Lightness and Darkness on the Trinity

Robert Trammell

Cold Water, Levees, Holy Men, Ancient Hearths,
Jack Ruby, Stone Heads and Salons on the Trinity

Is Dallas still the world’s largest inland city? There may be a reason why
we are. Dryness is as much a part of our tradition, of our mythology as is
wetness. We need the Trinity and its waters to moisten our dry souls.

In recent years when we have thought about the Trinity River in Dallas it
has been more about how we can use it than what we can learn from it. Could
that be why we have so few Trinity River songs although the great Oak Cliff
bluesman T-Bone Walker did write Trinity River Blues. After the great flood
of 1908 city planner George Kessler proposed levees to straighten out and
control the winding, flooding river. Civic leader George Dealey liked the
idea because he owned the land down there on the river so he conspired with
John Stemmons to get the levees built. It is the way of Dallas. It is often
hard to tell whether what is being done is for civic good or just another way
to make money. Anyway the levees got finished by 1932 and some people made a
lot of money from it. At least the river wasn’t covered over as have been so
many of the streams here have, like so much of our history has. What we need
now is to listen to our wounded river, to hear its stories. We have had
enough engineering studies.

And we need songs like Woody Guthrie’s great Roll On Columbia. I am also
reminded of the work that another singer did to help clean up the Hudson
River in New York. Pete Seeger spent years sailing up and down that polluted
river in his sloop, stopping at ports and singing songs of the river. He
helped keep attention focused on the Hudson and it is now a much cleaner
river.

Gail Thomas has asked us to focus today more on image than idea. With
that in mind here a few images for you.

Before It Was The Trinity

Several years ago archeologists found the remains of an ancient hearth on the
Trinity up near Louisville and dated it to around 37,000 to 38,000 old. A
hearth, a fireplace, where men and women and children gathered for warmth,
food, arrow making and likely to tell stories. Some of the stories must have
been about the river that flowed nearby. In the presence of Hestia or
whatever they called their goddess of the hearth, community formed, a
community on the river 30,000 years ago.1

So let’s go down
To the river to tell stories.
Here’s one.

On a terrace of the Trinity down near Malakoff in Henderson County a mystery
in Texas archeology began in 1929 when the first of three apparently carved
stone heads was found deeply buried in a gravel deposit by quarry workers.
In the 1930s Dr E.H. Sellards dated them to the Eocene, to 50 to 100,000
years old.

Malakoff Man

Down in the oldest
part of the bed, they found the heads.
One smiles.
One frowns.
One solves the problem.
They would hunt
elephants, giant
Elephas columbi,
out on the Staked Plains,
on the Llano Estacado.
They hunted elephants
all the way
from Abilene to where
the Pedernales crosses
the Balcones Escarpment. They found the heads
to the east in lush
ferntime in orchids.
They sang.
Museums said & repeated
it those heads
are the most exotic relics ever found in northamerica
In the photograph
Dr. E.H. Sellards
stands in the pit
with two heads:
one large
& round. The smaller one looks up into the sky.
Dr Sellards
stares into the camera
& takes his hat
off. 2
* * * *
So take me to the river
And wash me down.
Take me to the river
And show me what was there
Before Dallas, before Indians.
What was the river
Before it was confined
And Straightened out
Between levees?
And while the river is silent
The river has forests
With flocks of birds
Of cedar wax-wings singing
Of grackles in trees gurgling
Of cardinals and crows
And finches flitting
And hawks screaming in flight.
And great catfish wait on the bed of the river.

So let’s go down to the river
Down to where we started
In the blood
Let’s go down to the river
To gather
And listen and to tell our stories
And to listen in the river’s silence.

In the Early 1850s On the River with Madame Considerant

Despite her physical labors during the day Julie Considerant, wife of Victor
Considerant, founder of the utopian community in Dallas, La Reunion,
attempted to enhance the cultural and intellectual atmosphere at the commune.
Not far from the housing complex, along the banks of the Trinity River, she
found a clump of old cedar trees that formed a pleasant and secluded shelter
from the hot sun. Under these cedars, on the rough frontier, Madame
Considerant established a salon, and there she received all the colonists who
wished to get away in the evenings and enjoy exchanging ideas and
pleasantries. Kalikst Wolski, a Polish emigrant at the colony wrote in her
diary: “In her cedar salon the floor was covered with a rug of natural
green, for here the grass was always fresh, as it was shaded from the sun’s
burning heat. Above were the branches of trees spreading wide, their thick,
broad leaves refreshed from time to time with benevolent dew. As a ceiling
we had the clear, ever pleasant vault of heaven. The moon-or millions of
glittering stars what shone so brilliantly-took the place of a lamp. In
place of the tones of a piano, we had the pleasant twittering and harmonious
singing of masses of birds which had chosen the place as their headquarters;
and instead of chairs, hammocks were hung from tree to tree, or there were
nets of thick twine on which, rocking slowly back and forth, one could be
free from the unpleasant visits of snakes, always crawling in uncounted
numbers everywhere…often these gatherings lasted to a late hour, even until
one or two in the morning, in the salon of that cedar grove were
extraordinarily captivating and often highly erudite conversations, though
more often the talk was of a light and witty nature, with anecdotes exchanged
back and forth. 3

The Levees

“A blot on the landscape near the heart of Dallas will be removed, and a
great industrial development will gradually follow. Not only this, but near
the heart of our splendid city there will be developed a park containing
hundreds of acres, with a clear channel in the middle of it -a park equal in
width to ten city blocks and miles long,” spoke George B. Dealey at the
groundbreaking for the Trinity levee work in 1928. 4 And nothing came to
symbolize Dallas more than those levees (until Oswald shot Kennedy) and how
they were built, what was sold and what the city got and what the river got.
Not parks but an Industrial District but down there on the dry side of the
levees a world formed of working-class people at places like the Longhorn
Ballroom, the Bridgeport Club, the Sportatorium, Guthries and all those clubs
where men could go after working in the industries to relax and drink and be
entertained. I’ve heard the old Bridgeport Club building still stands and on
the end of Lamar there is an occasional flea market where working class folk
gather.

And the city got Jack Ruby who speaks of a time when he was recently in town
from Chicago, “I was running the concessions at the Longhorn Ballroom for
Dewey Grooms, selling beer and setups to all those thirsty Country music fans
from dry Oak Cliff come pouring from their homes over the river to drink, to
listen to Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Hank Thompson. Down in Trinity River
Bottoms they’d come to the Longhorn and to the Big D to hear Groovy Joe
Poovy, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis. They’d come to the neon honkytonks. You
could just about always smell the shit-filled river down there. Man, if there
was a big rain you could feel it swelling like it might burst out of its
banks, up and over the levee to rage down Industial Boulevard. If it kept
raining on a Saturday night and the waters got over the levee half the
working men in Dallas could be swept away. Down here was the real cultural
life of the city and I wanted to be a part of it.” 5

Dark Water, Heavy Water, Silent River

The first thing I knew of the Trinity was its smell, full of dead things,
parts of animals, chemicals. And that it separated me from my mother when I
was seven and away in Oak Cliff with my sister in an orphanage and she was in
Lakewood with her boyfriends. We knew there was a river down there in that
wasteland between Oak Cliff and the rest of the city but could not see or
hear it just smell it and somehow it always smelled worse to me when we were
returning to Oak Cliff than when we were leaving it.

So cry me a river
Of tears and fill it with rotting bodies.
And the river is silent
And the river makes no sound.

Something In The River

A few years ago there was an article in the Dallas Morning News about a
headless body of something found in the Trinity. At first it was thought to
be a man but it wasn’t. And it wasn’t a horse or big dog. Finally it was
determined that it was the body of a kangaroo. The head was never found and
no explanation ever given for how it got there.

The Clear River and The Muddy River

In 1849 a cordon of eight forts was ordered erected in Texas beyond the
line of settlement, and it was to be garrisoned by troops of the United
States army. General Worth was put in charge. The eastern end of the cordon
was established with a fort on the Brazos and the next location was to be at
the confluence of the Clear and West forks of the Trinity. It would be Camp
Worth which would become Fort Worth. The country around it was beautiful and
bountiful. The soldiers found all they needed within a short distance. Near
the camp gushing from the south bank of the river was cold water which never
lost its coolness under the shade of big, old oaks and giant pecan trees.
Through all seasons the supply of cold water never failed even in the hottest
part of summer when the streams of the Clear and West were no more than
stagnate pools. This spring provided drinking water for years to the
settlers before they had their wells dug. Later still, it became a spot for
picnics and Fourth of July celebrations. The cool water flowed until the
late 40s when it dried up because the big trees that had shaded it had been
cut down. A faint bubbly trickle was all that was left. Now all is gone
except a road and a bridge named Cold Springs.

In conclusion I would like to mention a great occurrence that is
happening now at a place where three other rivers come together. In India at
Allahabad the Kumbh Mela, the Pitcher, celebration is underway. This happens
every twelve years at the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mystical
Saraswati rivers when Jupiter enters Aquarius and the Sun enters Aries. This
planetary position is said to medicate and turn the greatly polluted waters
into nectar. Thirty million people, the greatest number ever to come
together for one thing, have arrived to celebrate by bathing in the soul
purifying waters of the Ganges. The event is organized by the government and
is an occasion which harmonizes the Indian culture, spirit, and thought. It
symbolizes the integrity and oneness of the country in spite of its different
cultures and faiths. Folk theater groups stage scenes from Hindu texts.
There are grand parades and thousands of holy men, saddaus, come from their
caves and quiet places to join with the others. And these holy men are naked
and painted and fierce. They enter the purifying waters with political
leaders and common folk.

I would like to imagine such an event in Dallas where the preachers and
priests and rabbis would march through the streets naked and painted. And
the mayor and councilmen would enter the Trinity waters with the folk. For
this to happen the waters would have to be cleaned up or their would have to
be some kind of powerful magic. Well that probably is not going to happen
but we can enter the river in other ways. We can go to it and sing and tell
stories like Madame Considerant did. We can reclaim the river in this way.
So before we build a lot of bridges to fly above the river I suggest we go to
the waters and listen.


1. From The Handbook of Texas Online. However, we would like to point out a
very interesting excavation just north of the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolis.
For along the Trinity River is the site of a number of HEARTHS where charcoal
was discovered and radiocarbon dated in the sixties (9). These dates were
37,000 and 38,000 years B.P. and reported as “greater than —- B.P.” by
Humble Oil Co. and UCLA.
“Near Lewisville, Texas, twenty miles northwest of Dallas,” Goodman writes in
American Genesis, “nineteen hearths were uncovered as a result of
earth-moving operations. A chopper tool, a stone hammer, stone flakes, a
Clovis point, and burned bones of big and small game animals were found
within the hearths. Snail and mussel shells and hackberry seeds showed that
red meat was not the only thing on the menu. A burned bone which came from
the same hearth as the Clovis point was submitted to the Humble Oil Company
Laboratory for radiocarbon dating. An age of at least 37,000 years was
indicated. This dating was confirmed by a UCLA radiocarbon date on hearth
charcoal of at least 38,000 years.”

2. From The Handbook of Texas Online. MALAKOFF MAN (Malakoff Heads, Malakoff
Site, 41He60). On a terrace of the Trinity River near Malakoff in Henderson
County, a mystery in Texas archeology began in the 1930s. In 1929 the first
of three apparently carved stone heads was claimed to have been found deeply
buried in a gravel deposit near Malakoff by quarry workers. Head number one
was inspected by the geologist Elias H. Sellards, who believed it to be
authentic. Head number two, reported in 1935, inspired Glen Evans of the
University of Texas to undertake excavations with the hope of finding more
such artifacts in place. In November 1939 head number three was found in situ
by the UT-WPA excavation team. Since then, no other heads or related material
have been located in the area despite intensive archeological surveys of the
vicinity. Several similar finds, however, have been reported from other parts
of Texas and northern Mexico. In general, though, the other finds appear to
be relatively recently carved.

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