The Unholy Trinity Incident

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

June 1973By and Comments

WHAT DALLAS NEEDS—IN 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 end, and straightening the bends so the barges (not the most maneuverable of vessels) would not have to twist and turn to follow the existing river.

Bridges, of course, would have to be raised to allow room for barges to get under them. And so new bridges over the Trinity built since the late 1960’s were built higher than they otherwise would have been; by early 1973, seven bridges had been constructed to accommodate the barge traffic expected to be moving under them by 1985.

The Corps said the canal would carry primarily sand and gravel, with iron, steel and grains making up most of the rest of the payloads. Sand and gravel is getting scarce in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and it would be cheaper, the Corps said, to ship it by barge than by rail. Dallas doesn’t have any heavy industry to speak of, so there would not have been much market for shipping out heavy finished goods.

The local sponsor for the federal project was the Trinity River Authority, a state agency whose directors are appointed by the governor of Texas. It had a somewhat interlocking relationship with the chamber-of-commerce style Trinity Improvement Association: Ben Carpenter and Amon Carter Jr. are on the boards of both groups; almost every director of the River Authority holds a similar position on the Improvement Association; and the River Authority’s general manager, David Brune, is president of the Improvement Association.

Among the canal’s supporters were incumbent Dallas Congressmen Earle Cabell, a Democrat, and Jim Collins, a Republican; Fort Worth Congressman Jim Wright, a Democrat; newly elected Democratic Congressman Dale Milford of the new Mid-Cities Congressional District; Dallas Mayor Wes Wise; Fort Worth Mayor Sharkey Stovall; and virtually all of the Dallas downtown business establishment represented by the traditionally influential Citizens Charter Association.

The pro-canal forces, listing virtually every traditional leader in Dallas among their supporters in large advertisements, were led by Tom Unis, a former Dallas City Councilman and former head of the powerful Citizens Charter Association.

Dallas in action. Dallas together. The ducks were lined up, the way they had been on the State Fair, on school desegregation, and on local elections for forty years. The Dallas leadership could almost see those barges from every country in the world, right there in north Texas. Houston’s one advantage, neutralized. It was the dream of a century of boosterism coming true.

During the late 1950’s and on into the 1960’s, a boy named Jim Bush was growing up in Kerens, Navarro County, a few miles from the Trinity.

Bush hiked along the river, which cleansed itself to some extent of Dallas and Fort Worth pollution by the time it reached his home, 60 or 70 miles downriver. He and his friends fished in it, camped beside it, boated down it. They tramped through the forests that line its floodplains, trees left by farmers to keep their fields from washing away.

Bush and his friends liked the river as it was.

In Dallas during those years, an owlish looking attorney, Ned Fritz, carried on a lonely battle trying to protect some of the natural areas in Dallas and the surrounding countryside from the ravages of development.

Fritz, a bird-watching, heels-in-the-ground, no-holds-barred environmentalist, preferred to leave the grounds of his own three-acre Dallas homesite in the natural condition he remembered when he had picnicked there years earlier as a student at Southern Methodist University.

He opposed channelization of Bachman Creek, which cuts through his property. The channelization had been called for by others living along the creek, who had built their houses in its floodplain and wanted protection.

Fritz won that battle.

He staunchly defended the sanctity of his natural setting against the City of Dallas, which attempted to force him to cut the “weeds” in his yard and put in grass like everyone else. They may be weeds to you, Fritz in effect replied, but to me, they’re nature.

He won that battle too.

When the Trinity project came up for congressional hearings in the mid-1960’s, Fritz paid his way to Washington to testify against it. He talked of the beautiful spots downstream from Dallas, where hardwood forests left in the floodplains support plant communities and more wildlife than on upland areas. Below Lake Livingston, the once-putrid water is almost clear as it courses between white sand banks and passes through portions of the Big Thicket.

Fritz lost that battle, but he didn’t give up the war.

By 1971, Jim Bush had gone on to Navarro County Junior College and began to think more and more about the proposed canal. He didn’t like what he heard; he thought about the river he had enjoyed as a youngster, and what the proposed canal would do to it.

He saw it as a great gouge through forests and farmlands, leaving much of the old river bed that he knew cut off from its sustaining flow. Bush decided that instead of dredging and straightening the river and scalping its forested banks to make a watery highway to Dallas for barge traffic, efforts should be directed at cleaning up the river and restoring it to a condition that other youngsters, years in the future, could enjoy as he had.

Bush put together a group of students at the college to oppose the canal. They met that year with Mrs. Mary Wright, one of the leading Sierra Club members in Dallas. They shared their information about the river, and pondered the devastation to the ecology of the Trinity River that the canal would bring.

In the early spring of 1972, James F. White, a theology professor at SMU, hunched over his desk figuring up his income tax. He read the results of his unhappy computations, and figured he was working one day a week just to pay taxes. It is time, he decided, to cut down on all that pork-barrel boondoggling and wasteful federal spending that Richard Nixon talked about.

White decided that he had one such boondoggle almost in his back yard: the proposed Trinity canal.

Don Smith, a young economics professor at SMU, puzzled over the cost accounting that had been applied to the Trinity project. Smith sports a mustache, owns a canoe, enjoys the outdoors, and wants to get his money’s worth out of his tax dollars.

He figured that the canal project would be economically profitable only if it were computed at the old rate of 3.5 per cent return on investments. If the Corps of Engineers calculated the benefits on the premise that the canal must return 10 per cent on its investment, as private industry computes its cost-benefit ratios, then the project would yield only 60 per cent of its original cost.

Henry Fulcher, a Dallas businessman and a Republican, thought government ought to be run on a basis that would provide the best possible return on government investment in public projects. He decided that the Trinity canal project was not wise economically.

On April 13, 1972, most of those people met at Don Smith’s house, and formed an organization called Citizens Organization for a Sound Trinity (COST). They decided to do what they could to oppose canalization of the Trinity in Congress, where the project was coming up for funding consideration.

Just a handful of people, really, feeling sort of lonely in their opposition to a project that had been taken for granted as being good for Dallas, and which, with all its backing, seemed inevitable.

What the hell, we’ll give it a try.

In the spring of 1972, Mrs. Wright met a young man named Alan Steelman at a Republican Women’s Club gathering in Dallas. Steelman was seeking the Republican nomination in May to run against incumbent Congressman Earle Cabell in November.

Mrs. Wright told Steelman about the Trinity River, and about the proposed canal, and what it would do. Steelman listened—and nodded his head.

In 1964, Cabell had resigned as Dallas mayor to run a winning race for Congress, with one of his major pledges to bring the canal to Dallas. In 1972, he returned for his biennial endorsement by Dallas voters in his much-shrunken Northeast Dallas district. He was still, he said, 100 per cent for the canal.

Steelman had begun during the spring Republican primary to wonder aloud whether a bigger Dallas was necessarily a better one, and, after conversations with Mrs. Wright and others, whether Dallas needed barge transportation when the massive new regional airport between Dallas and Fort Worth was to begin operation in 1973. Heavy transportation is for heavy industry, Steelman said, which means pollution and crime. Steelman won the Republican nomination.

Steelman dubbed the project a “billion-dollar ditch.”

Even with candidate Steelman on board, the opposition to the canal was still just a handful of relatively unknown people. Most Dallas residents didn’t pay that much attention to it. The canal seemed one of those things that would probably be built, since everyone more or less assumed all along that it would.

But in October, at a hearing of homeowners fighting the Corps-planned channelization of Garland’s Duck Creek, Trinity River Authority manager Brune let it slip that there would have to be a local bond issue to provide starter money for the canal.

The canal was now going to cost $1.6 billion. But to show their good faith, and interest, as well as to account for their expected benefits, the 17 counties along the river were going to have to put up $150 million in seed money. Ten per cent down, and Uncle Sam would pick up the rest.

But it was the first time that citizens in Dallas knew that the project was going to require some money from their pockets. All of a sudden it was a whole new ballgame. At a time when inflation had brought wage and price controls, when President Richard Nixon was calling for trimming wasteful federal spending, when Dallas’ aerospace industry had fallen off with the cutback of the space program and defeat of the SuperSonic Transport, when belts were being tightened on many fronts, the canal seemed increasingly like largesse to many people—especially if they were going to have to dig into their own pockets to help pay for it.

Then came Steelman’s upset victory over Cabell with an unexpectedly high 56 per cent of the vote. Canal supporters read that weathervane with a definite feeling of queasiness. Could it be the canal might not happen?

Not good, not good, the Dallas establishment could see. Better get to work and let the folks know how important this is to them, how important for Dallas.

And so the big push started, and Unis was chosen to head it up.

The COST forces later applauded the choice of Unis for the lead role in selling the canal. He adopted the traditional Dallas “Big Daddy” downtown business leader approach: Don’t ask questions; you don’t need all that information to cast your vote. What’s good for the downtown business folks is good for you. Always has been. Always will be.

The COST forces later said that Unis’ rasping criticism of canal opponents as “environmental extremists” won more active opponents to the canal project every time Unis uttered it. City councilmen in some of Dallas’ suburbs said later they had been turned off on the canal by Unis’ paternalistic attitude.

After it became obvious a local bond vote was necessary, and the Steelman victory had indicated at least a twinge of doubt about the canal project in voters’ minds, COST shifted its focus from Washington to Dallas.

Although the project had been tentatively authorized by Congress, before it could be built further study and appropriations hearings were necessary to clear the project for full construction allocations. Those hearings had been considered mere formalities. But the COST people made sure that it was made known that there were some people in the Trinity valley who weren’t gung-ho for the canal.

Complaints that prophets of ecological doom like Fritz had made for years began to re-emerge. And lo and behold, even some semi-official sources of information began to bear him out.

A team of professors made an environmental impact study on the proposed Tennessee Colony reservoir for the Corps of Engineers, and concluded that the reservoir would drastically alter the local ecology. It would inundate thousands of acres of hardwood trees, which already were vanishing rapidly.

The lake itself, because of the polluted nature of the Trinity, might become so polluted that it could not fulfill one of its major purposes of water supply. It would create marshy conditions around its edges, possibly requiring relocation of the people of the town of Trinidad.

Another report by a different team of scientists said the proposed channelization of the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, in northwest Dallas County, should be “abandoned” as potentially hazardous to Dallas’ drinking water supply, and preserved instead as a park.

(The canal proponents in fact were not committed to channelizing the Elm Fork, but in the new climate of concern for the environment and cost-consciousness, all adverse statements concerning projects on the Trinity were laid at their doorstep.)

And then the National Water Commission, a federal advisory group, cranked out a major national water report that said no more canal projects should be built with federal money, but should be financed by those who use them. If that suggestion had been followed on the Trinity, the project would have died immediately: Unis frankly admitted that business would not pick up the tab by itself to build the canal.

The Environmental Policy Center in Washington, a private group, called the canal proposal the nation’s “number one boondoggle.”

In this atmosphere, environmental hearings on the project did not go smoothly. Environmentalists called the canal economically and environmentally unsound—”welfare for the rich.” A representative of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said the project would cause “wholesale devastation” to the environment.

(Two weeks before the canal bond vote, the parks department reversed its stand, apparently under the urging of Gov. Dolph Briscoe, who according to environmentalists brought pressure on the department at the behest of Ben Carpenter.)

Opponents of the canal argued that the Trinity canal idea was once necessary to help the heavy cotton market in Dallas avoid high railroad freight rates. But the shift to synthetic fibers, the interlacing of the Dallas area with interstate highways, and the growth of Dallas as the finance, banking and insurance capital of the Southwest, they said, made water transportation unnecessary.

With those arguments in mind, the opponents asked who would benefit from the canal. It was learned that eight of the 24 River Authority directors had land holdings in the Trinity watershed. In addition, major utility companies represented on the board had holdings in the area.

By then the canal project backers were getting downright nervous. They decided to move as quickly as possible and set the bond vote before the canal opposition could develop additional strength.

They set the vote on Tuesday, March 13—passing up an opportunity to hold it April 3 in conjunction with city council elections in Dallas and Fort Worth and several other cities, or on April 7, when the Dallas school board elections and several smaller city elections would be held.

River Authority director Brune said the early date was necessary to demonstrate local funding support for the project before Congress went into appropriations hearings. He said the election was purposely held separately from any other elections because the Authority felt the people should not have the issue clouded with any other electoral matters.

The canal backers put together an advertising and promotion show reminiscent of bringing a new cigarette on the market. Brochures, billboards, testimonials from every Congressman in the area (except Steelman), a gala kickoff celebration with music and banners—the works. The estimated cost of the campaign was half a million dollars.

COST went into action, too, although on a much smaller scale.

The group hired Kay DeWitt and Jane Sumner, veterans of Bill Hobby’s successful lieutenant governor campaign, to handle the COST office and its publicity effort. Florence Mason was put in charge of a speaker’s bureau. Henry Fulcher did most of the speaking. Don Smith did some, “but we had to be careful because he had a fairly low threshold of indignation,” White said. “We didn’t want him to lose his cool.”

They decided that television and an advertising agency were out of the question, and that most of their meager resources would go to radio ads and mailouts.

“The chief decision was that we needed a fund-raiser,” Jim White said. “We ended up never getting one. So I had to do that myself.” During the course of the campaign, the Dallas branch of the anti-canal effort spent $16,000, and raised about $15,000. White says they still owe $1,000 that he has to raise.

The Fort Worth opponents raised and spent $6,000, he said. Total opposition spending was about 2 per cent of what the supporters spent.

The pro-canal campaign apparently was going to do three things, White said: spend a lot of money, do a lot of name-calling, and make a lot of questionably optimistic statements about the canal. So COST decided it would point out the tremendous expenditure of money, avoid the temptation to indulge in name-calling, and point out what it felt were misleading and deceptive statements made by the backers.

The March 13 election date fell two weeks before an environmental impact study on the Trinity project was due to be released by the Corps of Engineers, and a few months before a revised Corps cost study was to be released.

The COST troops insisted, with effectiveness, that voters were being asked by the business establishment to cast their votes blind—because they would never approve the project if they saw what it would cost and what it would do to the environment.

A favorite COST slogan was “Your money, their canal.”

In the midst of the campaign a federal court handed down a decision casting a large shadow over the entire Trinity project.

Several groups—the Sierra Club, the Houston Sportsmen’s Club, the Houston Audubon Society, the Texas Shrimp Association—and two fishermen had filed suit in September, 1971, in Houston challenging construction of the Wallisville reservoir project at the mouth of the Trinity. They charged that the Corps, by proceeding with plans for the Wallisville Dam (vital to the whole canal project), had failed to draw up an environmental impact statement, as the law required.

Environmentalists said this project at the mouth of the Trinity would destroy the prime nursery grounds for shrimp, crabs and menhaden in one of the nation’s most productive bays, resulting in an annual decline in fish catches of 7 million pounds. Although the Wallisville project had been funded separately from the rest of the Trinity project, they charged it was a vital link in the canal plans and therefore the ecological impact of the whole project should be judged before one of its parts was allowed to be built.

Federal District Judge Carl O. Bue refused to stop the $24 million project at that time, but also refused to dismiss the suit.

On Feb. 17, 1973, a cold Saturday morning, Steelman and Fritz and several other environmentally-minded folks huddled under a bridge on the Trinity River near Liberty. They had camped nearby the night before, and were preparing to take a canoe trip down the Trinity so Fritz could show Steelman how the proposed canal would devastate nature in the Big Thicket area.

But Mother Nature herself had intervened with Fritz’s plan. The temperature that morning was slightly below freezing, and flakes of snow wafted down from the leaden sky. An omen, perhaps? Mother Nature turning against those doing battle in her name?

A television crew that had come to film the departure brought a newspaper from Houston. The new arrivals asked if Fritz and Steelman had heard the news.

What news?

Steelman grabbed the paper, and read aloud to the shivering throng that Judge Bue on Friday had told the Corps it had not satisfied legal requirements for a comprehensive environmental impact statement on the Wallisville project. Although the dam was then 72 per cent complete, Bue said the Corps had to stop working on it until it considered the environmental impact of the whole project. And Bue scolded the Corps for “super-salesmanship” in promoting the project.

The crowd cheered. Steelman told the television interviewers that this certainly emphasized what he and other canal opponents had been saying all along.

Dan Weiser, a liberal Democrat who makes a hobby of studying election returns, said that the canal opponents figured that if they could get 56 per cent in Dallas County, break even in Tarrant County (Fort Worth), then they could afford to lose 70-30 in the other 15 down-river counties that would vote on the project. A majority of all voters and a majority of the 17 counties had to approve the project for it to pass.

But the truly massive pro-canal promotion began to worry the canal opponents, who until the last couple weeks thought they had the election in the bag. We’ll still win, they insisted. But as election day neared, their self-assurance sounded increasingly nervous.

Could it be true? Could the Dallas establishment hype its way to victory again?

The vote turnout was overwhelming—almost twice as large in Dallas as three weeks later for the city council elections.

And down the project went.

Dallas voted 56 per cent against it, Tarrant County went 54 per cent against it; and opponents got 47 per cent of the vote in the other 15 counties, actually carrying seven of them.

The show of economic power in promoting the project probably hurt pro-canal efforts, COST people said later. If that much money was being spent to push the project, voters may have wondered whether some folks were planning to get a rather hefty return on their investment.

“I didn’t become convinced that we were going to win until the morning of the election,” White said later.

What tipped him?

Several downtown businesses had almost commanded their help to stay downtown Monday night before the Tuesday election, to participate in a massive telephone campaign to get voters out to endorse the canal. White said he heard that many of the bankers at Dallas’ First National Bank had gone home instead.

That, he said, coupled with the recently announced opposition of La Raza Unida to the canal, cinched it.

“I figured if we were going all the way from La Raza Unida to the executives of the First National Bank, we’d pretty well covered the spectrum,” White said.

In a sense, the canal project vote may have been Waterloo for the traditional business establishment that has run Dallas for decades.

Its rulers have been forced to accept court-imposed single-member legislative districts for Dallas—which they didn’t want, since it diluted their ability to control who ran for and was elected to the Texas House of Representatives. They are now in the throes of watching the Dallas city council and school board divide themselves into single-member districts, which probably will dilute establishment power still further.

The canal project was a sort of all-the-king’s-horses-and-all-the-king’s-men effort, but the barge channel turned out to be Humpty Dumpty. And there is no immediate likelihood that its backers will get it together again.

Some canal proponents, including Senator John Tower, are nonetheless still talking about alternative means to finance the canal. They maintain that the voters rejected only the taxes required to pay for the canal, and not the canal itself. In some minds, the issue is apparently still not settled.

Some of the COST people, having tasted the blood of a tough and successful battle, talk of keeping the coalition together to be called into action (the Batsignal, please) when needed in the future. But whether such an ungainly coalition of Republicans, McGovern Democrats, Wallaceites and environmentalists can be rallied around a joint cause in the future very definitely remains to be seen.

And what about the canal? Much like a man who loses an arm, the itch to use it continues. The Corps of Engineers is still pursuing its cost studies and other research as if the canal were still on the drawing board, since they are under Congressional instructions to do so.

New bridges that are built over the Trinity along the proposed canal route will still be required to allow clearance space for barges that may never go under them.

And just as teenagers canoeing down the river a decade ago may have wondered what those concrete things that look like locks are, teenagers tracking their course a decade hence may wonder why the bridges are so damn high.

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