Port of Dallas

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
There’s this photograph tacked on the wall here in the studio. It was taken in 1899. The photo shows three men, all wearing bowler hats, two of them in bow ties. They’re looking dead-on into the camera with this casual look of conquest, knees raised, hands-on-hips, suspended in mid-air on the lifted arm of a giant dredging machine, a machine used to force the natural environment to bend to the will of humans. Even if you don’t know this image in particular, you’ve seen images like it, scenes of people standing around proudly, looking good as they shape the earth.

Roman Mars:
What fascinates me about the pictures from this time is that they speak to this moment when there was a real sense of awe and reverence for the marvels of civil engineering. Now, I don’t mean to over-romanticize this stuff. A lot of the things we did for the sake of progress were ethically dubious, if not outright horrible. There were mountains tunneled, hills flattened, swamps drained. But the environmental impact notwithstanding, these feats of engineering weren’t just amazing for their time; they’re amazing for our time.

Roman Mars:
The photo I’m talking about, the three guys in bowler hats on the dredging machine, is a scene from the reversal of the Chicago River. And the reason that photo is famous, or at least famous enough for me to have seen it, is because the reversal of the Chicago River was an enormous engineering project that was successful. (See Episode 86, true believers.) But you’ve got to figure there were countless other photographs depicting similarly awe-inspiring feats of engineering prowess that we have never seen because those feats never got finished. They were, you could say, failures.

Roman Mars:
Today, we have the story of one such failure, which, before people finally gave up on it, probably also once included a moment of men posing on machinery.

Julia Barton:
So, actually, I do have a photo we can start from, dated to 1892.

Roman Mars:
Reporter Julia Barton grew up in Dallas, Texas, where our story takes place.

Julia Barton:
These men, a few of them in bowler hats, are standing on a wide, flatboat with a winch on top of it. A chain and a hook dangle down from the winch, and they’re hauling up a tree stump. The boat’s in a narrow, muddy river, and it’s surrounded by huge piles of broken up trees and other debris floating in the water. The boat’s name? Snag Boat Dallas of Dallas.

Roman Mars:
Oh man, I love that name.

Julia Barton:
Growing up in Dallas, I never saw pictures of things like the Snag Boat Dallas of Dallas. I never heard of the failed project that generations of Dallas people spent their lives pursuing, even though it concerns an engineering project so massive that it was once compared to both the Panama Canal and the Great Pyramids of Giza. This is the story of the Port of Dallas.

Julia Barton:
If you know anything about Texas geography, you probably at least know that Dallas is not close to the ocean – at all. It’s more than 300 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

Roman Mars:
That’s like trying to build a port to the Pacific Ocean in Reno, Nevada, or a port to the Atlantic in Eastern Tennessee.

Julia Barton:
But unlike Reno or Eastern Tennessee, Dallas is at least located on a river that flows to the ocean, the Trinity. In Dallas, though, the Trinity is really low and very narrow.

Roman Mars:
So narrow that there are stories of Dallas’s first ferry boat on the Trinity, turning itself sideways to act as a bridge from time to time.

Julia Barton:
So, the Trinity was not a great way to move people or farm crops to the sea.

Roman Mars:
But neither was the alternative. In the early days of Dallas in the 1840s and 1850s, if your goods weren’t getting moved on a boat, they were in the back of a wagon getting pulled by a team of oxen. Railroads came to Dallas in 1872, but railroad companies could and did raise their rates whenever they felt like it. Dallas leaders wanted river navigation to keep access to the outside world affordable.

Julia Barton:
But in addition to being low and narrow, the Trinity River is incredibly long and winding. So, even though Dallas is about 300 miles to the ocean as the crow flies, with all the Trinity’s meandering, it’s closer to 700 miles of river. The few boats that made it to Dallas from the Gulf took nearly a year doing it. One of them was the aforementioned Snag Boat Dallas of Dallas, which cleared debris called “snags” out of the water to make the river navigable to steamships. One of the first of those was the steamboat, H.A. Harvey, Jr.

Julia Barton:
When the H.A. Harvey, Jr. finally made it to Dallas in 1893, the city went nuts. There was a massive parade. The local paper printed its front page in red ink.

Darwin Payne:
It was a huge day, and they declared Dallas had become a port city as a result of that. Even the city directories, like the 1901 city directory, describes Dallas as a port city.

Julia Barton:
That’s Dallas historian, Darwin Payne. And the dynamic he’s describing here in the city directory is very important when it comes to Dallas. There’s the actual version of events, and then there’s this grossly optimistic version. And as I was researching this story, this kind of boostery, salesman’s voice kept coming at me in different forms, telling me that something that was absolutely untrue, absolutely was true.

Roman Mars:
We had Dallas-born actor, William Jackson Harper, voice various clippings from the written record of the 130-year-old history of the Trinity Project. Here he is as the Dallas Times Herald in 1893 insisting…

Dallas Times Herald (voiced by William Jackson Harper):
“The navigation of the Trinity is not a possibility; it is an accomplished fact.”

Julia Barton:
Yeah, the H.A. Harvey made it, but that’s just one boat. For more boats to follow, the river would have to become easier to navigate.

Roman Mars:
And remember, this is the era of getting sh*t done. “We’ve got to move the river? Fine, let’s move the river.” Dallas convinced Congress to survey the river and figure out where locks and dams could help make it navigable. The Army Corps of Engineers finished the first lock and dam in the early 1900s at a site 13 miles below Dallas.

Julia Barton:
But eventually, Congress shelved the project. The locks and dams that had already been built moldered.

Trinity River Canalization (voiced by William Jackson Harper):
“Locks and dams along the river stood deserted and moss-covered. 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.”

Roman Mars:
But then, the Port of Dallas caught a second wind.

Julia Barton:
The Trinity may have been turtle-infested, but it wasn’t always sluggish. In 1908, the river flooded and it made a mess of Dallas. It turned downtown Dallas into a peninsula surrounded by raging floodwaters.

Darwin Payne:
It devastated the city. And, as a result of that, Dallas hired George Kessler to create what was known as the Kessler Plan.

Julia Barton:
Kessler was a famous urban planner, European-trained, but he’d spent part of his youth in Dallas. He created a vision for the city that included boulevards and parks, but the part that really excited Dallas leaders was how Kessler reimagined the meandering Trinity. He envisioned it becoming a straight channel about a half-mile west of its existing course through Dallas. Levees would contain the new channel and open up miles of floodplain for development right next to downtown.

Roman Mars:
Basically, they moved the river out of downtown. Even if you do know the geography of Dallas, it’s hard to picture exactly what this means.

Darwin Payne:
The project was even bigger than you would think because it involved changes in the roadways going over the sewer systems and utility connections, and a huge earth-moving project, of course.

Roman Mars:
Suffice it to say, this was the kind of enormous project where there’d be pictures of giant machines topped by men in bowler hats.

Julia Barton:
Well, by now we’re talking 1928, so fedoras would have been more in style.

Roman Mars:
And so, starting in 1928, the river-moving project was a go. The City of Dallas dug the Trinity a 26-mile, straight-shot channel with tall levees on either side of it, a half-mile apart. Perfect for the commercial barges that now replaced steamboats. And make no mistake, the historical record shows that even though this massive project was on its face about flood control, Dallas leaders at the time saw this as the resurrection of the Port of Dallas.

Julia Barton:
So, in 1930, you’ve got another ceremony for the Port of Dallas.

Roman Mars:
A bottle, containing the sweet, sweet waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the final destination of the Trinity River, was smashed over a dredging machine as people cheered on.

Julia Barton:
A local pastor gave the benediction.

Dallas Morning News (voiced by William Jackson Harper):
“May these engineers envision, see the coming millions, who, when our virgin acres are upturned to the smiles of God and our fabulous resources developed, shall people this impact.”

Roman Mars:
They really liked to lay it on thick in those days.

Julia Barton:
And from there, the plan to build the Port of Dallas was really underway. There was the general will for it, there was political clout behind it, and there was eventually money to fund it. The Army Corps of Engineers came up with a really big plan to change the whole course of the Trinity to allow boats up to Dallas.

Roman Mars:
And even further upstream to Fort Worth. President John F. Kennedy, just a month before he was assassinated in Dallas, signed off on a huge $900-million spending package for the Trinity.

Julia Barton:
And despite the PR nightmare that befell Dallas after JFK’s death, the river plan kept on moving forward. After all, the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was a Texan, and he was in favor of the project. Here he is talking on the phone in 1968 with Fort Worth Congressman, Jim Wright.

Lyndon B. Johnson:
“Jim?”

Jim Wright:
“Mr. President?”

Lyndon B. Johnson:
“How are you getting along?”

Jim Wright:
“Okay. How are you, sir?”

Lyndon B. Johnson:
“Well, I’ve had a long, hard week, but a good one, I think.”

Jim Wright:
“Let me ask-”

Lyndon B. Johnson:
“Say, did we get… We got your Trinity thing set up.”

Jim Wright:
“Sure as hell did. And I think we’re on a… We’re working on the thing now.”

Lyndon B. Johnson:
“Well, I guess that’ll be the major cronyism of the campaign.”

Jim Wright:
“Well, I hope it doesn’t hurt you. It sure as hell helps the rest of us.”

Roman Mars:
Dallas was ready. In anticipation of the soon-to-be navigable Trinity River, new freeway bridges constructed over the river were built extra tall to allow seagoing vessel clearance underneath.

Jim Wright:
“Most bridges are constructed 15 to 20 feet above existing terrain, while these two high-rise viaducts rise to well over 60 feet. One reason is so they may handle the hoped-for and sought-after barge traffic the Trinity proponents claim will pour into the Dallas-Fort Worth area.”

Julia Barton:
It’s been 130 years.

Roman Mars:
That’s about 115 years longer than it took to build the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Julia Barton:
Dallas is finally becoming a port city. Think of what this means!

Roman Mars:
Sailors, loose on shore leave.

Julia Barton:
Riverboat gambling cruises.

Roman Mars:
Heavy industry, loading docks, fishermen, longshoremen, stevedores.

Julia Barton:
Romantic picnics on the levees.

Roman Mars:
But then, the Port of Dallas hit a snag, so to speak. It went out not with a bang, but with the whine of a jet turbine engine.

Rob Tranchin:
The great irony is that while all of this was taking place in the early 1970s, Dallas and Fort Worth were building an international airport.

Julia Barton:
Rob Tranchin is a film producer, who made a documentary about the Trinity for Dallas’s public TV station KERA. He says the massive DFW airport invigorated the new economy growing here. Dallas was de-industrializing. The city had moved from its reliance on agriculture and trade to technology, light manufacturing, banking, and insurance. Companies like Texas Instruments were on the rise. They didn’t need barges to reach the outside world. They had an airport.

Alan Steelman:
“In my considered judgment, the canalization of the river would probably make Dallas go the way of the other port cities, with a polluted channel, which Houston has, increased crime, and increased deterioration of the inner city.”

Julia Barton:
That’s Alan Steelman, who ran for Congress in Dallas in 1972. He ran against the Trinity Canal.

Alan Steelman:
“It likely would mean the location of steel mills and petrochemical plants and other forms of heavy industry here, none of which I want locating in Dallas.”

Julia Barton:
And he won.

Roman Mars:
Soon after that, voters rejected a referendum to spend their tax dollars on the canal. So, right when the dream of those men aboard the Snag Boat Dallas of Dallas was finally on the cusp of reality, the dream was dead. Dallas would not become a port city, which was really a shame. Not because Dallas needed to be a port, but because they totally messed up the natural landscape of the city. Remember that the Port of Dallas Project eventually included the Kessler Plan, which literally moved the river and channeled it into a man-made canal outside of town. The Trinity River used to meander through the center of Dallas. It’s hard to second-guess the civil engineering needs at the time. I mean, the river did flood the city pretty regularly, but one can’t help but think that this could have been a nice riverfront for people to stroll along, a beloved piece of nature in the middle of the city. The Port of Dallas not only failed, but it stole the natural riverfront from the people of Dallas.

Julia Barton:
Like a lot of people of my generation growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I didn’t really know there was a river in Dallas at all. You can kind of see the Trinity River in the title sequence of the TV show, ‘Dallas’, which launched in 1978, but the camera mostly lingers on the skyscrapers. In real life, you might catch a glimpse of the river for a split second if you look down from one of those high freeway bridges. More often, you’d smell the river. A lot of Dallas’s untreated sewage got dumped there.

Rob Tranchin:
In the ’70s, there were, after a hard rain in Dallas, this thing they called the “black rise” would roil downstream and kill everything in its path.

Julia Barton:
But toxic sludge wasn’t the worst thing to turn up in the river; I’m talking about dead bodies. The Trinity River bottom was the place where you’d hide the evidence. It was sketchy and unlit. It was so dark that if you flew into Dallas at night, you could pick out the floodway because it was completely invisible. This dark artery flowed through the heart of the city. You would never think of going there. Never.

Roman Mars:
But, of course, Julia now had to go there. She got in a canoe. Let’s call it the ‘Snag Canoe Dallas of Dallas’.

Julia Barton:
“You see that snag at 12 o’clock? Are you going to go to the right or the left?”

Roman Mars:
The Trinity River resumes its natural winding course south of downtown Dallas. It flows through a dense hardwood forest. This part of the river bottom was left alone for decades because the plan was to someday bulldoze all this into a big turning basin and loading area for barges. Now, the Audubon Society has built a center at the edge of the forest, and it leads canoe and kayak rides for urban river explorers.

Julia Barton:
“This is not the suburbs. This is not the country. This is the city. I’m going to be so sunburned.”

Roman Mars:
So, you’ve got 26 miles of river diverted into a walled-off, artificial channel, plus another long stretch shielded by dense forest. Making that easily accessible for public use is the huge urban planning challenge that Dallas now has to contend with. The good news is is that the people now realize that this man-made and man-neglected landscape is the river they have, and that’s better than pretending that they have no river at all.

Julia Barton:
It’s a strange place. It’s not exactly comfortable, but not the nightmare of my childhood imagination either. It’s a landscape stuck in anticipation of something that never happened.

Roman Mars:
In the course of history, there are plenty of undertakings just as unlikely as the Port of Dallas. We just don’t think of the reversal of the Chicago River or say the Panama Canal as follies or forget about them entirely because, against all odds, they succeeded. And they were crowned with much hat-wearing and machine-posing. But when an engineering endeavor fails, sometimes all we get are scars on the landscape. And if we’re lucky, we get to try again, make something good out of it, like a park, hopefully with a plaque. I’d like it if they put up a plaque.

  1. Roy Metcalf

    The section of “Old, windy river” shown in your photo is currently described on Google Maps as Turtle Creek. Is your photo of Turtle creek, or has confluence been moved?

  2. Turtle Creek flowed into the old Trinity river, which is shown in that photo. Since the old Trinity is now just a drainage ditch collecting run-off (then pumped to the new channel), Google Maps may be confused about what is what.

    1. Tom W

      Ms. Barton (or any others),
      Do you know if there are any books about the Kessler Plan and its impacts on Dallas over the past 100 year?

  3. I grew up in Fort Worth and now live in Dallas. As a young man of 28 I only know it as a place to for park activities and I really appreciated this episode because I never knew about it’s history. Thanks!

  4. Joshua Treadway

    This story reminds me of the Florida Green Way Project that was suppose to be a Panama Canal through Florida, which didn’t end development til the 1970s and begun in the 1500s by the Spanish. Left a huge scar on the land, but created this amazing diversity of micro ecosystems that stretch from swampy wetlands to arid desert hills in less the 500 ft from each other and everything in between. There’s tons of awesome trails there too. Really amazing place.

  5. Pam

    If you haven’t done the canoe trip from downtown you should. There’s an unexplored world there in the middle of the city!!!

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