Monday, March 26, 2012

Texas Wildflowers and Texas Wildpeople On The Trinity River

Texas Bluebonnets on the cliffs overlooking the Trinity River at McCommas Bluff
The Comanche Legend of the Bluebonnet

The Texas fields are covered
With a blanket of deep blue.
But for a little Indian girl,
This would not be true.

Texas land was buried and dry.
Rains just would not come.
Indians danced and prayed for rain,
And beat upon their drums.

The Chief made a proclamation.
He appealed to one and all.
A prized possession must be sacrificed
Before the rains would fall.

The Indian camp was silent,
While each person searched his heart.
But when it came to sacrifice,
With possessions they would not part.

Suddenly a little girl stepped forth,
Holding her blue-clad doll.
She placed it in the roaring fire
and raindrops began to fall.

The rain brought forth the grass,
Among its blades, flowers of blue.
To be a sign for all the time
Of a love so pure and true.

That old Comanche parable rings as true today as it did dozens of generations ago when the Comanche told it around their campfire. Drought and flood, famine and feast is natural to Texas. With higher than average winter rains the bounty of wildflowers this year along the Trinity River in the Great Trinity Forest is the best I have ever seen. Despite the forecasts of a drier and colder winter the DFW area saw one that was warm and wet. Thus set the stage for an early spring. The heavy rains and regular flooding of the lower areas in the Great Trinity Forest have re-directed much of my mountain biking into the upland areas that are not prone to prolonged flooding. I've never messed around with the macro settings on my camera since I usually only stop to photograph things with four legs. The muddy conditions gave me a chance to stop and smell the roses for once. The photos in this post were taken over the weekend of March 24th-25th and highlight the Lower White Rock Creek Trail, McCommas Bluff Preserve and the Texas Buckeye Trail.

McCommas Bluff Preserve
Location and information McCommas Bluff Preserve Trails

McCommas Bluff has seen its share of hardship the past year with the city demolishing some of the historic trademark cliffs. Upstream some of it still stands untouched as the river begins a gentle bend to the west towards the Audubon Center.

Among the terraces of McCommas Bluff on the old Trinity City ghost town site, a meadow of poppies grow

Grey Hairstreak Strymon melinus on Texas Bluebonnet Flower McCommas Bluff Preserve

Sometimes I pat myself on the back thinking about how cool it is to be the only person seeing this stuff and realizing how lucky I am to experience things no one else will. I was having one of those pat myself on the back moments when in the far distance down river I heard boat motors. Up the river come two guys at thirty miles an hour on jet skis! Man. Talk about raising awesome bar to a new level. Below is video I shot of them headed up river. Only in Texas!

Donned in wetsuits and goggles, they were taking advantage of the Trinity River in flood stage. That evening, the river was still in flood, about 12 feet higher than normal. This allowed them to navigate over the McCommas Bluff Lock and Dam #1 without issue. During normal water levels, this would not be navigable to small boats or even canoes.

That is some real out of the box brainstorming to pull off something that awesome. A place to launch or recover watercraft is miles away in any direction. Very difficult conditions if something goes wrong. Logs the size of couches, whole tree trunks and even floating ant balls went cruising by in the current. The amount of skill it takes to ride up the river, the Trinity River, takes a lot of nerve. It's interesting that I keep on running across people like this down there. I know people, friends of mine, who go to the Amazon to find adventure like that. It's in their own backyard. This place is a ten minute drive for a million people.

Chapel at McCommas Bluff

Piedmont Ridge Trail
Location and information Piedmont Ridge Trail

The Piedmont Ridge Trail sits on a high chalk escarpment overlooking White Rock Creek between Grover Keeton Golf Course and Bruton Road. The trail climbs up some switchbacks to the top of the ridge. This trail is usually combined with the Scyene and Devon Anderson Trails since they all link together. I believe this flowering shrub which is blooming everywhere along the trail is Texas Torchwood. I could be wrong.

Piedmont Ridge Overlook with view of Downtown Dallas

Comanche Nation Sacred Storytelling Place

Anchoring the south end of the Devon Anderson Trail is the Comanche Storytelling Place. Shaped like an amphitheater, the natural limestone rock bowl was recognized by the Comanche Nation in 1997 as a sacred spot to their people.

Within 100 feet or so west of the Storytelling Place is the Storytelling Place Red Oak. Listed in the DFW Tree Registry as holding not just historic status but also one of age. It grows on near bare limestone and while only 25 feet tall has a massive trunk base. Estimated at hundreds of years old, it is probably one of the oldest trees in Dallas. Nice to see these bare soil trees to pull through last years drought.

Storytelling Place Red Oak

Pink Bluebonnets At Scyene Overlook

Pink Bluebonnets at Scyene Overlook

Like the Comanche, Texans have their own legend about a bluebonnet, the Pink Bluebonnet. Only place I have ever seen these growing in a native environment is at Scyene Overlook.

Texas A&M's website has the legend of the blood spilled of the Alamo Defenders upon white bluebonnets that now give them their unique pink color Legend of the Texas Pink Bluebonnet

These pink bluebonnets are located in very poor soil downslope of the Scyene Overlook, on the south and southwest facing slopes.

Flowering Texas Buckeye Trees
Location and Information Texas Buckeye Trail William Blair Park

Tiger Swallowtail at Texas Buckeye Grove in Great Trinity Forest March 25, 2012
Rounding out a look at the early flowering plants of the Great Trinity Forest is a very wet, very muddy jaunt down the Texas Buckeye Trail to the Buckeye Grove. I second guessed myself a couple times as I waded through a mile of shin deep water and mosquitoes to the grove. I was rewarded with what you see in the photos. A large Tiger Swallowtail feeding on the sole remaining Buckeye Tree flower.

Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Monday, March 12, 2012

Early Spring On Lower White Rock Creek

Pemberton Meadow in the Great Trinity Forest

The photo above represents what proper land stewardship and proper conservation gives you as a reward. That's close to half a mile of wildflower covered meadow along lowest White Rock Creek in the Great Trinity Forest. It's no accident it looks this way. The Pemberton family and pioneer settlers before them treat the land as a gift, the reward is something that is priceless. Can you believe this is in Dallas?

The Pembertons using good solid conservation practices have kept this in pristine shape. It's tractor mowed every so often to keep the weeds down. Otherwise it would revert into an unmanageable mess. In a time when the city wants to spend many millions of dollars to develop signature destinations for the Great Trinity Forest, I wonder how many people would much rather watch the sunset in a dead silent meadow like this?

It was just random luck that I passed by the Pemberton farm that late Sunday afternoon. They were outside greeting some company and they invited me in. Fresh baked cookies, still warm.

Below is a short clip of that late afternoon. Totally spur of the moment and unscripted. That's what the Great Trinity Forest is like down there. Poking at stuff, checking things out, getting a little muddy. One thing you'll notice is that Mr Pemberton over the course of his walk picks up trash as he goes. Towards the end he has two handfuls. That trash floats in with flood water from White Rock Creek. Keeping the historic spring and surrounding area keeps him busy.

People have lived on this part of the creek for centuries. To the left(inset) Mr Pemberton is scraping away some dirt to reveal the brick porch of his grandfather's home, Case Pemberton. You can read more on the really interesting background of the Pemberton Farm, Sam Houston's Treaty Party and the great natural spring in an earlier post Where The Red Fern Looking Stuff Grows

Many of the original pioneers that settled this part of White Rock Creek are buried not too far upstream in the Beeman Cemetery on Gault Street

The Beeman Cemetery sits fairly hidden just above the White Rock Creek floodplain on the west bank. This cemetery was on John Beeman's 640 acre headright granted to him by the Republic of Texas. Their first home was a two story fortified blockhouse just a couple hundred yards east of the cemetery. They moved to that spot on April 8, 1842, 170 years ago. That same week, John Beeman planted the first corn crop in Dallas County.

The blockhouse was built for defense more than beauty. Indian raids were quite common during this time and when John Beeman was gone on errands or business, it left Emily Beeman alone to fend for herself. One really awesome part of the family plot there is the large memorial to Emily Beeman (below) holding a musket in on hand and a baby in the other.

Mrs Emily Beeman Holding Her Son Scott And Guarding Against Indians In Dallas Co. In 1841

The following brief history is written by local historian MC Toyer :

When the Beeman's arrived in the spring of 1842 they settled first on White Rock Creek at about present Forney / Military Parkway which a few years later would be the route of the Central National Highway from Dallas to Jonesborough on the Red River, northeast of Paris.
An old Indian and buffalo trail (later the general route of Scyene Road) also crossed White Rock Creek near there.

The patriarch, John Beeman, was a farmer, merchant, trader, and ferry and mill operator in Illinois before coming to Texas. He also owned a coal and lumber yard. The following spring the heads of family would locate additional lands east of White Rock Creek. John Beeman held Toby Script and a third class certificate entitling him to claim 1280 acres. His nephew John S Beeman and step-brother James Jackson Beeman both held 3rd class certificates of 640 acres each.

John Beeman located three 320 acre tracks just east of White Rock Creek and south of present Scyene Road. He named them Big Spring (on which White Rock Springs was located) Prairie (on high ground out of the bottoms) and Cedar Brake (heavily wooded slopes and bottom land).
He no doubt had in mind several sources of income. A grist mill was built on White Rock Creek, cattle grazed on Prairie, crops were raised on Big Spring, and timber harvested from Cedar Brake.

John S and James Jackson Beeman also located their claims along the trail which became Scyene Road (tradition says it was named by James Jackson Beeman) and in 1846 another brother, Samuel Beeman and brother-in-law, William Hunnicutt located their claims nearby. All were primarily farmers, though James Jackson Beeman would move to the future Parker County in 1855 where he operated a Trading Post on the Fort Worth - Fort Belknap Road. About half of John S Beeman's land is now the Grover Keeton Golf Course. The north western portion of James Jackson Beeman's land was acquired by the City of Dallas for park land several years ago. The Indian Marker Tree is on part of his land that had been previously sold and developed. Devon Anderson Park is on John Beeman's Prairie Tract. The flood-prone Roosevelt Park housing area is on John Beeman's Cedar Brake Tract.

Clover Covered Beeman Cabin Site 2012
Margaret (Beeman) Bryan inherited half of the Big Spring Tract and that is where she and John lived from 1866 to 1877. She then sold the land to Edward Case Pemberton and his descendants still own part of it. Billy Pemberton owns the portion that includes White Rock Springs (which still flow) and the City of Dallas has acquired much land all around it.--MC Toyer

John Beeman was the man who set many firsts in Dallas. He owned the first wagon. He was the first farmer. The first married man with a wife. The first with children. The first true homestead. Helped build the first ferry across the Trinity. When Texas became part of the United States in 1846, he was the first elected representative.

Just beyond his grave, maybe 100 yards away on the other side of the trees in the photo is the first field in Dallas ever to see a plow.
Emily Hunnicut Beeman, his wife, was the second white woman ever to see Dallas. She must have been a force to be reckoned with in those early days when the realities of Comanche attack were very real. Her husband was attacked by an Comanche raiding party near present day West Village shopping center in Uptown. They chased him as far as present day Fair Park before giving up. He escaped with his life, losing many of the important documents he was carrying along with a hat. He went back the next day to gather his papers which the Indians had no use for.

Many other graves of the Lagow and Hunnicut families exist too. Over 100 in all. A full list can be found on Jim Wheat's Dallas County Archives . Many of the Beemans were noted Indian fighters and built Bird's Fort in present day Arlington before heading east to settle in what is now Dallas. Much of what they did back then would be considered impossible by contemporary standards.

Hopefully this bit of the past can be preserved along with the land that these people settled so long ago. There are a number of issues slowly creeping into the picture with neighbors near the spring complex moving dirt around or making plans for a pig farm/slaughter operation. I think that could have some grave implications for the water quality of Bryan's Slough, Sam Houston's Spring and the woods to the west. This all involves a complicated chess game with leases and the Texas Horse Park site. I was told the lease expires in September, six months from now.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Texas Buckeye Trail Blooms

The Texas Buckeye
One of the earliest trees to leaf out in the spring, the Texas Buckeyes of the Great Trinity Forest are starting to make their showy and brief annual display. Given the mild and wet winter of 2012, the forest is weeks ahead of where it was in foliage compared to this time last year. The photo above was taken Sunday March 4, 2012. It's a photo of a Texas Buckeye flower somewhere between budding and blooming. I would expect that the Texas Buckeye Trail will probably peak with the blossoms in the next couple weeks, the week of March 18-March 25.

I would encourage anyone interested in the Texas Buckeye Trail to take a guided hike offered by Texas Master Naturalist Jim Flood:

He has guided hikes that start from the Buckeye Trailhead at 7000 Bexar Street in Dallas
Friday MARCH 16 at 9am
Saturday MARCH 17 at 9am and 12 Noon
Sunday MARCH 18 at 9am and 12 Noon

I will add that when I was down there on Sunday March 4th the mosquitoes were out in full force, even in the middle of the afternoon. Wear plenty of insect repellent and long pants. Last year, I don't recall even seeing mosquitoes anywhere in the Great Trinity Forest. They are out big time this spring!

From the Texas Native Plants Database: Texas Buckeye has palmately compound leaves with seven to nine (sometimes eleven) leaflets, vs. the five leaflets of red buckeye. The flowers are creamy white to light yellow, appearing in terminal clusters after the leaves appear. The fruit, a leathery capsule with blunt spines, has one to three large shiny seeds. The seeds are known to be poisonous, and it is possible that all parts of the plant are as well. It tends to prematurely drop leaves in hot, droughty situations, due to leaf scorch and fungal diseases. Usually a small shrub or small tree, Texas buckeye reaches its largest size (more than 40 feet) in the hard limestone of the central Edwards Plateau, although it also occurs in the northern Blacklands, Cross Timbers and Prairies, Pineywoods, and Post Oak Savannah.

Forest floor under Buckeye Grove carpeted with Texas False Garlic (Nothoscordum texanum)

If you are unfamiliar with Texas Buckeyes, the trail or how to get there click on the link below that shows the exact location of the largest grouping of the Texas Buckeye Trees. If you want to go it on your own or cannot make it to one of the formal hikes

The GPS coordinates are 32° 43' 36.88", -96° 44' 57.16

I have written previously about the Texas Buckeye Trail and surrounding trails inside William Blair Park. Click on the links to read more

Information on the concrete trail and some of the dirt paths
Rochester Park and Texas Buckeye Trail

Information on more adventurous trail hikes down to the mouth of White Rock Creek
William Blair Park and the Perimeter Trail

Information on neighboring Miller's Ferry, a short walk from the Buckeye Trail
Miller's Ferry

Texas Buckeye Trail in William Blair Park March 2012

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge Fireworks Show

Below is a video clip I shot on the evening of March 3, 2012 featuring the complete grand opening fireworks show for the Santiago Calatrava designed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge

Best viewed in HD the link of which is here Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge Fireworks in HD

It's shot in 720p at 60 frames per second. I could have shot it in 1080 at 30 frames but wanted a higher framerate to catch the fireworks as best as possible. This was shot using a waterproof camera often used in shallow water coral reef scuba diving. I wanted to use something that lacked a mechanical auto focus so that everything stayed crystal clear. I waded out into a pond and stuck the camera on a tripod about 2 inches above the surface, hoping for a nice reflection. I was a little worried as the kick off approached because a low level ground fog was forming across the surface of the pond. You can see it in the distance during some of the larger explosions.

The video really only captures the bottom 1/4 or 1/3 of the fireworks. The camera was so close that it did not capture the highest aerial fireworks. You can hear them, you just cannot see them. The explosions were so large that if watch the video carefully, you can see the concussions causing ripples on the surface of the pond.

Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge Grand Opening Saturday night

Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge Party with band stage on left

Friday, March 2, 2012

Great Trinity Forest -- The Truck Farm Trail

In Dallas, you rarely find a place that wind, weather and woods are allowed to slowly dismantle. Usually bulldozers and backhoes do that work around here. Progress and paving usually gobble up old farmsteads around the county for new roads and development. There is a place though, tucked into the corner of the Great Trinity Forest where some of that old Dallas County farming life is preserved. It's a place for lack of a better term, I call the Truck Farm.

As far as I know, the trail through this old farm is the only soft surface trail on the south side of the river in the Great Trinity Forest. It was really just an old abandoned farm double track road that started to vanish with the passage of time. The rebirth of it came out of necessity for the horseback riders (inset left) who have used the Great Trinity Forest for decades.

The city is turning the old Simpson Stuart Road from a gravel access road into a hike and bike path that connects with the Audubon Center. The construction progress took a turn for the worse when the Water Utilities Department started on a project to reinforce a section of the riverbank very close to where the new Trinity Trail is located. They need the same acre of real estate for a little while before the final few hundred yards of trail concrete can be poured. Fair enough. In the mean time, in order to prevent vehicles from illegally dumping or driving into the park, the construction company built a berm across the trail(see below). Simpson Stuart Road is an attractive spot for illegal dumping given its close proximity to the McCommas Bluff Landfill. Errant trash haulers will often dump their loads along this block rather than visit the landfill.

Lotta long faces when that happened. Late last fall, I stopped by the home of one of the guys I often see riding down there to ask why I have not seen his friends or horse tracks along the river. The berm he said. They were promised it would only be a few weeks. Well, those weeks turned into months. They are no closer to finishing now in March than they were in September, six months ago. Presented with a truckload of lemons, we made lemonade.

Knowing that there was an easy workaround just a couple hundred yards away, the old farm trail started seeing more use.

The trail itself has always existed. It was hidden from view when the Phase I of the Trinity Trail through Joppa was built in 2008. A bulldozer clearing debris pushed over a number of chinese privet bushes and dead tree branches into a pile in front of the trail opening, unknowingly blocking off access to the trail.

Getting that now dead brush pile out of the way, throwing away 45 old tires and some some illegally dumped roofing shingles, it all of the sudden became a trail again.

Disclaimer: The golden rule in city and county parks here is that you're not allowed to cut brush or trim stuff without approval. I know that's a big no-no. This was all dead stuff, deadfall and illegally dumped trash. None of what we did qualified under the umbrella of any restrictions regarding removal of vegetation.

I have taken a number of people back to this area over the last couple years. Frequent D Magazine contributor and Master Naturalist Bill Holston went with me last fall to this area and wrote a column about it Bill Holston Parched on the Trinity. His description of the old structures, the old dam and remote location are the same one discussed here.

Map: From the 5700 Simpson Stuart Road trailhead, travel north on the paved path about 150 yards till you see an opening in the brush. Trail is not long about 4/10 of a mile and rejoins the paved path to the east. It can also be reached from the Loop 12 Boat Ramp or River Oaks Park using the completed paved path through the Joppa Preserve Trail

Snowdrop flowers on the paved trail through Joppa Preserve at the Truck Farm Trail entrance

What in the world is a truck farm?

A truck farm is a small scale farm that produces a wide variety of fresh produce for sale locally. Many different crops and varieties are grown in contrast with larger industrialized farms that grow only one crop. A truck farm employs more hands on gardening techniques compared with large scale industrialized farming. Since production is small in scale, the market for the crops are usually local grocery stores, the farmer's market or restaurants. One of the main customers of this particular farm was Safeway grocery stores. If you bought fresh produce from Safeway in the 1960s and 1970s in Dallas, some of your food came off this farm.
Archeological survey map of the site
This area was investigated in an archeological survey pursuant to the Texas Antiquities Code and the National Historic Preservation Act as recently as 2001. Joppa Preserve contains three prehistoric sites and two historic sites. Previous surveys were done in the 1940s, 1970s, 1990s and in the 00's. The prehistoric sites have yielded a number of artifacts including spear points, arrowheads, human remains and animal bones. I think the consensus is that the area between Little Lemmon Lake and Lemmon Lake was a prehistoric bison kill site of some kind. Some of the bison bone tested dates back to the same decade that work on Notre Dame began in Paris, 1163 AD.

The truck farm area has a historic site built on top of a prehistoric site. Another case like Miller's Ferry where humans seem to inhabit the same spot over and over again. A request by the latest archeological survey to dig at the truck farm site for prehistoric artifacts was shot down by the county. Whatever sits there, will remain there I guess.

The historic background of the site is a little confusing. The first deed on record showed that it was purchased in 1886 by former Confederate officers for a rod and gun club. In 1922 it was transferred as a warranty deed, part of the Harry Cox estate. It is believed that during the early 1900s a Japanese family farmed the land here. In 1902, Sadatsuchi Uchida a Japanese consular official settled thirty farming families in Texas from Japan. They were rice farmers and were attracted mainly to the coastal rice belt of Texas along the coast. The rice market cratered ten years later and many of the farmers moved into truck farming. It is thought that this farm in Joppa was one of these farms.

In 1921, Texas passed an alien land law forbidding ethnic Japanese from owning land. In 1940, only 458 residents were of Japanese ancestry in Texas. It was around that time that, according to the archeological survey, the Japanese were forced to sell their land. It was during that year, 1940, that a large internment camp was built in Seagoville, just down the road, for possible future use in a pending world war. That camp later housed 600. During this time from 1939-1944 it was owned by a JC Kelly who sold in 1944 to the Wulschleger family. The Wulschlegers ran the farm for many years after that. The Wulschlegers went on to supply fresh produce to many local customers including the Safeway chain.

I have been told by a few people that were former residents of the Floral Farms community that Japanese did live and farm this land. An intriguing mystery.

Circa 1945 Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Assoc Sign, Joppa Preserve
Above is an old sign I found a couple years ago, attached to a mangled mess of barbed wire fence that was balled up in a pile with trash when Phase I of the Trinity Trail was under construction. I threw it into the woods to save it from becoming trash and only recently dragged it back out. This sign was produced by McMath Axilrod at 620 Third Avenue in Dallas in 1945. It's a steel sign with a porcelain finish. This sign was designed by John B McMath, chief engineer of McMath Axilrod. Mr McMath ten years earlier designed, constructed and installed the now famous Pegasus sign for Magnolia Oil Company for a National Petroleum Institute Convention in 1934. He also designed the porcelain and neon facade for the Lakewood and Inwood theaters. This old cattle ranching sign probably belongs in a museum.

The trail itself meanders past a few old dilapidated shacks, a building foundation and some farm equipment.

The trail passes through this concrete structure which I believe is part of an aqueduct system that gravity fed irrigation water to the crops. In the woods you'll see sprinkler pipes elevated on poles in some spots, that watered the plants.

Interior of pumphouse shed overlooking South Pond
The pumphouse still has pump mounts but lacks any of the old equipment inside. Looks like someone more recently, within the last 20-30 years built a right handed bench rifle rest inside of it...and must have taken a turtle as quarry at some point.

Potential of a trail across the Lemmon Lake Dam

A secondary idea for a future trail would be one that branches off from the same spot, across the Lemmon Lake dam road to the Trinity River. As of this writing in early March, Lemmon Lake is full to capacity, 200 acres of lake and flooded timber. A trail using the route outlined above would not be underwater even during wet periods. The base of the road on the dam is pea gravel, a near all weather surface. The roadbed looks just like the video clip below, filmed in 1967 at Little Lemmon Lake in Joppa Preserve:

Bonnie and Clyde 1967 at Little Lemmon Lake/Lemmon Lake

Flooded Lemmon Lake, winter 2012

On the backside of the dam is what is listed in the Big Tree Registry to be the tallest tree in Dallas, a cottonwood, shown above. So tall that you cannot see the top of it from the base.

It's a great little trail and serves as a welcome change from the now common miles of concrete trail underfoot. Hopefully, it can maybe someday be turned into more of a formal trail where people can learn about rural farming in Dallas during the last century. Given the close proximity to the trailhead and Eco Center, it would be a great site to bring school age children to educate them on farm life.