The bridge is nearly 100 years old now.
For a century, Houston Street Viaduct has been a vital link for Dallas
08:08 AM CDT on Monday, October 25, 2010
By ROY APPLETON / The Dallas Morning News
The raging Trinity had killed and destroyed. Rising more than 50 feet, the river had swept away or swamped all bridges, leaving Dallas a divided city in late May 1908.
Boats were Oak Cliff's only link to downtown when concerned residents met at the Lake Cliff Casino to talk about "procuring better means of going to and coming from this city," reported The Dallas Morning News.
"It has been suggested by some of those interested that a steel viaduct should be constructed from the foot of Houston street to a point high upon the hill which ends at Lancaster road" in Oak Cliff, the paper continued.
In August 1909, Dallas County voters overwhelmingly approved, despite some public opposition, a $600,000 bond issue to build what would become the city's first all-weather, ideally flood-proof bridge across the Trinity floodplain.
And a century ago this week, work began on the Dallas-Oak Cliff Viaduct, a project hailed at the time as the world's longest bridge of its kind – just what an up-and-coming city needed to show its mettle.
Completed in less than 16 months, the crossing opened with ceremonial splendor. "Monster Viaduct Open to Traffic," announced The News, headlining a report on the day's speeches, banquet, parade and 16 pigeon-bearing maids.
Through the years, what came to be called the Houston Street Viaduct has been a landmark, a gateway, a prime vantage point for viewing the Dallas skyline.
It has also done its job for the city's transportation system – a role that may expand.
The bridge's 44-foot-wide roadway originally included space for two sets of track for Interurban trains. The rails were never laid, but the bridge is now the preferred river crossing for a proposed streetcar line linking downtown and Oak Cliff.
A recent examination of the bridge found problems needing repair but no significant structural flaws. A federal grant has been committed to the project. And planners hope to begin service between Union Station and Methodist Dallas Medical Center by 2014.
Today, the bridge bears traffic one way from downtown to Oak Cliff, as it has since 1973 when the Jefferson Boulevard Viaduct opened and took half its load. For the occasional walkers and joggers, it's still a two-way route.
With 15 other roadways spanning the Trinity in Dallas, and another one – the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge – on the way, the Houston Street Viaduct may not carry the load it once did. But in style and substance it remains a standout.
Designed by Ira G. Hedrick of Kansas City, Mo., the bridge is composed of piers supporting trestles, river-spanning girders and 51 arches. All are made of reinforced concrete – mixed, according to one account, with raw sewage from the Trinity because a drought had dried up other sources of water.
The News, a project supporter, kept close tabs on the work. And on the bridge's opening day, the paper reported the project had consumed 75,000 barrels of cement, 60,000 cubic yards of gravel, 7,000 cubic yards of rock and 1,787 tons of steel bars.
The bridge's central span stood 90 feet above the river channel to allow passage of ocean-going boats. Reports of its length range from 5,106 feet to 6,562 feet, depending perhaps on the points of measurement. Reports of its cost vary as well: from $570,000 to $775,000.
Whatever the numbers, the work "marked an important victory by Dallas in its long struggle with the Trinity River," says a report in the Historic American Engineering Record.
It was also a monumental selling point and proving ground for the city's forward-looking leaders, said local writer Jackie McElhaney.
"It reflected the attitude of the people of Dallas," she said. "They were boosters. They were trying to advertise Dallas as a 20th century city. It was an example of what Dallas could do."
Aesthetically speaking, Willis Winters, an architecture historian, said he has long admired the viaduct.
"I like the rhythm of the arches. I like the poured-in-place concrete," said the city's assistant director of parks and recreation. "It's well-proportioned. It was a perfect engineering solution.
"It's the best bridge built in Dallas," he said, adding that honor, to his thinking, will go to the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, scheduled to open next year.
The Santiago Calatrava-designed span – with its 40-story arch, cable supports and bed of steel – is a remarkable departure from what Hedrick had in mind 100 years ago.
Beyond the mundane flow of cars and trucks, the Houston Street bridge has been the scene of many a fatal wreck and traffic jam. It has had its floods and wear and repairs – its leapers and squatters below.
The bridge has been the subject of postcards over the years presenting welcoming views of a well-lit city and its river. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
All of that was years in the future when, as The News put it, a "seething, joyous, color-bedecked mass of humanity" gathered on Feb. 22, 1912, to open the "great structure."
The paper told of the two-mile, hour-long parade of horse-drawn buggies, carriages and mighty motor-powered vehicles through downtown and across the bridge.
It told of the guns booming from a river bank, of the children standing and singing "America," and of the birds.
Bowing to concerns of the Dallas Mothers Council, the Dallas Woman's Forum and others, ceremony organizers agreed to dedicate the bridge with homing pigeons instead of wine.
Kicking off the festivities, Louise Murphy stood by the 16 maids of honor and said:
"My dear bird, I liberate you to carry throughout Texas to your home a message of love and greeting, bearing on your wings the word that the great viaduct is completed."
Each girl then kissed her charge goodbye and let it fly.
HOUSTON STREET VIADUCT FACTS
• Voters approved a $600,000 bond issue to build the bridge in August 1909.
• It was designed by Ira G. Hedrick of Kansas City, Mo.
• Construction began 100 years ago this week.
• Construction included 75,000 barrels of cement, 60,000 cubic yards of gravel, 7,000 cubic yards of rock and 1,787 tons of steel bars.
• The bridge's central span stood 90 feet above the river channel.
• The bridge opened with a parade and ceremony on Feb. 22, 1912.
• It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
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