Big Bend
Administrative History
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Facilities and Operations At Texas's First National Park, 1944-1960

At a distance of one-half century and more, the activities in the Big Bend country prior to the park's opening in the summer of 1944 remain quite remarkable. From land acquisition to facility construction to resource management, the National Park Service had expended a great deal of time and money in preparing for the day when Big Bend National Park became the twenty-eighth unit of the NPS system. For the next five decades, park service personnel and planners would work to strengthen the management and operations of Big Bend, facing the same obstacles of distance, isolation, aridity, border relations and community concerns about the federal presence in their midst. From Ross Maxwell in 1944, to Jose Cisneros 50 years later, park superintendents sought solutions to the tasks of building construction, roads and trails development, visitor services and concessions, resource management, and law enforcement. Frank Deckert, the park superintendent at the start of the twenty-first century, would inherit those five decades of history as he addressed the need for stable funding of park operations and upkeep of Big Bend's physical plant.

When Superintendent Ross Maxwell reflected in July of 1945 on the first year of Big Bend's existence, he could be forgiven for comparing his park to a frontier experience. Among his first tasks, and that of his small staff of five, included "the conversion of the old CCC camp buildings into a temporary park office, warehouse, truck and tool sheds, shops, and residences for the park employees." Maxwell's first ranger, Oren Senter, would devote his patrols to "becoming acquainted with the local ranchmen who were still living in the park, meeting local representatives of federal and state agencies, local civic clubs and other citizens." Senter, Maxwell, and the rest of the Big Bend staff sought out these groups to explain "to them the policies and objectives of the National Park Service so that they could help with our protection program." [1]

Aiding the NPS in its first year of operations was the Texas State Highway Department, which maintained some 75 miles of roads through Big Bend. A problem for Maxwell and the NPS staff was the presence of some 40,000 head of livestock allowed to graze on park land for the duration of the war to meet beef-production contracts. By the end of the 1945 fiscal year, Maxwell could report a 90 percent decline in stockraising within the park. As for concessions, "miscellaneous service permits were issued to local residents to provide lodging, meals, groceries and gasoline and oil to park visitors." The National Park Concessions, Inc., sent its president, H.S. Sanborn, to Big Bend in April 1945 to plan for postwar visitor services. The park also benefited from the NPS's decision to host the regional superintendents' conference at Big Bend, as well as a forest-fire training meeting. This attention encouraged Superintendent Maxwell, as it coincided with visits from regional NPS officials that first year. [2]

Fifty years later, when the park's budget stood at $4.5 million, the first expenditures seemed meager. Yet Maxwell noted that the appropriation of $15,000 (as well as $2,170 for staff overtime) allowed him to fund the positions of chief ranger, clerk, foreman, and laborer. The superintendent also devoted some $2,136 to fire prevention, which he described as "fire tools, horses, riding saddles, pack saddles, horse feed and other fire protection equipment and supplies." Maxwell dedicated some $1,560 to an "erosion control project in the temporary park headquarters" in the Chisos Basin. Auditors for the park service came to Big Bend after the first six months of operations, and declared the park to be in good fiscal condition. [3]

Speaking of the challenges that Big Bend faced in attracting visitors in its first year, Maxwell informed his superiors that "like all the Southwest the Big Bend is a dry country." Overgrazing contributed to the barren slopes, but the prohibition of stock raising, especially at higher elevations in the park, promised the return of vegetation. Big Bend also benefited from positive coverage in the regional news media, most notably the December 2, 1944 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Maxwell could report that "a photographer and research writer from Life Magazine spent six weeks in the area gathering material for an article." In addition, NPS collaborator Freeman Tilden "prepared articles on this and other parks during an extended stay here." The superintendent could not "claim fame for large travel figures during the 1945 fiscal year." Yet "not many days have passed that someone has not visited the area." The bulk of the early visitors hailed from the Lone Star state, and "many of them came just to see what 'their national park' is like." Maxwell reported that "some war defense plant workers have found this a quiet place to take a few days' rest." In like manner, "fishermen from the Texas plains like to try their luck at cat fishing in the Rio Grande." He concluded that "in all a few hundred people each month take a chance that their tires and gasoline will 'hold out' and come to the Big Bend." [4]

Two years after the opening of Big Bend, Maxwell could detect patterns of operations that would persist for decades to come. "The appropriation is small," he wrote to his NPS superiors in July 1946, "and we are handicapped by a small staff and inadequate equipment." Yet the former NPS regional geologist could claim that "there has been some progress in maintenance, protection, and conservation." He praised the "change-over from private ownership and usage to National Park Service administration" as "smooth." Maxwell also reported that "Service policy on conservation was reasonably well accepted by the local people." Neighboring ranchers "cooperated by helping gather their stray stock and drive it from the park or build drift fences on or near the boundary." Twenty-four months of stock-free resource management meant that "flowers that were sparce [sic] in former years are now common." Similar conditions prevailed for the fauna of Big Bend, leading its superintendent to predict that "in a few decades the area will approach the biologic conditions that existed a few centuries ago." [5]

Better environmental conditions joined with the close of World War II to expand visitation totals dramatically. "With V-J Day and the lifting of gasoline rationing," wrote Maxwell, "there was a marked increase." The superintendent cautioned that "a total of 6,000 visitors is not a large figure, but for a new area having very limited public facilities, poor roads, and when the most of our visitors have old cars and poor tires it indicates that travel will be heavy." The majority of visitors were "vacationists," and Maxwell found it "gratifying to know that many have stayed several days, in some cases longer than they had planned, because they enjoy being in the pioneering atmosphere away from the crowds of the cities, factories and the War." At first, three vendors offered services to the traveling public "with the understanding that they would vacate as soon as National Park Concessions, Inc., could furnish the necessary public services." NPCI began a construction campaign in the spring of 1946 that would bring some 20 "prefabricated cabins" to the Chisos Basin, along with meal service, a store, and service station. The Kentucky-based concessionaire also agreed to provide visitor facilities "at a river site for this coming winter." [6]

In matters of road maintenance, Maxwell reported that by August of 1945 the state of Texas had discontinued its operations within the park boundaries. The NPS regional office in Santa Fe thus provided Big Bend with "one motor patrol grader" and an operator. Maxwell noted that "we have been able to keep the roads open, but part of the time they have been in poor condition because of insufficient equipment and lack of personnel." To aid in the expansion of the park's road system, the U.S. Public Roads Administration undertook a survey in January of 1946, starting with the entrance at Persimmon Gap and surveying nearly 29 miles. [7]

Road networks would assist the NPS and NPCI in planning for "concession development, campgrounds, headquarters development, [a] road maintenance program, and trail system." Maxwell and officials of both agencies agreed that "temporary guest facilities would be placed in the Basin." They also called for visitor services at the Daniel's Ranch site on the Rio Grande, and selected a site near Panther Peak for administrative headquarters. To achieve these goals, Maxwell and NPS officials also filed applications for water rights from the Rio Grande. Staffing of the park had increased in fiscal year 1946 to eight, with a budget of $25,368 (an advance of nearly 60 percent). Publicity also grew in the second year of operations, with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram highlighting both the park's attractions and the obstacle of in-holdings to park management. "The majority of Alpine citizens," concluded Maxwell, "will support any activity to acquire the remainder of the private lands." [8]

By the spring of 1947, Superintendent Maxwell could include discussion in his annual reports of the return of scientific researchers to the park. "Professional men are finding this area interesting," wrote Maxwell, among them "pressmen, photographers, explorers, short story writers, lecturers, and representatives of all the natural sciences." Himself a student of the park's geology, Maxwell recorded visits by scholars from such campuses as the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas. The Geological Society of America continued its substantial geological research at Big Bend, and Peter Koch, formerly a photographer for the Cincinnati Enquirer and the husband of Big Bend's administrative assistant, Etta Koch, had traveled throughout the United States showing his slides "that have brought in thousands of requests for technical and non-technical information on the park." [9]

The park concessionaire also had much to report for fiscal year 1946, with its operations in the Chisos Basin including four housekeeping cottages and a second small building used as a grocery store, restaurant, and kitchen. NPCI also opened its 21 "prefabricated huts," of which seven were used as employee housing and the remainder for overnight guests. A three-hut unit served as a modern bathhouse, comfort station, and linen storage room. Maxwell concluded of the park's concessionaire that, "in spite of a shortage of funds, materials, and manpower, National Park Concessions has done a good job." The superintendent's evidence was that "the guests like the service and the operation appears to have a bright future." [10]

Less optimistic was Maxwell's notice that "the well that supplies water to the concession operation failed materially." The superintendent was surprised that "the well has failed to furnish adequate water even for the winter and spring operation," requiring the park staff to haul water to the Chisos Basin and the NPS to fund emergency drilling of a new well. NPCI also surveyed the Basin for additional sources of spring water, and began the reconditioning of a former water system at the old Graham Ranch, to be used as a temporary source for the concessions' Rio Grande development. At the same time, the Public Roads Administration (PRA) continued their survey of a road from the planned headquarters site at Panther Peak to the Daniels Ranch. This augmented the earlier study of a route from Persimmon Gap to the Chisos Basin, with proposed bridge sites identified as well. [11]

In matters of equipment acquisition, Maxwell noted that, "prior to this year all our equipment and most of our hand tools had been acquired on a transfer basis from other National Park Service areas." Then "our big break came when we were able to obtain about $84,000 worth of surplus property from the Army and War Assets Administration." This latter agency collected supplies and materiel from military installations decommissioned at the end of the Second World War, offering them to civilian federal agencies. In this fashion, Maxwell managed to acquire road construction and maintenance equipment, trucks, pickups, power plants, powered shop tools, numerous varieties of hand tools, and considerable quantities of building materials and supplies. This good fortune meant that "now our roads are good and can be driven safely except during and immediately following a rain." [12]

The issue of private in-holdings continued to burden park planning, as "their existence will certainly retard the road building program for some of these tracts are on the right-of-way and others are close by." Maxwell also noted that "there is grazing on some of the private unfenced tracts," making it "impossible to keep those herds off the adjacent park land." More troublesome was the fact that "the price of candelilla wax has been exceptionally high," and "private landowners are anxious to get all they can." Maxwell reported that "their boundaries are not only unfenced, but unsurveyed." The superintendent reminded his superiors that "considerable time has been expended toward convincing the State legislators that sufficient funds should be appropriated in order to purchase these small tracts and thus eliminate the private in-holding problems forever." Maxwell believed that "the legislators appear to be in sympathy with the problem but little toward actual legislation has been accomplished." [13]

By 1947, Maxwell's main difficulty was funding. "We started and operated during the war," he reported, "with small appropriations and it has taken every available dollar to purchase the essential materials and supplies." In addition, "all our structures, including residences, office, shop, warehouse, etcetera, were converted from old CCC barracks or from former ranch buildings." The CCC facilities had been built more than ten years earlier, and "these conditions have made living difficult and especially so since the headquarters is eighty miles from the nearest town." Maxwell warned that "these hardships have caused dissatisfaction among some of the employees and their comments and actions have lowered morale and decreased the efficiency of most of the staff." [14]

Beyond this, said the superintendent, "every branch of this administrative unit is under-staffed, and every branch head, together with his various assistants, has more duties than he can possibly properly perform." Maxwell conceded that "all we can do is to try to select the more important problem and delay acting on those that appear to be minor in nature." Echoing a lament known to later generations of NPS employees as "deferred maintenance," Maxwell reported that "some things have gotten away from us." One example that he cited was that "it is impossible for one clerk and one clerk-stenographer to handle all fiscal and personnel matters, attend to the purchasing, warehouse, correspondence, and file." Big Bend's chief ranger, George Sholley, and his three district rangers "cannot keep control over everything in a 700,000 acre tract, especially so when there are not any checking stations and the boundary is not fenced." The park had only one mechanic, one maintenance man and one laborer "to convert the old buildings to residences, care for the maintenance on all automotive and heavy equipment, all buildings and utilities, plants, sanitation, etcetera." [15]

Despite this grim scenario, Maxwell concluded on a more optimistic note. Big Bend joined other NPS sites in greeting record numbers of postwar visitors, "the crowds have been cared for, and certain accomplishments have been realized." Admitting that he had filed a "more gloomy outlook," the superintendent admitted that "perhaps those accomplishments should be summarized to show that our Service has advanced in spite of its many handicaps." [16]

As the nation distanced itself from the strain of war, the staff of Big Bend National Park could devote more attention to expansion of its facilities in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Park workers reconnected the irrigation system at the Daniels ranch, allowing the planting of some 1,000 seedlings of cottonwood, willow, and tamarisk. Water was found in sufficient quantity at the proposed headquarters site of Panther Junction. Road maintenance advanced with the addition of war-surplus equipment, and the federal government allocated to the park $35,000 to purchase private land near Persimmon Gap for a new road alignment with the entrance highway. The Texas state legislature also contributed $12,000 for the acquisition of private in-holdings at Big Bend, but by the summer of 1948 state park officials had yet to expend the funds. [17]

One year later, Superintendent Maxwell could report to his superiors that land acquisition had accelerated, with the private Big Bend Park Association donating $3,000 to augment the state's $12,000 appropriation. This permitted the state parks board to purchase nine sections of private land and negotiate for two additional sections, for a total of 7,040 acres. All that remained of the original 706,000-acre survey was 9,000 acres of private land. Visitation continued to increase, and NPCI had to divide its cabins with partitions to accommodate more overnight guests. Maxwell noted that the cost of maintaining the war surplus vehicles strained the park's road budget, while oiling projects on the 100-plus miles of gravel and dirt roads were limited in 1949 to the seven-mile stretch of the Green Gulch-Basin route. The superintendent complained that "the Armed Forces obtained the economic value from their equipment at an early date, and by the time it was passed on to us the most of it could not be operated without recurring repairs." Adding to Big Bend's woes was the specialized nature of war materiel. "When one of these devices fails," wrote Maxwell, "it takes months to get a replacement part." [18]

Maxwell's complaints about budgetary constraints grew as visitation to Big Bend surged with the larger pattern of American travel in the years after the war. Where the superintendent had counted only 2,500 visitors in 1944, five years later he registered 60,000 patrons at Texas's first national park (and claimed to be on a pace in 1950 to break that record). More visitors meant expansion of the concession operations. B.F. Beckett and NPCI agreed to establish a horseback riding service in the Chisos Basin. In addition, Maxwell entered into a five-year agreement with Peter Koch to provide photographic services in the Basin. The road network grew in 1950 by 7.7 miles, as the T.C. Gage Construction Company of San Antonio paved the loop road in the Panther Junction area. Panther Junction also had four residential dwellings constructed, along with a 150,000-gallon water reservoir, an underground power system and liquefied-petroleum gas system. Maxwell negotiated with neighboring ranch owners to collect wire and fence posts located within the park and place them along the northwestern boundary. The superintendent reported that this "has greatly reduced our trespass grazing problem and also improved our public relations with the adjoining ranchmen." The Cartledge property near Castolon, on the other hand, received a permit to continue grazing until the NPS acquired the land. All of this activity led Maxwell and local park sponsors to initiate plans in the spring of 1950 to host a dedication of Big Bend that October. Among its highlights was a personal invitation extended to President Harry S. Truman to attend, along with the President of Mexico. [19]

The year 1950 brought changes to Big Bend, as it did much of America once President Truman announced the nation's entry into the Asian conflict with North Korea. This precluded the president's travel to Big Bend, and the subsequent delay of the dedication ceremony for another five years. Big Bend was asked by the Department of Defense to provide "ample space for the military personnel to set up camp for isolated recreational purposes." Superintendent Maxwell agreed to extend special-use permits to soldiers, but warned his superiors that the park had "a very limited number of accommodations in the way of cabins and meals for anyone, either military personnel or the traveling public." He argued instead that "any proposed trip of that kind should be planned well in advance so that accommodations can be obtained." Park staff could offer to soldiers "campfire programs, lectures, and advice about the area regarding individual hikes, horseback trips, photography, or various types of activities." Maxwell also agreed to "cooperate with the defense officials at any time regarding activities that might appear to be detrimental to the safety of our nation." [20]

This latter point about criticism of NPS sites concerned Maxwell, who devoted a long section in his 1951 report to "public relations." He noted that "Big Bend and San Jose Mission [in San Antonio] are the only National Park Service areas in Texas." While the state had purchased the acreage for Big Bend, "the ideals, rules, regulations, conservation practices, protection of wildlife, including predators, elimination of grazing, and other policy matters were foreign to the majority of the citizenry." Since Big Bend faced criticism, said Maxwell, "the improvement of our public relations became paramount." First to challenge the NPS were local ranchers, irritated at the park service's rules on predator control and grazing leases. Maxwell made it a point to attend stockmen's association meetings, where he "seldom argued, but let them argue and when they were through, explained our conservation and protection program, with an invitation to visit the park to see the effectiveness of our protection policy." The superintendent had more success with officials of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. "Through our invitations and encouragement," said Maxwell, "they have made day trips with ranchmen to the area." The superintendent also accepted an offer from a San Angelo sportsmen' club, located in the heart of what Maxwell called the "sheep and goat industry." Finally, Maxwell cultivated friendships with reporters in west Texas. "To those that you can trust," he told his NPS superiors, "it is well to send them little news releases on such subjects as rainfall, range recovery, condition and abundance of game, road condition, and fishing." [21]

For the year 1952, Maxwell would report much the same for his park. Road and trails construction gained in mileage, while the Boquillas and Persimmon Gap ranger stations were modernized. Nearer to the Panther Junction area, said Maxwell "the old K-Bar Ranchhouse was completely renovated, modernized, wired for electric current; new floors, doors and windows added" so that an NPS employee could inhabit the dwelling. Houses at Government Spring and Grapevine also received attention that year. The conflict in Korea, however, brought a new threat to park resources: the heavy ore hauling operations initiated during the fiscal year by M.G. Michaelis, Jr., and O.D. Burleson. Maxwell informed his superiors that "extensive deposits of high-grade fluorspar exist in Mexico directly south of the Park at distances from a few miles to 50 or 60 miles from the International Boundary." Since "acid grade fluorspar is a critical defense mineral," said Maxwell, the only feasible outlet into the United States from these mines ran through the park. The superintendent reported that the ore trucks carried out some 200 tons daily of fluorspar, and "expected that the daily traffic may reach 500 tons." For Big Bend this meant that "damage to our light pavement and inconvenience to visitor travel are inevitable." The only saving grace, Maxwell concluded, was that "damage to the desert scenery of the area is so restricted as to be negligible." [22]

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003