The Unholy Trinity Incident

An unlikely combination of Wallaceites, Republicans and environmentalists deals a death blow to Dallas' seaport dreams. Breathe easy, Houston.

WHAT DALLAS NEEDSIN A BIG WAY—is to be a seaport. If it could ship goods, by cheap water transportation, on the Trinity River, from here to the sea—just walk right out there and widen and deepen that river, build a few locks, bridges and reservoirs, get the old Gulf of Mexico right up here—Boy, wouldn’t Houston with that dinky little scooped-out bayou be eating its liver then! Big D!

Dallas prides itself on unified leadership. All shoulders to the wheel. And when Dallas wants, Dallas works. It was no accident that the railroads altered their course in 1873 and went through Dallas instead of farther east as planned. There were hints that money changed hands in the Texas Legislature back in those rough-and-tumble frontier days to assure Dallas of the train route.

Let’s hear it for your chambers of commerce. Give me your banks, your insurance companies, your buildings yearning to be tall. And give me that barge canal.

The year for these bright-eyed visions is…1972? 1965? 1958?

Nope. 1910.

And even before. Dallas has been thinking about being a seaport for a long time, which is some sort of testimony to the determination of the residents of an improbable city 300 miles inland, with no real reason to be where it is, or to be at all, for that matter.

The first boat up the Trinity that anyone can remember was the Scioto Bell in 1836, five years before John Neely Bryan, the legendary father of Dallas, laid out his cabin on the banks of the Trinity in 1841. Between 1852 and 1874, nearly 50 boats continuously navigated the river as far north as Trinidad in Kaufman County and Porter’s Bluff in Ellis County, about 50 miles downriver from Dallas. In 1868, a stern-wheeled steamboat made it all the way to Dallas—but it took a year and four days, approximately the same amount of time as a leisurely trip around the world.

In 1873, the Texas and Pacific Railroad laid its ties through Dallas and the city began to grow. But the dream of river transportation to the sea lingered, kept alive by railroad rates the agricultural Dallasites felt were exorbitant.

After the flood of 1908 which devastated much of Dallas, one George Kessler suggested a levee system to corral future floods. And while we’re at it, Kessler said, let’s get those boats up the Trinity. The combination of flood control and sea access had strong appeal, particularly when the threat of the river’s floods were far more potent than today. People in Dallas don’t notice the river much these days, with all the bridges and concrete over it. Before, however, it was often angry and very, very noticeable.

Levees to save Dallas from the river’s floods, a canal to make the river navigable. A powerful argument.

Businessmen put strong pressure on Congress to provide help for making the city a seaport, and Congress eventually came through with $20 million for Trinity navigation projects. Then World War I intervened. After the war, Congress had second thoughts and quit funding the project.

Some of the locks built during that period—including some in Dallas County—still stand as mute relics, covered with 50 years of debris, to those early efforts.

Despite the setback for navigation, a levee system for flood control was complete by 1930. In 1931, John W. Carpenter, a strong man in Dallas’ political affairs, and Amon C. Carter, who enjoyed a similar position in Fort Worth, got their respective chambers of commerce behind something called the Trinity River Canal Association. A few years and name changes later, but with essentially the same leadership, that group became the Trinity Improvement Association, which it still is. Among its executive committee members are Ben H. Carpenter, John’s son, and Amon G. Carter Jr.

Dallas was growing so much that construction went on in the floodplain where it was not protected by levees. Since Mother Nature wasn’t on the chamber of commerce, floods kept coming. Pressure built up for more levees and more protection for riverbottom development, such as valuable industrial property close to downtown. Always lingering in the background of the flood control issue in the minds of commerce-conscious Dallas and Fort Worth business leaders was … The Canal.

By 1958, the area had congressional authority to carry out a serious survey on the canalization idea. The study, completed in 1962, showed the canal itself would only yield 75 cents of benefit for each dollar invested. But if the canal was considered a multi-purpose channel, and if flood control and recreation benefits were included, the yield would be $1.50 for each dollar invested.

Backing for the project was officially unanimous. True, there were grumblings among the railroads, who opposed the canal because it would compete with them and possibly force their rates down. And it was opposed by the chambers of commerce of 35 West Texas towns and cities, which argued that few people even along the Trinity would benefit. They argued that water project money was far more urgently needed in arid West Texas.

That opposition didn’t carry much weight. In 1965, with the help of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Trinity River Project was authorized for construction.

The project was to include the canal, for what later was set as a cost of $1.1 billion. Other parts, totaling half a billion dollars, included stream channelization for four parts of the river, $135 million; a massive reservoir at Tennessee Colony midway down the river, $332 million; and a pipeline to carry water from Tennessee Colony back to Fort Worth for re-use, $109 million.

To transform the narrow, winding Trinity into a navigable river, the Corps proposed 21 locks and three dams on the river to create a watery stairway of pools deep enough for barges with a nine-foot draft. It would have to be 200 feet wide so that barges going in opposite directions could pass each other. That meant at least doubling the width at its upper


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