How North Texas Almost Lost its Greatest Treasure

Once upon a time, a group of greedy Dallas businessmen decided they wanted to ruin something beautiful.

They turned their attention to the Trinity River; a lovely natural waterway which provided water and recreational opportunities to Dallas residents. They hatched a plan to turn it into a 300-mile barge canal that would connect Dallas to the Gulf of Mexico. They’d rip out native trees and vital habitat, and replace it with lifeless concrete.

I was shocked when I heard this story. To think that North Texas’s most precious natural resource was almost turned into a shipping canal! Endless fields of wildflowers, gone. No birders delighting in the giant flocks of egrets… no bikers, no joggers, no families picnicking along the shore.

As I dug into the history of the river, I realized it’s nothing short of a miracle that the Trinity has remained as natural as it is. It took decades of political battles to make this happen. Year after year, new generations of greedy businessmen arose and began to plot anew how they could become billionaires off of the river.

The citizens of Dallas voted down the canal time and time again – and not purely for environmental reasons. It wouldn’t have even been profitable for them! The neighborhoods along the river were somehow expected to contribute millions of dollars to the construction of the canal, and would deal with loss of business for years while it was being built. Plus they wouldn’t have recouped their money in the end.

“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.”

– Dave McNeely, “The Unholy Trinity Incident”, Texas Monthly

The only people benefitting from this would’ve been the politicians and whatever businesses they hired to build it. North Texans would have given up their clean air and water for nothing.

Though the canal fiasco was avoided, the river bottomlands were dredged for sand and gravel.

“By the 1970s, many of these empty mine pits had been transformed into open-air trash dumps, which wreaked havoc on both the natural landscape and the largely segregated African-American neighborhoods south of the Trinity.”

– Peter Simek, “Taming the Trinity”, D Magazine

Thanks to lawyer and environmentalist Ned Fritz, these were cleaned up and the idea of the barge canal was finally put to rest. Ned acted as the guardian of the river for years, protecting not just its nature but the rights of the communities along the river. He is a true inspiration.

But Ned grew old and the greedy politicians just kept coming. Ronald Kirk lobbied to line the Trinity with a toll road. Dallasites were irritated with this idea, seeing as it would turn Kirk and his cronies into billionaires and bankrupt the rest of the city. During the 1950’s-2000’s, Dallas politicians successfully lobbied the federal government for tens of millions of dollars in funding for Trinity River projects. The money mysteriously disappeared and nothing got done.

Annoyingly, many of the men involved in these schemes still have their names emblazoned across bridges and parks in our city. Ronald Kirk has a bridge named after him. Trammel Crow and John Stemmons were two of the jerks who tried to get the canal put in; one has a park named for him and the other a highway. Perhaps it’s time to re-name our places after people who are more deserving.

Anyway, I am incredibly thankful that this precious river did not get turned into a canal or a toll road. And I know I’m not the only one.

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