Southwestern Trail

One of the oldest roads in the Red River Valley was the Tennessee to Washington (Hempstead County, Arkansas) to Fulton (Hempstead County) trail that was formed along a geological ridge line. Before American settlement, the trace was an aboriginal path to salt “mines” (actually, just places where salt could be sieved and collected) and to the Caddoan settlements along the Red River, specifically the Nasoni villages.

Now called the “Southwest Trail” by heritage tourism promoters, the trace witnessed pioneers, stage coaches, traders, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Union troops moving towards Indian Territory and Texas.

The centuries of use has “sunken” the trail in some spots. The sunken trace is best seen on the northern side of Washington‘s Franklin Street. Today, the trail north of Washington is very hard to follow – a lot of the “old southwest Arkansas” between Washington and Blevins was leveled in the 1940s to make way for a military proving grounds.

Map snip Arkansas post offices 1840s

The old trail ran from Tennessee to Little Rock to Washington to Fulton. If you want to travel the original route of the old trail – called the Southwest Trail now to entice motor tourists – you can drive AR 195 from Fulton to Washington.

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The sunken part of the old trail can be viewed on the north side of Washington along Franklin Street. On the right side of the photograph stand the 1830s’ era courthouse, wonderfully restored.

Washington Tavern better

Speaking of restoration… in the 1930s – prior to the erection of the proving grounds to the north of Washington – many of the town’s historic, antebellum structures remained standing, albeit in a state of disrepair. This old tavern, at the intersection of Franklin and Columbus streets, once served the likes of Sam Houston. The federal government photographed and documented the historic structure as part of a WPA program

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Today, the tavern has been restored to its original look (as best as could be) through the generous donations and hard work of Hempstead County citizens.

Washington was once the county seat of Hempstead, Arkansas but lost the status when the railroad developed Hope and built the station and town. The whole town, which is home to the Southwest Arkansas Regional Arkives (<– get it?) is now a state park.

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Published in: on February 6, 2018 at 3:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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Aliens in Wise County, Texas???

Aurora

Near Aurora (Wise County, Texas) is this old grocery store. I wonder if the store was witness to the UFO crash landing, which allegedly occurred in Aurora in 1897. The Dallas Morning News even published an article about on April 19, 1897.

Haydon_article,_Aurora,_Texas,_UFO_incident,_1897

According to accounts, the bodies of aliens recovered from the ill-fated “cigar-shaped airship” were buried in the local cemetery. A headstone was placed beside a large tree to commemorate the “spaceman.”

Lori Martin Texas Escapes

Photograph by Lori Martin, for Texas Escapes

Lori Martin took this photo of the tombstone of the “alien burial site” in Aurora for Texas Escapes in 2012. I decided to drive out to the cemetery to see the stone for myself. This was the day, coincidentally, on which the actor Bill Paxton passed away. Fish heads, fish heads.

Sharpie

I discovered that some punk stole the original stone. What a jerk. I did find that a new stone was put in its place. Since carving is a lost art, sharpie markers make do instead. The rock mentions that the “Alien Here” (verbs are in short supply for sharpie carvers). Someone also wrote, “Dig me up, please” because there is a lot of interest in finding out if an alien is really buried here or not.

I rather like the mystery, to be honest.

Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 1:57 am  Leave a Comment  
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Antebellum Ghost Towns and the Railroads that did them in

I’ve been making several trips around the Red River Valley to discover forgotten towns for my book project this summer. However, I don’t just look for cemeteries, even though they’re the best way to find old settlements. I want to find actual ruins! I think that remains speak much louder than anything can, so I look for towns with remains.

The other day, I took a trip around Louisiana and found the antebellum town of Allen’s Settlement, which was built around intersecting roads. Because nothing remains of Allen’s Settlement,  I don’t consider it necessarily a “ghost town” that needs to be visited.

Allens Settlement

Allen’s Settlement in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, 1863.

But it makes me wonder – why did some towns thrive and others falter? I guess it’s because most antebellum towns west of the Mississippi River did not survive the railroad boom. It’s not necessarily just because the existing towns didn’t provide enough incentive for the companies to lay tracks, though. These corporations – the original “corporate personhoods”- often had settlement, or rather town building, subsidiaries that speculated on selling land plots. They didn’t want to (or need to) compete with established towns as the state granted them charters, like the land grant companies of old, to entice settlers. They simply built new towns, and the profits of both freight hauling and land sales could be gained by the railroads exclusively.

Examples of the railroad land schemes can be found all over the Red River Valley: Hope (Hempstead County, Arkansas) and Texarkana (Miller County, Arkansas and Bowie County, Texas) were founded by the railroads, as was Denison (Grayson County, Texas).

Hope UP train

Trains made Hope, Arkansas what it is today – including the Hempstead County seat.

Luckily, some antebellum cities along the Red River still exist – Dallas, Sherman, Alexandria, Shreveport, Natchitoches, and Marksville, for example. Being a county seat helped them to survive, of course – however, Hope wrestled the county seat status away from Washington, as did Ashdown from Richmond (Little River County, Arkansas) – so political status was no guarantee. The take-away is that in the American capitalist system, money talks. Cities that were able to incentivize railroads enough for them to lay tracks were able to “weather” the corporate land take-overs.

Railroads might be romantic and all, but above all, they were corporations that changed the very nature of human settlement patterns, at least in the US. They are the true Goliaths.

Published in: on May 16, 2015 at 2:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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One for the Road

I love to drive, but I hate Interstates. I don’t drive just to get from A to B (well, okay, I think we all do that) – I drive to see what’s out there. Since you can’t do that with bland Interstates, I’ve made it a solitary mission to seek out the highways of old.

1918 road map (western half of US) shows the route names

1918 road map (western half of US) shows the route names

Using a 1916 automobile route map certainly helps. Before the numbering of the highway system due to federal acts in the late 1920s, roads were not numbered but named. Along the way, colored posts denoted the routes, which often got their monikers from automobile clubs of the 19-teens. The automobile clubs consisted of well-to-do people who liked to drive the new-fangled machines but lamented the fact that they didn’t really have passable roads to drive them on, or places to go to. Some municipalities even forbade cars on their roads, worried that the noise would scare the horses.

1918 Road Map to the east

1918 Road Map to the east

So those who were wealthy and “modern” enough to have an automobile started “The Good Roads Movement,” a public campaign that advocated for better roads. The Good Roads Movement published highway guides and maps featuring the afore-mentioned named highways. Entrepreneurs built hotels, restaurants, and filling stations along the routes to make road travel not so much of an adventure as an excursion. The question of who’d maintain the roads – the automobile clubs? Cities or counties? – vexed auto advocates, who used their influence to lobby for road taxes that would pay for comprehensive state and federal highway systems. Within a decade, private toll roads and bridges slowly gave way to free thoroughfares, and the named highways were given a numeral designation. Some of the highways retained their descriptors – such as the Bankhead Highway (US 67/US 80), Lincoln Highway (US 50), or the Ozark Trail (portions of US 66 and US 67) – while other names faded from memory (like US 77).

Bankhead alignment in Arkansas (US 67)

Bankhead alignment in Arkansas (US 67)

History is not just made alongside a road… sometimes, it IS the road.

Published in: on July 2, 2013 at 4:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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Simply, a Vexing Question

Every time I give a presentation on ghost towns, invariably I’m asked this question: “What exactly is a Ghost Town? And why are you wearing that shirt with those pants?”

While I usually just shrug off the latter question, the first one is one of my favorites, because the answer is actually fairly obvious.

Dundee school close up

Ghost Towns come in a variety of different ways: they might have several paved roads, or they only exist as a cemetery, or they are surrounded by people’s well-kept homes, or they have a post office, or they have a city hall, or they are inside a state park. Whatever and however they represent, the constant in a ghost towns is that it no longer has a school.

Believe it or not, the United States has always been a big believer in education. A mere 30 years after the Puritans came ashore, they formed Harvard. In quick succession, several other schools opened, with an emphasis on literacy and reason… the idea being that men and women both should be able to read the bible and conduct trade in a free market economy. Their zeal to be educated led the colonists to read treasonous philosophies, print banned books, and question authority. After all, Thomas Paine would not have been well received by a people who could not exhibit critical thinking skills.

Thus, often the first public building erected by a fledgling community was not a courthouse or a church, but a school (in Texas & Oklahoma, I’ve discovered that many towns’ first building was the Masonic Lodge, which doubled as a school during the week). Having a school meant the town believed it had a future. Schools embodied optimism.

Dougherty school door
As modern economies of scale encroached on communities, centers of trade began to shift (when you want to visualize “economies of scale,” just think about a local hardware store versus Home Depot, or the small grocer versus Wal-Mart). Kids who might have stayed in their towns after graduation discovered that they had to move to larger cities to take advantage of opportunities there. Their progeny went to the larger schools, which became ever larger, and so on – until the small town schools had to close their doors.

There’s nothing sadder than a shuttered school. It’s as if the locks on the doors murdered the very soul of the community. No longer are school events like football season, the big dance, or the open house the focal point. Everyone in a town – regardless if one had a kid in school or not – invested in the school in some way. Without it, the citizens of those towns lose their commonality.

Bucher School-side

Little towns like Ravenna (Fannin County, Texas) or Dougherty (Carter County, Oklahoma) might not like having me denote them as “ghost towns.” After all, they still have town halls and post office, and maybe a gas station or two. But, without their schools, they only exist as an outpost of the bigger cities in their midst.

And that is the simple answer to a seemingly complex question.

Published in: on February 15, 2013 at 10:09 pm  Comments (1)  
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A Curious Life

I turned yet another year older this month (just a decade past 29), and, like I do every birthday, I did some soul searching.

I’m re-visiting Bromide (in my head & for real) because I recently came in contact with a Chickasaw Elder who is providing me with all sorts of information. If I didn’t follow my passions, I would have never known him or learned so much.

My soul apparently has ADHD, because my mind tends to wander when I genuflect. It meanders towards places I’ve been, sights I’ve seen, and old buildings I’ve discovered. I don’t really think, but simply recall pictures, and add new details to the locations in my imagination until I suddenly find myself daydreaming in a far off place. Trying to tap into my soul is like thumbing through a large photo album, actually.

Over the years, I’ve finally learned (allowed myself?) not to fight these kinds of thoughts. Instead, I’m letting the pictures in my head guide me. My “what I am a doing with my life” questions become more like “where do I want to go” and “what can I still explore.” The answers, while not earth-shaking, help me to understand that I am on the right path – for me.

I’ve learned from just listening to how I think that I don’t want a big career, a big house, or exotic travels. I shrug off luxury. I don’t need a fancy car, or be “fulfilled” by living a simple life or a spiritual life or a philosophical life or a religious life.  I simply want to see what’s around the next bend. Living a life “filled with curiosity” has become my guiding principal. Everything else (family, work, chores) either just kind of falls into place, or gets discarded onto the growing pile of chores and wasted energy that prevent me from doing what I love to do, and being who I like to be.

The open road beckons, I don’t wanna wait.

That’s why every once in a while, I have to de-clutter my life. I take a good look at the obligations that keep me curious, and check on the other obligations that hinder me.  So I renew my commitment to my fabulous family and friends (to me, they’re all the same!) and I renew my commitment to my website, readers, blog, presentations, books, and art work. Lately, other obligations- such as my full time job –  have crept into my world, and I have to see if they prevent me from following my curiosity.

I guess I’m rambling, but the point I’m trying to make is that, in the near 40 years I’ve been on this planet, I’m finally allowing myself to be defined by what I love to do. My younger self always tended to belittle my passions. I’d tell myself that taking road trips, writing stories, and learning history were silly, superfluous time wasters that didn’t make money, were impractical, etc (typical German protestant upbringing!). Now, I’m giving permission to tell that young whipper snapper to shut.the.hell.up.

Curiosity has brought me to some astounding places and allowed me to meet fabulous people.

I want to remain curious until I’m old and gray (okay, old-er and gray-er, har har). What about you? Are you finding it harder to ignore and suppress your true desires? Has turning older allowed you to accept who you are?

I hope so.

Published in: on February 11, 2012 at 10:17 pm  Comments (2)  
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Insulator-ing

I consider myself very lucky because my son likes to take road trips with me. Sometimes, I feel as though I need to justify my trips, and what better way to do that than to just blame all the traveling on my son. Well, not really – I just like to get up and go, and ever since he was a small baby, he got up and went with me.

Now, he’s 12, and he discovered a hobby that combines my love of road tripping with a purpose: to find insulators. Glass (also ceramic and plastic) insulators were used to hold up and protect telegraph and telephone wires that were strung next to railroad lines. David likes to discover old right-of-ways that still have telegraph poles next to them and hunt for these utilitarian pieces of art. Currently, he has over 100 glass insulators in a variety of colors. He usually finds simple Hemingray 45s that are clear or aqua,  but sometimes he’s lucky enough to find blue and green ones, too.

A sandblasted Hemingray

While I’ve never been much of a collector, I must say these insulators are growing on me. They’re just so pretty, and some of them have interesting stories to tell. For example, I especially like the ones that still have a ring of soot on them – remnants of the days of steam locomotives.

If your curiosity has been piqued, here are a few websites that can tell you a lot more about this rather interesting hobby: http://www.insulators.info/ , http://www.nia.org/, and http://insulatorstore.com/

Published in: on December 3, 2011 at 3:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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History in Ghost Towns

I think I mentioned this before, but if I haven’t, well… I hunt ghost towns. I’d like to do that for a living, but there’s not much money to be made in just driving around and collecting images from abandoned places. If I could make tracking ghost towns a job, I would.

Odell, Texas

But what is a ghost town, exactly? Is it a settlement that’s been completely abandoned? Or is it a place that used to be bigger than it is now? Should towns that have lost their post offices be considered ghost towns, or does the loss of a school signify a dying town as well? Are ghost towns only legitimate if they have remains, or can an old cemetery be considered a town’s remnant?

I’ve learned that the definition of “ghost town” reflects the person who’s documenting them. Some people are very precise in their criteria, while others, like me, just rely on the idea that we know one when we see one.

Goodlett, Texas

While I have always prided myself on my fortune to live in a state littered with failed cities, I’ve learned through the years that ghost towns are EVERYWHERE. You can find them in Japan, in India, in Germany, in Massachusetts, in the Dakotas, in Brazil, and in Australia. Heck, even the Antarctic has an abandoned station. I guess that’s just the nature of the human beast, to pick up the stakes and wander to the next place where one supposes the grass may be greener.

Banty, Oklahoma

What’s neat about our “new world” ghost towns is that, well, they’re relatively new. That means we know much more of their history, and can even track why the towns were founded and how they met their demise. The towns I’ve encountered are almost like living history books. They tell of opportunities met and lost, like Thurber, Texas, a coal mining town that was shuttered by the Texas & Pacific Railroad when they started using oil in their locomotives. You can “read” about neglect, like what happened in Picher, Oklahoma, where the prairie winds let lead-laden chat piles blow dust blow into children’s lungs. And you can trace changing economies, like Doan’s Crossing, Texas, which faded away when the cattle drives stopped coming through town.

I’m going back on the road this weekend to find some more ghost towns. Every time I discover something a new site, I feel like a secret has just been revealed to me. To me, ghost towns really make the past come alive.

Bonita, Texas

Mapping the Red River Valley

When I go somewhere, I take a long a few necessities. A cell phone is always a good idea. So are cash, tea, and Altoids. My camera sticks to me like glue. But other indispensable tools when I’m road tripping are my wonderful, incredible maps.

You can infer a lot by reading maps. And I’m not talking just road maps, but topographical and historical maps, too. That’s why I spend hours perusing maps and atlases, just like others spend reading novels. Place names, the flow of rivers, and little towns in the middle of nothing all provide clues to the mysteries of human settlement, and how people react to their environment.

One of my favorite maps belongs to the SPV’s Comprehensive Railroad Atlas of North America series. There are several editions of these atlases that cover geographic zones, and I own the southern Plains and the Texas versions. Inside the atlas are maps of railroad routes that traveled throughout the region, whether in use or in disuse. I try to take “my SPV” along for all of my road trips, as it helps me to figure out what I’m looking at if I happen to come across an old siding, depot, or overgrown right-of-way.

A map of Shreveport's railroad lines offer glimpses into Shreveport's past.

Another “must” are the state atlases published by Mapsco and DeLorme. Each atlas includes county roads, major highways, old towns, and rail lines. Texas A&M publishes an atlas solely for Texas, which also provides information on elevations, cemeteries, and historic sites.

I sometimes bring WPA guides on my road trips, too. While they are definitely not up-to-date, it’s still interesting to see the cities from the experiences of writers who traveled 70 plus years ago. Landscape descriptions have changed, too, which make for interesting reading.

When I get home, Google Earth becomes one of my first stops. It’s fascinating to see from the air the places I had seen earlier on the ground. Often, Google Earth (and Google Maps) help me understand the context of what I saw.

My favorite maps are from the pre-Interstate era, like these two. The Ashburn Map is from the 1950s, and the Conoco Map dates from the late 1930s.

Maps are excellent historic sources and also serve as primary sources, too. I love that geography has become so much a part of my daily life now!

Published in: on May 31, 2011 at 9:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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In Defense of Automobiles

I love a good road trip, and I believe that I’m not alone in sharing that sentiment. I’d wager to guess that the majority of people from all over the world like to move about and see what they haven’t  seen yet, and experience things they haven’t yet come across. To want to get up and go is probably simple human nature.

But I’m also very environmentally conscious. I like my world green and clean. I recycle, plant only native shrubs, grasses, and trees, eat hand-gathered eggs, insulate my house properly, ride my bike to shopping, never litter, and pick up after my dogs.

Thus, many of my travels always come with twangs of guilt. Just last week, I once again took a road trip. This time, I retraced the old route of US Highway 77. Having been bypassed in many places by Interstate 35, it often proved a hard road to follow, but I lucked out and found both official and forgotten remnants along the way. I also discovered right-of-ways of long-abandoned railroad lines (mainly the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad). That, of course, made me think about the environmental impact of all the ways I could travel – by plane, train, or the automobile.

The Southern Pacific Sunbeam and the Sam Houston Zephyr at Dallas Union Station.

The oldest kind of major traveling option are trains, but here in Texas, they are also the most neglected. It used to be that daily trains from Dallas to Houston to Austin to San Antonio to Oklahoma City to Shreveport, et. al., were common sights. Now, those routes have been torn up, to either be used as bike paths or to simply exist as forgotten berms on the side of the road. Today, only three long-distance trains serve Texas (the Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited, and Heartland Flyer), and only one is in Oklahoma (Heartland Flyer). Hopefully, that will change soon, as talks are giving way to action in installing a high-speed rail line.

High-speed railroads are supposed to be THE answer to transportation problems like pollution and congestion. I’m all for them, because locomotives (whether at 60 mph or at 160 mph) use hybrid technology that use less diesel the faster they go, and carry more people per gallon than any other passenger carrier. So, yea for trains.

Planes offer a different experience, of course. They are far from efficient in their carbon footprint, but their speed makes up for their lack of environmental friendliness. I hate flying, though.

Remains of a gas station along US 77

Then, there’s the scourge of the earth – the personal car. When taking into account the gas used per miles driven, and the number of each needed to equal the capacity of one airplane or one train, then environmentally speaking, the car is a MAJOR loser. And I hear about it all the time, too: automobiles are major polluters, co-commuting and less driving will save the earth, etc.

And that’s all true. But I tell you what, cars have also been VERY beneficial in many ways. While I can’t dispute their negative environmental impact, I can say that of all the long-distance traveling options, cars are by far the most democratic. When I was driving along and around US 77, I saw many small mom & pop store, cafes, gas stations, and auto part stores (many still in operation) that crowd the sides of the roads. Airplanes don’t allow for that kind of infrastructure at all, of course, and train stations have limited space to accommodate small businesses. Cars are also quite affordable. Yes, I know they cost money (insurance, payments, taxes, repairs) but these costs can be stretched out over a period of time, whereas plane and train ticket costs cannot. Further, their affordability comes from their accessibility – cars can take you practically anywhere, whereas trains and planes bring you only to certain pre-designated spots. Besides, cars can be used (or not) as needs arise, meaning one can have a “beater car” and still get by.

Taking bikes rock, but driving rocks, too.

It’s not that I don’t favor alternate modes of transport… I definitely do! I take the train as much as I can. I voted for a commuter rail line that by June of this year will come through my town. I also walk to the grocery store and ride my bike to run errands. But, I have to admit – I LOVE my car, too. I love that I can drive around the Red River Valley and discover places I’ve never been to; that I can pick a place on a map and be able to visit it; that I can eat, read, and even sleep inside my car (which I’ve done on occasion, after visiting a ghost town in the middle of nowhere).  The car has provided me with more freedom than any other mode of transportation. I think everyone should feel this kind of freedom, too. Cars should become more affordable, more efficient, smaller, and more reliable. It may not be the “in” thing to say among my fellow tree-hugging friends, but I’ll say it, anyway: cars are cool.

I wouldn't mind road tripping in this.