Trinity River Flood Control Depicted in Miscellaneous Aerial Views of Dallas, 1930s-1940s

The city of Dallas has a long and tumultuous history with the Trinity River. Photographs now available online from SMU’s Edwin J. Foscue Map Library document a period when Dallas officials began the arduous process of trying to exert control over the river to prevent flooding and support development. The new Miscellaneous Aerial Views of Dallas, 1930s-1940s digital collection contains 41 aerial views taken by Lloyd Long, including several shots of the Trinity River levee system.

A History of Flooding and the Building of the Levee District

In 1908, Dallas experienced the worst flood of the Trinity River it had ever known. The city was bifurcated, with no means of traveling from Oak Cliff into downtown. Five people were killed and 4,000 were left homeless. After this devastating event, discussion began about the possibility of controlling the flood waters of the Trinity River, an essential step to the future development and expansion of Dallas.

After the Kessler Plan of 1912 failed to gather enough steam and financing to become a reality, the mayoral-appointed Ulrickson committee put together a new plan to deal with the problem and to find a way to finance it. The Ulrickson Plan was announced in 1927. Lloyd Long, a firm supporter of the plan, was quoted in the Dallas Morning News: “Any voter who is a property-holder in the city who fails to vote for the Ulrickson Plan is not interested in the future development of Dallas” (What Dallas People Think About Ulrickson Bond Plan, Dallas Morning News, Dec. 11, 1927). Bonds were passed in 1927 and 1928 to finance the ambitious project.

Levee District and Dallas Business District (unlabeled)

Levee District and Dallas Business District (unlabeled), December 6, 1933
Lloyd Long took this photo in 1933 of the brand new Levee District with the Dallas Business District on the right. The Commerce Street Viaduct was finished in 1930, the third bridge from the top in this picture.

Work began in 1928 on digging a new canal for the river and building 30-foot levees in an attempt to reclaim 10,000 acres of property for private development. The river was moved three miles to the west. More than a thousand men worked constant shifts for two years straight to achieve this feat. The reclaimed land would go on to become the sometimes controversial Trinity Industrial District or Levee District, which was being developed by the Industrial Properties Corporation.

In 1933, Long took the Levee District and Dallas Business District (unlabeled) photo of the brand new Levee District with the Dallas Business District on the right. The Commerce Street Viaduct was finished in 1930, the third bridge from the top in this picture.

With the stock market crash of 1929, funding for the project became difficult, particularly because the sewer system to be developed would benefit private landowners outside of the city limits. The Trinity River levees were completed by 1934 and the river was rechanneled, but there were no funds left to build the sewer system that would draw the water out of the swampy soil. Without this, development of the reclaimed land was impossible. During periods of heavy rain, the city of Dallas would redirect floodwater and sewage to the area.

The Levee District is Put to the Test

Central Levee District (unlabeled), May 20, 1935

Central Levee District (unlabeled), May 20, 1935
This photograph taken by Lloyd Long was used by the Dallas Morning News on May 25, 1935 as a testimonial to the success of the levees.

The levees did help in keeping Dallas from experiencing the major flooding of the past. In 1935, heavy rainstorms swept across Texas leaving many homeless and killing several people, but as the Dallas Morning News boasted on May 25, 1935, “Trinity River Levees Successfully Stand First Real Test.”

Long took an aerial photograph of the 1935 floodwaters in the reclaimed land of the Trinity area, Central Levee District (unlabeled). The Industrial Boulevard, pictured parallel to the east levee, was the only road to Fort Worth that remained open during the flood.  This photograph was used by the Dallas Morning News on May 25, 1935, as a testimonial to the success of the levees.

The levees would be further tested with the flood of 1941, when the waters of the Trinity rose to the top of the east levee. The river was at its highest level in 33 years, almost reaching the level of the 1908 flood that had been so devastating. While the city of Dallas was spared massive damage, the waters of the Trinity spread out above and below the levees, destroying property, crops, and livestock, and making many people in outlying areas homeless.  Following are two photos Long took of the Levee District during the 1941 flood.  Both pictures are taken facing north with downtown on the right.

Trinity River Flood (unlabeled)

Trinity River Flood (unlabeled), 1941, by Lloyd Long

You can see that the river is retained by the levees closet to downtown.

The Industrial Properties Corporation experienced financial difficulties throughout the 1930s and, by 1944, had to sell most of its property to pay back taxes. The city legislature formed the Dallas County Flood Control District in 1945 to administer efforts to further the Trinity River project. By the end of World War II, the sewer system was finally finished and the levees were strengthened so that development of the reclaimed land could finally begin. Continental Trailways was the first company to build in the Levee District, opening in 1946 on the intersection of Continental and Industrial. The digital collection includes two pictures that Long took of the development taking place in that area in the late 1940s, which are notable in comparison to the picture of the same area in 1933, shown above in this post. The photographs are Trinity Industrial District (unlabeled), ca. 1948-1949, and Trinity Industrial District (unlabeled), ca. late 1940s.

About the Digital Collection

 Mid-Town Business District - Dallas, Tex. (unlabeled), March 9, 1936

Mid-Town Business District – Dallas, Tex. (unlabeled), March 9, 1936
Features of each aerial photograph in the four aerial survey digital collections from SMU Central University Libraries contain both a labeled and unlabeled version. Labeled features were annotated by regional historian George Cearley.

There are 41 aerial views in Miscellaneous Aerial Views of Dallas, 1930s-1940s collection, representing photographs taken by Lloyd Long in the 1930s and 1940s. The photographs include various images of Dallas, Mountain Creek Lake, White Rock Lake, and the Trinity River, including two aerial surveys (multiple photographs that fit together to make one overall image) of White Rock Lake and the White Rock Creek area. The collection demonstrates Long’s interest in civil engineering and industrial subject matter, exemplified in the images of the Trinity River levee system, the KRLD and WBAP radio transmitters, the Carrollton Dam, and the Mountain Creek General Station. Most of the photographs are taken at an oblique angle.

These photographs are housed in the Edwin J. Foscue Map Library. The library worked with regional historian George Cearley to identify important features in the photographs such as major roads, railways, and landmarks. A transparent overlay with locational markers was created for each photograph to label these features. In the digital collection, there are two versions of each image, labeled and unlabeled. Labeled images replicate the physical overlays created for the originals and correspond to a legend that appears in the Labeled Features metadata field below the image.

The Miscellaneous Aerial Views of Dallas, 1930s-1940s complements the Dallas Historic Aerial Photographs, 1930 Fairchild Survey, and the Dallas Aerial Photographs, 1945 USDA Survey. A related digital collection, White Rock Lake Aerial Photographs, 1927 Fairchild Survey, is available from the DeGolyer Library.

About Cynthia Boeke

AA-CUL(CMIT)
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