settlers began deforesting Texas. Besides running too low half the year, its many bends held huge rafts of deadwood and debris called snags. The story goes that Bryan tried clearing the river by setting a snag on fire, but all it did was smolder for a year.
Still, Dallas entered the world filled with nautical enthusiasm. The steamboat excitement peaked in 1893 when, after much snag-battling, the H.A. Harvey made it to Dallas from Galveston. One local bridge had to be raised with crowbars so the boat could shove its way under, but the town was ecstatic. The Dallas Morning News printed its entire front page in red to celebrate the steamboat’s arrival, and a mob of residents turned out for a parade and free barbecue.
Notably, these early boats didn’t come to Dallas because it was lucrative to do so. They were commissioned by various groups of local businessmen who wanted a way to compete with monopolistic railroads. More than that, the businessmen believed no inland city could become a commercial powerhouse without a river port. And at the turn of the last century, they were right.
All the boat-boostering finally paid off in 1902, when the businessmen, organized as the Trinity River Navigation Co., convinced Congress to appropriate funds for a series of locks and dams. But World War I put a halt to the project after only nine dams, and by 1921, the feds had decided the whole thing was a colossal waste of money.
"The locks and dams along the river stood deserted and moss covered. The boats on the river either rotted or fell to pieces in the water or were sent by their owners to happier rivers where navigation already existed," sulks a 1930 booklet, Trinity River Canalization, by one E.H. Brown. But Brown, writing on behalf of the newly formed Trinity River Canal Association, had only begun to rage.
"Only tombstones rewarded most of those courageous spirits who had fought so valiantly for a lost cause," he goes on. "And, just as it had done before the white man came to Texas and wrested an empire from the wilderness, the Trinity River—muddy, unclean and turtle-infested—wound sluggishly between its banks in sullen victory."
Sluggish a lot, maybe, but the Trinity is also a first-rate flooder. You’d think John Neely Bryan might have noticed that after floodwaters washed away his first lean-to. But that didn’t stop him from founding his port-town-to-be on what was essentially an island in a confluence of prairie storm-drainage channels. Big floods gushed over the area in 1844, 1866, 1871 and 1890, but the intervening years were long enough for settlements to crop up on the lowlands. Dallas had prospered its way across the floodplain by 1908, when heavy storms caused the Trinity to rise more than 20 feet out of its banks.
Classic urban flood devastation ensued. Water submerged thousands of homes, knocked out telephone lines and cut off power to the city. It also washed away bridges, some with people on them, to the horror of spectators who watched from afar.
The record flood scarred Dallas for good, and residents today still live in a city shaped by the event. The city was not going to move out of the river’s way, no matter how badly it was situated. The river would have to move instead.
After the flood, Dallas Morning News vice president and general manager, George Bannerman Dealey, began organizing business leaders to commission a city plan to control the river and bring order to Dallas’ messy, frontier sprawl. The Chamber of Commerce hired George Kessler, a Dallas native who’d become a city planner in Kansas City. Kessler came up with an ambitious plan for Dallas, one that included wide new boulevards, lots of fountains and parks, and orderly streets. Most of it seemed to bore city leaders. But he also proposed something they liked: digging a new channel for the Trinity west of the river’s natural winding course, then walling it off between giant levees.
The thing is, Dealey and many other Kessler Plan supporters also owned lots of cheap land in the river’s floodplain. They weren’t trying to hide it; the property, although right in front of downtown, was considered worthless swampland. The men called themselves “investors,” and it took two decades of promotion in The Dallas Morning News before the city was ready to invest in the plan that would make them rich.
In 1925, city leaders appointed a panel of businessmen to finally push the river-moving plan through. Although the committee was named for its chairman, Trinity Portland Cement President Charles Ulrickson, the driving force was Oak Cliff real estate developer Leslie Stemmons. Stemmons was buying up a whole slab of land around the winding Trinity northwest of downtown.
In December 15, 1927, the Ulrickson Committee asked city and county voters to authorize $30.8 million (that would be somewhere around $300 million today) of bonds to fund the plan. River-bottom property owners like Stemmons also pledged another $6.5 million.
The plan was huge, like a mini-Panama Canal: 17 miles of new river channels would be dug, with 26 miles of levees to contain them. The place where the Elm and West forks of the Trinity converged, long a historic marker for Dallas, would be moved 3.5 miles northwest. But there was more to the undertaking than just digging and moving tons of dirt. As local historian Darwin Payne points out in his book Big D, huge parts of the city would have to be rebuilt, from storm sewers to rail and utility lines to four new bridges over the river.
Voters approved the plan, partly because it seemed to offer something for everyone. Homeowners in flood-prone areas would get better storm sewers. Oak Cliff residents would have better bridges to get downtown. And at the 1928 groundbreaking for the new channel, George Dealey promised flowers and greenery for all.
"A blot on the landscape near the heart of Dallas will be removed, and a great industrial development will gradually follow. Not only this, but near the heart of our splendid city there will be developed a park containing hundreds of acres, with a clear channel in the middle of it," Dealey proclaimed.
The old newspaperman got part of that right. A great industrial development did eventually grow on Stemmons’ property, as soon as the old channel area got the right drainage. But the nice river park and clear water Dealey promised are just as elusive now as they were when water first gushed through the man-made floodway.
By 1930, some city residents, especially in Oak Cliff, began to complain that the bulk of money from the bond issue was being spent solely to benefit landowners like Dealey and Stemmons. Dallas Times Herald Publisher Edwin Kiest took up the cause, and the paper began regularly slamming the levee landowners on its editorial page.
"The home owners in the flooded districts voted for the Ulrickson bonds under the impression that they would obtain relief before any money was spent in newer districts where land is being developed for speculation," groused a May 30, 1930, Times Herald editorial.
The landowners, of course, saw things differently. Gigantic public-works projects simply wouldn’t happen, Dealey and the Morning News argued, without the “enlightened self-interest” of businessmen. Of course, taxpayers had to kick in their fair share, since they’d get flood control and other benefits, too. There was nothing wrong with profit for businessmen who “‘bet’ on the future of Dallas,” as one News editorial of the time put it.
Far below the radar of the newspaper wars, and indeed barely recorded at all, was the plight of hundreds of poor families, both black and white, who lived on urban subsistence farming down in the old river bottoms. As the land became valuable real estate, these “squatters” were duly evicted. A glimpse of them survives, oddly enough, in a 1988 promotional book published by Stemmons’ Industrial Properties Corp. on its 60th anniversary.
The company’s future president, Lee Halford, was in charge of bulldozing a shantytown around what is now the Decorative Center near Oak Lawn Avenue. Halford says he approached the job “as I did in the Pacific during the war, clearing out little villages that were a threat to our wartime operations.” But at one point, an inhabitant “with a great long knife” confronted the developer and said his family wouldn’t leave the area until their duck hatched its eggs. Halford magnanimously waited a few days for the eggs to hatch, then kicked the family out.
So where were all the canal guys while the real estate guys changed the map of Dallas forever? Well, they were basically the same guys: The same crowd of bankers, developers, builders and publishers that gathered for the 1928 groundbreaking gathered again in 1930 on the riverbed to promote the digging of a barge channel. A local minister blessed a dredging machine by smashing it with a bottle of water from the Gulf of Mexico. What happened to what may be the world’s only christened dredge, we don’t know. Canal promoters had much bigger plans anyway for the Trinity, ones that called for the federal government to smooth out and deepen the river all the way to the Gulf. In other words, they wanted 500 more miles of what Dallas had just done to the Trinity.
After World War II, it looked as though the canal boosters would have their day in Washington. Prose from that era, like the 1960 history The Lusty Texans of Dallas, is filled with bombastic optimism. The book quotes one canal lobbyist’s prediction for the Trinity: “We’re going to canalize it—or pave it, one or the other.”
Sorry. Is all this super-efficient, manifest destiny stuff starting to bore you? Let’s just linger a minute back in the Depression with the last of the flamboyant, burn-your-own-snag-type Trinity boosters, the 350-pound former Trans Siberian Railroad engineer, “Commodore” Basil Muse Hatfield, also dubbed the first admiral of the Trinity. Technically, the Commodore may not belong in this chronicle, since his big dream was the Port of Fort Worth. But anyone who makes a lengthy water journey from Cowtown to Chicago deserves a mention. Hatfield just wanted to prove it could be done. Also, maybe, he didn’t like to shave.
Hatfield appears out of nowhere on the pages of Floyd Durham’s obscure pro-canal treatise Trinity River Paradox. A picture shows a rotund, hairy man standing on the riverbank with his motorized scow, the Texas Steer. In another photo, Hatfield holds an urn of mingled waters from Louisiana rivers and the Trinity River, symbolic (though too late for the dredge christening) of all the ship-ballast waters yet to mingle. The Commodore was a big one for symbols: He also vowed, Durham writes, not to let scissors touch his hair or beard until he finished his pilgrimage. The Trinity’s great Samson suffered 21 months of bad hair days between 1933 and 1935 on behalf of the river, but he still died in obscurity a few years later.
Next stop: Dallas, 1963. No, it’s not what you think…yet. It’s January 20, date of a Dallas Morning News special section headlined “Canal ‘Dream’ Near to Reality.” There’s no room for ads in the 10-page pullout, just columns of solid support for Dallas’ watery future. Politicians from Mesquite to Corsicana pledge their troth to the Trinity. There’s even an address from Vice President Lyndon Johnson: “The Trinity is truly a sleeping giant,” he says. In another article, the Army Corps of Engineers outlines its plan for the 550-mile river basin: 23 locks and dams, several new reservoirs, 110 miles’ worth of natural river bends “straightened out.” There’s also a unique “large-scale recirculating system” to pipe water from a proposed reservoir south of Dallas to another above Fort Worth “to dilute pollutants.”
Congress passed and President John F. Kennedy signed the $911 million Trinity River Basin Bill in October 1963. Texas navigation projects were to get a big mention in a speech Kennedy planned to deliver to state democrats in Austin the night of November 22.
Then, of course, he got shot on a slope leading down to the old riverbed of the Trinity, right about the spot where John Neely Bryan built his first log cabin.
Local historians noticed the horrible irony even right after the assassination, and maybe someone has managed to work it into a conspiracy theory. But devastating as Kennedy’s death was for the image of Dallas, it had no immediate impact on the city’s plans for the Trinity. With pro-canal LBJ as president, barges were practically waiting at the mouth of the river to bring gravel up to Big D.
What happened instead was something that seemed to catch canal backers entirely by surprise: the environmental movement.
Yes, there were environmentalists in Texas in the 1960s, and they were horrified by the Army Corps’ plan for the Trinity. In Dallas, they had a leader in the obstreperous lawyer and naturalist Ned Fritz (who, now 86, still makes a fair amount of trouble for the Corps). Fritz and other environmentalists went on a double-pronged attack: They sued the Corps for not doing an environmental impact study of a reservoir already under construction along the Trinity near Houston. And in Dallas, they formed a strange alliance with newly elected Republican Congressman Alan Steelman.
Steelman opposed the canal because he figured it would bring Dallas more heavy industry, which he associated with crime and pollution. Only 29, Steelman ran for the Texas 5th Congressional District in 1972 against longtime incumbent Earle Cabell. Cabell was a canal proponent, but the issue wasn’t a big one with voters, Steelman says, until he decided to make it one in his campaign.
"In my opinion, it was a billion-dollar boondoggle," Steelman, now an investment consultant in McKinney, says. In 1972 construction had already started on DFW Airport, and Steelman argued that Dallas, with its growing high-tech economy, needed that kind of port, not a barge canal.
"I said the time for this has passed, and the only ones who would benefit would be land speculators who’d bought up property along the river," he says.
Steelman won, and that victory, along with the environmental lawsuits, alarmed the Dallas establishment. They knew at some point they were going to have to get local approval for the canal. Although Congress had authorized the plan, the feds now wanted the 17 counties along the Trinity to kick in about $150 million before construction would begin.
And so, according to a contemporary Texas Monthly account of the whole affair, the canal backers decided to set a bond election as soon as possible, before opponents could gather more strength. They called it for March 13, 1973, two weeks before the Corps was set to release its environmental impact statement on the canal project.
The environmentalists had already organized with a few Dallas businessmen who thought spending a billion-plus dollars on gravel barges was a big waste of money. Their slogans (“Your money, their canal”) seemed to resonate with voters, despite a half-million-dollar campaign by the Trinity Improvement Association. In the end, 56 percent of Dallas voters rejected the canal, and a majority of the other counties did, too.
The Trinity Canal dream was dead, although not officially until 1979, when the Carter administration dumped it, but echoes can be heard as late as 1988.
"The dream of a navigable Trinity was part of the plan of reclamation and while it has not come into fruition, the idea has not been abandoned and in the minds of many it still is not only possible but probable." That’s a caption from the 60th-anniversary commemorative book by Industrial Properties Corp. But guess what? Old Man Stemmons’ heirs were already peddling Plan B.
"That levee is about the only place you can do it."
So said Industrial Properties President Lee Halford (he of the duck-sparing bulldozer) to the Morning News in 1985. The article was about a Stemmons-proposed plan for a tollway on the inside of the Trinity floodplain levees to relieve traffic along Interstate 35. Pretty much the same plan Secret Donor and bevy of developers are demanding today, despite the fact that the Army Corps now admits the road could increase flooding and will certainly have “a negative aesthetic effect,” according to a 1999 report.
Look around and you’ll see more that should be familiar by now. Environmentalists are suing the Corps over its Trinity plans. Community types, including Mayor Laura Miller, are wondering whether a voter-supported park and lake will ever get into the riverbed. A group of boosters (Trinity Canal? Trinity Improvement? Trinity something…) has called us all down to the water for an infusion of river spirit.
It’s not a conspiracy, really. Maybe big money is playing a long game on us, but who can blame them when it’s so easy to keep using the same moves? This is, after all, a city that can’t even remember that it physically buried the body of water where it got started.
TrinityFest’s party on the Houston Street viaduct is laudable anyway, because of something underneath that bridge. It’s the strangest and, in its own way, most beautiful spot in this city’s graveyard of watery dreams.
You can find it off Industrial Boulevard behind a strip club that actually is called Dreams (though probably for different reasons). Down there, between the road and the levee, the Trinity’s original channel re-emerges as a wide runoff ditch.
The viaduct was built after the 1908 flood as a super-bridge that would never wash away. Its concrete arches repeat one after another across the floodplain, except right over the old riverbed, where there’s one high span. That was so the tops of barges could make it under there. You know, just in case any showed up: a real bridge that makes way for ghost barges on a ghost river.
But it’s not all ghosts. Down where the old riverbed’s greenish water enters a culvert under Industrial, I once saw a family of turtles lined up on a slab of concrete. Their four bodies sat motionless in the sun. Cars and trucks rushed by overhead. The smallest turtle dangled its legs in the low water.
It seemed for all the world they’d just wait for the rest of the river to return.
Dallas Observer, 7/4/2002