The great Trinity River flood of 1908

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May of 1908 was rainy from Montana to Mexico. Floods had hit Kansas and Oklahoma that spring, and the Trinity River flooded in April.

But that was just a prelude. It rained 15 inches on May 25, 1908. And the next day, the river crested at 52.6 feet, which remains the record.

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The flood killed five people and left 5,000 people homeless (out of a total population around 90,000). The total cost of the destruction reached about $2.5 million (which would be almost $65 million in today’s dollars).

In West Dallas, “…scores of families with scarcely more than their night clothing upon their bodies perched upon the roofs of their submerged houses, patiently waiting through the long hours of Monday morning for rescuing parties,” a newspaper reported at the time. From the rooftops, they could see looters at the edges of the floodwater stealing their “pigs, chickens, ducks and pet dogs.”

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Most of the city was without power and water. Sewers were overflowing. Fires broke out. Trains couldn’t run. West Dallas, Downtown and the McKinney Avenue area were under water for days. But in West Dallas, the destruction and devastation to one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods was overwhelming.

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A newspaper reporter surveying the damage two days later drove a buggy from Oak Cliff and wrote that the shoreline reached the bottom of the Beckley hill, probably near where Greenbriar is today.

…the roads leading to the river show wrecked and ruined store buildings and homes in which the water is swashing four feet deep … leaving acres upon acres of yellow mud deposit. Scattered rags of clothing are hanging upon broken wire fences. Clocks, furniture of all sorts, children’s toys and all manner of home effects are lying in the mud. Overturned outhouses, shattered stables and careening buildings are on every hand, some washed into an unfamiliar lodging place. Further out into the river are more roofs, generally twisted  out of alignment or sloping crazily toward the retiring water. There are not a great many of them, but with the mud-covered wrecks closer in are what is left of the lower part of West Dallas.

The magnitude of the flood brought to light how poorly planned the city was.

Three years later, the city adopted a master plan known as the Kessler Plan, some of which was implemented over the following 10 years, to include levees, street improvements and rail facilities. The original east and west levees were built in 1928.

Major floods in 1989 and ’90 (also in April and May) destroyed 200 homes in South Dallas and Oak Cliff, causing about $30 million in damages, before the Rochester Levee was built.

Those are just the worst floods heavy rains in the Trinity have caused over the past 100 years or so. Dallas has a long history of floods, and we shouldn’t forget that.

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  • alexander troup

    You know what the Flood was good for Dallas they had to do something about it and they did by 1932 the river was moved over and things did work out….great Story Ms Stone…

  • Martha McSweeney

    My grandmother, who was anout 14 and lived in South Dallas at the time, told the story of how her mom walked all the kids down to Lamar to see the flood. As they watched the chicken coops and out houses float by they saw a matress with a baby in the middle float by. She didn’t say if it was rescued but Im sure it would have been.

  • alexandertroup

    And you forgot the man who then made the city get with the program in its removal and change of the channel, C.W. Heppner a West Dallas German carpenter, who also helped in the building of the Sons Of Herman on Elm street, got the Feds to move the river with the Help of the Dallas Morning News….Heppner is buried in the Old Oak Cliff Cemetery over off 8th and the Freeway….the flood was a way of saying too Dallas build roads, the river is just a creek…..Alexander Troup.