Alice Murray, president of the Dallas Citizens Council, recently wrote a piece in the Dallas Business Journal in support of the Trinity toll road. Peter did a pretty thorough job destroying her weak arguments. One point that Murray tried to make was this: DFW Airport, DART, Victory Park, and Klyde Warren Park were all big public improvement projects that wise leaders supported and naysayers fought. Never mind that DART is one of the worst performing public transit systems in the country and Victory Park was a huge financial failure. Murray’s point was that wise leaders, like the sort who belong to the Dallas Citizens Council, will carry the day.
This got artist, author, environmentalist, and sometime D Magazine contributor Laray Polk thinking. Because she remembers that in the early 1970s, the Dallas Citizens Council supported turning the Trinity River into a navigable canal that would bring ships from the Gulf to the port of Dallas. Oh, and James Hoffa’s people were part of the deal. Laray reminds us:
In 1931 George Gray of the New York Herald-Tribune wrote an article extolling the possibilities of a “dusty frontier crossroads settlement near a muddy river ford” becoming the “New York of the South.” In his estimation, there was one thing missing: “Can not the Trinity be cut into a ship canal and made a highway to the sea?”
An identical question was put forward in the voting booth in March 1973, minus the flowery prose. Seventeen counties along the Trinity River would decide the fate of building a shipping canal stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to an inland port in Dallas.
The canal project was projected to cost $1.6 billion. President Lyndon B. Johnson supported the plan and so did Congress, but prior to appropriation hearings, legislators wanted to gauge local commitment. If voters approved $150 million in local funding, the federal government would shoulder the remaining costs. Alignment of federal and state financing would make land on both sides of Loop 12 at the intersection of the Trinity River worth untold millions.
Since the 1900s, Dallas business leaders had pursued a subsidized plan at all levels of government for transforming the Trinity into a trade channel. An inland watercourse to transport cargo would require costly engineering feats: channels, a system of locks and dams, and a turning basin.
A turning basin, also called an inland port, is an expanded reservoir at the end of a canal that enables watercraft to change direction. The length of the largest ship determines the width of a turning basin, and excavating one requires an expanse of land that can accommodate that circumference.
In 1973, the most likely area to be carved into a turning basin for the canal project was at the juncture of White Rock Creek and the Trinity River. Metropolitan Sand and Gravel owned land south of the area on both sides of the river.
The four “men from St. Louis” who owned the company — Simpkins, Kahn, Shenker, and Shenker Jr. — had purchased the land through a loan from the Teamsters. Teamsters president James Hoffa would eventually be found guilty of jury tampering and mail fraud in connection with the union’s pension fund. Hoffa’s lawyer, both before and after the trial, was one of the men connected to the Trinity land deal, Morris A. Shenker. Metro did use some of the land for gravel mining, true to the company’s name, but something else was in the works.
In 1973 Dallas Morning News reporter Earl Golz spelled out the long-term vision behind the land acquisition in a story headlined: “Teamsters Involved in Planned Trinity Canal Basin Area.” The story ran almost one month to the day of the crucial bond election, and according to Golz, development on Metro’s land “would be less distance from the gulf than government-owned docks farther north,” and with lower rates, Metro’s site could be a “formidable contender for all Dallas-based cargo.”
Voters decided the canal’s fate on March 13, 1973. There would be no shipping canal, and no turning basin. Concerted mobilization efforts led by environmentalist Ned Fritz were part of the equation, but opposition also came from the business-industrial sector. Most who were against the canalization of the Trinity thought the proposal was a boondoggle and an engineering improbability from start to finish.
Metro had managed to amass 3,500 acres along the Trinity. Now, after the down vote, a plan eight years in the making had been completely stymied. For city leaders, it meant letting go of a dream that had been pursued for almost a century.