Big Bend
Administrative History
NPS Logo

Redrawing the Boundaries of Science: 1937-1944 (continued)

Marsh's words went unheeded by NPS officials, as more pressing needs prevailed on the American side of the Rio Grande. Rollin H. Baker, a graduate student at Texas A&M College, worked in the summer of 1937 as a technician conducting an entomological survey of the future park location. For over 100 days, Baker went first to the Chisos Mountains and then fanned out across the lower elevations of southern Brewster County. The technician noted the presence of "a beautiful, tiger-striped, long-winged butterfly" in Juniper Canyon as one of the more unusual species. Nights spent on foot in Boot Canyon were punctuated by "the growls of bobcats and foxes," while during the day Baker and his crew observed "many deer, eagles, and other wild animals." He found most interesting the hike to Boquillas, where "the farmers irrigate their land along the river affording insects a wonderful playground amid the thick vegetation of the irrigated flood plain." Boquillas had a great variety of butterflies, among them the milkweed butterfly "clustering on all types of vegetation." Baker and his partners made note of a party from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago that "spent several weeks in camp with us in late July and early August." This group sought reptiles and mammals, and Baker "enjoyed several collecting trips with them learning much from them in the ways of collecting." Baker also traveled westward to Santa Elena Canyon, where he found that its "insect fauna . . . closely resembled that of points further down the river." He concluded that "though I have collected in the Big Bend Proposed Park Area some two thousand specimens of the insect fauna, I feel that three and one-half months in an area as large as this region is not fully adequate for more than a beginning on an entomological survey." He suggested to the park service that "the area can be worked a great deal more for insect abundance and types, and there are many interesting ecological studies to be dwelt upon before a final survey can be accomplished." [11]

While Rollin Baker hiked across southern Brewster County in search of insects, the NPS approached Dr. Omer E. Sperry of Sul Ross to collect plant specimens for the future national park. Sperry, who had consulted in the past with NPS biologist Walter McDougall, asked one of his students, Barton C. Warnock, to join him in the field for the summer of 1937. Warnock, who would become the most prominent local scholar of Big Bend vegetation, took advantage of the collection of plants housed on the Sul Ross campus before accompanying Ross Maxwell and his student assistants on a survey of the area. Warnock's efforts were hindered by the lack of transportation throughout the area, and he concentrated on the Chisos Mountains "and the various interesting canyons that open into the Basin." He recorded a large Juniper tree of some 40 feet in height and two feet in diameter growing near the "Window," while the north slope of Mount Emory had a stand of large Douglas firs. When he moved down to Boot Spring, Warnock found the firs and the Arizona Cypress "to be the outstanding trees beautifying this area." [12]

The Sul Ross student then explored the Rio Grande from Boquillas to Lajitas, reporting that "the two most interesting places visited . . . were Boquillas Canyon and Mesa de Angu[i]la." Warnock and the survey crew "were able to wade and swim about a mile down the Boquillas Canyon," and they carried out "several nice specimens" from the banks of the river. Other notable sites for Warnock were Santa Elena Canyon, where he found "a species of Acacia which appears to be different from those previously collected," a weeklong trek through the Dead Horse Mountains, and another week collecting below the South Rim. Warnock reported that the most common plant in the area surrounding the Chisos Mountains was lechuguilla, followed by nearly a dozen other cacti. His final report included mention of some 500 species, of which 60 percent had not been recorded in earlier surveys. [13]

Yet another student researcher assigned to the Chisos CCC camp in the summer of 1937 was Tarleton Smith, a graduate student at the University of Texas. He worked with Karl P. Schmidt, curator of reptiles for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, to identify specimens for future investigations of the park. Smith would travel around the basin and the lower elevations with Rollin Baker and Barton Warnock. Each day Smith and his companions would drive or hike up and down the canyons of the basin, with Smith most interested in "collecting and observing frogs, lizards, and snakes." His research included "observing their actions in obtaining food, courtship, and general activity." Smith then would try to photograph animal life, and bring back specimens for recording at camp in the evening. At summer's end, Smith returned to Chicago, where he worked closely with Karl Schmidt to prepare the identifications. Smith noted that the Field Museum had "a wonderful collection of books and papers at our disposal pertaining to the study of reptiles, probably one of the most complete collections in existence." The museum also provided other specimens that allowed for comparison of the Big Bend items, "while the wide experience and knowledge of Mr. Schmidt in the field of herpetology and in the precise manner of preparing a scientific paper were most illuminating and invaluable." Smith's work did encounter some difficulties, as "there were certain discrepancies in the literature published on a few species." This he found "especially true in the case of the racerunner lizards." Smith also faced "a scarcity of material, as in some cases only one specimen of a reptile was available." [14]

Once the student workers had departed the Big Bend area, NPS regional geologist Charles Gould returned in December 1937 to examine the status of scientific research as rumors circulated of the closing of the CCC camp in the Chisos basin. Gould joined Walter McDougall and the NPS chief naturalist, H.E. Rothrock, on a brief survey that focused primarily on the findings of Ross Maxwell. Gould's previous six visits to the area led to the conclusion that "the geology of the Big Bend is extremely complex." He noted the "great Cretaceous rocks . . . aggregating many thousands of feet in thickness," while "these beds have been faulted and folded in a very complicated manner." Further faulting and volcanic activity gave "rise to great numbers of dikes, sills and plugs." For these reasons, the park service had asked Maxwell in 1936 to prepare a geologic map, and to collect materials for a geological museum. Gould could report that Maxwell spent some nineteen months in the field, and that his work "has been of a high order." While "much yet remains to be done," said Gould, "and it will probably be many years before the last word has been said on the subject," the NPS official felt confident that Maxwell had made Big Bend's geologic history "fairly well understood." [15]

Gould also deduced from Maxwell's work that Big Bend would need "a competent vulcanologist to pass upon the origin and method of occurrence of the volcanic rocks in the area," as well as "an igneous petrographer to study under the microscope, and describe, these rocks." The park service then should dispatch "an invertebrate paleontologist, well versed in Cretaceous . . . fossils," as well as a "vertebrate paleontologist, to describe the dinosaur and other vertebrate remains." Finally, Gould asked for "a phytopaleontologist, to name and identify the fossil wood and other plant remains." The regional geologist knew that "this is rather a tall order, and calls for the best efforts of a number of men, each eminent in his own narrow specialty." Yet Gould saw in Maxwell's mapping and collecting the basis of "a complete knowledge of the geology of the Big Bend." As of December 1937, Gould had found in the CCC camp museum nearly 2,600 specimens of invertebrates, vertebrates, minerals, and rocks. "For his faithful work," concluded Gould, "both in the preparation of the geologic map, and in the collecting and preparing of the museum material, Dr. Maxwell deserves great credit." The NPS geologist believed that Maxwell "has a broad knowledge of his subject, is industrious and accurate, and has performed a difficult task in a workmanlike manner." [16]

Park service officials could add to Maxwell's data in the spring of 1938 the report of Omer Sperry, whose student Barton Warnock had indicated the extent of Big Bend's biological richness in his own study of the previous autumn. Sperry had devoted portions of the preceding eighteen months to "the collection, determination, and classification of the plants in the area." In addition, the Sul Ross biology professor had taken a series of photographs of plant life in the Big Bend, and conducted a study of "the effects of grazing as indicated by the re-establishment of plants in a few protected areas." Sperry had focused much of his time to the ferns, gymnosperms, and other flowering plants. He built upon the pioneering work of Walter McDougall, expanding the original list of 59 specimens to some 1,281 by the end of 1937. When added to the work of Ernest Marsh in Mexico, and Barton Warnock's data, Sperry could report that the "collection of the National Park Service, now housed in the Department of Biology at Sul Ross College in Alpine, contains close to 2200 specimens." Sperry believed that the final study would contain some 900 distinct plant species within Big Bend National Park. [17]

The biologist also noted that "since the names of many canyons, mountains, hills, and local sites used within the area are local and are not included in any list upon any available maps of the area," he and Warnock devised their own list of place names for reference. He also encouraged the park service to send a professional photographer to the area to record the plant life, as his own efforts were hindered by the intense light and inadequate equipment at his disposal. This would be of special benefit to the study of the six "grazing check plots in the original project." Sperry took notes of the vegetation to detail changes in the preceding year. "Several years will be needed to complete and draw definite conclusions regarding the return of the vegetation to what might be termed its normal condition," wrote Sperry. Yet "it is obvious," he believed, "that the region is greatly over-grazed and that limited and restricted grazing should be carried out if that phase of the park[']s beauty is to be developed." Sperry knew that "this report includes much more work than could have been possible of accomplishment during the 60 days allowed." This would mean compilation of a complete list of plants, and "much work should be done on the ecology, pathology, and the general biology of the area to build a basic scientific foundation necessary [for] information and publications that can be made available to the visiting and interested public in connection with a national park area." [18]

The benefit of these studies became evident in the fall of 1938, as the Santa Fe regional office notified the national media that "three plants previously unreported to science have been found in the proposed Big Bend National Park of Texas." NPS officials acknowledged the work of Ernest Marsh, as Paul Standley, nationally recognized botanist and curator of the Field Museum, named two of Marsh's discoveries: "a wild mallow (Abutilon marshii), which is similar to a hollyhock but has smaller flowers; and a wild nightshade (Chamaesaracha marshii)." This latter specimen Standley described as "a flowering plant of the potato family." As for the third new species, "a shrub locally known as 'senisa,'" Standley called it "Leucophyllum pennelli." The NPS press release said that it "resembles a snapdragon, belongs to the figwort family, and has been named for Dr. Francis W. Pennel, Curator of Plants in the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences." [19]

With the closure of the CCC camp, and the impending completion of Ross Maxwell's geologic map, the park service had to rethink its priorities for scientific work in the Big Bend area. In August 1939, Herbert Maier responded to inquiries from the Washington office about Maxwell's future. Carl Russell, chief naturalist for the park service, had wanted Maxwell to replace Charles Gould as regional geologist while the latter took a temporary position in NPS headquarters. "It is our plan," wrote Maier, "to assign Dr. Maxwell to the geological problems in connection with the CCC program in the State of Texas as suggested by Dr. Russell." The acting regional director added that "this is the work which Dr. Maxwell should actually be performing considering that his salary is being met from camp funds." Maier also wanted to "utilize Dr. Maxwell in an advisory capacity on most of the jobs that are planned for the Big Bend CCC camp because of his familiarity with 'every inch' of the area." Yet another task that Maier could assign to Maxwell would be "the study of the water supply situation in the various State Parks of Texas." Maier considered this of particular value to Big Bend, as "the only body of water in the entire area is the Rio Grande." Since the NPS planned to locate "the major tourist development and administrative buildings in the Chisos Mountains," said Maier, "this makes the matter of water supply a major problem." [20]

Water issues would persist in Big Bend for the remainder of the twentieth century, making the first impressions of Maxwell and other NPS officials important for future policy planners. Maier told NPS inspector John Diggs in December 1939 that "we should look toward a complete survey and scientific analysis of the underground water resources of this important area." Maier wanted Diggs to consider available supplies in the Chisos Basin, as current plans were that "the intensive development be located on the first shelf to the south and the operation at that point will eventually result in quite a high consumption." The acting regional director wondered if "water will have to be pumped up from wells in Oak Creek Canyon in the bottom of the Basin as now obtains in the case of the CCC camp." Some water might be found in the second and third shelves, said Maier, but "quite probably the major supply will eventually have to be brought over from Boot Spring." Maier asked Diggs to determine how much money such a survey would require, as "we are being continually cautioned regarding travel and per diem allowances." If Maxwell "is to receive free lodging while in the area and may do his own cooking," wrote Maier, "his will constitute a typical case which certain auditors now in the field are looking for and which may result in a later demand for reimbursement, in part, a thing which is always painful to the traveler." Thus Maier asked Maxwell to "await the establishing of the CCC camp in the Big Bend so that that camp can bear the expense of his study." [21]

The press of business elsewhere in the NPS system kept Ross Maxwell and other park service officials from examining the issue of water supply until the spring of 1940. Then H.E. Rothrock noted a story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about the water problems facing the newly reopened CCC camp in the Chisos Basin. The acting chief naturalist for the park service apologized to Herbert Maier for not getting to Big Bend that winter to undertake such a study, but offered several recommendations for the CCC officials. Among these were monitoring of withdrawals from the camp reservoir, as "the reserves are definitely limited and the use of the area should be planned with this limitation in mind." Rothrock reminded Maier that "the reservoir is charged by water from the rains and snows which fall within the 9-square-mile acreage of the Basin." Runoff, seepage underground, transpiration, and evapotranspiration affected discharge levels, as well as use by the general public. "On my last visit to the area," reported the naturalist, "I was advised that the water level had been lowered appreciably in the wells, due to the generous use of these supplies by the CCC camp." Rothrock warned that "the volume or storage capacity of the reservoir could be estimated, but so many unknown factors exist that this approach to the problem is not practicable until more geologic data are available." For those reasons, Rothrock suggested that measurements of use, recharge, and evaporation should be taken frequently, and that this process continue "during the entire period of occupancy of the CCC camp." [22]

Water quantity and overuse was a serious issue for the NPS and its geologists. More amusing for Ross Maxwell was the rumor of a meteorite striking the Big Bend area. E.M. Flynn, a mining engineer from Toronto, Ontario, had traveled to west Texas in 1916 to search for mineral deposits. Flynn told Oscar E. Monnig of Fort Worth in 1939 that "an Old Mexican prospector whose name I have completely forgotten told me about a meteorite which he had found on the south side of the Chisos [Mountains]." The prospector brought a piece of the meteorite to Flynn, who sent it to the Smithsonian Institution for analysis. "They reported that it was a genuine meteorite," said Flynn, but could pay no more than shipping costs for its acquisition. When Flynn told the Mexican prospector that "there would be no great profit in selling it he evidently became suspicious and evasive and finally left me with the impression that the meteorite was probably across the river on the Mexican side of the line." Flynn never saw the location of the meteorite, and suggested to Monnig that "probably the only way to find the meteorite now is to get the information from some Mexican prospectors or cow punchers from that neighborhood." [23]

Maxwell pursued the meteorite story by asking several area ranchers their opinion of the tale. Robert Cartledge of Castolon and G.E. Babb of Terlingua recalled that "Flynn stayed for some time with Thomas Skaggs of Lajitas," leading both to believe that "the meteorite is in the vicinity of Lajitas." Maxwell wrote to Skaggs, who claimed no knowledge of the meteorite's location, nor was he able to reach Petra Alvarado, "the innkeeper at Lajitas," whom Babb and Cartledge suggested also might validate Flynn's story. Several other local residents, including the CCC camp caretaker, Lloyd Wade, knew of the meteorite story, but had no conclusive evidence of its location. This prompted Maxwell to hike into the Juniper Canyon area, looking for what was described as a fifteen-to-twenty ton object. "The fact that the Mexican prospector gave Flynn a piece of the meteorite," reported Maxwell, "indicates that the body was too large for a man to carry comfortably." The NPS geologist speculated that "if it is a large meteorite and struck in the loose debris of the canyon wall it probably buried itself." He also guessed that "if it struck the solid rock wall of the canyon it would probably make a scar that would show for a long period of time." [24]

Maxwell had to report that he had found "no scar of any type that might have been produced by the impact of a meteor." Hindering his investigation was the "rank overgrowth of vegetation in Juniper Canyon." This Maxwell attributed to higher precipitation levels in the basin than there had been for years. "Weeds, grass, and shrubs cover virtually all the surface," reported the geologist, "making it almost impossible to find a small meteoritic body even if one should exist." Yet the regional geologist wanted further investigation, perhaps by utilizing CCC employees when the Chisos camp reopened. The NPS should "select a few boys who have some curiosity and like to look at different kinds of rock and have a desire to prowl around to aid in the search." Maxwell also suggested more interviews with local residents. Bud Kimbel and A.R. Davis "usually work around the ranches near Marathon during the summer," said Maxwell, "and operate hunting camps or trap during the autumn and winter months." Both men had "prospected extensively in the Big Bend Country," and merited further inquiry from Lloyd Wade. Maxwell then recommended a conversation with the children of Harve Dodson, "whose ranch headquarters were at the stone cabin below the South Rim." Dodson, in Maxwell's opinion, "probably knew that locality better than anyone," and his "interest in prospecting and curiosity of different kinds of rock and mineral may have lead him to discover the alleged meteorite." Dodson's daughter, Nona, had married Pablo Baisa, a goat-herder near Marathon who had prospected on both sides of the Rio Grande. Then the CCC caretaker could inquire of the current seekers of the meteorite, among them Oscar Monnig, a Professor Goldich and his class of geology students from Texas A&M College, and Dr. E.H. Sellards, director of the Texas bureau of economic geology and the new Memorial Museum in Austin. [25]

One intriguing tangent to the Flynn story was Maxwell's discovery of other reports of meteorites in the Big Bend area. In August 1921, Lloyd Wade had been a superintendent at the Mariscal Mine when he witnessed a meteor fall to earth. Wade told Maxwell that "there was a streak of light much brighter than the sunlight and a sizzling, popping noise." After this came "a brighter flash and an explosion." Maxwell reported that the meteor "appeared, to Mr. Wade and others around the mine who saw it, to explode and fall in the vicinity of the Elephant Tusk." Guadalupe Hernandez, in 1921 a resident of Terlingua Abaja, had been plowing his fields when he heard "a roaring noise toward the Chisos Mountains." Hernandez took this as the onset of a rainstorm, but "instead of seeing clouds, the sky was perfectly clear." Then Hernandez saw "a flash like lightning and a noise like thunder over the southern Chisos Mountains." This frightened Hernandez, who later learned that "a star had fallen, and that if he could find it, he should give it to the Priest, as everything that fell from heaven belonged to the [Catholic] Church." Maria "Dona Chata" Sada then added a story where in 1911, "while she and Juan were living in Boquillas, Mexico, they were awakened by a roaring noise and flash of light which they believed to be a meteor that appeared to strike the earth in the Chisos Mountains." Maxwell considered her story valid, as "Dona Chata does not know Mr. Flynn, nor had she heard about the meteorite described by him." Ben Ordones had told Maxwell that a "Sr. Rocdindo Morin Rodriques (now deceased) found a small meteorite several years ago near Study Butte." He had taken it to Terlingua, but local residents had no memory of this. Finally, Maxwell had searched the area with Everett Townsend, who had written in his "scout book" for October 9, 1937: "'I saw a small dark colored stone, said to be a meteorite which fell in Jake Hargus' yard a few weeks ago. Someone had broken it. It appeared to be very hard, but to contain little mineral. Quien sabe?'" [26]

More substantial research on Big Bend's scientific features occurred in the spring of 1940, when Walter McDougall made a special trip to the northern part of the future park with Omer Sperry. They went to the Dagger Flats vicinity, then to Pine Canyon, and on to the Chisos basin for a conversation with Lloyd Wade. McDougall and Sperry noted that "an abundance of rain and snow during the past winter" had made the blooming season "especially fine this spring." The NPS now recognized five distinct species of cacti in the Big Bend area (yucca thompsoniana, yucca alata, yucca restrate, yucca terreyi, and yucca carnerosana). The latter species "often grows 25 to 30 feet tall," reported McDougall, "and the flower cluster may be 5 feet long and a foot and a half in diameter, composed of hundreds of the large, white, bell-shaped flowers." When the yucca carnerosana bloomed, "Dagger Flats is one of the major scenic attractions of the entire area." This led the regional biologist to recommend that "if and when the Big Bend National Park becomes a fact, it will be necessary to maintain a secondary road to Dagger Flats in order that visitors may make a side trip to view the superlative floral display there." Similar conditions prevailed elsewhere in the area, said McDougall. "Due to the favorable weather and moisture," he reported, "the vegetation on the desert looks much better than it did three years ago [1937]." The NPS biologist remarked that "this is especially true in the southeastern part of the area where even the creosote bushes were dying from lack of water." [27]

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>
Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003