Saturday, April 5, 2014

Big Spring Bur Oak Becomes Official Texas Historic Tree


Under the ancient Bur Oak on March 29, 2013 in the Great Trinity Forest with the complete lineage of title ownership represented at Big Spring Billy Ray Pemberton; Pemberton Family (1880-2004), City of Dallas Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan; City of Dallas (2004-Current), Mike Toyer; Beeman Family(1842-1880) who were original grantees to the land when it was Nacogdoches County, Republic of Texas
It is a rare look at the complete 172 year lineage of land title at Big Spring. Most land in Dallas swapped land owners a score of times in that time frame. At Big Spring there are but a simple three.

At the base of a hillock in North Central Texas one finds a rather remarkable place intertwined with a rich case study of Texas lore that could have a country songwriter tongue tied over lyrics.  Standing humbly among the elms, pecans and walnuts is the largest and tallest of trees as far as the eye can see, The Big Spring Bur Oak. Now an officially recognized historic tree by the Texas Historic Tree Coalition.

As Mighty Oaks From Little Acorns Grow, So Do Mighty Ideas

The iconic Bur Oak of Big Spring, now officially titled The Big Spring Bur Oak by the Texas Historic Tree Coalition

Larger than all of France there are a half dozen versions of Texas-es you could grow up in. From the hard hills of the Hill Country to the Gulf flats or the pine woods of the east. In Dallas, our version Texas is Blackland Prairie and Post Oak Savannah. Known more as the Cotton Belt than for large trees, finding true giant trees in North Texas is a tough order to fill. Finding one with a historical provenance narrows the list further.

King Carlos III of Spain
North Texas is tough on trees. Few places on the continent are more exposed to high winds, long droughts, sudden floods and irregularities of climate than the Dallas area. To make it in the long haul of life as a tree one needs water, shelter and a nurturing environment to set to seed. Few places like that exist in Dallas. All the right elements come together though at one of the only natural springs left in Dallas County. Big Spring.

Bur Oaks in Texas can grow to impressive heights. The Bur Oak and the Cottonwood are the only two decidous trees in Texas that can grow to heights in excess of 100 feet.

Nearly pest and disease free as a species it is one tough tree. In Texas, Bur Oak is rarely dominant and is primarily restricted to floodplains, bottomlands, or other riparian areas.

The Big Spring Bur Oak tree is believed to have taken root when Texas was known as New Spain. At the time, King Carlos III would have owned all of Texas as reigning monarch of the Spanish Empire.

The footprint of the oak's limbs are larger than that of a tennis court. With branches thicker than most tree trunks the rock solid tree has not only stood the test of time but the test of human development as one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States grew around it.

Big Spring Bur Oak inundated in flood waters of the Trinity
When Dallas was founded, Big Spring and the Bur Oak was as wild of a frontier in the 1840s as ones imagine could ever dream. It was during this time that the recorded human historical record of the site began with many generations of two families calling Big Spring and the Big Spring Bur Oak their home. To a large degree they only saw themselves as the caretakers for the place and never felt that they owned it. Merely they saw themselves are the protectors and preservationists of such a place long before the term entered the modern lexicon.

About the Bur Oak species:
Bur oak Quercus macrocarpa sometimes spelled Burr Oak is one of the most majestic of the native North American oaks. It is a large sized deciduous oak of the white oak group that typically grows 60-80’ and less frequently to 125-150' tall with a broad-spreading, rounded crown. Acorn cups are covered with a mossy scale or bur near the rim, hence the common name Bur Oak. It is native to a variety of habitats in central and eastern North America. Best growth occurs in bottomland soils where good ground and good water supply exist. As mentioned, Bur Oaks are very disease and drought resistant. The natural enemies of many other oak species in Texas do not usually affect the Bur Oak species.


Location:
Big Spring and the Big Spring Bur Oak sit in Southeast Dallas County Texas at 32°43'49.06"N 96°43'15.49"W, in the neighborhood of Pleasant Grove and the subsection of an area called Pemberton Hill, south of US 175 and west of the 900 Block of Pemberton Hill Road Dallas, Texas 75217.
Big Spring
One of the only natural spring sites left in Dallas, the naturally discharging Big Spring maintains a steady temperature and predictable flow year round with crystal clear and clean water.  It discharges over eight millions of clean water into the Trinity River Watershed annually. With an average ph of 6.7, mineral rich and low dissolved oxygen content the water points to an aquifer not of modern origins. Carbon dating in 2013 resulted in a sample dating to 590 +/-  30 BP(1360 AD).

Bryan's Slough(Oak Creek) dotted with native hibiscus and palms
The outfall of Big Spring reaches a first-order stream named Bryan’s Slough (Oak Creek) which empties into White Rock Creek and eventually the Trinity River some one mile distant.  At roughly 405 feet above sea level, the spring sits upon a slope that modern geology calls the Trinity Terrace.  The Trinity Terrace is a series of orange and brown-yellow Pleistocene gravel deposits a top a layer of Austin Chalk, a cretaceous age limestone common to Dallas County.



Roseate Spoonbill in a beaver pond on Bryan's Slough
The Pleistocene is the geological epoch which lasted from about 2.5 million to 11,000 years ago, spanning the world's recent period of repeated glaciations. Coupled with much wetter weather than today, the Trinity River was vastly larger, carrying large loads of sediment across a valley that extended from Fair Park on the north bank to the Dallas Zoo on the south in Oak Cliff.

The spring, slough and riparian nature of the environment create large swaths of undisturbed habitat for beavers, otters and migratory birds like the Roseate Spoonbill seen at right.

The year round resident Red-Tailed Hawk in one of the pecan trees near the Bur Oak


The Family Tree
When most people talk about showing you their family tree they take some folded yellowing papers from a desk drawer. For Billy Ray Pemberton his family tree is out the back door and two pastures down a hill. Take your house shoes off, put on your boots and hit the back gate.
Billy Ray Pemberton standing proud wearing his signature Indian Arrowhead bolo tie
The walk down the grade from the Pemberton Farm is a trip through history. The current Pemberton Farm owned by Billy Ray and his wife Zada sits a stone's throw from a road bearing their family name. Pemberton Hill. There was a time around the turn of the last century when many folks lived on roads carrying their own name. The Pembertons are surely one of the few to carry that on.

Bill and Zada at a 4th of July family party at Big Spring
The quarter mile walk to the spring starts in 2014 and goes back through human history over one thousand years. I explain to newcomers that the history of this land is a story of water and what it takes for man to get it. Up at the contemporary Pemberton Farm water comes as easy as turning a faucet. Using municipal water from the city water supply and indoor plumbing it is as state of the art as the city affords other residents.

The Pemberton land commands the highest piece of ground along Pemberton Hill Road. In the crystal clear skies of late March one can see Fair Park, Downtown Dallas, the high ground of Fruitdale and Oak Cliff command the view to points west.

Most folks would never imagine having a natural spring, Native American site and thousands of acres of riverbottom behind their home. For the last forty years or so Billy and Zada Pemberton have enjoyed just that.
Texas First Lady Rita Clements with Billy at Big Spring


The modern day Pembertons often downplay their own history at Pemberton Hill. Historical accounts of their forefathers and other pioneers dominate conversation. The truth is, Billy and Zada have single handedly done more to preserve the Big Spring Bur Oak and the area around it than anyone else. Ever.

Like those before them, they raised a family, entertain grandchildren and watch over the land that the generations before toiled in, fought for and carved out of what is still today a true wilderness.

From political dignitaries to local celebrities, the Pembertons have graciously hosted a wide range of interested people to visit. A very few Dallasites could ever claim such a wide ranging guest list.
A young Billy Ray telling school children about the walnut tree at Big Spring. At right, a 2013 photo at the same spot. Billy is still using the same posture on the tree as he recounts floods and family history as told through nature

The flower packed Coyote path down near Bryan's Slough March 29, 2014
Billy Ray on horseback at the Cantrell Farm, future Texas Horse Park
Only the faintest of paths exist down here. Narrow little game paths just wide enough for the coyotes and foxes who make their nocturnal rounds after sunset. All roads don't lead to Big Spring...but all game trails do. Heavy timbered brakes of ash, willow and swamp privet dominate a place so quiet one would not imagine they were inside Loop 12. It is the rarest and most special of places left of it's kind in Dallas.

Walking down the slope towards the Bur Oak and Big Spring takes us not just down the hill but back through time. We come across the homestead site of Billy Ray Pemberton's grandfather, Edward Case Pemberton.

Edward Case Pemberton

Bill with his goat Olympia standing at his grandpa's home site
Here through the faint lines of sewn winter wheat and early season grass stands the foundations of the old home. The faint traces of a house, windmill and blacksmith foundry that served as a farm headquarters for a dairy operation run by the family. It's heyday was back in the era of Big Grass. Large pastured fields ripe with grass nearly year round that fed a cattle operation that brought some of the best milk to Dallas.



In 1880 Edward Case Pemberton bought the Big Spring property from Margaret Beeman for $1000 payable in two installments, $400 in January 1882 and $600 payable in January 1883.


Billy Ray hollars in a hush tone to alert a group of Master Naturalists to a pair of Killdeer seen standing on the concrete piers to his grandfather's old windmill in March 2014

A flock of Master Naturalists observing birds on the Pemberton property
Edward Pemberton grew a family here in a cabin of over a half dozen offspring. He kept a store down the hill to the north, where Pemberton Hill and Lake June now intersect. The centennial of his passing is this year, 2014. He met an untimely death at the hands of a robbery at his store, murdered through an open window.

His homesite used windmill powered water pumps in a well to supply water. As one goes further down the hill, the technological advances of how man obtained water are slowly left behind.

The Pemberton family anvil, once used by Edward Case Pemberton, still in use today by his grandson Billy Ray, seen here cracking walnuts.

Edward Case Pemberton purchased the land in the 1880s from Mrs Margaret Beeman Bryan, widow of John Neely Bryan, who many consider to be the founder of Dallas. It's just a shade further down the hill from the Edward Case Pemberton residence where one would most likely find the old Beeman Cabin that stood here a century and a half ago.

The Beemans
Mike Toyer, descendant of Dallas pioneer John Beeman, lounging in front of his handmade from scratch mobile cabin at the Pemberton Farm on March 29, 2014. This was inside the Pemberton Farm, the woods beyond the foreground fence are part of the City of Dallas future Big Spring Historic Landmark and Conservation area
MC Toyer in coonskin cap at the unveiling of John Neely Bryan's grave marker
It would be an odd sight to some, seeing a cabin on wheels perched in a field. To me, I saw it as a dream fulfilled, a Beeman back in a cabin at Big Spring. Many not might be aware of the significance of such a sight. A long studied project by Mike Toyer to roll his cabin to the edge of the Pemberton Farm and sleep for the night.
Pioneers of the Trinity, Beemans, Cochrans, Hunnicutts



An expert on carpentry and especially log cabins, Mike Toyer is most likely the hands down expert on Dallas County log cabins and especially the lore and legends associated with the famous John Neely Bryan cabin that sits on the courthouse square in Downtown Dallas. Few native Dallasites can tell you the intricacies of Dallas history en plein air better than him.

Cabin talk is always a hot issue at Big Spring. Where the location might have been, the construction and what happened to the remains of the structure.

Water was most likely drawn from the spring by bucket and hand at the time. The cabin site was close enough to the water for the distance to not be a burden. The state of the art was that of the well made bucket back then.

AC Greene
One story goes that in the 1970s, historians AC Greene and Barrott Sanders surveyed the place and took some of the old logs they thought belonged to the old cabin. Gone for good to points on the compass unknown but to God.


Good country, this place seems to have been. On what must surely have been the very finest day yet of the year 2014 , one could without much imagination see the pleasant nature of such a place as a home. It was here that Margaret Beeman Bryan and her husband John Neely Bryan lived around the time of the War Between The States.

At the Trinity River Audubon Center, Margaret Beeman is pictured with her husband, John Neely Bryan on a timeline wall of events in the history of the Trinity River.

Billy Ray Pemberton and MC Toyer surveying White Rock Creek
The Beemans are an important family in North Texas history.

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 to formally settle. 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.



Scott Beeman, Margaret Beeman Bryan, John Neely Bryan Jr


John Beeman owned three 320 acre tracts just east of White Rock Creek and south of what is now Scyene Road. He named them Big Spring, Prairie and Cedar Brake. Each served various purposes, from some he could graze cattle, others harvest timber and other areas grow crops.

On President Sam Houston's visit to North Texas in the summer of 1843 it was a relative of John's,  JJ Beeman who guided Sam Houston's Treaty Party from their overnight camp at Big Spring up White Rock Creek to John Neely Bryan's cabin in what is now Downtown Dallas.

Margaret Beeman Bryan inherited 160 acres upon her father John's death, half of the 320 acre Big Spring Tract and that is where she and John Neely Bryan lived from 1866 to 1877. She then sold the land to Edward Case Pemberton and his descendants.

Native Americans

Worn pieces of rock in a contemporary bowl of terra cotta, found around Big Spring, many of which are worked pieces of rock by Native Americans who once lived at Big Spring

A wide swath of a Native American archeological site once covered the terrace upon which Big Spring sits. Professional archeological digs have recovered artifacts that will one day tell a story of ancient human occupation over millennia at Big Spring. Over the last hundred years, through utility right of ways, easements and some gravel mining, the site, officially called 41DL72 slowly diminished in size. Remnants of the site still exist undisturbed.

Left behind are the tools of their trade used in processing animals and plants for food. The oldest chapter of human history at Big Spring has yet to be written. The secrets are locked in the ground awaiting proper scientific excavation and study.

The Native Americans had their own pottery, fragments of which have been recovered by the city contracted archeology company in 2013. The Native Americans used these vessels for gathering water out of Big Spring or possibly their bare hands.

Big Spring - Preservation Efforts To Save The Bur Oak and the Spring
The huge trees that once shaded much of Big Spring before a city sewer line cut through the area in the 1980s
Pembertons gathering under the trees circa 1970s
For decades Billy Ray Pemberton and his wife Zada Pemberton have been the quiet caretakers of Big Spring, tending to the mowing, downed limbs and the occasional tire that floats by when the Trinity River floods.  No cleaner piece of land exists in the Great Trinity Forest than here. The Pembertons are why this place is so special.  He and his wife Zada have fought harder for the preservation of the land here than anyone who came before them.

Upon the death of Billy Ray Pemberton's grandfather in 1914, the family farm was divided half a dozen ways between the heirs of the estate. Over the decades the land became more fractured in size and scope. Billy Ray and his wife still live on the piece of land that was his grandfather's homeplace.

In the late 1980s the City of Dallas planned a large sanitary sewer line through the area. The plans would have demolished The Big Spring Bur Oak and the natural spring that flows there. The Pembertons made passionate pleas to the City Council at City Hall meetings, wrote letters and called with great gusto to anyone who would listen. They on their own, were able to have the sewer line moved some distance west to save the spring. The black and white photo above shows what the area once looked like before the sewer line went in. Much of it was clear cut for the sewer line.

360 degree Panorama of the Big Spring area, standing a top the sewer box west of Big Spring (click to enlarge)
Other than some early 20th century gravel mining and the 1989 sewer line, the absence of human disturbance has left much of the ecological functionality of Big Spring intact indicating that preservation and management of the site should be somewhat of a “hands ‐ off” or “less ‐ is ‐ more” approach. This will allow the natural processes to continue undisturbed. Continual monitoring and assessment of Big Spring will allow decisions to adaptively develop or hone site specific management.

 Billy Ray Gets Some Help
Billy Ray Pemberton listening to conservationists and city employees discuss what should come of Big Spring in August 2013.
 In 1846 Sam Houston gave a speech on the floor of the United States Senate entitled A Tribute To The Indians "As a race they have withered from the land, Their arrows are broken, and their springs dried up;......Ages hence, the inquisitive white man, as he stands by some growing city, will ponder on the structure of their disturbed remains and wonder to what manner of person they belonged."

Dallas is fortunate to have a handful of very dedicated private citizens who fit the bill of what Sam Houston spoke of so long ago. Nowhere does his speech ring more true than the woods surrounding Big Spring in the Great Trinity Forest. The Yeoman's work here over the last year to discover the centuries of history and the combined preservation efforts will have a far reaching legacy for generations to come.

Through some very hard work Big Spring will become an official Dallas Landmark. Believed to be the first natural landmark in the City of Dallas, landmark designation is traditionally given to buildings, places and physical things. This new landmark, still in just the formative infancy of the process will be unique in what it represents, a rare natural spot ripe with the complete story of Texas at ones feet.

The first honor to be bestowed at Big Spring is the historical tree dedication by the Texas Historic Tree Coalition.


Tree Dedication Ceremony At Big Spring

Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan accepts the Texas Historical Tree Coalition award on behalf of the citizens of Dallas, March 29, 2014
The hard work for recognizing the tree began in late fall of the year before, September of 2013. There among the tangle of moonscaped trees and debris bulldozed for the scraped Texas Horse Park pad sites was the old remains of a Post Oak that once sat on the property. The Post Oak is thought to be a casualty of the former tenant and poor stewardship practices.
Sean Fitzgerald on the chainsaw with Tim Dalbey working the pile in the background, at the Texas Horse Park
A well cut tree cookie harvested from the Post Oak
The stark contrast of landscapes between the construction next door at the Horse Park and that of the serene Big Spring landscape are readily apparent in 2013-2014. The idea was to harvest tree slices from the trunk, "tree cookies" as they are called. The tree was most likely more than 150 years old and witnessed the first surveyors, Texan explorers, pioneers and settlement of this very spot. The Beemans, Bryans, Pembertons, Kirbys, Jenkins, Cantrells and Jassos made a living under this tree as it served as part of their farm and ranching operations over the better part of two centuries.

The rainfall, the weather, the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter that all those families saw over the last two hundred years are recorded in the tree trunk of that old tree.


Growth rings, also referred to as tree rings or annual rings, can be seen in a horizontal cross section cut through the trunk of a tree. Growth rings are the result of new growth in the vascular cambium, a layer of cells near the bark that is classified as a lateral meristem. This growth in diameter is known as secondary growth. Visible rings result from the change in growth speed through the seasons of the year, thus one ring usually marks the passage of one year in the life of the tree.

Many trees make one growth ring each year, with the newest adjacent to the bark. For the entire period of a tree's life, a year-by-year record or ring pattern is formed that reflects the climatic conditions in which the tree grew. Adequate moisture and a long growing season result in a wide ring. A drought year may result in a very narrow one. Alternating poor and favorable conditions, such as mid summer droughts, can result in several rings forming in a given year.

Tim Dalbey giving a talk at a November 2013 Texas Historic Tree Coalition meeting about the tree rings of the Post Oak and the relation to the Bur Oak at Big Spring
It is a story unto itself how something like a tree slice can end up in a carpeted meeting room near Downtown Dallas. The effort to recover, document and connect the dots of the importance of such a place, such a tree, such a history. The November 2013 meeting of the Texas Historic Tree Coalition was one that saw the formal nomination of the tree with a dedication planned in Spring 2014. Trustee Bill Seaman gave a formal presentation and nomination at the meeting.

The Texas Historic Tree Coalition http://www.txhtc.org/ from their website is a "non-profit, local citizens’ group advocating the recognition and celebration of significant and historic trees. Our goal is to find, research and honor the stories these living legacies have told, and continue to tell, for generations."


It was a picture perfect, cloudless late March afternoon in Dallas when the tree was formally dedicated and recognized as a Texas Historic Tree. Well attended by dozens of people, the ceremony recounted the historic background of the site, the large Bur Oak and the long stewardship of the Pembertons in their protection and preservation. In attendance was a broad collection of city hall officials including Willis Winters, head of Dallas Parks and Recreation, Michael Hellmann, Assistant Director of Parks and Recreation, Sue Alvarez, Program Manager for Stormwater Management and Sarah Standifer, Assistant Director of Trinity Watershed Management. They all have worked very hard at tackling the tough issues at Big Spring and working to protect the spring as a resource for future generations.
A beaming Billy Ray being applauded by the crowd gathered at Big Spring under the Bur Oak. Left to right, Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan, Billy Ray Pemberton and President of the Texas Historic Tree Coalition Mary Graves
Above is a long overdue round of applause for Billy Ray Pemberton. Seen at left in the photo is Jill Jordan who accepted the Big Spring Bur Oak award for the citizens of Dallas, as presented by Mary Graves, President of the Texas Historic Tree Coalition and Trustee Bill Seaman. Profound and precious moments like this are what make Texas so great of a place to live. A beaming Billy Ray shines brighter than the sun.
Mary Graves, Billy Ray Pemberton, Jill Jordan and Bill Seaman standing in front of the Big Spring Bur Oak holding the official decree and certificates for the tree
Satisfied smiles across Big Spring. Left to right, Photographer Sean Fitzgerald, Staff Writer for the Dallas Morning News Roy Appleton, Attorney Eric Reed, Attorney/ Master Naturalist Bill Holston
The work goes on at Big Spring. Water testing, historical research, plant surveys and a bedrock of education that can be enjoyed by all Texans.

It was a privilege to attend such a unique ceremony, the first of what one hopes are many for Big Spring. A great moment to reflect on what the tree signifies. More than the height, size and shape of such a grand oak.

The decades of the Pembertons hard work are representative of the finest traditions of Texas and should be seen as a legacy that we as Texans can work hard to continue.

On behalf of all Texans how proud we all are Bill and Zada Pemberton and how much you mean to us all. In these times of uncertainty and change to the Trinity River you bring our hearts to soar. You remind us of the strength and endurance of the Texas spirit.



Wednesday, March 19, 2014

McCommas Bluff Preserve -- Up Elam Creek Without A Paddle

Elam Spring as it flows over native Austin Chalk limestone at the former site of Camp Woodland Springs in Dallas, Texas
It's just the other side of nowhere goes the old country song. A place that we as Dallasites all but gave up on and left to go to seed two or maybe three generations ago. Hard to say how long or who was responsible for letting it become a lost place. 

Some of the old timers around Pleasant Grove have told me for years about the roaring spring down here. Most had not laid eyes on it since the 1950s. Their descriptions and narratives were as if they had just been there last week.

For a time this old land here was quite a going concern. All American SMU running back Doak Walker delivered a Christmas dinner prayer to a group of underprivileged boys here on Christmas Eve 1948, just weeks after he won the Heisman Trophy. From the banks of the limestone lined spring fed creek one of the best Texas wildflower books had pen put to paper for the first time. It's called Elam Spring.

Camp Woodland Springs
Lynne and Campbell Loughmiller at Elam Spring
Most interesting places have interesting people behind them. The old forgotten creek here known as Elam Creek is no exception.

The Salesmanship Club of Dallas owned over two hundred acres down here at one time, from the 1930s to the 1960s. From Loop 12 and Jim Miller all the way down to the Trinity River where Elam Creek mouths the larger river. Varying in topography and terrain from post oak savannah sands, limestone carved canyons and down into the black silt clay of the Trinity River Bottom. A grand place to build a youth camp.

The story of such a forgotten place begins in 1930s California, with a newly minted graduate of philosophy from Berkley named Campbell Loughmiller. In 1935 California, Campbell found tongue and cheek there was not a shortage or need of philosophers, he moved to Texas where his luck might be better. He found work with the county welfare department working with youth in need of a turn around.
Elam Spring as it mysteriously roars to life from underground
In the 1930s, a camp was started at Bachman Lake by the Salesmanship Club of Dallas that sponsored a year round camp for boys on the wrong path in life. That land became more urbanized by the day and the Salesmanship Club moved the camp to Pleasant Grove on some 200 plus acres. It became known as Camp Woodland Springs. Loughmiller later described the land as "the closest thing to virgin timber as I have seen around Dallas".

The heyday of the camp was Post World War II when many boys and young men were growing up without male role models due to the loss of so many fathers during the war. Here, the boys were taught direction and self reliance in an outdoor learning environment whose foundations are still blueprinted by other camps and organizations today. The boys lived in the outdoors, year round. Given only a small camp bed and an open tee-pee shelter to live in, they were subjected to the elements that would have some folks cringe today.

The Loughmillers ran the camp here many years. They launched Trinity River canoe trips from this spot with their boys all the way to the Gulf of Mexico at Trinity Bay. Hiking trips and week long excursions deep into the woods and islands south of Dallas to test a camper's mettle. Despite his solid background in the social sciences, Campbell still retained the air of a man who had spent seven years at sea, traveled around the world three times and navigated by canoe nearly every major stream on the North American continent.

It was from their years of living in the outdoors here along Elam Creek that allowed the Loughmillers to transcend into true wilderness educators. The books they penned on wilderness education, working with troubled youth and child psychology were forerunners of their genre. Campbell Loughmiller also served as president of the Texas chapter of the Nature Conservancy and as a board member of the Texas Conservation Council.

They also wrote and published one of the finest books on Texas wildflowers ever written. Texas Wildflowers by Campbell and Lynne Loughmiller has been not only one of the best wildflower guides ever written but ranks number three among all books ever published by the University of Texas Press. The foreward of the book was written by none other than Lady Bird Johnson.

As Pleasant Grove and the larger city of Dallas began encroaching on the area, the camp was moved to East Texas near Hawkins.In the late 1960s, the Salesmanship Club was shopping around the Camp Woodland Springs site for a buyer. The prime 200 acres of rolling wooded hills were marketed as ideal land for housing. At the time, in 1966, someone was able to whisper in the ear of the federal government and appropriate 37 acres through the Department of the Interior to save a portion of Camp Woodland Springs as a public and natural space. This later became Woodland Springs Park. The legend is that First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson was the driving force behind the scenes that pushed to buy the land. By 1969, much of the unprotected acreage was converted into a subdivision. The trail goes cold after that. One would be hard pressed to even find a visitor to Elam Creek in the last fifty years other than Master Naturalist Jim Flood.

The McCommas Bluff You Have Never Seen
The photogenic Bass Farm atop McCommas Bluff Preserve and the once free flowing natural spring that is now impounded to form a stock pond
Old storage tanks at an old pig farm operation at McCommas Bluff
Recent visits over the last half year to McCommas Bluff and Elam Creek have been focused on the lesser knowns, unknowns and the forgottens of the land here.

Many of the visits entail learning more about turn of the last century history in South Dallas, touchstones to the past and how a broader picture can be developed for preserving places in the Great Trinity Forest like Big Spring.

The flower filled fields of autumn in Dallas on the Bass Farm which adjoins McCommas Bluff Preserve
Our host on one visit was Master Naturalist Mary Potter, a local resident who was able to arrange access to the private Bass Farm whose property lines share fence with McCommas Bluff Preserve. A rare treat to see open expanses of pasture and meadow; trees and forest as they have most likely always looked.
MC Toyer dwarfed by the large post oaks and cedar brake above McCommas Bluff

The sand soils of the Trinity Terrace transport you instantly into a scene out of East Texas with towering Post Oaks and Cedar Brake shading the old trails that meander towards the Trinity.

McCommas Bluff Spring
Archeologist Dr Tim Dalbey, Historian MC Toyer, Master Naturalist Mary Potter and Texas Stream Team Coordinator Richard Grayson stand on an earthen dam at McCommas Bluff which impounds the natural spring that once quenched the thirst of riverboat passengers
Natural cemented gravel material at McCommas Bluff Spring
Above is Historian MC Toyer giving a detailed talk about Trinity River excursions to McCommas Bluff via the H.A. Harvey a sightseeing ship which operated over 100 years ago from Downtown to McCommas Bluff on river cruises. A spring flows here and was used by the passengers as a water source at this garden spot on the river. There is good reason to believe, beyond almost any shadow of a doubt that the spring here that is now impounded by an earthen dam is in fact that old water source.

The tell tales for a natural spring in Pleasant Grove are becoming more apparent with every new spring that is visited. The contact horizon between the Cretaceous Austin Chalk and Trinity Sands are one key. The high mineral content of the water which can be checked with a conductivity meter is another. Even the topography and elevation become a factor in the 390-420 foot range above sea level.

Richard Grayson checking out the spring fed pond's crystal clear water that casts a near perfect mirror reflection

The head of the spring sits on the north end of the pond in the photo, which would be in the far background of the wooded treeline. It appears to have been worked on, reworked and enlarged over the decades.

Pretty common among Texas natural springs, people often seek to improve upon them with rock work and enlargement. While beautiful and unique for Dallas, it gives us all a sincere appreciation for Big Spring which was never impounded or expanded upon to a large degree.
McCommas Bluff
 A Texas Historical Marker once stood not far from this spot. It disappeared several years ago, right before the City of Dallas bulldozed a large section of the limestone bluffs here for a water main project. The marker read:

  Navigation of the Upper Trinity River  

Since the founding of Dallas, many of the city's leaders have dreamed of navigation on the upper Trinity River, but none of their attempts achieved lasting success. Fluctuating water levels and massive snags in the river below Dallas hindered early navigation. In 1866 the Trinity River Slack Water Navigation Co. proposed dams and locks for the waterway. Capt. James H. McGarvey and Confederate hero Dick Dowling piloted "Job Boat No. 1" from Galveston to Dallas, but the trip took over a year. In 1868 the Dallas-built "Sallie Haynes" began to carry cargo southward. Rising railroad freight charges spurred new interest in river shipping in the 1890s. The Trinity River Navigation Co., formed in 1892, operated "Snag Puller Dallas" and the "H. A. Harvey, Jr.," which carried 150 passengers. The "Harvey" made daily runs to McCommas Bluff, 13 miles downstream from Dallas, where a dam, dance pavilion, and picnic grounds created a popular recreation spot. In 1900 - 1915 the U. S. Government spent $2 million on river improvements, including a series of dams and locks, before World War I halted work. A critical 1921 Corps of Engineers report ended further federal investment. Despite sporadic interest in later years, the dream of Dallas an an inland port remains unrealized.
Richard Grayson paddling past the Standing Wave and Santa Fe Trestle towards McCommas Bluff ten miles distant March 15, 2014
Under the I-45 Bridge on the Ides of March
Today's riverine traveler to McCommas Bluff from Downtown won't find the water to float a steamboat but more than enough to draw a canoe.

The iconoclasts of the Trinity rarely get a view of this part of the river. The wild river your great grandparents might have known before the levees went in. For the ignorant, their 30,000 foot view on such a place will forever remain as ones and zeros burned onto a computer screen or aerial map. The civic souled urban crowd would find themselves not at home in such a place but out of touch to boot. A shame that more people don't float the river. If you have not, you should.

Just like a hundred years ago, the river has not changed much in course, save for the tires, bridge spans and plastic bags that hang like Christmas ornaments on low hanging trees. Ancient man left behind plenty himself in the form of bleached bison bones eroding here and there from the banks and his stone tools litter the shores in spots. Maybe it's those who can only get indifferent about the patches of wrinkled hard used earth that lie between all the beauty down here that "get" these places. If you can't see it, then well this place might not be for you. Or anywhere else for that matter.
Photographer Sean Fitzgerald in his white Wenonah canoe on Elam Creek near the Trinity River Audubon Center March 15, 2014

 Nine river miles south of Downtown and just past the Audubon Center lies one of the most unrecognized creeks in Dallas which holds secrets all it's own. Wide enough at the mouth to paddle up and obstructed only by a concrete culvert crossing, one can dig a paddle up Elam Creek a fair distance. Seen above is photographer Sean Fitzgerald in his solo canoe far up the creek.

Landing at McCommas Bluff under a heavy rain
 Here where most water adventures end along the Austin Chalk cliffs, a land based hike can begin.

A Copperhead snake at McCommas Bluff Preserve March 2014

Cool dirt road which will be paved for a possible Spine Trail
Master Naturalist Jim Flood's name is forever connected with the preservation of Dallas County's Texas Buckeyes. He is an expert with the species and had previously spoken with me on occasion about Texas Buckeyes elsewhere in the state.

I recognized the tell-tales of a Buckeye or two last spring on the tail end of the blooming cycle at McCommas Bluff. Dogeared myself a note to visit the next spring to check it out.

The widescape view of Buckeye trees commanding the high ground over Elam Creek
Trout Lilies growing among the Buckeyes
It's here in the photo above, right about where you run out of water for a canoe to float that one spies the Buckeyes. It is not very hard, if you live in a place like Texas, to find obscure evidence of the legacy that previous generations left us. If you can look past the rust of old metal parts, discarded sun bleached plastic and the borrow pits scattered around....you might just catch a wiff of what forefathers saw in preserving such a place.

It takes a half trained eye to pick up on the subtle nuances of some rare places in North Texas nature. They don't roar like a black bear, bugle like an elk or turn ten shades of red when they bloom.

The eureka moments of finding one, two and even three somewhat rare species of plants for North Texas sharing the same creek bank inside the city limits is a treat. Maybe being the first to ever notice it makes the find even better.


Trout Lilies in a state of bloom and post-bloom at McCommas Bluff Preserve
There are only around a hundred known patches of Trout Lilies in the State of Texas. Unknown to me and possibly everyone else, the Trout Lilies grow in great numbers along the east bank of Elam Creek intermingled with Buckeyes up the slopes.
Buckeyes growing along the slopes of Elam Creek in McCommas Bluff Preserve

Trout Lilies growing out from underneath an old timber
The Trout Lily represents not just the first flowers of the new year. To many, the colonies of these plants represent very rare spots in Dallas where the land was never plowed, lumbered or disturbed in any way. Pollinated by flying insects like bees and seeds dispersed by ants, the Trout Lily is a very immobile species and rare as a result.

It was most likely decades ago that someone dropped the rough hewn board in the photo at left. The Trout Lily plant that was originally smothered by that long ago placed plank found a way to grow around it. These plants are old, the colonies ancient.

The mature plants seen in the photos are at a minimum seven years old. From seed to first flower, it takes seven full growing seasons for a Trout Lily to produce a first flower.


There is most likely no other place on the planet where trout lilies and Texas Buckeyes grow in the same spot. Rare times two.

Along the creek headed up stream. In the very far distance one can see the signature hill of the Trinity River Audubon Center
Flowerless Texas Buckeye branch


The Texas Buckeye is one of the earliest flowering trees in Texas but is beaten out some weeks ahead by the Trout Lily. Trying to catch them blooming together would be a near impossible feat and would likely involve some tricky winter weather to cause the plants to sync.





A Texas Buckeye foreground, Trout Lilies growing on the floor beyond and a Dwarf Palmetto Palm growing in the background
To add a triple crown to the rarity of the plants seen here, one can frame a Texas Buckeye, Trout Lilies and Dwarf Palmetto Palm all in the same shot. All exceptionally rare in DFW seeded in the wild.  The pride in quality and quantity of plants here is really first rate. An undiscovered treasure perhaps that might yield interesting walks in the future from the Trinity River Audubon Center.

A native of Mobile, Alabama, Master Naturalist Bill Holston seen at right always gets a kick out seeing palm trees in Dallas. The often sterile winter scenes of Dallas bottomland take on a Deep South feel when palms are found.

Elam Spring
Hard hiking through heavy brush and Scouring Rush as one pushes up Elam Creek
























James Woods
It was some weeks before that I had a chance meeting with Mr James Woods at Big Spring in Dallas, Texas. After hearing that conversation and having heard similar stories for years it was time to find it. Armed only with that information the search was on.

A native son of Pleasant Grove, childhood classmate of Billy Ray Pemberton, guitar player and lifelong farmer he told me the old stories of Elam Spring, where I might it and would it might look like when I got there. His last recollection of the place was in the 1950s when firefighters would draw water from it during the Big Drouth.

Elam Creek rises out of the riverbottom through cottonwood, willow as it transforms into a more mature hardwood bottomland forest. The red oaks and cedar yield to even a more interesting post oak savannah peppered with trees of the same name and the mighty bur oaks that once dominated this part of Dallas County.
The cliffs of Elam Creek
The topography changes too. The silt laden bottoms of the river transition to limestone creek channels topped by the Pleistocene Trinity Sands. Often spoken about but rarely seen so clearly, one can see the contact horizon between the white limestone that once formed the bed of an ancient sea and the more recent orange sands of the ancient Trinity River that are much younger, maybe 1 million to 100,000 years old. The wood galleried cliff tops and slowly eroding limestone cubes are what remain today.

A large stand of Scouring Rush draped over Elam Spring
It's a difficult if not near impossible traverse to reach Elam Spring. I would rank it a 10 out of 10 on the difficulty level when it comes to navigating invasive Chinese Privet. By far the thickest, most tangled mess of privet and greenbriar thorn vine thickets I have ever seen on the Trinity River. In some places it feels as if you are in a World War I field of concertina barbed wire.

The topography is very steep with multiple downed trees of great size which limit access.

Elam Spring at the source
Unlike Big Spring, Elam Spring has an undefined source. Mr James Woods the Pleasant Grove Farmer said "It comes out of the ground in seven spots". That stuck with me and sure enough, he was right. He was right about all of it, a picture perfect description of the place drawn on the deep memories he had so long ago.

Old pump pipes at Elam Spring
Above is the source of Elam Spring. On the southwest bank some twenty feet up is a pipe and concrete structure that once pumped water from the spring for use by Camp Woodland Springs. Below in the photo is a shallow pool who has no noticeable beginning or end. It's just there. An oddity to be sure that leaves one to scurry up and down the slopes looking to see where the water might be born from the earth.


Scott Hudson searching for a vent
"Seven spots" is right. Within 100 feet the little pool of seemingly still water comes alive with what would be a substantial flow by anyone's measure. It leaves one scratching their heads as to how the whole thing works.

At left, Scott Hudson has his arm up in the bank stirring up silt to find a source. As the silt clears, like smoke would in the atmosphere, one can find a source. It might come up out of the bank or even up from under the streambed itself as is often the case in North Texas creeks.


Below is a video of Elam Spring, just 100 feet from where the dry bed gets damp. Watch as it roars to life.






This visit was in an abnormally dry winter for Dallas with only .80 of an inch in measured precipitation for the previous few months. The water in spring and spring channel was entirely of aquifer origin. During wet periods this spring channel appears to double as a storm water runoff for either Jim Miller or Loop 12 and is compromised as a result. It appears more than likely that in the 1960s as Camp Woodland Springs was subdivided that storm sewer outlets were built into the watershed, one such spot being that of the Elam Springs channel.
Outfall of Elam Spring into Elam Creek

The outfall of where Elam Spring enters Elam Creek proper, termed an outfall, is as hidden as Elam Spring itself. It moves through heavy brushed timber and through a series of tree trunks and stumps before entering the creek. I would place a guess that a majority of water for Elam Creek, over half, comes from Elam Spring itself.

The stories of a place like this come from recollections of memories over a half century ago. Some of those stories were told to men like the Woods and Pembertons by the Old Timers, some who were original pioneers of Dallas. Those old sod busting pioneers were told stories of old Indian warriors surviving in the hills and creeks who they themselves had recalled something that happened half a century before. It's an unbroken chain of truth that runs clearer than the water that runs through these hollows.