Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Houston Street Viaduct Turns 100

Looking north from Oak Cliff President's Day 1912
It was George Washington's Birthday, February 22, 1912 that one of the most important events in Dallas history took place. The grand opening of the Dallas-Oak Cliff Viaduct now known as the Houston Street Viaduct. The whole city paused for an entire day to celebrate the opening. A two mile long parade wound through downtown Dallas, snaking it's way towards the northern approach. A battalion of US Army horse drawn artillery led the parade. They promptly setup their artillery pieces along the river at the foot of the bridge and fired off a 21 gun salute.

Looking north from Oak Cliff President's Day 2012
The bridge itself was more than just another way to get across the river. It was the first permanent solution to crossing the flood prone Trinity in Dallas. It was also the first true permanent, all weather road link that joined Dallas and Oak Cliff.

The Houston Street Viaduct's centennial is perhaps overshadowed in a literal and figurative sense by the newest bridge just upstream, the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. Exactly 100 years on, the excitement of the new Caltrava Bridge has muted one of the great milestone achievements of Dallas as a city.
The Houston Street Viaduct was conceived after the devastating flood of 1908 separated Dallas from Oak Cliff for weeks. Many of the wooden and steel bridges of the time were wrecked in that flood, crippling commerce and travel across the river. At a cost of $621,000, the city approved bonds to build the new bridge. The bridge was designed by Ira Hedrick using a truss and arch design. The building material was locally available concrete mixed on site using water from the Trinity. Much of the gravel used in the concrete came from pockets of alluvial soil in West Dallas and around Fair Park. The bridge has over 50 arches, one of which is wider than the rest, about 95 feet. Through this channel the river flows. The wider arch section was designed for boat and barge traffic. It was originally designed for two lanes of vehicle traffic and two full sets of trolley rails. The rails were never installed. That's why today, the configuration for 4 lanes seems a little off.
Houston Street Viaduct

Like a Roman aqueduct, the Houston Street Viaduct should last another 100. There is a time capsule buried somewhere along the bridge that was supposed to be opened today, February 22, 2012. Maybe someone can find it and open it up at the next centennial in 2112.

Santa Fe Trestle Trail on ice all of 2011 and into 2012 taken during Super Bowl Week 2011
The oldest structure still in place on the Trinity River is the old Santa Fe Trestle Trail. The stone bases of the bridge date from 1890, the bridge itself was installed in 1904. The blocks supporting the bridge were added at a later date to raise the bridge to the same height as the top of the levees, insuring that the tracks would never be underwater. It has taken the current contractor longer to retrofit the old bridge into a pedestrian/bike path than it took all the other construction on the bridge combined.

Hopefully the Santa Fe Trestle Trail will open soon. I understand a utility company needs to move some wires before that can happen. Once opened, a decent route on gravel exists from the Santa Fe Trail out to the old Westmoreland bridge and back. At 14 miles, it's a decent distance for most people. Access can be made from some parking currently under construction or from the DART Station at Corinth and 8th. Disappointing to many people, myself included, that the Santa Fe Trestle Trail and Dallas Wave whitewater park have been shuttered for so long. Time to open it up...............

Monday, February 20, 2012

Goat Island Preserve, Sand Branch and Parson's Slough

This is an epic to the historic, and still fresh in the minds of people, the mystic and fearsome Bois d'Arc Island a strip of land in the southern part of Dallas County, a couple of miles wide, and eight or ten miles long. Its area, up to recent years, was estimated all the way from ten to twenty times its actual size, because of the density of its timber and foliage, the game which abounded there, and the easiness of getting totally and irretrievably lost on cloudy days, or at night. --William Holford June 17, 1910

And that 102 year old article from the Garland News served as my only primer into the really strange world of Southeast Dallas County.

Here, the rules do not apply. What rules. No rules. No city politics. No laws. Welcome to unincorporated Dallas County. My previous visits to this part of the county were limited to a private gun lease on the river. I asked others what's beyond the bend in the river? What's on the other side? No one I know, knew. So I had to find out.

It was about the time the first European explorer laid eyes on North Texas that the Trinity River took an abrupt change of course. Cutting off a 14 mile stretch of the traditional stream bed for a more westerly course. The old riverbed became known as Parson's Slough and the 22,000 acre area surrounded by the new and old river became Bois d' Arc Island.

The map below from the turn of the last century shows the upper half of Bois d' Arc Island. Goat Island Preserve would be due east of Wilmer on the map.

Goat Island Preserve

If you are planning a visit to Goat Island with the hope of seeing goats, keep driving! There are no goats on Goat Island. Two ways to visit. One is the preserve makeshift parking area located at 2800 Post Oak Road which is north of Beltline Road and East of I-45. The other is 4400 South Beltline Road. The Beltline Road parking can be done on the old approach to the Beltline Road bridge. Neither are really attractive options. Both the Sheriff's Department and the Game Warden said it was OK to park on either approach to the old bridge.

Approaching the Post Oak Road entrance, you'll notice the extensive gravel mining operations underway around the area. Much of the land is owned by Trinity Industries and they mine different sections of land depending on customer demand. Each area has a variety of soils or gravel sizes.

Talking to a few other people who have been to Goat Island, the first subject brought up is "So what in the world do you think is going on with that house?"

This house....

The house sits directly across the street from the Goat Island Preserve. Surrounded on three sides by heavy gravel pit excavation, it now sits on a postage stamp spit of land not much larger than the footprint of the home itself. It makes you scratch your head in amazement. A Sheriff's Deputy I met down there as I was taking this photo said it was not surrounded on three sides, it was surrounded on all six sides. If there was such a thing. I wonder if the sands and gravels under the land there are really worth enough to allow something like this to happen.

Goat Island Preserve is comma shaped or like a kidney bean. It has a number of gravel and soft surface 4x4 roads and single track hiking/biking trails that meander through the woods from NW to SE towards Beltline Road. Some of the paths are on an old levee road built in 1920.

There might at one time or another been an actual working livestock farm here of some kind. I found a couple old concrete foundations near the Post Oak trailhead that were probably related to commercial farming of some kind.

The trails vary quite a bit depending how close you are to the river. Some of the lower 4x4 roads stay muddy year round due to the high water table in the area.

I think these are either Beaked Yucca or Blue Yucca plants. Standing about 8 feet tall among the live oaks and prairie that sit away from the river. While this area has always been in the formal floodplain of the Trinity since the last ice age, the new channel has carved through areas not associated with riverbank sedimentation. So you see yucca, live oak and other species that usually reside miles from the Trinity River bottoms. It's more of a soil issue than anything else.

Below are some of the deer that live at Goat Island Preserve. The second set of deer in the video are on the actual Goat Island itself, in the river channel. Goat Island is about an acre in size.

Also part of the preserve is Trinity River Lock and Dam Number 2. This is the sibling of the McCommas Bluff Lock and Dam Number 1. Constructed in 1909-1911, the robust lock works here backed the Trinity River up as far as McCommas Bluff. You can catch a glimpse of the lock from the Beltline Road bridge looking north. I have looked around the lock site and have not been able to find any evidence of a lock keepers house similar to the one at McCommas Bluff.

Lock and Dam #2 on the Trinity River, 1909

Lock and Dam #2 on the Trinity River, 2011

Parson's Slough
Parson's Slough

Parsons Slough was one of the finest fishing streams in Texas, probably, for many years. There were long, deep holes with gravel bottoms and crystal-clear water, and fish abounded there, until practically exterminated by dynamiters and netters. People went there to fish from all over Dallas, Collin, Rockwall, Kaufman, Ellis, and other counties, and for years, it was the hunter's and fisherman's paradise.--William Holford June 17, 1910

Thanks to a healthy dose of snooping around and a couple well worded formal letters I was able to check out a couple parts of Parson's Slough that outsiders never get to see. Here the perched aquifers of the Trinity Basin are allowed to flow undisturbed over Ice Age gravels, crystal clear into small creeks and then into the slough itself. The clear water here is a combination of nature changing the river's course and man making it permanent.

In 1911, the slough was permanently cutoff from the Trinity River near Goat Island Preserve. The same construction company that built Lock and Dam Number 2, built a concrete dam at the head of Parson's Slough where it meets the Trinity. Twenty feet high and two hundred feet wide, the goal was to permanently send the river down the new channel rather than risk a flood putting the river meander back in the old. I have looked for that old dam. Now buried under dozens of feet of silt, I cannot find it. It sits near the outflow channel near the Southeast Wastewater Treatment Plant. Buried. Only during times of the very highest water flows would the dam become a spillway.

Combined with some levee projects in the 1920s, this left Parson's Slough high and dry from the Trinity. It now serves as some of the very richest farmland in Dallas County. Much of which is owned by Trinity Industries for future gravel mining. Much of their property is easy to spot with the large "Blue Bird Farms" signs that are prominent over the entrances.

The water here percolates out of the ground like a coffee maker. Slowly. Over the old gravel. This slackwater zone probably allowed the Mary Phinney Saw Palmetto Alligator Slough to thrive. The old river route would have passed mere hundreds of yards from the palmetto groves. With the river's change of course it allowed areas previously scoured by flooding to remain undamaged.

Sand Branch

Horse sale sign, Beltline Road, Sand Branch, TX
The clean water of the Trinity Aquifer and cheap land were a strong lure to impoverished African Americans in the early part of the last century. Sharecroppers and field hands, a group of sturdy people formed the community of Sand Branch south of Dallas and west of Seagoville. Here a man could dig a well for water with a hand shovel, finding fresh clean water not even twelve feet down. Without the restrictions of city ordinances, the residents were free to raise farm animals, crops and build housing as they saw fit. In the century since it's founding, the residents have continued to live that way.

There are a number of odd socioeconomic headwinds in this part of the county. I'm not even sure how to describe the community of Sand Branch. If it were on the Rio Grande, you could call it a colonia. No running water. No sanitary sewer. No trash pickup. Some even lack electricity. I cannot believe in 2012 that people live that way in Dallas County. I cannot believe we let people live that way in Dallas County. I'm not passing judgment on the residents there. I have gotten to know a few over the past several months and they are making due with what they can. A rough lifestyle makes a rough person. I was not prepared for the abject, destitute poverty I encountered there.

The sandy loam and easy to dig gravel that first attracted the residents of Sand Branch, proved to be the demise of the community. In the 1950s, a rapidly growing Dallas needed gravel and sand for concrete construction. The easy to harvest gravels of Sand Branch became the prime source. What was once a post oak savannah mix of prairies and bottom lands quickly turned into something that resembled a World War I battlefield. The reliable water supply became tainted with heavy metals and animal waste and rendered unfit for human consumption. The residents blamed the new wastewater treatment plant that shoehorned itself into to the north side of the area. Fair enough, although some of the blame can be shared with the residents who raise confined farm animals, pigs, in cramped conditions.

I was really interested in finding a way to the old Parson's Slough Dam via Sand Branch. Bunche Street would get me within a couple hundred yards of it. I could never the dam though. Wandering around on some of the land, I was told to watch out for a herd of exotic Axis Deer that had taken up residence on the land to the south of Sand Branch. Sure enough I found them. Below is some video I shot of the herd:

Axis Deer(axis axis) also known as Chital or Cheetal are native to Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, India and Pakistan. They were introduced as an exotic game species here in Texas back in the 1960s. I was told this herd probably went feral off of a game ranch in western Kaufman County and wandered this way. Axis Deer are much larger than the native deer we have in Texas. They are donkey size. They really enjoy hot weather and breed year round. As a result, there are always smaller Chital around in the herd. I noticed several bucks in the group, with one larger one that commanded the center. There are over a dozen free ranging wild herds like this around the state.