Somewhere, John Stemmons Sr. Is Shaking His Bony Fist and Laughing His Ass Off

By now I'm way way too deep into the story of the Trinity River Corridor Project. I have actually developed a kind of side interest -- a hobby, maybe -- involving the history of the Trinity River Project. I'll know it's time to see a doctor when I start collecting Trinity River project-related memorabilia.

But, you wonder. Especially given the headlines of the last month or so -- TRINITY RIVER PROJECT TURNS OUT TO BE DUMBEST IDEA IN HISTORY OF WORLD -- how in the hell it ever got started in the first place. (I was away on vacation when The Dallas Morning News did its piece Sunday revealing that certain parties may not have been telling the whole truth about the Trinity. More on that in my column in the paper version of Unfair Park tomorrow, but, basically, my take is, "No shit, Sherlock.") Who ever thought it would be a good idea to build a highway on top of flood control levees, or, even dumber, between the levees in the area that floods?

Well, because I am a student of Trinity River Project Trivia, I happen to know. Very, very old people. Long, long ago.

Buried in the recently released Federal Highway Administration's environmental impact statement on the toll road is a copy of the legal instrument by which John Stemmons Sr. bequeathed to the city all of the land between the levees downtown for use as park land and for transportation, "including roadways on and adjacent to the levees."

"Adjacent," in this case, didn't mean outside the levees, because Stemmons didn't bequeath the land outside the levees. Only inside. Why would Stemmons have wanted to see a road on or inside the levees?

Well, the deed describes the river as "the navigation channel." That takes us to Trinity trivia item No. 2, which, if you are really bored and don't have a life, like me, you can read for yourself: it's a 1973 article by Austin writer Dave McNeely in Texas Monthly about a recent successful campaign by Republican maverick congressman Alan Steelman to kill the Trinity shipping canal, a federal earmark boondoggle that was supposed to turn Dallas into a major seaport, via the Trinity River. It's a pretty good read.

Published before Texas journalists discovered the quote mark, it reads like McNeely telling it to you over a couple Scotches at Scholz Garden. Maybe those days were better.

Anyway, the Trinity shipping canal was about all those old guys who ran the city back in the day -- the Stemmonses, the Carpenters, the Dealeys -- most of them operating through a group called the Trinity Improvement Association, or the TIA. When I came across that name in McNeely's piece, my ears perked up.

The TIA was quite active behind the scenes in the campaign to shoot down Angela Hunt's referendum proposition 2007 that would have killed the toll road. The old guys were jealous of Houston, because it had an ocean. So they figured, "We'll just git us one o' them."

They were going to dig a canal to bring ships here so we would be an ocean port too. Somehow the idea for a road on or inside the levees, right down by the shipping canal, must have been part of that or at least related to it.

Alan Steelman was a bright young congressman who looked at that shipping canal and decided it was the DUMBEST IDEA IN HISTORY OF WORLD. He led the movement that finally got it nixed.

It's amazing in McNeely's story how many of the issues and even the personalities in the canal fight were parallel to what we've seen in the toll road battles. Anyway, people always ask me: What's the reason for that toll road? It doesn't go where anybody wants to go. It's horribly expensive. It's an environmental disaster.

I think the real reason is the same reason a lot of stuff happens in this world: Some real old guys with a lot of money and a serious stubborn streak decided a long time ago they were going to get it done. And, listen, the jury ain't in yet. Somewhere out there, six feet under, they are still making bony white fists in their coffins.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze