Trinity River Navigation Projects

By: Wayne Gard

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: August 1, 1995

The prospect of a Trinity River navigable from its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico to Dallas has long been a cherished dream in Texas, and numerous proposals for making that dream a reality have been put forth. Beginning around 1836 numerous packet boats steamed up the Trinity River, bringing groceries and dry goods and carrying down cotton, sugar, cowhides, and deerskins. One of the largest of these early steamers was the Scioto Belle, put in service in 1844. Some of the packets made it as far as Magnolia, ten miles west of Palestine; in 1854 one reached Porter's Bluff, forty miles below Dallas. Often, however, their movements were impeded by snags, sandbars, low water, and other hazards, and during the late 1840s and early 1850s Dallas citizens tried to obtain federal assistance to clear the river. After a convention on Trinity improvement in 1849 at Huntsville, Congress in 1852 authorized $3,000 "for the survey of the Trinity River, including the bar at the mouth." That same year Lt. William H. C. Whiting of the United States Army Corps of Engineers undertook a survey of the river. He called the Trinity "the deepest and least obstructed river in the State of Texas" and reported that the river could be improved for $31,800. Congress failed to act on Whiting's recommendation; nonetheless, by the 1850s numerous boats were operating on the river. Under a Texas act of 1858, a bar was removed from the mouth of the river. Between 1852 and 1874 some fifty boats plied the Trinity, going as far north as Trinidad in Henderson County and Porter's Bluff in Navarro County. Navigation fell off during the Civil War, but in 1868 a boat reached Dallas with a cargo, after a voyage of a year and four days from Galveston. In the peak season of 1868–69, boats carried 15,425 cotton bales down the Trinity. Competition, however, from the Houston and Texas Central and the Texas and Pacific railroads, which reached Dallas in 1872 and 1873, effectively ended the reign of the riverboats. Growing dissatisfaction with high railroad freight rates and the dream of Dallas as a major port kept the interest in river traffic alive. The federal government conducted several surveys of the Trinity between 1872 and 1900, and Congress authorized a number of small appropriations to remove snags and to widen and deepen the stream. In 1891 a group of prominent Dallas citizens formed the Trinity River Navigation Company to promote river traffic. To deepen the Trinity's upper reaches, the company constructed a dam at McCommas Bluff thirteen miles south of Dallas. In 1893 the city welcomed with a gala celebration the H. A. Harvey, Jr., a 113-foot boat with a capacity of 600 bales of cotton. The boat, owned by the Trinity River Navigation Company, had come up from Galveston in two months and ten days.

Responding to pressure by a number of influential Texans, Congress in 1899 authorized another survey of the river by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Beginning in 1902 with an appropriation of $400,000, the federal government over the next twenty years spent more than $2,000,000 building locks and dams on the Trinity. World War I halted this work, however, and in 1921 the project was abandoned as too costly. Acting on renewed dissatisfaction with freight rates, the Dallas and Fort Worth chambers of commerce sponsored in 1930 the Trinity River Canal Association (its name was later changed to the Trinity Improvement Association). After additional surveys by the departments of War, Agriculture, and Commerce, Congress authorized in the 1944 flood-control act a program of water and soil conservation. Included in the 1945 rivers and harbors act was authorization to deepen the Trinity channel to nine feet from the river mouth up to Liberty, to strengthen the levees at Dallas and Fort Worth, and to build new reservoirs on the upper branches of the river. In 1955, at the request of the privately supported Trinity Improvement Association, the Texas legislature set up the Trinity River Authority, with twenty-four directors appointed for six-year terms. The Trinity River Authority began working with other public and private organizations to plan the development of the Trinity River basin. During the 1950s three reservoirs were under construction by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, one on the East Fork of the Trinity River in Collin County, another on the Elm Fork in Denton County, and the third on the Clear Fork in Tarrant County. These reservoirs were built primarily to control floods and to increase water supplies for municipal use and irrigation, but it was also planned that they could be used to regulate the flow of the Trinity if it was canalized. In 1959 construction began on the Navarro Mills Dam and Reservoir on Richland Creek, sixteen miles southwest of Corsicana. This $10,400,000 flood-control and water-conservation project was planned by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District, and was completed in 1963. The dam, like others on Trinity tributaries, also helped to provide the more stable river flow needed for navigation.

In 1963 the plan for making the Trinity River navigable by barges was approved by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and in 1965, Congress, with President Lyndon Baines Johnson's backing, passed legislation authorizing the Trinity River Project, a package of flood-control and navigation projects that included a barge canal more than 300 miles long connecting the Dallas-Fort Worth area with the Gulf of Mexico. The barge canal was projected to cost $911,000,000. The authorization carried no appropriation but recommended that $83,000,000 be granted to start the work. In 1966 the United States Army Corps of Engineers awarded an $889,978 contract for construction of part of the proposed Wallisville Reservoir, intended to bring Trinity River barge traffic forty miles upstream, as far as Liberty. By the 1970s aerial mapping had cleared the way for advance engineering and federal funds had been appropriated to help the state highway department raise bridges to navigation level. But growing budget problems-and criticism from many quarters that the Trinity canal was nothing more than a huge pork-barrel project and a potential ecological disaster-eventually doomed the idea. In 1973 the Trinity River Authority asked voters to approve a property tax to finance $150 million of the estimated $1 billion project. The measure drew strong support from the lower Trinity valley region, but voters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area rejected it by a margin of two to one. As a result the Corps of Engineers abandoned the project, and, for a time at least, the dream of a navigable Trinity.

Edgar Herbert Brown, Trinity River Canalization (Dallas: Trinity River Canal Association, 1930). Edwin Sparling Davis, The Movement for Trinity River Development (M.S. thesis, North Texas State University, 1964). Floyd Durham, The Trinity River Paradox: Flood and Famine (Wichita Falls, Texas: Nortex Press, 1976). Fort Worth Star-Telegram, September 16, 1979. George A. Knapp, R. Owen, and E. S. Pannebaker, An Analysis of the Engineering and Economic Aspects of the Proposed Trinity River Canal (1930?). Dave McNeely and Lyke Thompson, "The Unholy Trinity Incident," Texas Monthly, June 1973. David Mitchell, "The Trinity River Project, 1852–1922," East Texas Historical Journal 28 (Fall 1990). Earnest T. Stull, The History of Navigation on the Trinity River (M.A. thesis, East Texas State Teachers College, 1955). Texas Observer, May 20, 1977. Trinity River Reclamation Study (Austin: State Reclamation Department, 1930). U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Trinity River and Its Tributaries (Washington: GPO, 1965). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • North Texas
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Wayne Gard, “Trinity River Navigation Projects,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 17, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995

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