Law Man Walking: Nature Treks With Bill Holston

This week our man Bill explores the Great Trinity Forest, where drought and racism — and a number of hawks — were on his mind.

Parched on the Trinity
By Bill Holston

There are lots of things that divide us these days. There’s politics, language, nationality, and, every one’s favorite, religion. Sometimes it’s even a geographical feature. Dallas has been divided by the Trinity River many times, and not just physically.

Saturday morning was a perfect fall day. I love the fall. It’s my favorite season of the year. I love the cool mornings, especially the first time I see the vapor of my breath in the morning as I enjoy a cup of coffee. I love seeing the changing seasons, and it’s great to begin to see some fall color mixing in with the lack of color in the trees that are drought stressed. These cool mornings just beg for a walk in the woods. So I headed down to cross the Trinity and spend some time with our 6,000-acre Great Trinity Forest. I’ve read that the name was coined by the great Ned Fritz, because he felt that having a name would foster preservation. Much of this forest is second-growth timber, because so much of the land was cleared for farming and ranching, but there are areas of towering old Burr Oaks and native Pecans.

This weekend I traveled down to the newest trail along the Trinity River, where it starts at the Trinity Audubon center. I met my new friend Ben, who writes a great blog about hiking and biking the Trinity Trails. He has hiked in this area often and graciously agreed to give me a tour. I drove the bridges over the Trinity River and then across Loop 12 to the entry to the Center. It took me all of thirty minutes to get there. Mist rose from the Trinity into the cool fall air and the sun was just beginning to lighten the sky in the east. There was hints of frost on the grass.

We met just as the gates to the center opened. We walked along the Audubon Trails over to where the new City of Dallas Trail comes close to the preserve. There’s no gate, so we crawled under the fence and started walking. The Trail crosses Trinity River at a beautiful bend in the River. We saw what we thought was a hawk soaring in the distance. As I pulled out the binoculars, I spotted a Caracara, Caracara Cheriway, which is actually a member of the Falcon Family. It’s also known as the Mexican Eagle. We watched it soar out of sight, and then we hiked along the lovely towering native Pecans (Carya illinoinensis) which is the dominant tree in the area.

The trail roughly parallel’s the Trinity River. It’s a wide trail. We wandered over to Lemmon Lake. On the trail to Lemmon Lake we saw some very nice older trees including Post Oaks, which are unusual in this area of Dallas. (Quercus stellata) The woods were carpeted with Virginia wild rye, which had long since turned brown, but was covered with seed. This is an amazing spot, a small lake that serves as a haven for migrating waterfowl. I’ve seen pictures of Roseate Spoonbills and White Faced Ibis in this Lake. Not this fall, though, as it is bone dry.

We walked across the exposed lake bed to find a low spot where the last Alligator Gar must have been living prior to all of the water drying. Their carcasses lay exposed in a graphic reminder of the severity of this drought. We made our way along an old dam, which must have been built to partially impound the waters for this lake. We climbed up on the dam, and walked along. Ben pointed out a couple of ancient cottonwoods. It was easy walking along the top of this dam. If the city were inclined to increase access, they would really only need to cut some brush and scatter some mulch. It’s that great. Honestly, it is something I question about our parks. If I were king of parks (and if I were ever to be a king of anything, I’d like it to be parks), I’d sure minimize the infrastructure. I can’t imagine anyone actually walking down here requires a 12 foot trail, and the immense stone pillars that show up occasionally. It actually detracts as far as I’m concerned.

We walked over to the Trinity, which at this point is no longer the featureless channel that runs near downtown Dallas, but has the natural meanders of a river. As we walked across the dry lake bed, we saw quite a few hawks, but none close enough to identify. They shrieked at us as we disturbed their solitude. I know how they feel. I like a little solitude as well.

We made our way back across the dam and then around a small pond that was still filled with water. It made both of us think the pond must be spring fed, as it was not connected to the river, and the nearby larger Lemmon Lake was bone dry. There were a few sunken boats lining the sides of the pond. As we dropped down off of the dam, we saw the remains of several old fishing cabins. There were very old large timbers, foundations, and the remains of piers. These were only ruins and the forest had reclaimed this spot where people once stayed and fished. This was a remote spot and even today feels very far removed from the city.

I’m not sure who fished here. The nearest houses must be the area of town called Joppa (pronounced Joppie by locals). Joppa was a Freedman Community, settled by the former slaves of the Miller plantation. The place takes its name from the Biblical city Joppa (modern day Jaffa), which means “beautiful” or “the beginning” in Hebrew. Joppa was the port city of Israel, where Solomon had timbers shipped from Lebanon for the construction of the temple.

Like most history, there’s a dark side to this past. Bill Minutaglio writes in In Search of the Blues: A Journey to the Soul of Black Texas, “Sixty to Seventy-five years ago and five hundred yards northeast of Joppa’s New Zion Baptist Church, The Dallas Klan actively maintained its whipping posts, trees whose lower limbs had been cleared away so a man could be tied to a trunk.” These stories of our sad racial past touch me in a really profound way. I was raised in Alabama. I was raised to be a racist. Racial epithets were a common part of my childhood. I’m embarrassed to admit that, of course. But the truth is, every aspect of my life was segregated. I credit Boy Scouts for my racist blinders coming off. When I was 12, Camp Mauvilla in Alabama was the first place I had common shared experienced with African American kids my age. We swam together, camped together, and for the first time I realized how foolish everything I’d been told about race really was. Despite the things that people criticize about Scouts, I still have a fondness for the program because of its part in shedding that racist heritage. I hesitate to bring up this past, but I think it’s important to remember that these days are not ancient history. It was in my lifetime and in my home state that police turned fire hoses on children. There is no doubt many years of inequality that enveloped a community like Joppa. It makes me curious to know more. It’s part of understanding who we are as a city.

Ben and I returned to the trail and headed across a dirt path in the direction of McCommas Bluff. McCommas Bluff was originally called Shelton’s Bluff after William Shelton, an Illinois veteran from the Mexican War. The bluffs carried his name, until after the Civil War. The McCommas family purchased the Shelton land and by 1880, the area was called McCommas Bluff. This site is rich in Dallas history. Plans to create a port to transport cotton led to the building of locks along the river. According to a Texas Historical Marker:

“In 1866 the Trinity River Slack Water Navigation Co. proposed dams and locks for the waterway. Capt. James H. McGarvey and Confederate hero Dick Dowling piloted Job Boat No. 1 from Galveston to Dallas, but the trip took over a year. The Trinity River Navigation Co., formed in 1892, operated H. A. Harvey, Jr., which carried 150 passengers. “The Harvey made daily runs to McCommas Bluff, 13 miles downstream from Dallas, where a dam, dance pavilion, and picnic grounds created a popular recreation spot. In 1900 – 1915 the U. S. Government spent $2 million on river improvements, including a series of dams and locks, before World War I halted work. A critical 1921 Corps of Engineers report ended further federal investment.”

In 1894, the now defunct Dallas Times Herald reported about plans to navigate the Trinity:

“With what has been already accomplished, $50,000 spent on the river between here and McCommas’ Bluff, will make that part of the river one of the best and most important waterways of the country. It would largely solve the lumber problem for Texas, and completely solve the firewood problem for Dallas. The Trinity is the Amazon of this state and should be developed on the lines that Nature has made so feasible.”

Yes, Dallas has always had heady plans for the Trinity. Now, there’s nothing around McCommas Bluff but towering trees and an occasional bobcat. It seems as if the River has won out over ambitious plans to tame it here. As we walked over, we passed a towering Burr Oak (Quercos Macrocarpa), with its huge acorns. It really was a majestic tree. We stood on the banks of the Trinity, noticing just how clear the water looks there. There’s nothing but forest there and it really is a beautiful spot. The dirt trails are great. The river is quite peaceful.

Walking over to McCommas Bluff, we were approached by two Hispanic gentlemen on horseback. We stopped and talked to them for a few minutes. They were surrounded by a pack of 5 friendly dogs. They were using the lovely Mexican-style saddles. We chatted about the feral pigs that fill the bottomland and the city’s efforts to trap them. Ben and I both commented on how great it was that different groups of people mix naturally here in this forest. These two men were doing exactly what he and I were doing, enjoying a Saturday off of work and enjoying nature. They wished us well, and road off, dogs trotting contentedly ahead of them.

The Trinity River, which for decades has served as a symbol of racial and economic separation, could stop being a symbol of division. Instead it could be a meeting place. And it really requires very little government intervention. The forest is there to be explored. There are lots of informal trails. Volunteers could easily build and maintain simple low-impact trails.

Already there’s much less of a divide by the river. Saturday evening, my wife, Jill, and I headed from our East Dallas house across the Trinity to have dinner at Nova and a show at the Kessler Theater. We met our friends Lauren and Wes and enjoyed a wonderful show by Bravo Max and Telegraph Canyon. We saw lots of friends that now make their home in Oak Cliff.

Ben and I are already planning another field trip down in the forest. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at this fine trail through the local gem of our forest. I can’t wait to explore further, and this is the perfect time of year to do it.


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