Oak Cliff woman gets historic designation in effort to save 175-year-old tree in west Dallas

With its gnarled, twisting branches, deep scars, and misshapen canopy, it’s not the most majestic of Dallas pecans.

But as an aging guardian of the Trinity River for 175 years, what an incredible story this pecan has witnessed, endured and miraculously survived.

The West Dallas Gateway Pecan Tree, at the southeast corner of Beckley Avenue and the Commerce Street Bridge, will finally get its due on Friday with official recognition from the Texas Historic Tree Coalition.

He is now listed in the state registry as a living legend.

Just steps from the Trinity Skyline Trail and Overlook Park, this veteran has lived through generations of river floods and roadworks only to now be locked in by exploding apartment building and threats from levee machinery.

Luckily for the pecan, another local force of nature stood up for it: neighborhood attorney Katherine Homan, an Oak Cliff resident whose tireless energy has never met a wrong she wasn’t. determined to fix.

Homan, chair of the board of the West Fort Worth Avenue Development Group, who sued the proclamation on behalf of the city, wants you to believe she’s been nothing more than the paper pusher in this crusade.

She credits self-taught urban historian and archaeologist Alexander Troup, whose research provided the necessary documentation.

Homan also mentions fellow Oak Cliff resident and planner Don Raines. Without its redesign of the Commerce-Beckley intersection, the West Dallas Gateway Pecan Tree would not be here to grace.

The 175-year-old West Dallas Gateway Pecan Tree is located on Beckley Avenue, just south of the Commerce Street Bridge.(Shafkat Anowar / personal photographer)

“It’s the anchor tree not just for Fort Worth Avenue, but for all of West Dallas, which has lost so much of its history,” Homan said.

The pecan served in its early days as a prominent landmark marking the route from downtown Dallas across the Trinity River to places south and west.

Buffalo hunters and cowboys driving cattle on the Shawnee Trail have used the tree to locate the nearby low water pass. When the first Commerce Street Bridge was built in 1855, the shaft was already high at its western end.

German immigrant Carl Wilhelm Heppner, who became an American citizen in 1889, moved to West Dallas before the turn of the century and purchased property that included the pecan tree.

He built a boathouse and three-story pier there in 1906 and operated a ferry service on the Trinity River, an inefficient but affordable way for west Dallas farmers to get their produce to the other side. to sell them.

Somewhat eccentric, Heppner also dredged the river bottom on these ferry crossings to scavenge items for his dump.

Heppner was nicknamed Noah of the Trinity after the massive flood of 1908 due to the many lives he saved and the livestock he rescued.

Many considered him the unofficial mayor of West Dallas because of his advocacy for channeling the river and building levees to protect both downtown and west Dallas.

Among Troup’s research on Heppner is a 1930 front page of the Dallas Times Herald captioned, “CW Heppner awaits the next flood in the modern ark. Signs on his boathouse explain how he would control the river.

Heppner died six years later; his boathouse was demolished to do the seawall work he had long advocated for.

Katherine Homan credits Don Raines, right, who is now a Dallas city planner, with coming...
Katherine Homan credits Don Raines, right, who is now a Dallas city planner, with developing an intersection plan that saved the pecan tree. Also pictured is Alexander Troup, whose research documented the tree’s history.(Shafkat Anowar / personal photographer)

As waves of Mexican immigrants followed the first Europeans west from Dallas, the front door pecan tree continued to hold its own – until about a dozen years ago. years, when he faced a severe death threat in the name of so-called progress.

Plans presented at a 2009 community meeting for the redesign of the Commerce-Beckley intersection, just east of the start of Fort Worth Avenue, met with enormous opposition from neighbors who wanted infrastructure suitable for pedestrians.

Amid the many loud criticisms, Homan recalls, a small voice asked an entirely different question: “Will the pecan tree be cut down? Isn’t that what this plan shows?

Homan didn’t know the woman who had come to the tree’s defense. But she quickly took on the cause of preservation.

Shortly after that community meeting, new planners came up with a design that took into account what the neighbors wanted and also tried to save the much-loved pecan.

The second proposal, overseen by Raines, now a senior planner at Dallas City Hall, did everything possible to avoid damaging the pecan’s roots, just 18 inches below the surface, and to keep the heavy machinery.

“Somehow they got this job done in such a way that the tree is still healthy,” Homan said.

As soon as the intersection was completed in 2019, Homan began to worry about the next round of work on the bridge or seawall and the tons of equipment that could crush the tree roots.

City arborist Phil Erwin told him the best next step was to get statehood proclamation through the Texas Historic Tree Coalition. Soon after, Homan said, fate led her to Troup thanks to an introduction by fellow community advocate Randall White.

Wreaths and religious icons are regularly placed at the foot of the tree to commemorate...
Wreaths and religious icons are regularly placed at the foot of the tree to commemorate the deaths of loved ones in traffic accidents. The tree has already been hit by cars twice this year.(Shafkat Anowar / personal photographer)

The proclamation will come almost a year after Homan submitted the request. But even with historic status, the Gateway Pecan is still a sitting duck.

Cars have hit the tree twice this year. More often than not, visitors find flowers and religious ornaments at the site in memory of loved ones killed in nearby accidents.

Flexible posts and sidewalk buttons, which are part of the approved infrastructure plan, are still needed to better protect the tree. Homan hopes the pecan’s permanent historical marker, not yet designed, will explain the tree’s history and also serve as a deterrent against accidents.

Homan credits the Dallas chapter of the League of Women Voters, which she led from 2005 to 2007, as her teacher for what good government looks like and how to oppose anything less.

More recently, she successfully fought the city in court to protect a green space dedicated to building established pecan trees, which served as a buffer between her East Kessler neighborhood and Dallas Methodist Medical Center.

Due to the number of neighbors opposed to the plan, a three-quarters city council vote was required. But in a bizarre technical debate over one of the signings, the board rejected the requirement and approved the request.

Years of litigation followed and finally — rather than appealing again, this time to the state Supreme Court — the city settled earlier this year.

“Someone asked me not long ago, ‘Do you have a thing for pecans?'” Homan laughed as we reminisced about the many escapades that have kept her busy since arriving here in 1974.

Homan, who owns what is believed to have been the city’s first complete “green” home, completed in 2001, is passionate about increasing the canopy of local trees – not just pecans – to combat climate change.

She’s a lot less crazy about being in the spotlight as a good deed when it’s a project like the West Dallas Gateway Pecan Tree that “obviously had to be done.”

“This tree belongs to the city and is an asset worth cherishing,” Homan said. “I just made sure we did the paperwork.”