Big Bend
Administrative History
NPS Logo

"Doing Pioneer Work": The Civilian Conservation Corps and Facility Planning, 1936-1941 (continued)

While Morgan struggled with transportation matters at the CCC camp, NPS architects Paul Pressler and Albert Benson scouted the landscape for potential visitor facilities. J.T. Roberts, regional NPS inspector, informed Maier on April 7: "I feel that the work in this area will soon be in such shape that we should begin to consider this development rather seriously." His first priority was a water system, from which the architects could then imagine locations for the "Casa de los Chisos," as Roberts named the lodge compound. He noted that the plans of Pressler and Benson placed the southwestern structure "on the shelf above the camp," making it invisible "as one comes down the road along Sierra Casa Grande leaving the fine views uninterrupted." As one drove south past Lone Peak, "the building forms an interesting termination," said Roberts, "settling down low with Mt. Emory towering above in the distance." Roberts further noted that "the pines immediately behind will offer a soft background, which will tie-in and blend with those about the Casa to unite the entire picture." Such a design, said the inspector, "demands a free, low Spanish-Mexican type of rambling structure, and should be erected with indigenous material to further complement the area." In so doing, said Roberts, "we may build a large structure, yet not one to be imposing or startling —- one suggesting or retaining the spirit of manana." [11]

When Roberts turned his attention to visitor-use patterns, he argued for access that was "easy, definite and confined." Automobiles would stop first at the main lobby, with bus travelers loaded and unloaded away from the entrance. As for the structural design, said Roberts: "I like particularly the idea of several small patios offering opportunity to pass from ceiled rooms to open rooms, to have a play of light and shade, to obtain variety, interest and color." The inspector found "very intriguing" the "idea of a small Spanish Capilla, on the point of land overlooking the window and on the main axis." Such a design "will draw many to that spot," Roberts contended, and suggested that "the circulation there needs more study." In comparison to other plans, Roberts disliked the concept of "cabins placed in the area between the Casa and the window." The road continuing through the court, claimed Roberts, "is to me impossible." Were the NPS to locate cabins in this area, "I would prefer to place them in the pines high up on the flats to the south of Casa Grande and then no road — pack in — that would have character and not spoil the area." Yet a third plan reviewed by Roberts called for a swimming pool, while the "road around that very fine elevation to the south and over the point of land to the southwest, where one of the finest views of the window is obtained, should never be considered." Such thinking "indicates a passion for roads," said the NPS inspector, "and the road must be stopped." Park service designers needed to remember, said Roberts, "that the idea in all Mexican structures that I have seen is to obtain light and air to rooms, to have a more or less garden room for short siestas and for fiestas and perhaps a place to whisper 'mi querida' to the Senoritas." [12]

Contingent upon a successful architectural design for lodging at the basin was discovery of sufficient water supplies, a task undertaken in May 1936 by Charles Gould and Ross Maxwell. The regional geologist and his assistant began by analyzing the original well dug in the basin in April 1934, which sank 27 feet down in the area of Kibby Springs, a branch of Oak Canyon (the primary drainage corridor that flowed westward to the Window). Gould and Maxwell detected a steady flow of 30 gallons or more per minute, which was pumped uphill to metal storage tanks prior to redistribution by gravity to the CCC camp. In order to accommodate the NPS and concessions facilities planned for 5,400 feet, reported Gould, the geologists studied a hill some 5,750 feet in altitude that stood 4,100 feet away from the existing CCC well. "The cost of lifting the water approximately 700 feet into a reservoir 4100 feet from the source," said the geologist, "will be excessive." Thus Gould and Maxwell sought "to locate in The Basin an ample supply of potable water at an elevation above 5750 feet," reporting that "in this attempt we were not successful." They concluded that "the only available supply of water at the present time is Kibby Spring, located on the west slope of Casa Grande at an elevation of about 6000 feet." They realized that "the water is potable but the supply is not sufficient for park needs, being only about two gallons per minute." [13]

In need of alternatives for water, Gould and Maxwell turned their attention to the streams surrounding the basin proper. One was the "main branch of Oak Canyon near Ward Mountain on the west side of The Basin," said Gould, while the other was "the middle arroyo which heads south west of Casa Grande and passes just west of the proposed building site." They offered "no assurance that any considerable supply of water will be encountered," but believed that "it is worth a trial." Another strategy had Gould and Maxwell survey Cattail Canyon, to the west of the basin. "Water in quantity is reported in this canyon," said Gould, and he surmised that "it may be possible to utilize it either by gravity or by pumping." Yet a third option for the geologists involved "check dams across the various arroyos flowing into Oak Canyon." Such facilities, said Gould, would "store storm water and the subsequent underflow through the gravel." Given the delicate environment of the basin, said the geologist, "the sites for these dams should be selected with care." Failing this, the NPS geologists concluded that "it will probably be necessary to utilize the present wells and pump the water 4100 feet with a 700 foot lift," a perspective that contrasted with the enthusiasm expressed by J.T. Roberts in the design of structures in the basin. [14]

As the Chisos CCC camp headed into the fall of 1936, rumors began to circulate regarding its management. In an otherwise laudatory letter by Representative Ewing Thomason to Maier, the El Paso Democrat closed with the cryptic note that "some complaints have also come to me that there is a lack of harmony and cooperation among the officials of the camp." Thomason, the author of the 1935 legislation authorizing Big Bend, told Maier: "I hope this can be ironed out, if same has not already been done." The NPS regional officer took Thomason's instructions seriously, and inquired of the Army's Eighth Corps area at Fort Sam Houston about its plans to replace "Lieutenant Sagaser" when his tour of duty ended in November. "In view of this," Maier wrote to J.C. Roak, the liaison officer for the CCC at Fort Sam Houston, "I think it will be in order for us to state that we sincerely hope that the officer who is to replace Lieutenant Sagaser at Big Bend will be of a type able to adjust himself to such conditions as surround this particular project." Maier considered "these conditions" to be "not in themselves complex, but are nevertheless of real importance to the National Park Service." Maier reminded Roak that "it is necessary for us to assign quite a number of technical men who represent such branches as wildlife, archaeology, forestry, etc., periodically to this area." The NPS employees "must be housed and fed at the camp, and as you know, we have constructed a building especially for the purpose of housing these men." Maier also reported that "the distance from the railroad at Marathon to the camp is close to a hundred miles, and so it is necessary for a great deal of give and take to be exercised on the part of the project superintendent and the Army officer in charge." Finally, Roak needed no reminder that "a considerable number of officials visit the Big Bend, such as State Legislators, Congressmen, etc., and this must also be taken into consideration." [15]

Big Bend was not the only NPS site facing managerial challenges in the heyday of the CCC. Yet the program overall evoked words of praise from media, civic officials and crew members alike. Soon after the landslide re-election in November 1936 of President Roosevelt, the Dallas Dispatch informed its readers that "undoubtedly one of the most popular enactments of the Democratic congress under Roosevelt was the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps." The original goal of the CCC had been met, claimed the Dallas paper, but its director, Robert Fechner, had plans to make the program permanent. Fechner believed that "healthy employment should be found for youths whom private industry has not or cannot assimilate." In addition, said the CCC director, "the corps should continue as long as there is valuable work to be done." In matters of park construction, the Dallas Dispatch had only high praise for the CCC crews. The editor declared that the "CCC has done notable work in the 18 state parks in Texas aggregating 325,000 acres in extent." The most dramatic setting for CCC attention was Big Bend. "Covering over 250,000 acres," said the Dispatch, "much of this vast wilderness was almost wholly inaccessible when CCC enrollees began construction of roads and trails." Big Bend constituted over three-quarters of all the Texas land under the CCC's purview, and the Dispatch advised its readers: "Work on this magnificent Big Bend project should by all means be continued, and as far as Texas is concerned maintenance of the CCC is worth while for this reason alone." [16]

Warm regards for the CCC in general, and at Big Bend in particular, complemented the efforts of the NPS and park boosters to secure private or state funds for land acquisition. For this reason, major park service personnel made the Chisos camp part of their itineraries when inspecting CCC sites. Conrad Wirth, director of the CCC program nationwide, recalled years later his December 1936 tour of the Southwest with Herbert Maier, and their memorable visit to the Chisos basin. "There was a state park of about 640 acres in a small valley in what was called the 'window,'" wrote Worth in 1980. He especially remembered the fact that "most of the men were of Hispanic descent." In honor of the visit by top NPS officials, the CCC workers held a Christmas party that Wirth called "very hospitable." One feature of note was the effort made by camp members to serve eggnog at the party. "We drank some of it," said Wirth, "but it wasn't too easy to do!" It seemed that "it was made from goat's milk, the only milk they could scare up on short notice, and tequila." The CCC director admitted that "the spirit was right," but conceded that "I've tasted better eggnog." After imbibing the distinctive Big Bend version of the holiday treat, Wirth, Maier, and their party "joined the boys for an extra fine Christmas dinner." [17]

Internal and external praise for the CCC work in the Chisos Basin continued in the spring of 1937, with the state highway department contributing an historical assessment of the building of roads by the camp. An unidentified state highway engineer that April delivered a paper at the annual meeting in San Antonio of the American Society of Engineers. The engineer recounted some of the history of the region for his audience, noting that "prior to 1936 no State Highway penetrated this vast land of rugged mountains and plains, chiefly because it is off the beaten track and the population is small and widely scattered." Highway officials came to the area to survey a route to the Chisos Mountains, which he told his audience meant "ghost" in the language of the Yaqui Indians (who lived far to the west in the Mexican state of Sonora). When the highway department entered the area, they discovered that "there were U.S. Geological Survey maps . . . but such maps do not supply complete information for general location work." The department also faced limitations of time and money, and "therefore, it was decided to make a motion picture reconnaissance of the existing roads and trails." By using these images, said the engineer, "together with the Geological Survey maps," the department could determine routes for highways into the future park site. The surveyors drove south from Marathon, using the odometer on their vehicle for measurement. Every five miles they halted to film the landscape, covering some 250 miles of terrain "varying in type from a very serviceable county road serving the quicksilver mining town of Terlingua down to trails that were merely two dim tracks over the prairie and through the mountains." [18]

Confronting the survey crew not only was the landscape of the Big Bend country, but also the tastes of "a traveling public primarily interested in scenery and pleasure." This meant routes "located to afford access to the points of interest, while at the same time, in view of limited funds, it must be located through a region containing natural building materials if possible." Technical concerns abounded, such as placing the road "where grades and curvature were not excessive," and "where the road could be built without excessive excavation or construction of embankments." The highway crew filmed during the daylight hours, "and it was necessary to spend many hours each night interviewing ranchers and others who were familiar with the roads and trails of this region." The surveyors took "many side trips to investigate different routes which were found impractical." Once they reached the Santiago range some 40 miles south of Marathon, they determined that Persimmon Gap "offered the most accessible pass." They decided that "this pass will form the principal gateway of the Big Bend Park, if and when the entire acreage of land is procured and the Big Bend Park reaches the size contemplated." At Persimmon Gap the surveyors "began to see a new form of vegetation, or perhaps we should say new types of thorn bush and cactus." One such specimen that the engineer called "very formidable," was the "Pitahaya," which he claimed "is beautiful when in full bloom and later produces a delicious fruit." [19]

Once the state highway surveyors had cleared the Persimmon Gap area, they quickly noticed the dominant feature on the southern landscape: the Chisos Mountains. "The road traverses country principally made up of gravel deposits or broken stone," they reported, with "many arroyos to cross, which in time of rain carry a considerable volume of water." The engineer realized that "rains in this region are often very hard but not of long duration." Nonetheless, "the lack of heavy vegetation and the rocky nature of the country makes the run-off fast, and in soils that erode easily the arroyos become very deep." Some fifteen miles south of Persimmon Gap the survey party encountered "an unusual strip of land which extends across the Big Bend." This was a band "about ten miles in width and is made of very unstable clays, and is known as the 'Bad Lands.'" The engineer reported that "this section is really very picturesque in that the clays are brightly colored in almost every conceivable shade." Erosion in turn "has left grotesque shapes, which under the early morning or late evening sun, present a continuously changing color picture." More practical was the engineer's assessment that "this land becomes unstable when wet, therefore it will be necessary to import surfacing material for the road through this section from either side of the ten mile strip," a circumstance mitigated by the presence of rock and clay nearby. [20]

As the surveyors drove into the Chisos range, they encountered yet another landscape with "oak, cherry and many other varieties of trees." They marveled at the mystery of the Lost Mine Trail, and the massiveness of Casa Grande. Conveying them to the center of the basin was the CCC road, which the surveyors reported as "in very good condition." One had to travel over a pass at 6,000 feet in elevation, then descend some 1,000 feet into Green Gulch and the CCC camp quarters. Once there, the surveyors had to "spend a day in the saddle to study the possibilities of another means of entry into this valley." They climbed "a few hundred feet to a small plateau where the Government will build a hotel," and there stopped to admire the view from the Window. "Through this gap," said the highway engineer, "all of the water falling in the valley must flow, or at least all that does not go into the gravel which is underground." Above the Window the surveyors reached "a pass known as The Laguna, where we find a very rare grass, called Pine Grass, and also the smallest of the many varieties of oaks found in the mountains, which is the Dwarf Oak [a mere four feet high]." This was but one of seventeen varieties of oak growing in the basin, along with four types of pine. "We find large groves of Douglas fir trees which are hundreds of miles from their natural setting," remarked the engineer, as well as the Arizona cypress, "some of these four feet in diameter." The survey crew also marveled that "the varieties of trees and shrubs to be found are almost numberless," and they were told "that there are many varieties of flowers which up to this time are unidentified." Large game animals proliferated in the Chisos, among them "Brown bear, Mule Deer, White Tail or Virginia Deer, and the Arizona Flag or Franciscan Deer." As for birds, said the engineer, "at certain seasons of the year tropical birds of vivid plumage come into these mountains apparently to spend a few weeks time and then to return to the tropics." The surveyors heard that "colleges and universities have in recent years learned of the wonders of this spot, and there have been many expeditions of scientists to study the plant and animal life as well as the geology and other features." [21]

With a brief stop at Boot Spring to gather their strength, the state highway surveyors rode south to the rim of the Chisos, "where one can look down a practically sheer cliff two thousand feet," or see "off in the distance about fifteen miles the Rio Grande . . . faintly glimmering in the sunlight." By riding horseback through the basin, the engineer concluded that "there is only one economical means of entry for automobiles into the valley, and that is the one that is being improved by the C.C.C. workers." At dusk the trail riders remarked that "we are treated to a beautiful display of colors from the rock walls of the surrounding peaks." Then "later on the moon comes up bright and clear, and we find that the coloration of the rock is so vivid that it is visible to a certain extent by moonlight." The party also learned "why the mountains are called Chisos, Ghost, as there is a peculiarly silvery light cast over the valley, possibly reflected from the rock walls, and the rugged cliffs." The engineer became almost poetic in describing nightfall in the basin, saying: "Peaks that surround us seem to dance in the moonlight, or perhaps my eyes were deceiving me." [22]

From the Chisos Basin the highway crew moved to the "St. Helena Canyon," "or the Grand Canyon of the Rio Grande." They noted that "as there is a possibility of a better road into the mountains through Alpine and Terlingua we go west to the quicksilver mining country surrounding Terlingua." First they passed through "the little mining town of Study Butte, which is second only to the Terlingua mine in size." Once in Terlingua, the surveyors would "find the picturesque adobe houses of the Mexicans who work in the mines, and . . . a small hotel, one of the few hotels in this territory." Heading south toward the Rio Grande, the crew crossed Terlingua Creek, which they decided "may prove a very serious obstacle to highway construction as a large volume of water flows down this creek during the rainy season," and which had no bridge. Upon traversing the face of the Rio Grande escarpment to reach the canyon, they came upon "the home of one of the County Commissioners of this, the largest county in Texas." The surveyors stood in awe of the sheer cliffs, noting that "as we swing toward the canyon the rock wall at first deceives the eye, and it is hard to believe that there is a drop of 1900 feet on the Mexican side from the plateau above the river," with the Texas side dropping some 1,800 feet. They could not look far into the canyon because "the river has cut a winding channel through this rock," leaving but "a narrow trail up one side of the canyon about one-half mile." From this vantage point the crew saw "large boulders that have fallen from the canyon wall above, one of them being sixty feet square." The surveyors climbed onto one of these boulders to gaze upon the river, and then turned to view the Chisos Mountains "thirty five miles away." [23]

Even though (like many first-time observers) the highway surveyors had come under the spell of the Rio Grande, their task was more mundane: to suggest transportation routes for the state of Texas to build. The engineer reported that "the shorter and more logical location of a road into this country is from Marathon south to the Chisos Mountains, and then for those who are interested in seeing the St. Helena Canyon, a road leading west to Terlingua and then south to the canyon." Texas officials adopted the recommendations of the surveyors, "adding 115 miles to the State Highway system." By the spring of 1937, the road had become "very serviceable" as far south as the Chisos Mountains, while "the road leading to the St. Helena Canyon . . . crosses Terlingua creek twice, and traffic is interrupted on this road for several days in time of high water." Unfortunately, no hotel facilities had been constructed on the road into the Big Bend country, and the engineer suggested "to those who plan to spend more than a day in the mountains that they carry camping equipment," although water would be available. Should visitors brave the rugged conditions of the state park, the engineer believed that "a vacation in these mountains would be an unusual experience." [24]

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