Last month, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings unveiled the latest version of the Trinity River Project, a $250 million plan for transforming the Trinity River floodplain region west of downtown from eyesore to urban park.
Despite the mayor’s optimism for the future of the region, the project’s history isn’t exactly inspiring. Although work technically started more than 10 years ago, the only visible signs of progress are the white peaks of the Calatrava-designed Margaret Hunt Hill and Margaret McDermott Bridges crossing the river. Still, the next time you drive over one of these shiny new spans, remind yourself that things could be much, much worse.
The City of Dallas mostly replaced electric streetcars with buses as the primary mode of urban public transportation in 1956, but in the first half of the century, the streetcar was the thoroughfare for the common man. Traveling from Oak Cliff to Downtown required crossing the Trinity, and there was only one way to do that — the Trinity River Viaduct.
Constructed in its earliest form around the 1890s, the viaduct was a single-track wooden trestle across the river that was as frightening to cross as you might imagine, if not a little worse. More wooden roller coaster than bridge, this rickety span wasn’t even built with side barriers, relying only on gravity to keep the cars on track. This meant that as a streetcar trundled across the structure, riders could look down — way, way down — all the way to the river below. Your daily commute has nothing on this.
"Dallas Consolidated Electric Street Railway Co. Ad – 1902." This rather rudimentary drawing accompanied an ad for one of the city's streetcar companies. "Why bother with a horse and buggy, when by our Transfer System we will carry you to all the principal parts of the city for one fare." Mass transit, 1902-style. See the full ad at FlashbackDallas.com (link in profile).
To make matters worse, the viaduct had only one track, meaning streetcars had to rely on a signaling system to avoid accidents between cars bound in opposite directions. But even that didn’t always work — a mishap in 1929 resulted in a head-on collision between three cars, injuring 27 people and stranding them atop the trestle during morning rush hour.
Perhaps as a result of the accident, a two-track viaduct was built in 1931. But the adventures weren’t over — intoxicated motorists frequently attempted to drive their cars across the rail bridge, with predictable results.
The viaduct was dismantled in 1956, as Dallas made the switch to city buses. By that time, the span was mostly composed of concrete, probably a welcome change from the wooden contraption of old. Only the pillars of the bridge were saved, used to construct what is now the Jefferson Boulevard Viaduct.
Sure, progress on the Trinity River Project is slow as molasses, but at least we don’t have to trust a wooden bridge with our lives. Still, riding a streetcar across the viaduct sounds thrilling, to say the least. I’d probably like to give it a try — once.