The Trinity River that we know is not the Trinity River that our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents knew. And they’d probably tell us we are fortunate. In the old days Fort Worth suffered severe floods (as in 1889, 1908, 1922, and 1949) because the Trinity River channel—both forks—was narrow, shallow, and convoluted. That meant the river could not move a large volume of water quickly after heavy rain. The quickness with which the river could rise out of its banks was frightening. And fatal. People might go to bed at night listening to the lullaby of raindrops on rooftops and wake up in the morning as their bed was floating out the door or as their house was floating down the street.
Although attempts to tame the Trinity had been made before, especially after major floods, it was the flood of 1949 that caused the Army Corps of Engineers to roll up its sleeves and give the river a serious makeover in Fort Worth. With an infusion of federal dollars, Benbrook Lake was impounded, levees were built, existing bridges were lengthened and new bridges built, the river was dredged, widened, straightened in a project called the “Fort Worth floodway.” The work continued into the 1970s. Clip is from the April 16, 1953 Dallas Morning News.
Widening of the Clear Fork channel in the 1960s rendered the two truss spans of the University Drive bridge, built in 1936 and 1952, too short. The spans were extended on their north end. The 1936 span, seen in the foreground on the right, shows how narrow the channel originally was.
The floodway project also affected the Forest Park miniature train, which crossed the river on its own bridge right beside the University Drive bridge. Suddenly the rail bridge, too, did not measure up to the job. A new rail bridge was installed downstream over the new channel in 1968, and the original bridge was relocated downstream to carry the train over the mouth of the old channel.
On April 1, 1956 the Dallas Morning News reported that the $11 million ($93 million today) Fort Worth floodway was completed, although work on the “new river” continued into the 1960s. When you travel along the river today and see the amount of dirt that the Corps moved to dig new river channel and to build levees, the scope of the project is staggering.
This photo from the early 1950s shows the transformation of the river just north of East Belknap Street. At bottom is the winding, narrow old channel; at top is the straight, wide new channel. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.)
For example, these “before and after” aerial photos show a typical Corps of Engineers “operation” on the clogged river. Below Lake Worth, south of White Settlement Road, and east of Burton Hill Elementary School the West Fork pre-floodway plunged 4,700 feet south of White Settlement Road. Today, after a “bob job” by the Corps, the river plunges only 3,000 feet and is wider and less wiggly. The new channel also has a high levee on both sides. The Trinity Trails path runs along both sides of the river there.
That one operation excised 5,800 linear feet of slow-flowing river channel. The channel was so narrow that the “before” aerial photo shows not the water but the canopy of trees over the water. At the bottom of the photo you can see the tree-lined, wiggly old channel.
Today on both forks, if you know where to look, you can still find remnants of the wiggly “old river.”
Map shows the locations of just ten of the “ghosts” of Trinity past.
1. Lockheed Martin Recreation Association area and the adjacent new Waterside commercial development. Top image locates this orphaned bend between Highway 183 and Bryant Irvin Road. The bend comes off the river as a modest channel (middle image) but is fed by storm drains and thus receives enough water to form a small waterfall (bottom image) where it flows into the new Clear Fork river channel downstream. This part of the river was not straightened until the 1970s.
This mural under the Clearfork Bridge west of Hulen Street on the Clear Fork shows wonderfully the old channel (light blue) and the new channel (dark blue) between Bryant Irvin Road (left north-south street) and Hulen Street (right north-south street).
2. Colonial Country Club. Straightening the river made an orphan of this kink in the Clear Fork. So, the kink just retired and took up golf: It now serves as a water hazard on the thirteenth hole.
3. Forest Park. The five-mile miniature train (1959) crosses the inlet (top photo) and outlet (bottom photo) of a tree-lined bend of the old channel of the Clear Fork. This part of the river was not straightened until the 1960s. Originally the train crossed the river just east of the University Drive bridge, but widening the channel rendered the old bridge too short, so a new bridge was installed downstream over the new channel, and the old bridge (bottom photo) was moved to the outlet of the old channel.
4. West 7th Street bridge. The trough of the old channel of the Clear Fork could be seen under the arch on the east end of the old 7th Street bridge. After grading of the ground under the new bridge, the trough is no longer visible under the easternmost arch.
5. North of Chesapeake Plaza and west of Bluff Street. This is the outlet of another orphaned bend in the Clear Fork. Forest Park Boulevard follows the curve of the old channel.
Map shows the location of 4 and 5 on the old Clear Fork channel. Yellow line indicates the new channel. (Map detail from Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)
6. North of I-30 and east of Riverside Drive. The aerial photo shows that east of Riverside Drive a tree-lined arc of the river was cut off when the river was straightened (red line) and a levee built. The river originally veered north behind the Meadowbrook Drive-In Theater (yellow dot on map). The white line shows the old channel of Sycamore Creek, which flowed into the river behind the theater. The blue dot shows the location of a footbridge (bottom photo) that crosses the old river channel in Gateway Park.
This area is undergoing major changes as Gateway Park is expanded to the west. According to the Gateway Park Master Plan this “Riverside Oxbow” will be restored and opened to kayakers and canoeists.
7. When you shoot a round of golf at Rockwood, the past plays through: You drive your cart past two tree-lined, boomerang-shaped arcs of the old channel of the West Fork. Use the two traffic circles in Greenwood Cemetery for reference.
One arc is near a cul de sac on the course near the river.
The other arc is just west of the clubhouse and still has water in it. The foot path on the right is at the southern end of the arc.
8. Kelly Park on Rockwood Park Drive north of the sharp bend in White Settlement Road sits in a curve of the old channel of the West Fork. Kelly Park has two Little League baseball fields. Blue line indicates the course of the channel before the river was straightened.
The outfield wall of the north ballfield follows a curve of the old channel, which holds water after heavy rain. The new channel and levee can be seen beyond.
The kids who shag flies in the outfield probably have no idea how close they are to the bad old days.
9. North of Randol Mill Road and west of Handley Ederville Road. This boomerang-shaped lake (left side of aerial photo) was a bend in the river until the 1980s, when the river was straightened and Handley Ederville Road was rerouted to the east, resulting in a lake with a bridge to nowhere.
10. When Rockwood Golf Course was remodeled in 2016-2017 a new hole was added on the western side of the course. This photo shows the green on the left. To reach that green golfers must cross the small bridge over a stream that empties into the river.
That stream is part of the original channel of the West Fork, cut off when the new channel bypassed it.
The 1945 city map shows the old channel. The loop of the old channel almost completed a circle. The yellow curved line shows the new channel. The green G indicates the location of the Rockwood green. In the aerial photo the white G indicates the location of the Rockwood green. The old channel to the left of the G has been filled in, but the surviving section of the tree-lined old channel wraps around the G and empties into the new channel.
These ten ghosts are reminders of a flood-control project of more than a half-century ago, a project that required years of work and cost millions of dollars—and surely has saved many lives.