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.

Cool Schools

I have to admit that I absolutely HATED school, back when I was forced to go. I honestly believed that the worst invention in history had to have been high school. My bias changed once I went to college. Although I never set foot on any ivy-covered campus, the experiences and eye-opening views I discovered in junior colleges and a small, public, regional university helped me to really appreciate the benefits of an education. I liked the college experience so much, in fact, that I now teach at a community college.

That’s why I decided that I’d give a presentation on the history of schools for an adult extension class. I’ve been driving all around the area – particularly through Oklahoma – to catch some old schools with my camera. So many of the schools sit as ruined hulks on the side of the road, or stand abandoned in the middle of towns… which tells a lot about how shabbily we treat history.

The remains of a school on an Oklahoma prairie.

The remains of a school on an Oklahoma prairie.

Unlike the Old World, where cathedrals and mosques sit prominently in the hearts of their cities and villages, schools were the centers of communities in the United States.  Contrary to popular opinion today, the U.S. has always valued education, and towns had real stakes in the achievements of their young. One might be Baptist, or Methodist, or Jewish, an atheist or a Quaker, but most people had a child or a niece or a nephew or a favorite neighborhood kid that they wanted to see succeed, and so schools became the great equalizers.

Of course, that’s a rosy view (pun intended, which you’ll understand here in a minute). African Americans, particularly in the South, didn’t enjoy the equalizing effects that education was supposed to provide. At one point, Texas even had a segregated taxing system for schools! Black children were helped through efforts of local citizens as well as by progressive reformers like the Julius Rosenwald Foundation (get the pun?), which distributed funds to help black communities build better school houses and hire qualified teachers.

What used to be a Rosenwald school in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, a freeman's town established after the Civil War.

What used to be a Rosenwald school in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, a freedman's town established after the Civil War.

Education was important for Native Americans as well. While Plains Indians were forced into boarding schools (sometimes far removed from their homes), other tribes, like the Choctaws and Chickasaws, decided on pre-emptive strikes and opened up their own schools, or academies. By the late 1840s, several of these academies served both boys and girls – and even adults, during Saturday classes – all around southeastern Oklahoma.

Wheelock Academy, the first school established by the Choctaws after their removal to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), is now a National Historic Landmark. The old administration building, built in the 1880s, still stands.

Wheelock Academy, the first school established by the Choctaws after their removal to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), is now a National Historic Landmark. The old administration building, built in the 1880s, still stands.

Until the 1940s, many students attended schools inside one room school houses. During bad weather – or after the harvest or planting periods – teachers could have up to 50 students in their classrooms, all squeezed together in a drafty, clap-board covered room. Teachers would have to arrive at least an hour before their students in order to get the stove going,  and would leave only after the school house was clean (naughty kids would help with that chore if need be). Especially for women, teaching could be hard going. Prior to the Second World War, female teachers were expected to be unmarried, and they made about a third of what a male teacher earned.  The efforts of the teacher’s unions helped to bring pay equity throughout the country.

The progressive era (turn of the 20th century) helped to foster the idea of high schools. Until that time, high school diplomas were quite rare – most schooling stopped at the 8th grade. However, reform movements, the push towards standardization of education, the proliferation of colleges and universities, and child labor laws created demand for further education. By the 1940s, attending high school had become the norm, which in turn made them true community centers. An entire youth culture developed around them… homecoming dances, proms, yearbooks, football games, “cruising,” and teen movies and novels created memories and lasting impressions.

The beautiful Denison high school, which anchored the western end of Main Street, was razed in 2007. And now a CVS Pharmacy will occupy the spot! Yea, progress!

The beautiful Denison high school, which anchored the western end of Main Street, was razed in 2007. And now a CVS Pharmacy will occupy the spot! Yea, progress!

Today, our high schools tend to be built outside of the city center. I may not be a sociologist, but I have to wonder…

**** soap box alert ****

… if the reason kids aren’t doing too well in school, including having discipline problems, high pregnancy rates, and lacking in higher learning, may have to do with the removal of schools from the middle of town. New schools tend to be built on cheap land away from business and neighborhoods. Most lack windows, and instead of students seeing their communities when they leave the building, they see the vast gray of parking lots. Some schools – like my high school in Paris, Texas – look almost like warehouses. When kids feel marginalized, might they tend to act out?

Then again, the high school in Lewisville (where I live) sits smack-dab in the center of town, even though it was initially built away from town in the 1960s. Suburban growth will do that to a building. The school is a part of life in this city now, and it’s quite nice, seeing students walk to the drug store, Burger King, library, the grocery store, Sonic – it’s as if my town is anchored to the school. In the Fall, I can hear the football games from my bedroom window, and that’s kid of neat (although I have never watched an entire football game in my life).

While I never did care much for compulsory education, I sure do like its history.

Ghost Hunting

David (my son) and I have become very fond of the show Ghost Adventures, which airs every Friday night at 8 pm (CST) on the Travel Channel.  In this show, three film makers lock themselves inside a haunted location overnight, then use recording equipment to obtain some kind of evidence on otherworldly events. 

While the team on Ghost Adventurescan be annoying, they have inspired us to partake in our own ghost hunting. Not overnight and not in very scary places, mind you – I am way too chicken for that. I once visited the House of Torture at Scarborough Faire and was so freaked out, I clung to this strange woman, who in turn clung to me, and we both made it through only because we kept our eyes shut and our mouths screaming. Due to that terror-ific incident, I keep myself FAR away from anything too spooky, including slasher movies and unlit hallways.

No, our ghost hunting is much more mundane. Over New Year’s, David, Raymond and I visited the Fort Worth Stockyards and stayed at the Stockyards Hotel (I give this hotel 5 stars, by the way). We explored around the stockyards station, which consists of old hog and sheep pens that have been converted, for the most part, into restaurants and shops. Towards the now-defunct slaughter houses, however, the original ramps and halls remain pretty much intact. We poked around and caught these “orbs” on camera:

"Orbs" (either disembodied spirits or dust balls) at the animal loading ramp in the Fort Worth Stockyards.

"Orbs" (either disembodied spirits or dust balls) at the animal loading ramp in the Fort Worth Stockyards.

David was pretty excited to have captured what may be evidence from the other side… or evidence of bad air quality.

The next weekend or thereabouts, I took David to Boggy Depot State Park just west of Tushka, Oklahoma, and to Fort Washita, west of Durant, Oklahoma, to do some more ghost hunting. Boggy Depot is now a ghost town, but used to be the seat of the Choctaw Nation, then for a while, the Chickasaw Nation, until the town was abandoned when the railroad bypassed it and the Chickasaw Nation seat moved to Tishomingo. Fort Washita, founded in 1842, served as a supply stop,military depot, was an important camp during the Mexican American War in 1848.  

I had told David about a strange encounter I once had at the Boggy Depot cemetery, where I had smelled perfume around a headstone, and my camera had gone berserk on me. David wanted to see if he could replicate the experience, or at least find some other kind of unexplainable phenomena. I tacked on a visit to Fort Washita simply because I’ve heard a number of ghost stories about Fort Washita from different people over the years.

Nothing happened at all that day, except that it was bitterly cold, and my sunglasses broke when I played on the teeter totter (don’t ask). David did record some strange sounds on his Digital Voice Recorder, but that was it. We took some pretty interesting pictures, though. One gravesite was especially intriguing:

This child's grave at Boggy Depot is strange... the sandstone tombstone is worn down, so a new stone was placed in front of it. That in itself is not strange. Notice the broken lamp, however. Why's that there?

This child's grave at Boggy Depot is strange... the sandstone tombstone is worn down, so a new stone was placed in front of it. That in itself is not strange. Notice the broken lamp, however. Why's that there?

Just below the headstone lie shards of a fairly old, white plate. I could make out the name "Langdon" on it. The name was stenciled on the plate in blue, and then was glazed and fired, so the plate may have been a family heirloom. The deceased boy's last name was Langdon.

Just below the headstone lie shards of a fairly old, white plate. I could make out the name "Langdon" on it. The name was stenciled on the plate in blue, and then was glazed and fired, so the plate may have been a family heirloom. The deceased boy's last name was Langdon.

I don’t quite understand the artifacts.  I do respect that each family has their own unique way of mourning, and this may be remnants of their personal grief. The items are interesting and quite mysterious.

So, we didn’t find any ghosts, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop looking. There are a few more places to seek out wandering spirits around here. ..

Published in: on January 19, 2009 at 3:56 am  Comments (5)  

Curiosity is not just killing the Cat

Lately, I have been getting what Laura Ingalls Wilder called “itchy feet:” I’m just so itching to get out of the house and explore whatever suits my fancy – and this curiosity is killing me (hence the witty – cough – title of this post). What with teaching, the preps for teaching, the grading, and the work I’m doing on my books and future classes, I haven’t had much time.  I did go hunting for some railroad relics this past weekend, and found a few, so I’m not destitute for discoveries, yet.

I encountered this ca. 1915 suspension bridge near Sherman, Texas.

But I just bought a 1934 Conoco Map of Texas from E-Bay. Good grief, does that make for some interesting reading. Ferry crossings are dotted all along the Red River, as well as old toll bridges that do not exist anymore. I went to Google Maps (thank goodness for satellite imagry) and was able to find remnants of these toll bridges, so guess what I’ll be doing in the near future?!

There is nothing in the world that comes close to finding places that time has forgotten. These small pieces of the historical puzzle just fill me with absolute wonder. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of exploring the backwaters around here. And believe me, there are some real backwaters to explore.

I guess my interest in the Red River Valley of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana might seem rather mundane for people who live around really old, settled history – let’s face it, the ghost towns I encounter can’t even hold a candle to the ghosts of Pompeii, and the ruins I photograph are rather puny when compared to the cavernous insane asylums of the Northeast. Yes, consider yourselves envied, you people of the history book places. Still, I LOVE the fact that some of the places I encounter may have never been explored at all – it’s almost pioneer-like, in a way. Like woman on the moon or something.

If you happen to read any of these entries and are wondering what the heck I’m talking about, come visit my website, Red River Historian. Also, for a great way to loose yourself for a couple of hours in some fantastic photography and conversation, visit the Urban Exploration Forums. You can also find a kindred spirit in Forgotten New York, a website devoted to exploring the side of New York and its burroughs that urban redevelopment has missed (at least for the moment).

If you know of a cool place you think I’d like, or if you’d like to share what you’ve found, just post a comment!

Published in: on October 21, 2008 at 3:07 am  Comments (5)  

Summer Plans

Palo Duron Canyon

Image above is of Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the United States and the birthplace of the Red River. It is located near Amarillo, Texas. Hah, and you thought the Texas panhandle was flat!

This is turning out to be an exciting summer. I can’t wait to tell the very, very few people who stumble upon my site about all the planning that is going on here in Red River Historian-ville!

First, I bought a Volkswagon Jetta TDI (diesel), and I have begun putting biodiesel B100 in my tank. I now have ca. 80% less emissions than a gas car, and I also get about 40 mpg. Not too shabby! I found a great place for biodiesel in the Dallas/Fort Worth Area, . The station is located along Long Avenue next to 35 W in Fort Worth.  The Sun Travel Plaza in Denton also sells B20, and if you happen to own (or are considering purchasing) a diesel car/truck, you can find out where you can purchase biodiesel in your neck of the woods at (this link lists Texas only, but you can snoop around and find your own state).

Summer is going to be busy, too. In June, I’ll be attending a workshop in Michigan on the history of the Ford company’s dealings with labor issues. This workshop is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities ( I’ve got a ton of reading to get done by the time of the workshop, which will last a week. Hmm, maybe I should be reading instead of blogging…?

I also have two, possibly three trips planned, in addition to teaching a summer class. I will be making my final Bonnie and Clyde (see: ) trip in June, where I’ll be visiting sites in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa. Then, I’m taking the annual pilgrimmage to Galveston to enjoy sun and surf at the Red Neck Riveria. Towards the end of summer, I’m hoping to take a week and a half to travel out west: I want to visit the Petrified Forest National Park (, Grand Canyon National Park ( , the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car Exhibit at Primm Valley Casino in Nevada ( , Zion National Park (, Durango, Colorado (, and Boise City, Oklahoma, where travelers and cattle drivers left their names on autograph rock along the Santa Fe Trail ( I’ve planned the trip so that I can drive through Monument Valley (, too. Man, I’m hoping that all works out schedule-wise and I’ll be able to do that.

Anyway… my books are coming along quite nicely, too. I should have them ready to go by the end of summer, hopefully.

Hope that whoever is out there (you are welcome to comment, I won’t bite!) will also have a great, safe, and not-too-hot summer!


Published in: on May 21, 2008 at 6:48 pm  Comments (2)  

Additions to My Site = More to Explore!

Abandoned Store in Hutchinson

This old plantation store between Shreveport and Natchitoches, Louisiana, is where sharecroppers, who were paid with scrip, would buy what they needed from the plantation owner.

I’ve always meant to add information on Lousiana and Arkansas to my site, but time constraints have never allowed me sufficient time to explore those areas as much as I wanted. Which is funny, because most of my family lives in eastern Texas and Louisiana.

I decided that this year, I will include Louisiana and Arkansas into the “fold” – after all, my site is called Red River Historian. And the river certainly runs through those states, too! The Red River has a real presence in Louisiana’s history, and althogh my focus has been on western history, I’ve made the committment (and it wasn’t hard to committ, anyway) to learn and discover more about southern history.

It’s strange how until recently, the history of the US South has not been a big interest of mine. I think it stems from the proliferation of histories that deal with the South. The South is arguably the most-studied region in US history, especially the antebellum and Civil War periods, and somtimes it’s hard to wrap my head around it. I’m not a big Civil War fan, so I will continue to “gloss over” the war except when necessary, but I am interested in the periods of Americanization after the Louisiana Purchase.  So this is good news… it means I have a lot more exciting things to discover!

Published in: on April 5, 2008 at 3:31 pm  Comments (3)  

Hidden Dallas


The tiled floor peaks out from underneath the asphalt of a parking lot in downtown Dallas reminds me of what has been lost.

Passenger service to St Louis from Dallas via the Texas and Pacific – now, the Amtrak takes the intrepid traveler to that destination.
I know there are many, many people out there who have a low opinion of Dallas (I’m not naming names, but you know who you are). Fortunately, I’m not one of them. I think Dallas is pretty nifty. Yes, some parts are ugly, there are WAY too many ‘iffy’ neighborhoods, and the differences between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ are palatable. And, besides the always insightful and slightly neurotic Dallas Observer, the city only has one newspaper

However… Dallas is a real card. This city tries to be fancy and cosmopolitan, but its shady little past always keeps popping up in the most unexpected places.

I took a drive through Dallas the other day to visit a bunch of sights -the Texas Theater in Oak Cliff, Old City Hall, Old Red Museum, JFK Memorial (you know, the usual Kennedy tour) and while moseying around, I spotted some very interesting hints of what Dallas used to be like.

On Elm Street, just south of the US 75 bridge, one can see an old Texas and Pacific advertisement painted on the side of a commercial building – a tribute to Deep Ellum’s railroad past, where the T&P would lumber on Pacific Avenue, the next street over. In a parking lot just a few blocks up from Deep Ellum are the remains of what once was a magnificently tiled floor of some poor, demolished building.

I’ve promised myself that very soon I’ll be taking a visit to the DeGoyler Library at SMU to hunt down some more vintage Dallas photos, just so I can see what Pacific Avenue used to look like with the trains slicing through its middle. I also like to picture the way Dallas was before that bohemoth, Interstate 30, was built and cut off the southern part of downtown (on occasion, I’ve had people gripe that Fair Park was so far away, when it’s really just a mile from Union Station!)

Oh, how I wish Dallas looked like it used to…

Published in: on February 5, 2008 at 3:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Driving and discovering


I took a couple of roadtrips this past weekend. My road trips are usually local – I don’t drive very far because I like to know where I am. I want to see the locations behind the history. Since I’m learning so much about the history of the Red River Valley, I guess that’s why I continue to explore that region.

My class had told me about a ghost town named Dexter in Cooke County, Texas. Dexter used to be close to Gainesville, TX in size, but it was slowly abandoned after the ferry stopped running and the railroad decided not to lay its tracks around Dexter (the topography is not really suitable for tracks, as just 15 miles south the terrain is much flatter). Ergo, Dexter is a town no longer.

I found the remains of the old downtown hidden behind trees, including a vault that stands amid the foundation of what used to be the bank. Its iron shutter doors, a form of fire saftey at the turn of the century, remain intact, though the vault itself is crumbling. In a few years’ time, the entire structure will cave in on itself (maybe with the help of a few people who desire some of the loose bricks).

Besides the vault, a church, and two cemeteries, an old store (?) school (?) is the only builidng left standing in this once busy town that hugged the Red River.

As usual, I started to contemplate the fragility of the human story in the American West. Far from being unique, ghost towns litter the landscape around here, testament to the many failures of the capitalistic experiment the West was to settlers, immigrants, and industry. Withits few ruins, Dexter symbolizes the tenuous hold that people had in this region, and the rapidity of development and progress – founded in 1873 (Post Office opening), the city of Dexter had outlived its purpose by1900.

I love to read these ruins, because I feel that when I do, I allow the story to continue.

Published in: on February 5, 2008 at 1:16 am  Leave a Comment