Bud Kennedy

From ditch to $1 billion dream: How Fort Worth learned to love a river

Fifty years ago, the Trinity River was ugly and unloved.

“Used tires, trash — it was just a bunch of junk,” said Suzy Williams, one of the volunteers in 1973 for the city's first festival on the river, returning this week as the 45th annual Mayfest.

A master plan first hatched in 1968 has led to 40 miles of hiking and biking trails, riverfront restaurants, concerts, events and a newfound affection for the West Fork and Clear Fork.

On Saturday of Mayfest weekend, a $250 million proposal will go to the voters to expedite more cleanup and speed a planned new floodway around Panther Island downtown.

“The first time the idea of a river festival came up, everybody said, 'You've got to be kidding,' ” said Louise Appleman, co-chairwoman then as a member of the Junior League of Fort Worth. (She is now president of the Tarrant County College trustees.)

“It was just a big old ditch.”

Appleman and Williams were amazed last week to see a video archive find: WFAA/Channel 8 newsfilm of the very first river festival in 1973.

At the opening ceremony, U.S. Rep. Jim Wright and Mayor R.M. “Sharkey” Stovall introduced the festival and kissed an unidentified clown.

The newsfilm is part of a newly opened jackpot of local history: the WFAA files in Southern Methodist University's Jones Film & Video Collection, including almost all the film shot for 1960s and 1970s newscasts.

The 1973 video shows a simple event in a simpler time: a horse-drawn hayride, pedal-boat races, sack races and ring toss.

A girls' chorus sang “Carry On” and “ New World Coming.” The University of North Texas 1 O'Clock Lab Band played “Fanfare for the Common Man” (Aaron Copland), and a fiddler looked a little confused performing behind a rock guitarist.

Williams led the entertainment committee with help from then-KFJZ/1270 AM disk jockey Lee Randall.

“Everybody was just wonderful to us,” Williams said.

She remembered the words of the original event chair, the late Phyllis J. Tilley, namesake of a pedestrian bridge near Lancaster Avenue: “It was Phyllis who always said, 'Isn't this ugly? Let's do something about it.' ”

The work to beautify the river had begun in 1968 with a plan by San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. Local philanthropists organized Streams & Valleys Inc., the nonprofit group that helps the Tarrant Regional Water District fund riverbank improvements and the Trinity Trails.

One of the first improvements was a series of low-water dams to maintain the river level through Trinity Park.

“In my mind,” historian Quentin McGown wrote by email, “it wasn't until we had water to look at that anyone could entertain the thought of embracing the river as the amenity it has become.”

He described the old river as a “giant drainage ditch” filled with tires, auto parts and garbage. (A 1950s floodway project had stripped out the riverbank trees after a deadly 1949 flood.)

In the 1970s, no company would have chosen “Trinity River” as a brand name. (Even the festival became Mayfest after beginning as the Trinity River Festival.)

The bond election remains controversial, partly because the project's total pricetag has grown past $1.1 billion. Supporters defend it as better than simply bulking up bigger and higher river levees, while opponents say the water improvement district is not transparent with voters and that the cost is starting to outweigh the economic benefit of a redesigned river and island.

But either way, the Trinity's reputation has improved so much that the regional public transit agency serving Fort Worth recently changed its name from “The T” to Trinity Metro.

“We asked informally, and everybody saw a good future for 'Trinity,' ” said Jennifer Henderson of Fort Worth-based J.O. Design, which helped Trinity Metro pick the name.

“It's becoming a hub for Fort Worth.”

As a child, her parents warned her: “Don't get in the water! There's fish with three heads!”

“Now millennials really take pride in boating and flipping innertubes,” she said. “It's making Fort Worth a riverfront city.”

That might take another 50 years.

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