Sunday, February 20, 2011

Marathon to Shafter via Big Bend - Beautiful Texas History

Going South out of Marathon Texas on highway 385 you can see the approaching beauty of Big Bend National Park. Famous for its natural resources and recreational opportunities, this area is rich in cultural history. Evidence shows that Native peoples have lived in or passed through this area for thousands of years. The park it self encompasses more than 800,000 acres and is a haven for those who like unimproved dirt roads and hiking trails.

While we enjoy the beauty, our focus is on history, and there is plenty of it. Over the years, archeologists have discovered artifacts estimated to be 9,000 years old. Several Native American groups have been found to have lived in the area, including the Chisos. A loosely organized group of nomadic hunters, the Chisos probably practiced limited agriculture. A possible enemy of the Chisos,  there is evidence of  the Jumano tribe as well, also a nomadic people. Other history includes Spanish explorers in the 16th and 17th Centuries, Mescalero Apache in the 18th Century and Comanche in the 1800's. With all it's beauty and history, Big Bend National Park has become one of the most popular vacation destinations in  Texas with an average 300,000 visitors a year.

Turning onto Highway 118 we come out the other side of Big Bend into Study Butte. This small town on the edge of the park is right by one of Texas most famous Ghost Towns, Terlingua. The name has actually been applied to three different settlements, with the original site a Mexican Village on Terlingua Creek, three miles above its confluence with the Rio Grande River. Later, in the mid 1880's, the Marfa and Mariposa Silver Mining camp became known as Terlingua. After those mines closed in 1910, the town name and post office were moved to it's current site, which was the Chisos Mining Company camp.

It was the discovery of Cinnabar, from which mercury is extracted, that brought the mining to the area, creating a city of around 2,000. Years after the mining played out, Terlingua is now a Ghost Towners delight with plenty of old building and ruins still dotting the hillsides.

Now on FM 170 out of Terlingua, we make our way to Lajitas, a resort town that was developed from an 1800's ranching community.  In 1916, interruption of commerce by Pancho Villa caused the US to establish a major calvary post there. Now a resort hotel stands on the actual foundations of the post.

Coming out of Lajitas you are now entering Big Bend Ranch State Park, the largest state park in Texas.  FM 170 winds close to the Rio Grande River all the way through its approximately 270,000 square miles, and along the way you can see why the Rio Grande is now considered an endangered river.  In fact, with some of the highest population growth rates in the US, the area claims 95% of the rivers annual flow for municipal and agricultural use.

We found a bonus stop along with way that wasn't on our agenda.  An old movie set built back in 1983 for the movie "Uphill All the Way" sits right off the highway and on the shores of the Rio Grande.  The set was later used for several other projects, including 1993's "Rio Diablo" and 1995's "Street's of Laredo", along with numerous others. Complete with a Church and other historic looking buildings, it was a fun photo stop, but don't let it fool ya, those buildings weren't there before 1983.

We did get another dose of true historic buildings though as we passed by the 1876 town of Redford. This small town about 16 miles Southeast of Presidio, was originally known as El Povo, Spanish for "the dust." We enjoyed some ruins and an abandoned historic church before heading on down the road, exiting the park and into the town of Presidio.

Right before entering the town, you will want to stop at Fort Leaton State Historic Site.  Originally established as a private citadel of a Chihuahua Trail freighter and first Anglo-American farmer in Presidio County in 1848, the private fort was built on the ruins of a Spanish fort founded in 1773.  El Fortin de San Jose at La Junta was abandoned in 1810 and later became a private home before being purchased by Ben Leaton in 1848.

The town of Presidio sits in the midst of the oldest continuously cultivated area known in the United States, with evidence of farming dating back to 1500 B.C. Anglo settlers came to the area after the Mexican American War, and a Post Office was established in 1868.

Now moving north on Highway 67, we run into the ghost town of Shafter, a mining town established in 1880.  There is evidence that the Spaniards mined the area during the early 1600's, but it didn't become a town until John W. Spencer discovered Silver Ore. The town eventually had a population of around 1500, but today only houses around 20 residents.

Next blog, we continue on toward Pecos and back to Del Rio via Fort Stockton.  In the meantime, follow our travels through photos on our Facebook page here

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