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Before Toll Roads, Levees Were Causing Waves Along The Trinity River

Justin Terveen
The Trinity River plays an important role in Dallas history.

This story was originally published on Feb. 1, 2015: It may seem like politicians and planners have spent just a decade or two sparring over the proposed Trinity River toll road, but controversy has swirled around the Trinity much longer than that - ever since folks began settling beside it nearly two centuries ago.

Conflict will be a central theme of the 16th Annual Dallas History Conference. For this week’s Friday Conversation, urban historian Bob Fairbanks talks with KERA’s vice president of news, Rick Holter about another conflict that has shaped Dallas history.

Interview Highlights: Bob Fairbanks…

..On the origins of conflict surrounding the Trinity River:

“The river plays an important part in the history of Dallas. In the 19th century, it was of course, the scene for hopes of navigation, but by the 20th century, it would flood a lot and that would create a great divide between Dallas and Oak Cliff. What to do with the Trinity River has been a major issue in Dallas history from the very beginning.”

Credit Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division / Dallas Public Library
Dallas Public Library
Fairbanks says it was common for city builders to settle near rivers in the 19th century. The Trinity River was prone to flooding at the time, but the flood of 1908 was particularly devastating for Dallas.

…On the impact of the flood of 1908 on the city:

“Dallas, by the early 20th century, was building up quite a bit and water flooded both neighborhoods but also parts of downtown. It was a devastating flood. More than 1,000 people were homeless, it created significant property damage…it was certainly a very important event.” 

…On the levee reclamation project of the 1920’s and 30’s:

“When George Kessler came to Dallas to build a comprehensive plan for this city, one of the things he noticed was the need to control the Trinity River and in his 1911 plan, he called for the straightening of the river. You did that by digging a new river channel and you’d reclaim the land by creating levees, basically.

There was such a hurry to reclaim the land and to industrialize that the proponents really pushed city government and antagonized a lot of people. By the time they got done, it was the Great Depression, then we had World War II, and by the time things were ready to go, the levees were crumbling.”

Credit Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division / Dallas Public Library
Dallas Public Library
The flood of 1908 prompted city leaders to look at ways to control the Trinity River.

  …On how the conflict surrounding the levees shaped Dallas:

“There were several divides in Dallas during this time. It ended up creating incredible tensions between different parts of the town. It was also a setting for neighborhood rebellion against decisions that were made by the city government.

It destroyed probably the only truly comprehensive organization that promoted the will of neighborhoods -- the Kessler Plan Association. It almost derailed the Citizen’s Charter Association. Had it not been for the Dallas Citizen’s Council coming along with money to rescue the Citizen’s Charter Association, it could have easily disappeared and we would have a very different kind of government than the one we have today.”

…On similarities between the Trinity Parkway debate and the conflict over the levees:

“There’s that same passion in the discussion and the discourse about things now as there was back then. These kinds of issues, though, do bring division within a community.”

Bob Fairbanks teaches history at UT Arlington. He'll be presenting at the 16th Annual Dallas History Conference on Jan. 31 at Fair Park. For an even deeper look at Trinity River history, check out KERA's digital storytelling project from 2009 called "Living with the Trinity."

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.