The Story of Big Bend National Park

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The Story of Big Bend National Park

By John Jameson

A comprehensive, highly readable history of Big Bend National Park from before its founding in 1944 up to the present.



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6 x 9 | 212 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-74042-6

A breathtaking country of rugged mountain peaks, uninhabited desert, and spectacular river canyons, Big Bend is one of the United States' most remote national parks and among Texas' most popular tourist attractions. Located in the great bend of the Rio Grande that separates Texas and Mexico, the park comprises some 800,000 acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, and draws over 300,000 visitors each year.

The Story of Big Bend National Park offers a comprehensive, highly readable history of the park from before its founding in 1944 up to the present. John Jameson opens with a fascinating look at the mighty efforts involved in persuading Washington officials and local landowners that such a park was needed. He details how money was raised and land acquired, as well as how the park was publicized and developed for visitors. Moving into the present, he discusses such issues as natural resource management, predator protection in the park, and challenges to land, water, and air. Along the way, he paints colorful portraits of many individuals, from area residents to park rangers to Lady Bird Johnson, whose 1966 float trip down the Rio Grande brought the park to national attention.

This history will be required reading for all visitors and prospective visitors to Big Bend National Park. For everyone concerned about our national parks, it makes a persuasive case for continued funding and wise stewardship of the parks as they face the twin pressures of skyrocketing attendance and declining budgets.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Prologue. A "Fabulous Corner of the World": An Introduction to Big Bend
  • 1. The Campaign for Texas' First National Park
  • 2. Texas Politics and the Park Movement, 1935-1944
  • 3. A Park for the People from the People: Land Acquisition at Big Bend
  • 4. Promoting a Park to "Excel Yellowstone": Publicity and Public Relations
  • 5. From Dude Ranches to Haciendas: A Half-Century of Planning
  • 6. The "Predator Incubator" and Other Controversies: Managing Natural Resources
  • 7. "The Ultimate 'Tex-Mex Project'": Companion Parks on the Rio Grande
  • 8. Life and Work in a Desert Wilderness: Visitor and Employee Experiences
  • Epilogue. Big Bend at Fifty: Into the Twenty-first Century
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

According to local folklore, an old forgotten cowboy at the turn of the century gave directions to the Big Bend by telling travelers to "go south from Fort Davis until you come to the place where rainbows wait for rain, and the big river is kept in a stone box, and water runs uphill. And the mountains float in the air, except at night when they go away to play with other mountains." Decades later, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall described the "awesome, silent splendor of Big Bend" with its "spectacular mountain and desert scenery, the myriad of wildly improbable geological structures, all enclosed in the great bend of the Rio Grande," all of which "combine to provide an unearthly sense of visiting another world."

Secretary Udall had visited Big Bend National Park in April 1966 with First Lady Mrs. Lyndon Johnson. The purpose of the trip was to promote the See America First campaign and to call attention to the fiftieth anniversary of the National Park Service, an agency in the Department of the Interior. Liz Carpenter, Mrs. Johnson's press secretary, was in charge of planning the itinerary and travel arrangements for over seventy press and White House staff. Big Bend's remote and arid location created a few problems and anxieties for such a large group. To reassure her traveling companions, Carpenter wrote on the itinerary handout, "You are headed for wide open spaces. It is two hours to everything! Relax, take a tranquilizer, enjoy the landscape. It's bigger than all outdoors. It is all outdoors! Get with the wilderness spirit!" Only half-jokingly she had written a warning to the pilot of the chartered American Airlines Electra to "please watch for cattle and antelope on runway" at the Presidio County Airport. Sure enough, as the plane landed a herd of antelope scampered out of the way. Carpenter arranged for a modern-day "Pony Express"--the code name for National Park Service ranger Bill Newbold--to pick up the journalists' stories and photographs at stops along the two-hour bus drive from the airport to Big Bend. Newbold delivered them to the airline captain at Presidio, who then flew to Love Field in Dallas where representatives of the various newspapers, magazines, and wire services met the plane.

Activities for the First Lady and the secretary of the interior (Mrs. Udall also accompanied her husband) included a barbecue and a hike up Lost Mine Trail with a ranger on horseback for security. As Mrs. Johnson stood on the ridge between juniper Canyon and Green Gulch in the Chisos Basin, she commented that "This looks like the very edge of the world." At the end of the first day, she concluded that the Big Bend was indeed "wild country, completely untamed by man, but a good place to come to get your troubles in perspective." In the evening the entourage returned to the cabins in the Chisos Basin.

The highlight of the Big Bend visit was a six-hour, eleven-mile float trip through Mariscal Canyon on the Rio Grande. William Blair, special correspondent to the New York Times, wrote that it was a "wonder" that the First Lady "survived" the adventure. After getting his readers' attention, he explained that there never was any danger, just "traffic jams" which "resembled Times Square at rush hour" as the twenty-four rubber rafts drifted through the shallow (12"-20" deep) and narrow river at a speed of two m.p.h. Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Udall even paddled for twenty-five minutes to give the secretary and the accompanying park ranger a rest. Along the route Mrs. Johnson admired the wildflowers clinging to the canyon walls. Other than occasional Canyon Wrens, White-throated Swifts, and Turkey Buzzards circling above the canyon walls, and feral burros on the Coahuila side, she saw little wildlife. Adding an international touch, four Mexican nationals standing in the shade of riverbank trees shouted greetings to the First Lady. Unknown to Mrs. Johnson, the foursome concealed a stack of candelilla bundles to smuggle across the river. The wax of the plant was used in a variety of products such as chewing gum and shoe polish. At the conclusion of the float trip, Liz Carpenter summed it up as "a wild experience."

The First Lady really did seem to enjoy herself and appreciated the beauty of the park and its environs, an area she had long wanted to visit. Back at the White House later that month, Mrs. Johnson wrote Conrad Wirth, a good friend and former director of the Park Service, about "that fabulous corner of the world." She recalled "watching the Sierra del Carmen mountains about sunset as we had barbecued steaks under the cottonwood trees ... There was every hue of blue, lavender and mist color and the changing light made them look quite magical."

Big Bend had impressed earlier travelers as well. In 1872, over ninety years before the First Lady's visit, Englishman Frank Collinson came to the United States and worked as a cowboy across the Southwest. In September 1882, he climbed onto the rim of Santa Elena Canyon and "drank in the magnificent view, the finest I had seen during my sojourn in the Southwest. There were the mountain ranges of the Big Bend, the Santiago, the Chisos. It was a breath-taking view." Later Collinson would return to ranch in the Big Bend Country from 1888 to 1895 when he left, calling the harsh arid environment "another Pharaoh's Dream--a few good years are followed by more lean years, which eats up all that the good years have made, and then some."

Former Texas Ranger Everett Townsend remembered vividly the first time he saw the Chisos Mountains on August 31, 1894. For Townsend the scenery "was so awe inspiring" that it "touch[ed] the soul of a hardened human bloodhound trained in the relentless service of the Texas Rangers." In fact, he claimed to have seen "God as [I] had never seen Him before." He wrote down the experience in his scout book and vowed "that upon the arrival of my ship I would buy the whole Chisos Mountains as a hunting and playground for myself and friends and that when no longer wanted I would give it to the State."

In 1899 geologist-explorer Robert T. Hill offered a different perspective, this time from the depths of one of the canyons. Here he spent three days blocked by the rock slide within Santa Elena Canyon. "The scene within this cañón is of unusual beauty," he wrote. "The austerity of the cliffs is softened by colors which camera or pen cannot reproduce. These rich tints are like the yellow marble of Portugal and Algiers, warmed by reddening tones which become golden in the sunlight."

Hill could not always find fitting similes for what he saw. "Every other aspect of the Big Bend Country--landscape configuration, rocks, and vegetation-is weird and strange," he wrote, "and of a type unfamiliar to the inhabitants of civilized lands." The Terlingua Desert, according to Hill, was "one of the most bizarre pieces of landscape that can be imagined," and the Chisos Mountains (los Chisos, the ghosts) were "weird forms ... appropriately named." From painful firsthand experience he described the "spiteful vegetation" which "wounded, caught, held, or anchored ... at every step away from the beaten trails." Climbing out of a canyon's depths, he observed the contrast between "the green ribbon of river" and the "stony, soilless hills," noting that the "sight of this aridity almost within reach of the torrent of life-giving waters below ... was shocking and repulsive." Nevertheless, Hill's fascination with the beautiful, the "weird and strange," overshadowed his aversion to the harsh desert. The article Hill published in Century Magazine in 1901 on the expedition through the canyons of the Big Bend would influence legislators decades later to set aside the unique area as a park.

Authorized on June 20, 1935, an Act of Congress established Big Bend as the twenty-seventh national park on June 12, 1944. Located on the 108-mile boundary along the "elbow" the Rio Grande makes on the United States-Mexico border south of El Paso, the park contains over 800,000 acres (about the size of Rhode Island) in southern Brewster County, Texas in the Trans-Pecos region. Arid to semi-arid (5"-20" annual precipitation) in climate, it lies in the northern portion of the Chihuahuan Desert. The topographical and climatic extremes of mountain, desert, and river provide habitats for a variety of plants and animals, including cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits, collared peccaries (or javelinas), pocket mice, kangaroo rats, gray and kit foxes, coyotes, badgers, mountain lions (locally called panthers), beavers, bobcats, pocket gophers, raccoons, Golden Eagles, Cliff Swallows, Roadrunners, copperheads and four species of rattlesnakes, leopard frogs, eleven species of stinging scorpions, tarantulas, Green-winged Teals, blue catfish, long-nosed gars, claret cup cactus, bluebonnets, lechuguilla plants, tamarisks (or salt cedar, an exotic tree), thistles, prickly poppies, and rock-nettle-to give a representative sample. Several species in the United States can only be found at Big Bend: the Del Carmen whitetail deer, the Colima Warbler, and the drooping juniper. One plant species, the Chisos agave, grows nowhere else in the world. Relict flora surviving from the late Pleistocene era in the Chisos Mountains are Ponderosa pine, Arizona cypress, and Douglas fir, living fossils from the Ice Age. All told, Big Bend is home to over 1,000 species of plants, 3,368 insects, 78 mammals, 71 reptiles and amphibians, about 36 fish, and 434 birds (more than any other U.S. park and over one-half the species of birds in North America). No other national park has as many cacti; more than 70 kinds grow in Big Bend, and within an hour's drive there are another dozen varieties. Endangered species found at Big Bend are the Peregrine Falcon, Black-capped Vireo, Mexican long-nose bat, and Big Bend gambusia (a tiny fish discovered only in the ponds of the park).

Humans came relatively late (over ten thousand years ago), and often just passed through on their way to less hostile environments, leaving campsites in caves and rock shelters. Nevertheless, the park archaeologist estimates there are over ten thousand sites at Big Bend from the Late Paleo-Indian (8000-6500 B.C.), Archaic (6500 B.C.-A.D. 1000), Late Prehistoric (A.D. 1000-1535), and Historic eras (A.D. 1535-present) representing the Jornado Mogollon, Chisos, Jumano, Mescalero Apache, and Comanche Indians, among others. Nine National Register archaeological and historic sites or districts document the Indian and Anglo-Mexican presence: Castolon Historic District (trading post), Hot Springs Historic District (recreational and therapeutic springs), Mariscal Mining District, Homer Wilson Ranch Site, Rancho Estelle, Luna's Jacal (a Mexican goatherd's abode) and three archaeological sites. The prehistoric and historic activities occurred over ten millennia Airing which the Big Bend emerged from the end of the Ice Age, passed through a brief wet period when woodlands covered much of the area, and gradually evolved into its present form and climate, the best example in the United States of the Chihuahuan Desert.

The climate changes during human occupation are but the blink of an eye in geological time. The National Park Service considers Big Bend "one of the outstanding geological laboratories and classrooms of the world." According to Apache legend, after creating the universe, the Great Spirit tossed a large pile of leftover boulders and debris on the Big Bend. In fact, over 300 million years of the earth's history are visible to visitors. There are limestone mountains and marine fossils deposited by seas which covered the area during the Paleozoic ("ancient life") and Mesozoic ("middle life") eras 350 to 135 million years ago. During the late Cretaceous period (75 million years ago) the seas receded, giving way to marshes and forests. Fossils of ferns, petrified trees, dinosaurs, and flying reptiles were left, including a specimen of a pterodactyl with a wingspan of thirty-five to thirty-eight feet, the largest flying creature ever. Other recovered fossils of note are a large bivalve (an early oyster) three feet by four feet, the skulls of two crocodile-like dinosaurs (each six feet long), and the intact skull of a chamosaurus (a horned dinosaur). During the late Cretaceous and early Tertiary periods of the Cenozoic era (100 to 40 million years ago), tectonic forces (earthquakes, folds, faults) in the earth's crust created the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre, which includes the Sierra del Carmen and Mariscal and San Vicente anticlines in the Big Bend Country. Block faulting caused the central portion of the park, between the Santiago Mountains to the east and the Mesa de Anguila-Sierra Ponce to the southwest, to drop (Sunken Block), which forced up the Chisos Mountains. The topography of the Big Bend is so barren and jagged that America's astronauts in the 1960s took field trips to the park to prepare them for landing on the moon.

The first mammals in Texas appeared 40 to 100 million years ago in the Big Bend, including ancestors of the panther, hippopotamus, and horse. The fossil bones of some of these extinct animals can be viewed at the exhibit near the Tornillo Creek bridge. About 30 million years ago during the late Eocene period, volcanic activity began and continued for over 15 million years. Big Bend had two volcanoes, one at Sierra Quemada, the other in the vicinity of Pine Canyon, both of which poured out ash and lava visible in the park today as dikes, laccoliths, plugs, and volcanic rocks. Well-known landmarks on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, for example, are Mule Ear Peaks, two dikes left standing when weaker surrounding rock eroded away. The geological forces of volcanism and tectonics mostly ceased eons ago, but erosion caused by wind, sheet flow from flash flooding, and the relentless flow of the Rio Grande continues to shape the topography of the Big Bend. As the river carves deep canyons through Cretaceous limestone, it exposes sunken, tilted blocks, creating an optical illusion of a stream flowing uphill.

Fascination with this strange, ghostly, even magical corner of the world lures an average of 230,000 people each year to Big Bend, a figure well below other national parks. Activities include viewing exhibits in the visitor centers, hiking, river rafting, fishing, horseback riding, birding, camping, and desert exploration; Park Service staff schedule interpretive programs year-round. Many visitors also enjoy panoramic vistas, a sunset from the Basin high in the Chisos, or the chance to escape to the solitude they find in a remote desert wilderness. A recent poll of over two thousand readers of Texas Highways magazine rated the park as one of the Lone Star State's "top tourist attractions" (6th), "favorite vacation destinations" (2d), "top camping areas" (1st), and "scenic drives to remember" (2d). Yet despite its current popularity, the scenic and recreational attractions of the Big Bend Country were not always well known, even to Texans.

John Jameson is Associate Professor of History at Kent State University. He has explored Big Bend since childhood.

"Jameson has a personal relationship with Big Bend, and his appreciation of the park will be apparent to even the casual reader. His work offers students of national parks a valuable case study of the often convoluted process by which such areas are established. More importantly, it affords park enthusiasts a glimpse into the lively historical and vital contemporary issues that contribute to their experience while visiting this jewel of the national park system."
Environmental History

"The Story of Big Bend is worth the read for anyone wanting ot learn what lives within the park, both in scenery and species, and the efforts undertaken by those willing to fight for it. As any natural area, its story will outlive us. Perhaps that is why we keep returning to it."
—Jessica Schneider, Austin Cultural Events Examiner