Big Bend
Administrative History
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A Park at Last: Land Acquisition, Facilities Development, And Border Issues in Big Bend, 1940-1944

For promoters of Texas's first unit of the National Park Service, the dream of the 1930s came true when the state legislature agreed in 1941 to purchase the land identified for Big Bend National Park. A concentrated twelve-month campaign of survey and acquisition included reestablishment of the abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps facility in the Chisos Basin, this time to construct buildings for visitor services and administrative use. Park officials also continued their efforts to link Big Bend with Mexico, even though the press of the Second World War limited planning and implementation of the hopes of FDR and Lazaro Cardenas for a realization of the "Good Neighbor" policy. Finally, the NPS selected a staff in anticipation of the first visitors to southern Brewster County, with Ross Maxwell designated as the inaugural superintendent of the Lone Star State's "crown jewel" on the Rio Grande.

Changes in the political landscape of Austin in the winter of 1941 inspired Big Bend advocates. On January 23, Fort Stockton senator H.L. Winfield introduced Senate Bill 128, a measure to allocate $1.5 million from the state general fund to purchase land for the park. Soon thereafter, Eagle Pass state representative Calvin C. Huffman joined sixteen colleagues to introduce House Bill 63 for the same purpose. Local promoters then invited members of the state senate's appropriations committee to tour the future park site, with Frank D. Quinn, executive secretary of the Texas state parks board, Everett Townsend, and NPS representatives John C. Diggs and Ross Maxwell as guides. Then on March 5, 1941, regional director Minor Tillotson appeared before the appropriations panel to champion SB 128. Two months later, the Big Bend Park Association petitioned Amon Carter to form an eleven-member executive committee to promote the bill. Carter's decision not to release monies from the association's account for publicity led the Alpine chamber of commerce to undertake a frantic campaign to collect funds for this purpose, leading James Casner of Alpine to recall years later that this saved Big Bend. [1]

By June of that year, Winfield and Huffman had shepherded the Big Bend land-acquisition bill through the halls of the Austin legislature, achieving on June 17 the victory so long sought by west Texas park promoters. Two weeks later, Governor W. Lee O'Daniel signed into law the General Departmental Bill that included Big Bend's $1.5 million. Winfield recalled how delicate the negotiations and voting had been, and how the governor still had doubts about the wisdom of such an appropriation. The Fort Stockton lawmaker went to O'Daniel's office after passage of the measure to obtain his signature. James Anderson would write in 1965 that Winfield "told O'Daniel that he could not let him down, and tears streamed from Winfield's eyes as he pleaded for the park." Speaking with James Casner two decades after the creation of Big Bend, Anderson would note that "Casner believed that 'without Winfield, we would have never had a park,' because if O'Daniel had vetoed the bill, it would have died." [2]

No sooner had the governor approved of the bill than did opponents of excessive public spending initiate action to stop the land-acquisition process. State representative A.H. King of Throckmorton filed an injunction against the state comptroller, George H. Shepperd, prohibiting him from releasing any funds for Big Bend. This maneuver endangered the success of the campaign, in that the bill had given the state parks board only twelve months to complete all transactions. While NPS and state officials engaged in preliminary studies of land titles and conducted evaluation surveys, the Texas court system held the project in check until the state supreme court on February 4, 1942, denied King's appeal. Thus the appraisal team of Frank D. Quinn, Everett Townsend (associate administrator), Eugene "Shorty" Thompson (chief appraiser), A.T. Barrett (junior assistant appraiser), Robert L. Cartledge (auditor), and Frederick Isley (assistant attorney general), among others, could move forward with the massive task of securing the consent of over 5,000 landowners, the vast majority of whom lived out of state and owned less than ten acres each. [3]

With Thompson handling the negotiations, and Townsend serving as the liaison with local politicians, the Big Bend Land Department devoted the months of September through November to a complete survey of the southern portion of Brewster County. They agreed that 99 percent of the future park should be classified as grazing land, calculating payment on such features as the extent of grazing, proximity to water, lease agreements, and the value of improvements on the land. Office staff in Alpine prepared long lists of landowners, with their acreage, value, and taxation noted for use by Thompson and his surveyors. The staff also detailed the public school lands, with their mineral rights. They determined that some 2,353 individuals would be approached for sale of 1,154 sections of land (a total of 777,718.18 acres). With administrative costs included, Thompson and his colleagues believed that they could fulfill the legislature's mandate by August 1942 with expenditure of $1,486,315.24. [4]

As the surveyors fanned out across Brewster County, NPS officials reviewed the documentation needed to insure federal control of the land. On October 8, 1941, acting Interior secretary E.K. Burlew approved a clause in the draft agreement with the state of Texas stating that the federal government would give any purchased land back to the Lone Star state if Big Bend should ever cease operations. Soon thereafter, the Big Bend Land Department announced that it had inventoried nearly 5,000 parcels, with closure on the survey process targeted for November. In early December, Eugene Thompson and his staff outlined the procedure for payment. One dollar per acre would be offered for land considered "very poor," which James Anderson in 1965 called "the semi-rolling, eroded area with little feed and top soil." Adding to the modest value of this land, said Anderson, were the presence of "grave and greasewood, some areas of water retention, hills, and fair grazing." Next in value were lands considered "poor," and for which the state would pay $1.50 per acre. These Anderson defined as "accessible to distant water," and which had "some hillside grazing." Acreage worth $2.00 apiece the land department described as "areas which had fair grazing, access to a spring or tank, rolling topography, and fair top soil and more moisture." The best land that would fetch in excess of two dollars per acre included the Chisos Mountains, "where there was good year-round grazing." [5]

When the state parks board and Big Bend land department met on December 8 with officials of the NPS, the outline of purchasing had become clear. The largest landowner by far was the Texas and Pacific Railway, which held 41,500 acres (the equivalent of nearly 65 square miles). Three parcels ranged between 20,000 and 30,000 acres, with Homer Wilson's ranch in the Chisos Mountains at 28,804 acres, and Wayne R. Cartledge's 20,650 acres near Castolon among them. Twelve additional ranches had between 10,000 and 20,000 acres, while the remaining owners had modest to miniscule holdings in the future park area. Land department officials then told the park service and state parks board that the King case hampered their ability to make offers on these parcels, and that reluctant owners might require the application of condemnation procedures (something that the federal government had never done before in Brewster County). Finally, the surveyors were surprised to learn that, in the words of James Anderson, "much curative title work would be necessary because of the 'almost total' absence of abstracts from most of the owners." The state and federal officials thus approved the use of title insurance to expedite the search process, and also agreed to grant grazing permits of up to three years' duration to existing ranchers in exchange for their promises of sale. [6]

Armed with these gestures of support, Eugene Thompson and his staff drew boundary lines that conformed to the parcels defined in their surveys. With the exception of the Rio Grande, the land department preferred following section lines to simplify mapping. The NPS wanted "a land of contrasts," wrote Anderson, and thus reviewed the land department's maps to accommodate that concept. Ross Maxwell, even though he spent the year 1942 working as assistant superintendent of the Southwestern National Monuments office in Arizona, received copies of these reports, and noted that Tornillo Creek would be useful for its dinosaur fossils. Maxwell and other NPS officials also championed extending the CCC work out of the Chisos basin, so that the range of experiences for visitors would highlight the landscape of the Big Bend country. Thus the news that the King suit had been settled, and that land acquisition could advance, came as the NPS had a satisfactory inventory of natural resources and acreage for the future national park. [7]

Given less than 150 days to acquire over 700,000 acres of land, the land department began by purchasing from the state of Texas its portion of school lands (221,636.10 acres) for about two dollars per acre (with mineral rights constituting about half of the cost). Thereafter the land department secured commitments from 125 individuals with the largest holdings to sell (376,398.55 acres). Thompson had to initiate 57 condemnation proceedings against nearly 3,000 owners, with legal fees reducing the monies available to pay for the land. As the August 31, 1942, deadline approached, Thompson realized that his office had expended the entire $1.5 million state appropriation, leaving no monies for administrative tasks or purchase of the outstanding parcels. Amon Carter and the Texas Big Bend Park Association agreed to provide nearly $8,400 in donated funds, while local chapters of the organization advanced that total to $15,169.25. Thus the land department could operate until September 30, with some twenty parcels of land (13,316 acres) not acquired within the future park boundaries. With their valuation set at $64,000, the land office recommended that the association raise more private funds. [8]

The early success of the Big Bend land-acquisition program pleased park advocates from Alpine to Austin, and from Santa Fe to Washington. By the end of 1942, acting Interior secretary Abe Fortas approved of the boundaries that would comprise Big Bend National Park, while NPS director Newton Drury called the campaign "'a really great accomplishment.'" The efficiency of the land department staff appealed to Drury, who then asked the state parks board for copies of the procedures used, in the words of James Anderson, "to serve as a guide for the same type of programs in the future." Texas lawmakers especially praised the land department's overhead rate of merely four percent, which they described as "'in all probability an unparalleled record in itself.'" Texas Governor Coke Stevenson claimed that the land value exceeded $3 million, while Amon Carter estimated the Chisos acreage alone to be worth $1 million. All that remained was for Governor Stevenson to present the deed to the purchased lands to NPS regional director Minor Tillotson in a ceremony on the campus of Sul Ross State College. Joining the governor and Tillotson on September 5, 1943, were members of the land department, state senator H.L. Winfield, and Sul Ross president Howard Morelock. One last-minute detail remained: the acknowledgment by state officials that the federal government would have "exclusive jurisdiction" over Big Bend National Park. Governor Stevenson would accept this condition on December 20, 1943, when he signed the "deed of cession" requested by Interior secretary Harold Ickes. [9]

Concurrent with the land-acquisition strategy of the state of Texas, NPS officials pursued development and planning strategies from 1940-1944 that would ensure a smooth transition to park status for Big Bend. In February 1940, Conrad Wirth would advise the regional director of the plans of the CCC to expand upon the work of the camp undertaken from 1934 to 1937. When officials of the US Army, CCC, and NPS returned to the Chisos Basin, they would have in place some seven miles of truck trails, six miles of horse trails, one latrine, 2,000 feet of pipelines, ten acres of landscaping, and a parking area. Harvey Cornell, now the NPS's regional landscape architect, would comment in March 1940 on the master plan for Big Bend. Cornell could report that the state highway department had included the entrance route from Marathon to the state park in its system. The architect did note, however, that there existed a "general plan requiring that a major road closely parallel the Rio Grande River for military protection." Thus the NPS would be asked to provide a western park entrance near Terlingua; a condition that might satisfy Alpine boosters seeking road construction to the southern park of Brewster County. Cornell did not recommend any routes into the park from the east, as "it appears that the one important entrance will be located at Boquillas." [10]

Cornell's report also examined interior routes in the Big Bend area, with his recommendation of a road from Persimmon Gap southward to Boquillas, "and a connection between the Basin and the possible west entrance near Terlingua." The NPS could build secondary routes to Santa Elena Canyon, "and a road leading from Boquillas to Mariscal Canyon." Less important would be "a circulatory road on the American side of the Rio Grande," as he predicted a similar route on the Mexican side of the park. Cornell advocated that the lodge and visitor services center be placed in the Chisos basin, as "the series of Juniper flats above the originally proposed lodge site afford an excellent area for the construction of cabins." In addition, said the architect, "the view from these flats through the Window is most dramatic." Cornell disliked, however, NPS suggestions to place campgrounds in the basin. He preferred Pine Canyon, "referred to locally as Wade Canyon," where Ross Maxwell had identified a supply of water. Pine Canyon could be reached from the Boquillas road, but Cornell believed that "a much shorter alignment is possible as a direct connection between Pine Canyon and the main Park road just north of the Basin." [11]

In the matter of administrative facilities, Cornell anticipated "a large number of buildings, including residences for Park employees." He cautioned his superiors that "the various sites previously under consideration appear to be exposed to views from the main park road." Thus he recommended "a site north of the Basin and on the east side of the main park road," as this met "space requirements and was quite thoroughly screened from the main park road." He also opposed any facilities in the area of the South Rim, but did conceive of "a minor development affording overnight facilities adjacent to the South Rim," with access gained by a tramway from the Laguna area. Cornell further advised the NPS to plan for a longhorn cattle ranch, as "a large number of park visitors will be interested in the usual ranch activities common to West Texas." He believed that "if a Ranch is established in this area we doubt if local private interests would criticize the competitive nature of the development as the nearest 'Dude' Ranch would be many miles distant." He concluded his assessment of the planning of Big Bend by observing that "very little study was made of the possible park development in the adjoining area in Mexico." He surmised that "the most interesting portion of the proposed park is in the vicinity of the Sierra del Carmen and the Fronteriza Mountains ranges," and thus spent no time on the Chihuahua side of the Rio Grande. [12]

As the CCC camp undertook the task of preparing Big Bend for its inclusion in the NPS system, the park service in March 1941 sent a team of inspectors to review their work. John H. Veale, assistant regional engineer, accompanied Ross Maxwell and other staff members on a survey of the water-supply and sewage-disposal facilities in the Chisos Basin. They viewed the cabins under construction, and noted the work in adobe brick-making. Maxwell spoke at some length in a report to the regional director about the process of adobe construction. The NPS's regional geologist commented that CCC crew members "are using a weathered calcareous shale which is obtained from near Terlingua at the same site from where most of the adobes in the buildings at Terlingua were made." Maxwell conceded that "this clay is mixed with sand and the results appear excellent as compared with most adobes." Yet the geologist worried that the crew was "attempting what is almost 'the impossible,' an adobe brick with perfectly square corners, straight surfaces, and sharp edges that can be laid in a wall as perfectly as high-grade brick." John H. Diehl, the NPS regional engineer, offered a more optimistic report about the work on the sewage disposal unit. He told the regional director that "there is practically no possibility of contamination to the creek or Oak Springs, which are at elevations considerably lower than the development area." Diehl also believed that "the site . . . is far enough distant from the development area to avoid any odor nuisance, and can easily be screened for landscape purposes if this should become necessary." [13]

The comments of the review team, especially Maxwell's criticism of the adobe-brick process, prompted the Santa Fe regional office to consult with associate architect Lyle Bennett. J.E. Kell, acting regional chief of planning, reported to the director that Bennett considered Maxwell's assumptions "'entirely incorrect as it was intended that the adobes should have "sound" faces rather than "perfect" faces.'" Kell reminded his superior that "'the first adobes made showed disintegration of one-half inch or more of the faces and that many had lost the original faces entirely from disintegration and internal stresses.'" Bennett wanted adobe that had "'some chipping of edges and bulging, roughness, or irregularity of faces'" because "'that is the natural character of adobe brick.'" The associate architect noted to Kell that the NPS's southwestern region already had "'received criticism from various sources because of the "perfection" of masonry work and the amount of waste rock.'" Bennett contended that "'too much cutting of stones is going on in an attempt to arrive at some preconceived perfection of line and surface.'" Even though the NPS had instructed its CCC crews at Big Bend and elsewhere that "'a stone veneer was not sound construction because it produced a weak wall,'" and that "'this pattern is neither economical for natural stone nor does it bring out the most desirable natural qualities of real stone,'" Bennett had to admit that "'it is still evident that the square and chisel are being overworked in an effort to force a naturally irregular material into an unnatural regularity, thereby losing some of the best qualities of the material.'" Bennett wanted Kell to know that "'disregarding the fact that we are trying to reproduce . . . a Mexican hut of very honest construction," the NPS should remember that "'the people who will rent these cabins will be more pleased with a structure which has character, informality and softness in line and texture, and a general atmosphere inducing relaxation, in contrast to hard, precise, sharp, and perfect lines and contours of a more sophisticated structure.'" [16]

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003