Much like the panther of the city’s namesake, the lazy yet majestic Trinity River languidly rounds each bend, slinking and mauling its way through every decade. It does so with the same purpose and unwavering resolve as the citizens inhabiting the city it feeds, at times crashing through barriers violently, justifying itself to no one. The Trinity is where we live, work and play. Through fruitfulness and flood, it has faithfully sustained us and continues to surge on, ensuring Fort Worth will always land on its feet.
Old photo of Trinity River with Tarrant County courthouse in background and scattered groups of people along both banks, no date [early 1900s] Photography by Jernigan. Courtesy, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection, Special Collections, The University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Arlington, Texas
Course in History
At 710 miles long, the Trinity is the longest river that flows exclusively in the state of Texas. Its four branches include the West Fork, Clear Fork, Elm Fork and East Fork.
The headwaters of the West Fork are in southern Archer County. It flows southeast 180 miles through Lake Bridgeport and Eagle Mountain Lake and then flows eastward through Lake Worth into the city of Fort Worth. Elm Fork flows south from eastern Montague County near Gainesville through Ray Roberts Lake and east of Denton to a confluence with the West Fork. Beginning north of Weatherford, the Clear Fork moves southeast through Lake Weatherford and Benbrook Lake. Flowing northeastward for 45 miles, it later merges the West Fork near downtown. The East Fork starts near McKinney in Grayson County and continues 78 miles through Lavon Lake and Lake Ray Hubbard before joining the Trinity just southeast of Dallas.
In its stage as a modest stream, the Trinity River was discovered by Robert Cavelier de La Salle in 1687 and given the moniker River of Canoes. Three years later and two days before the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, Alonso de Leòn renamed the river La Santisima Trinidad (the Most Holy Trinity).
In 1849, after the death of Maj. Gen. William Jenkins Worth, U.S. Army Maj. Ripley Arnold rode west to a spot near the confluence of the West and Clear Forks of the Trinity before planting a flag on the future site of Fort Worth.
Through time the Trinity hasn’t always had adequate water quality. During the 1800s, Dallas pumped water from the Trinity for its municipal water supply. When flows were low in the summer, water was noticeably contaminated, which led Dallas to discontinue direct use of main stem water.
Another water quality issue emerged after the turn of the century with the opening of two large slaughterhouses in Fort Worth. The Trinity became so polluted due to the waste from the slaughterhouses that it was dubbed the “River of Death” by the Texas Department of Health.
The old wire bridge on North Main St. over Trinity River north of the Tarrant County Courthouse, ca. late 1890s.
Much has changed since then with major developments such as the formation of the Texas Water Pollution Control Advisory Council and the Trinity River Authority in the 50s, the passing of the Texas Water Quality Act in the 60s and the Federal Clean Water Act in the 70s and the Texas Clean Rivers Act in 1991.
The Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) has provided quality water to Tarrant County residents for more than 80 years. In addition to operating four major reservoirs (Lake Bridgeport, Eagle Mountain Lake and the Cedar Creek and Richland-Chambers Reservoirs), the TRWD has also constructed a 2,000-acre wetland reuse project, 150 miles of water pipeline and 27 miles of floodway levees.
Woody Frossard, director of the Environmental Service Division at TRWD, has been with the district for 36 years. “We have a seasonal program for testing the water. In the winter when there is little activity, we will test the seven or eight locations quarterly. In times of higher activity, we test weekly. All of our sampling results are available to the public on our website. A map also shows all of the sampling points in the city. We are open and up front about the river water quality,” Frossard says.
Canoe enthusiasts float down the lazy river after periodic releases of water from Benbrook Dam help boost water four miles downstream on Trinity River, 8/8/71.
Major efforts have been made to control the amount of pollution in the river. The TRWD has an annual Trash Bash and Trash on Tuesdays program. “We’ve also instituted programs similar to Adopt a Highway where people can adopt a portion of the river,” Frossard says.
The Trinity River in Fort Worth meets all recreation standards set by the state. Frossard says, “It’s safe to swim in the water. It’s never been a concern except during flood events when it becomes a safety issue because the velocity is too high.”
A fish-stocking program makes it possible for local anglers to cast a line into the Trinity. “Probably more than anything, I personally enjoy fishing, especially fly fishing. The tubing events are a lot of fun. It’s a good way to connect with the community,” Frossard says.
Responsible for the implementation of the Trinity River Vision (TRV), the master plan for the Trinity River in Fort Worth, the Trinity River Vision Authority (TRVA) wishes to connect every neighborhood in the city to the Trinity River corridor while improving infrastructure and adding recreational amenities.
The master plan is underway and will enhance 88 miles of the river and its major tributaries that flow through Fort Worth. J.D. Granger, executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, says, “The Trinity River Vision project relies on a combination of local, state and federal funding. The total completion cost is $909 million with a projected completion date in 2024.”
Strong partnerships exist between the TRVA and the Tarrant Regional Water District, Streams and Valleys, Inc. and the City of Fort Worth in order to complete the plan.
Among the most major projects is an urban waterfront community planned for north of downtown. The project is known as Central City, but most of the public recognizes it by another name, Panther Island. A portion of the undertaking that is publicly funded will include flood protection, environmental cleanup and improvements to infrastructure, such as the addition of new bridges or enhancements to roads and trails. Once these areas have been addressed, the 800 acres connecting downtown, the Cultural District and the Stockyards will begin development.
Intelligent zoning will allow for sustainable central city growth including 3 million square feet of commercial space and 10,000 mixed-income households. At the heart of Panther Island will be a 33-acre lake encompassed by a large public boardwalk. Riverside corridors will be lined with dining and nightlife options, and residents can navigate from the future Stockyards Marina through downtown and into Trinity Park via water taxi, riverboat, gondola or kayak.
Another major component of the TRV is the revitalization of Gateway Park. In addition to providing numerous recreational amenities and restoring the park’s ecosystem, the project will provide flood storage and ensure the viability of the Central City flood control project. Park-goers can expect new soccer, baseball and softball fields, a disc golf course, covered basketball court, mountain bike course, outdoor amphitheater, expanded dog park, rowing center, in-ground skate park, playgrounds and picnic areas, splash park and 15 miles of new trails. “Upon completion it will be larger than Central Park in New York,” Granger says.
It’s become evident in the last few years that there has been a significant shift in how locals view the Trinity River. Panther Island Pavilion event attendance is a good indicator. “We’ve now got Rockin’ the River music series, Family Sunday Funday and the Fort Worth Fourth event, just to name a few. We are at full capacity for all of our summer events,” Granger says. “So much about this vision and plan is creating a true waterfront community that can be enjoyed by everyone.”
Water Under the Bridge
1849 Maj. Ripley Arnold declared the site for Fort Worth on bluffs overlooking the Trinity.
1908 Ten inches of rainfall in the upper Trinity basin causes the most devastating flood on the books. Eleven people were killed, and there was more than $5 million in damage.
1914 The first reinforced concrete arch bridge in the U.S. that used self-supporting steel was built over the Trinity River north of the courthouse.
1922 More than 3,000 acres were underwater due to the River’s flooding, killing 37 people and destroying many homes and businesses.
1949 Torrential downpours once again caused the River to flood, which put neighborhoods around downtown under 10 feet of water. Property damages were estimated at $15 million.
1957 Construction and strengthening of the River’s levees, funded by the Federal government, were completed. During this time, the Clear Fork and West Fork branches of the river were straightened to create a channel system.
1971 Local citizens banned together to form Streams and Valleys. The mission was the beautification and recreational development of the Trinity and its tributaries. Their early improvements included low-water dams that returned water back to the dry riverbed. Streams and Valleys invited Halprin and Associates to study the River, resulting in the Halprin Plan. This recommended low-level dams, multi-use trail systems, lighting, planting of thousands of trees and improving public spaces.
2002 Designed to provide scenic beauty, recreation, flood protection and accessibility, the Trinity River Master Plan was born.
2006 The Trinity River Vision Authority was created to manage and coordinate the Master Plan and established important partnerships with Streams and Valleys, the Tarrant Regional Water District, the City of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.
2014 Phase one of the project broke ground on three new v-pier Panther Island Bridges.
2024 Projected year of completion
Next >> Read River Dwellers: Fort Worth’s Trinity River Neighborhood Guide
Parks and Rec: Places to play on the Trinity River