Friday, October 31, 2008

The Great Dallas Flood of 1908

Like Chicago or San Francisco, Dallas was remade by disaster. The Great Flood of May 26, 1908 was the town's largest natural catastrophe. It was not nearly as deadly as San Francisco's earthquake or as destructive as Chicago's fire and is far less known than either, but it had much the same effect on the city's history. The flood served to end arguments that had been stirring for a decade over how to turn a sprawling boomtown into a modern metropolis. The result was the so-called Kessler Plan.

"It was the beginning of when people started looking at the city as a real object rather than a collection of individuals trying to make a living," Dr. Robert Fairbanks, professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington, said of the Kessler Plan. "For the first time, Dallas became more than about just attracting jobs or attracting industry. People thought about the city as a whole."

The ideas of George Kessler form a major part of Dallas to this day. The Trinity River levee system built decades later opened up sections of the upriver floodplain for commercial use, resulting in the Stemmons Corridor, one of the region's principal economic engines. His proposal for a "great thoroughfare" became what is now Central Expressway, which in turn spurred growth in towns almost as close to the Red River as to the Trinity.

Other ideas, though less sweeping, are part of the city's identity, Union Station, Ferris Plaza, White Rock Lake Park, Turtle Creek Boulevard and, if we all live long enough, the Trinity River Corridor Project. In 1908, however, the flood's most immediate effect was to dampen local celebrations of the first nationwide commemoration of Mother's Day.

That Sunday morning, May 24, dawned rainy. Over the course of the day, 15 inches fell on the city, according to After the Deluge, the Impact of the Trinity River Flood of 1908, by Dallas writer Jackie McElhaney. Such a torrent would have overwhelmed the Trinity's channel in any case, but the downpour came at the worst possible time. For three previous days, counties upriver had sustained cloudbursts, and the watershed around Dallas was still sodden from a major flood a month earlier.

On May 26, the river crested at 52.6 feet, a record that still stands. Only a handful of people were killed (accounts vary, but historian Darwin Payne, author of Big D, settles on five). Four thousand people were left homeless, and property damage was estimated at $2.5 million, about $55 million today. But its most lasting effect was to demonstrate how poorly the city had been built.

The waterworks and electric plants were in areas that proved to be vulnerable to flooding, leaving the city without basic utilities. Telephone and telegraph lines went down. Rail lines were washed out. Every bridge near downtown was swept away, isolating the business district from the newly annexed neighborhood of Oak Cliff.

"Dallas wasn't prepared because no one in Dallas thought to be prepared," Ms. McElhaney said. "The growth of the city had been very haphazard. It just grew wherever it grew."

One aspect of the flood's timing was fortunate, it occurred during the Progressive Era, when local leaders across the country were rethinking how their cities were governed and structured. A beautification movement was trying to soften the raw industrial look of the 19th century. In Dallas, a group of city leaders led by Dallas Morning News publisher George Bannerman Dealey had four years before hired Mr. Kessler, one of the nation's leading planners, to design Fair Park. In 1910, on the second anniversary of the flood, he was hired again, this time to bring order to the entire city.

The German-born Kessler had lived in Dallas as a boy, but studied landscape design in Europe. In 1904, the same year he designed Fair Park, he was appointed landscape architect for the St. Louis World's Fair, according to Dr. Fairbanks' book For the City as a Whole: Planning, Politics and the Public Interest in Dallas, Texas. City leaders were punching above their weight. Most municipal planning was in much larger metropolitan areas such as New York, Dr. Fairbanks said. Dallas in 1910 had a population of 92,000.

"Dallas desperately wanted to be seen as a progressive city. Planning was very much the in thing of that day, and planning was almost a booster thing," she said. "Dallas got a lot of favorable publicity nationally out of the Kessler Plan."

Published in 1912 and refined over the years, the Kessler Plan called for rechanneling the Trinity a mile from downtown and building a levee system to contain future floods. But it went much further than solving flood problems. It sought to consolidate a rail system that was choking downtown and advocated straightening and standardizing the city's often chaotic streets. The plan also recommended a system of parks, boulevards and playgrounds.

To Mr. Kessler's frustration, much of his plan was incompletely executed or never implemented at all. His plan to turn Dallas into an inland port came to nothing, although it was still actively discussed as late as the 1970s. His vision of a "great thoroughfare" linking what was then known as the Highland Park Addition to the city's southern precincts was only partly realized.

The northern part was built and eventually became Central Expressway. But a land dispute with the railroad companies blocked construction to the south. Decades later, the street that he intended to knit the city together carried commuters ever farther from the city's southern neighborhoods. Not all results were so divisive. Even before floodwaters receded, and independent of the Kessler Plan, business leaders proposed a flood-proof "Great Causeway" linking downtown and Oak Cliff.

The bridge was built in only 17 months, in part because the Great Flood of 1908 preceded a long dry spell. Not a single day of construction was lost because of rain, according to Ms. McElhaney's article in Legacies magazine. At 5,480 feet, what is now known as the Houston Street Viaduct was the longest concrete structure in the world. The bridge guaranteed that flooding would never again disrupt commerce between the two sides of the river. It also had the effect of binding the older neighborhoods of Dallas with the formerly independent city of Oak Cliff, which had been annexed less than five years before the flood.

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