A few weeks ago I was asked what would be the perfect evidence for my study of the Trinity River and I realized that I had already found it. This past summer after I gave a presentation on the Trinity in Polk County, several audience members shared stories about the river in addition to asking me questions about my research. One comment revealed a key theme of the river and people’s relationship to it. This person described how an old friend had once told him that “you can’t tame the Trinity!”
“You can’t tame the Trinity!" succinctly covers a widespread and long-running understanding of the Trinity held by many East Texans. They understood that neither they nor any outsiders, no matter their capital and expertise, could stop the river from flooding, shifting channels, or doing whatever else it wanted to do. Yet I also think this quote suggests the ways that East Texans understood the river as an allegory for their own lives: You can’t tame the Trinity or East Texas.
By the 1950s East Texas had endured a sustained decline in its agricultural economy that was not fully replaced by scattered oil derricks or a handful of industrial sites. This decline contrasted with a booming Dallas that sent its sewage and worse pollution downstream to East Texas, but this economic stagnation did not translate into a complete loss of political power. Neither the river nor the people died out or became wholly subservient to the rising power coming from the North. In 1973, when Polk County voters helped to defeat the Trinity River Authority’s plan for turning the Trinity into a shipping canal, they sent a message about themselves and their river.
Such evidence may be commonplace, indeed many other people have likely uttered the exact same words: “you can’ tame…” not only about the Trinity but a great number of other rivers as well. Though there are plenty of particulars about the Trinity and East Texas, that’s also the point–many people have long seen their own rivers and floodplains as ungovernable spaces that are best left alone and a significant number East Texans felt similarly about their own communities!