Miller’s Ferry, 3000 Years of Human History At Your Feet

No spot concentrates more history into the size of a tennis court than Miller’s Ferry in Dallas on the Trinity River. Exploration. Immigration. Habitation. Emancipation. Commercialization. Transportation. Industrialization. 
Ducks at Miller’s Ferry, December 2011
Sitting in the shadow of I-45 and Old Central Expressway with the Wastewater Treatment Plant just upstream it has become a cobweb of a place that you only get a glimpse of at 70mph. Maybe time has been a friend to this old spot leaving it as a time capsule. The crossing is now a favorite overwintering site for thousands of ducks and birds of prey like this Red Tailed Hawk(inset right) that was uses the Old Central Bridge to ride thermals.
At a quick glance the only structure left noting the site is a 120+ year old concrete encased steel pillar that sits in the middle of the river channel. It’s literally the newest addition to Miller’s Ferry. Everything else you see there is much older. It serves as a monolith of sorts like the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The river holds its secrets like a sealed crypt. Like the movie, I had no idea what the large pillar was doing smack in the middle of the river. I had seen it numerous times as I crossed the Lamar/Old Central bridge. This past summer with the drought and low water levels I was able to get out in the mid-channel and touch it. Originally I thought it was a 55 gallon drum filled with river debris. On closer inspection I saw the metal rivets and concrete. Telltale signs of a pier or pillar. Interesting story, that old pillar holds.
Miller’s Ferry sits in a horseshoe shaped bend of the Trinity River between present day I-45 and old Central Expressway(see map right). I have outlined the original Miller’s Ferry Road in green. In the 1850s it was known as the road to Hutchins. In the 1870s it was known as the Corsicana Road. It started on what is now present day Ervay, to Holmes Street, down Lamar and across Miller’s Crossing on the Trinity. Later forms of transportation emulated the route. The first railroad in the 1870s the H, T & C, the first north-south highway in Dallas, the first US Highway in Dallas, the first freeway in Dallas, the first Interstate Highway in Dallas. All follow the original route of Miller’s Ferry.  It has gone by many names, Miller’s Ferry Road, State Highway 5, State Highway 14, Dallas-Canadian-Canadian-Denver Highway, Henry Exall Highway, US 77, I-45.
Current Trinity railroad bridge as viewed from Joppa, George Bush Presidential Library and SMU seen in distance
It was not by chance that the H, T and C railroad passed this way, William Miller had much to do with it. The act of incorporation for the Galveston and Red River Railroad which was its original name authorized it to reach the Red River from the south by any route necessary to Coffee’s station(near current day Denison). Some tentative plans would have passed it many miles east of Dallas. Advocates of the Dallas route finally won. William Miller at the time held $50,000 in the railroad stock which probably swayed the vote. He also donated $5,000 worth of his own land for right of way to entice the rail line to be built through Dallas. 
Union Pacific train over Trinity River between Joppa and Bon Ton
Many other towns to the east lobbied for the route including Kaufman, Tyler and Texarkana. Dallas would look much different today if the H, T & C railroad did not pass through Dallas. Central Expressway in North Dallas gets its name from the railroad and follows the old railroad right of way for much of the length.
William B. Miller
William B. Miller
 Miller’s Ferry namesake was William B Miller. One of the original pioneers to settle this part of Dallas. He was born in Madison County Kentucky in 1807. He was the second of seven children born to John and Mary (Brown) Miller, native of Kentucky. In 1834 he began a dry goods business in New Market, Alabama. It failed in 1836, he moved to Tennessee to farm for ten years. In 1847 he moved to Dallas County, purchasing 562 acres and building a home on the Van Cleave Survey. 
His brief biography which is hard to follow, from the Dallas Pioneer Association–“His mother died in Alabama in 1835, and in 1837 Mr. Miller, married Minerva Barnes, also a native of Madison county, Kentucky, and daughter or Jesse and Patsy Olden Barnes, also natives of Kentucky. In 1844 Mr. Barnes moved to Jackson County, Missouri where he subsequently died. This Mrs. Miller died in 1856, after having had five children: Alonzo, who died about 1855; Martha, wife of W. C. Leonard, of Kaufman county; Mary, wife of Mr. Guess; Elizabeth, now Mrs. John Edmonson; and Susan, now Mrs. Dr. Ewing of Dallas. Mr. Miller was again married, in Dallas in 1860, to Mrs. Emma Miller, widow of Madison M. Miller, and daughter of Silas H. and Amy Spencer Dewey, natives of New York. The parents were married at Cooperstown, New York, and later emigrated to Ohio, where the father engaged in farming. The grandmother Dewey, previously Miss Hyde, was a grand¬daughter of Lord Chancellor Hyde. The maternal grandfather, a Wescott, was of Indian origin, and grandfather, Eliphalet Dewey participated in the Revolutionary War. Silias H. Dewey came to Walker County, Texas in 1855.”(source Dallas Pioneer Association)
Ferry Crossings On The Trinity
Many other early pioneers to Dallas had ferry crossings that carried their name. Moving south to north:
Dawdy Ferry (Currently spelled Dowdy Ferry Road)
Miller’s Ferry (Old Central Expressway/I-45)
Cockrell’s Ferry (Commerce Street) 
Cedar Springs Crossing (near current day Infomart, where Turtle Creek meets the old river channel)
Record Crossing (1500 Record Crossing)
Minter’s Crossing (Crossing made for Cochran Chapel)
California Crossing (California Crossing Road)
The abutments for these ferries on either side of the river were large cedar logs securely fastened together with rocks well packed down. John Neely Bryan ran a crude ferry along the hard bottom when he first settled Dallas. The Cockrell Ferry replaced the Bryan Ferry.
Many began as simple hollowed out cottonwood trunks with planks across them. Barely able to float a wagon.
In 1846 the following ferry rates were adopted for use in Dallas County:
Man on foot 5 cents
Man and horse 10 cents
Loose horses and cattle 5 cents each
Sheep and hogs 3 cents each
One-horse wagon 25 cents
Four horse wagon 50 cents
Six horse wagon 75 cents
Miller’s Ferry started like many others in the area. A natural hard bottom in the river, with the added benefit of a horseshoe shaped bend in the river which slowed the current down. Earliest records mention that the ferry was in operation in 1852, run by a man named Dunham.

Miller’s Ferry Site
The steel encased pillar above was placed in 1890. It had a twin pillar that was noted in surveys as recently as 2001. It has since disappeared, probably washing away. The pillar/pier was placed in the river channel to support half the length of the dismantled Cockrell toll bridge previously located on Commerce. In 1890 Sarah Cockrell’s Bridge on Commerce was replaced with a newer bridge. The bridge you see below was authorized for construction in 1860. The Civil War, funding and material shortages prevent it’s completion until 1872.
The bridge above was taken apart in two halves. One span went upstream to Grauwyler, the other downstream to Miller’s Ferry. It’s important to note that the Commerce Street bridge seen in the photo is not the bridge made famous in the 1908 flood photos. The bridge in the photo above is the post-Civil War double span iron bowstring arch toll bridge that was dismantled and sent downstream. A lot of confusion circulates about them. I asked local historian MC Toyer about the bridges, he sent along a timeline of Commerce Street bridges:

Timeline of Trinity Crossings At Present Commerce St(courtesy MC Toyer):
1843-1852  John Neely Bryan and Adam Haught operate a crude ferry 
1852-1853 Alex Cockrell acquires Bryan’s unsold land and ferry then John Beeman’s 320 acres on west side of Trinity
1854 Alex Cockrell’s covered wooden toll bridge and plank causeway completed (Bridge # 1)
1858 – Alex Cockrell killed in April and bridge damaged in a flood later that year.  Alex’s widow Sarah resumes ferry until 1872
1860 – Sarah Cockrell receives franchise for a new bridge but construction is delayed by the Civil War
1872 – Sarah Cockrell / Dallas Bridge Company completes the double span iron bowstring arch toll bridge (Bridge # 2)sold to county about 1885 and becomes a free bridge
1890 – Dallas County completes new iron truss bridge (Bridge # 3)one span of 1872 bridge goes to Miller Ferry; the other to Grauwyler Road
1916 – Concrete and steel viaduct (Bridge # 4) starting at Houston Street and crossing above railroad tracks completed – demolished in 1935 with construction of Triple Underpass
1930 – Concrete and steel viaduct (Bridge # 5) built over Trinity diversion floodway
The Prehistoric Site At Miller’s Ferry
Couple of years ago, I read a many decades old story from the Dallas Morning News about the enormous amount of Indian artifacts found by the Overton family on their land in the 19th century. Arrowheads, spears, tools of every shape and kind.
Their farm was located near present day Overton Road and Southern Oaks Road. A crime ridden apartment complex now sits on the site. A creek bisected the property and is noted as the Sargent Road Swale on the map above.
I thought, wow. I wonder if any of that is still there. My hopes were dashed when I saw how much of the terrain had been disturbed by gravel operations, landfill, channelization and backfill. I gave up on it. After all, I have been told many times that Native Americans never really lived in Dallas. Those that did wandered in by accident and left as soon as they got here. Turns out that was all wrong.
Caddoan bone bead at Miller’s Ferry
The Trinity River through Dallas is one gigantic archeological site.  There are archeological sites both prehistoric and historic that lie inside the Trinity River Corridor. A handful of the sites are old landfills from the early days of Dallas. The rest are archeological sites, some are thousands of years old.
Little is known about the previous inhabitants that once lived in North Texas. The mystery is not an ancient problem of some unknown Anasazi like people. The mystery is one of present inhabitants. Most of the groundwork done on Trinity River archeology was completed by amateur hobbyists or SMU students in the 1930s and 40s. From the 1950s till present, little has been done other than federally required cultural impact surveys for construction projects. I can understand why a professional archeologist would much rather do a doctoral thesis on an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb rather than that of a Caddoan.That’s the rub. Sifting through Trinity River mud just is not as fun as Indian Jonesin’ a pyramid. As a result, 150 generations of Caddo lived here and what is known about them could scarcely fill a ream of paper.
I have found that if the ground has been left undisturbed on the bank of the Trinity or a nearby tributary, the chances of finding Indian relics, remains or both is very high. The hard part is not finding shell middens or evidence of ancient people, the adventure is finding a spot where the river has not been channelized, dredged, dug or dumped on.
Great examples of Indian occupation in Dallas include :
-The graves unearthed during the construction of the Katy railroad where it passes the Stoneleigh Hotel (where the Katy Trail is now located on the knoll overlooking Turtle Creek)
-The old Parkland hospital grounds held indian remains opposite of the Stoneleigh/Katy Trail site
-The spillway at White Rock Lake held at least seven indian burials. Most were destroyed during the most recent spillway project although some of the site is still untouched
Texas habitation of humans can be divided up in the following categories
Paleo Indian pre 8500bp
Early Archaic 8500-6000bp
Middle Archaic 6000-3500bp
Late Archaic 3500-1250bp
Late Prehistoric I- 1250-750bp
Late Prehistoric II 750-250bp
Historic Native American 250-150bp
Historic European 150bp-present
The earliest artifact found in a charcoal fire hearth at Miller’s Ferry was dated at 3050bp in the Late Archaic period. Using radio carbon that translates to 1100bc, 3000 years ago. The Late Archaic here in Dallas saw a population influx of people. The geologic record tells us that the weather was wetter, warm and trees were more numerous. The Trinity River bottoms at the time had numerous backwater swamp areas rich with small game, fish and mussels. Below is an archeological survey map from the latest survey at Miller’s Ferry. This particular survey was done as a requirement for the Trinity River Corridor construction project.
Judging from the artifacts found the groups actively traded with Indians from other parts of the countryside. The chert/flint used for tools came from as far away as Arkansas, Missouri and Ohio.
They did some test trenching in the area in and around Miller’s Ferry. The artifacts they found included all kinds of shells, tools, animal bones and evidence of human habitation. The radio carbon testing on some of the artifacts found them to be from 1100 BC, 435 BC and 550 AD. The animal bones found in and around the campfire sites included those of deer, antelope, prairie dog, bobwhite quail, bison, freshwater drum and alligator gar.
That report was ten years old. Going back in 2011, the site like many others slowly erodes into the river exposing mostly shell middens or shell lenses as seen in the photo below. The debris is from Indians cracking open freshwater shells to expose the meat inside. In many cases these are cooked over a fire, then eaten.
Trinity River Shell Midden
If you can imagine a group of people camping out for a modern day clam bake or oyster shucking session, that is what is exposed here. The weather erodes the spot then the river during flooding carries it away as seen in the photo above.
Charcoal and burned limestone rock in a fire hearth
The calcium in the shell deposits actually help preserve the bones and other artifacts. It creates an super alkaline environment in which bones do not deteriorate as fast as they normally would.
I had no idea what these circular bone/rock looking things were that eroded from the bank. Found a few. One earlier in my post, I cleaned the dirt out of the hole. The item in the photo above is untouched. I emailed around earlier this fall to see what they might be. They are apparently bone beads of some kind like the beads in the necklace below.
Example of a Caddo Necklace(in a museum not in the river)
Most people would have picked up those beads and taken them home. Like an idiot, I left them there. I think it’s probably illegal to remove Indian artifacts from public property. Although with the recent rains they probably washed away into the river forever.
This particular site extends across the river and over towards the Texas Buckeye Trailhead on Bexar.
The Conquistador Battle Axe
The De Soto expedition was the first group of Europeans to explore this part of Texas in the 16th century. I keep on running into references to the conquistador battle axe found here. It’s even mentioned in Gunnar Brune’s book on Texas Springs. Led by Luis de Moscoso de Alvarado, the Native Americans the Spanish encountered here were known as Socoatino. They spoke Caddoan and were called Canohatino by the French trappers pushing north along the Red River in the 17th century. It is believed this group spoke Caddoan that they were eventually absorbed into the greater Confederacy of Caddo speaking groups (Yojuane, Kichai, Tawakoni, Taovayas, Iscani and Wichita). This Caddo group is what lived in North Texas through the late 18th century.
From the late 18th Century onward, North Texas was invaded by the Apache and Comanche. By 1660 both tribes had horses and expanded their range into North Texas. The Comanche were a Shoshonean group originally residing along the Upper Yellowstone and Platte Rivers. Beginning in the early 18th century they began a southern migration into the Great Plains. Here they drove a wedge between the Apache in the west and the Wichita to the east. By the early 1800’s the Comanche Nation stretched as far south as Austin, west to Raton Pass and east to Texarkana. The most imprtant sub tribes included that of the Yamparika(root eaters)-Arkansas River, Kotsoteka(buffalo eaters)–Central Oklahoma, Nokoni(Wanderers)–Red River, Quahadi(Antelope People)–High Plains and the Penateka(Honey Eaters)–North Texas.  Most of the Indian attacks on early Dallas pioneers were from the Comanche.
Henry Critz Hines, Slave of William Miller, Founder of Joppa, Freedman Owner/Operator of Miller’s Ferry
He saw in a vision I an angel of God coming I and when he looked I he was afraid and said: `What is it, Lord?” And he replied unto him: `Your prayers I are answered I now, send men to Joppa.” Acts 10:3
I have seen that biblical passage over and over in regards to the Freedman’s town of Joppa. Maybe it’s more relevant in discussing Miller’s Ferry than the Joppa Community itself.
Henry Critz Hines had an interesting background. At the outbreak of the Civil War he was living as a slave in Missouri or Alabama. There are two different accounts on that. William Miller originally immigrated from Missouri by way of Alabama and knew people in both states. Southerners feared losing valuable property to the North during the war and as a result would often move valuables to backwater parts of the Confederacy for safekeeeping. Henry Critz Hines was one such example of property being sent away to Texas. By all accounts he was sent by a friend or family member of Miller to live on the property. He lived on the Millermore Plantation and was highly thought of as a field hand and worker. 
Joppa Residents Parked on Trinity River as viewed from Soul’s Harvest Church, Joppa
 Although present, slavery did not loom as large in the economy of the Dallas area as it did farther into East Texas. In 1846 there were 45 slaves in Dallas County, a number which grew to 207 by 1850. In the 1860 census, Dallas had a total population of 8655 people of whom 1074 were slaves. A five fold rise in slaves over a decade with 228 citizens listed as slaveholders.
Most of the anglo residents were Southerners by birth and supported the pro-slavery side of the abolition question. In a February 23, 1861 vote on the issue Dallas County voted 741 to 237 in favor of secession. Over 1300 county residents joined the Confederate Army and Dallas donated over $5000 in gold to the cause. A small arms and ammunition plant was built in Lancaster. Due to the relatively remote setting of Dallas, many Southerners came to the Dallas area to escape the ravages of the war. By the end of the Civil War, Dallas had 13,500 residents. All merchandise was sent overland by wagon train. The Confederacy ran up a high debt with the Miller’s for ferry usage fees. One that went unpaid at the end of the war.
The turning point for Henry Critz Hines and a new life began with emancipation in 1865.  In Texas, General Gordon Granger proclaimed all slaves freed on June 19, 1865. His proclamation, General Order Number Three was read from the balcony of the Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas.
“General Order No. 3”: The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.
If you read the order giving slaves in Texas freedom, it reads like a roadmap for the future relationship between Hines and Miller.  Hines chose to stay in Texas rather than head back to the state from which he was shipped. That set in motion a really unique set of events that shaped Dallas.
At the conclusion of the war, Dallas still lacked a railroad or a navigable river for commerce. With very few formal bridges of any kind over the Trinity, ferry crossings were important to the lifeblood of Dallas. Everything had to be hauled overland by oxen pulled wagons or horse teams. An early goal of the Dallas business community was to gain water transport along the Trinity River.  The problems associated with this effort included fluctuations of the river and the many snags that infested the channel. The first effort in this respect came in 1866, when the legislature chartered the Trinity Slack Water Navigation Company to provide improvements required for navigation from Galveston to Dallas. The company never started work on the project. That same year Miller formally chartered his own overland ferry enterprise on the Trinity River, the Honey Springs Navigation Company and the Honey Springs Ferry Company.
In October 1866, William Miller formed the Honey Springs Ferry Company. Below is a copy of the company’s article of incorporation which was created during the first Texas Legislature under Reconstruction.
Article of Incorporation for Honey Springs Ferry Company October 26, 1866 (courtesy MC Toyer)

After the Civil War, Miller’s Ferry was a vital crossing point. Tying together Dallas, Hutchins, Corsicana and Galveston. Lying east of the Austin Road, Miller’s Ferry was an important shipping road to reach the coast, East Texas lumber and coal seams near Corsicana. It was a cash cow of an operation and was the lifeline of the Dallas economy until the railroads reached Dallas in the 1870s. 
An important crossing such as this needed the best men to run it. With high unemployment after the war and relative stagnation of the economy, William Miller could have chosen one of a thousand capable men to oversee his ferry operation. The man Miller handpicked was Henry Critz Hines. Really it was more of a business agreement among men who viewed each other as equals. As a result, Hines became one of the first African American entepreneurs after the Civil War. Not just in Dallas or Texas or even in the South. In the whole of the United States. In addition, you will find very few freed slaves who so soon after the war were able to make a living from a customer base that was largely anglo.
Henry Critz Hines also founded Joppa, one of the best preserved, if not the best preserved Freedmen’s communities left in the United States. Joppa was founded in 1872 by Hines and freed slaves from the Miller Plantation. Here they carved trees out of the forest for cabins at first, replaced by shotgun houses, some of which are still standing today. Many of the original Joppa residents were freedmen who immigrated from East Texas plantations. The attraction of Joppa was the safety of living near a large town like Dallas while maintaining the agrarian lifestyle they knew from earlier times. Other freedmen communities in Dallas such as Deep Ellum and State-Thomas had residents more comfortable with city life.
The descendants of the Miller slaves hold family reunions every year here in Dallas. Over 1,000 strong, they celebrate their rich history at a local park that was once part of Millermore. They’re even on Facebook Miller Family Reunion
Below is a wood etching from 1879 showing what a Texas river ferry looked like. 
Ferry Crossing a River in Texas – from Homer S. Thrall’s 1879 Pictorial History of Texas
In times of moderate flow during wet periods, Miller’s Ferry looked like the illustration above. A floating platform large enough for one wagon team was used to carry the customers across. In times of low flow, the platform was positioned in the mud of the riverbed channel and served as a a bridge. Metal cables anchored to the bank allowed the ferry to be pulled manually from one side to the other.
The cables…are…still there!

Hand cables from Henry Critz Hines ferry operation at Miller’s Crossing
One of the incredible parts of the current Miller’s Ferry site are the old cables from when Henry Critz Hines ran the ferry by hand. The steel cables are literally more fragile than a piece of string. They crumble in your hand. It took quite a bit of research to find out if these are indeed the cables used in the ferry. People have dumped trash and junk into the river for decades and I initially thought it could have been some cable thrown over the bank. On closer inspection, the cable goes straight into the river bank with undisturbed old deposits on top of it.

The braided cable is very fragile. It flakes apart just touching it. I’m amazed something like that is still there.

Also in the same vicinity are very fragile square nails that have almost reverted back to a crude form of iron. The horseshoes in the first photo in this post(inset left) are also very deteriorated. To the point that they are as fragile as a saltine cracker.

Sterling Silver Fork(plated)

Sitting near the horseshoes, half buried was the silver fork above. It’s an English made dinner fork dating from the late 19th century. I’m not sure how it got to the ferry crossing. Something that heavy does not float downstream with the march of time. It’s about as brittle as the horseshoes.

As I mentioned earlier, the ferry operation was closed in about 1890 when a section of Sarah Cockrell’s bridge near the Old Red Courthouse was sent to Miller’s Ferry.

As you can see from the photo, the bridge was in two sections. One went to Miller’s Ferry, the other to Grauwlyer Road. One of these spans stood at Miller’s Ferry until the early 1900s. The bridge was eventually removed to make way for the planned riverboat traffic, that never materialized.
In 1911 a new Miller’s Ferry Road Bridge was completed and opened just downstream, where the Highway 310 bridge/Old Central Expressway bridge now stands today. Below are some photos of that 1911 bridge on the day it opened.
With the completion of the new bridge, Miller’s Ferry Road quickly morphed into a much celebrated road for overland travel by car. At the time, traveling cross country by car was new and there was a lack of interstate routes. Cobbled together routes quickly sprang up, linking city-to-city, state-to-state, ocean-to-ocean. Miller’s Ferry became a part of the Henry Exall Highway, which was one such road.
Above is a magazine article from 1918 about the routing of the Henry Exall Highway and the soon to be created Dallas-Canadian-Canadian-Denver Highway. The “Canadians” being the Canadian River in New Mexico and crossing it again in Texas. Although this overland route did eventually reach the Canadian/US Border.
After the 1911 bridge was opened, 100 years ago, the Old Miller’s Ferry was forgotten. Hard to even find a reference to it in any news articles. Relegated to the dust bin of history. The great thing is that while transportation projects and construction have occured within a couple hundred yards of the site, it still sits undisturbed. I know that there have been recommendations for Miller’s Ferry to be included in the National Register of Historic Places. I think that should happen. It’s a special place. Unlike many historic landmarks that highlight one ideology, race or religion, Miller’s Ferry has a history that touches on every facet of Dallas history. One that we can all be proud of.