Wrecking crews have descended to the flat ground between the Trinity River’s levees to destroy a structure that helped build this city. They will use a crane, for sure; bulldozers, possibly, to snatch from the soft ground 1,000 feet of wood planted to carry trains over the river. It will take no more than four or five months to erase a century’s worth of history.
By summer, if all goes to plan, the remains of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad bridge — that vast wooden structure between the levees, made of crisscrossed timber that still smells of creosote on a hot summer’s day — will be erased from the Dallas Floodway. In its place will be a blanket of grass, an empty space.
Which is as it should be, of course. The train trestle’s removal has long been deemed necessary and inevitable by the federal government and city officials, who have said in long meetings and thick documents that its continued existence is a danger — “one of the most notable impediments to Trinity River flow,” according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
But just because that trestle must go does not mean we cannot, or should not, lament its demise.
“Because when it is gone, we’re not going to have it to remind us of how Dallas evolved,” preservationist architect Marcel Quimby told me this week. I called her because she is an expert on the subject, having written an invaluable history of the trestle in 2005 now stored in Dallas City Hall’s basement in the municipal archives.
In that seven-page lesson, she wrote of the arrival of the Houston & Texas Central Railroad in July 1872 — the first train to rumble across the river and through the nascent city. Fourteen years later, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe followed, building its bridge over the Trinity in the very spot the trestle still stands.
It would be rebuilt and raised several times, most notably after the 1908 flood, when the river swelled over 52 feet, drowned five, left thousands homeless and cut off Oak Cliff from Dallas. What remains between the levees now — the thousand-foot-long wooden structure on the downtown side of the river, the 600-foot-long concrete portion on the western shores — was likely planted in the 1920s, long before the completion of the levees in 1935.
The trestle, abandoned for good in the 1980s, is the oldest manufactured structure in the floodway. And both sides will have to be removed.