The River of the Arms of God has never been tamed, said Dr. Kenna Archer.
In her speech Tuesday to an audience of more than 100 professors, students and Wacoans in Bennett Auditorium, Archer described Texas’ relationship to the Brazos River as a battle between man and nature, a battle that Texans have historically lost.
“The reality is that politicians and boosters and mothers and laborers and engineers never quite achieved the control over the river that they sought,” she said.
Archer, an Angelo State University Instructor and Baylor graduate said that, from the first month of Steven F. Austin’s settlement of Texas to the present, Texans near the Brazos River desired to the river run in a way that would be favorable for city planning and economic development.
However, she made clear that the unpredictable, fluctuating nature of the Brazos has made development problematic in the best of times and impossible at the worst.
“Most of the projects were, at best, temporary. In fact, the average person advocating improvements of this river never lived to see a successful project completed,” Archer said.
To illustrate the enormity of the attempts to control the Brazos, she showed a list of 21 proposed projects from 1850 to the 1970’s.
The list included jetties, canals, ports, a dredging project, a locking dam, a thirteen-dam project and a project that would divert water to or from East Texas, Canada, or the Mojave Desert. One project even involved nuclear technology.
“You look at this and you think ‘This is ridiculous. What were these people thinking?’ Well they were thinking that they needed to tame their river,” Archer said.
The floods and droughts that came from the Brazos’ sudden changes were prevalent and just as destructive. During the lecture, she read aloud letters from the Texas Collection describing the harsh conditions of the droughts showed photos from Waco’s past of Brazos waters reaching the base of local suspension bridges.
She placed emphasis on an undated black-and-white photo of Wacoans paddling a boat down a completely flooded Elm St. in downtown Waco. That was Waco’s high ground.
Archer also showed a 1989 photo of a flood that reached the edge of the Baylor bookstore. She said that cars were washed away by the waters and noted that it took place after all of the modern dams were built for the Brazos.
“Development, it is never complete,” Archer said. “As much as we want to say that we have control over this river, we don’t. The best way to prove that is to say that we have control, because the Brazos will act up, just to show you who’s boss.”
However, she ended her speech with a much more optimistic note, saying that it is the optimism and tenacity of the Texans living along the river that matched its strength.
Those along the Brazos, she said, have always fought and still fight to make the Brazos a force for economic prosperity, because of the promise of a better future.
“The capricious, tempestuous, annoying, little-brother-like waters of this river, as damaging as they may have been, were just matched by the tenacity of the people,” Archer said. “The people that lived in Waco and the people who lived along the river never gave up. We have to rethink ourselves and the way that we are defining development.”
Archer ended her speech that was both a challenge and warning to the current residents of Waco.
“Time passes, politicians retire, and we continue to face many of the same problems along the Brazos river,” Archer said.
In the question and answer session, Archer said she believed that Waco, now more developed along the edge of the river, would be less prepared for a Brazos-related catastrophe than its ancestors.
Soon after she said this, Bill Hair, W.R. Poage library’s associate professor of archival management, asked her, “So I was thinking of building a football stadium on the east side. How does that sound?” eliciting immediate laughter from the audience.
She smiled and said she was a Baylor season ticket holder wondering the same. Archer said she hoped that those building the stadium would have taken that account.
Among the members of the audience was Helen Marie Taylor, the founder of Waco’s Helen Marie Taylor Museum.
After the speech, she told Archer, “I think it’s a fascinating story that you’ve got,” before discussing the some of the finer points Waco history with her.
Archer based her speech on her upcoming book called, “There Ain’t Any Brazos River Problem: An Environmental History of Unruly Waters and Undbending Peoples.” She wrote it after a decade of research at Baylor’s Texas Collection. The book is currently awaiting publication.