The long and winding road, then and now
By LONN TAYLOR
Last Thursday my wife, Dedie, and I left San Antonio at 9:30 in the morning. I was driving. I put the car on Interstate 10 and drove to Junction, where we stopped at Cooper’s for delicious barbecue sandwiches. Dedie got behind the wheel and drove to Ozona while I napped. I took over from Ozona to Fort Stockton, and Dedie drove us the remaining hundred miles to Fort Davis, where we arrived at 3:30pm. Four hundred miles in six hours, thanks to a fast automobile, the Federal Interstate Highway System, and Texas’s generous speed limit.
Burr Grayson Duval left San Antonio on December 14, 1879, traveling with a party of fifteen men, all in wagons or on horseback. He got to Fort Davis forty-two days later, on January 25, 1880. Granted, his party spent fifteen days camped near Brackettville waiting for a military escort from Fort Clark, but when they were on the move they averaged about fifteen miles a day, and Duval complained bitterly that their leader was a “rusher” who insisted on getting on the road before dawn each day and was “determined to push the stock to death.”
Duval, a Galveston cotton broker, recorded these complaints, and many others, in a diary, which my friend Annabelle Tieman recently showed me. Duval was part of an expedition sent to the Chinati Mountains by three railroads that owned land there to look for valuable minerals; he represented the International and Great Northern. Reading his diary brings home the difficulties of travel across West Texas in the years before the railroad joined San Antonio and El Paso, long before the Interstate permitted us to whiz along at eighty miles per hour, stopping only to buy gasoline and visit the restroom.
The first difficulty was water or, more precisely, the lack of it. The San Antonio-El Paso road snaked across the country from water hole to water hole, but the water holes were sometimes dry. Burr’s very first diary entry, on December 14, includes the words, “country very dry and water extremely scarce.” At D’Hanis he was told it had not rained in ten months. At Fort Clark a teamster gave him a list of the camping places between Fort Clark and Fort Davis where water could usually be found, but at most of them he recorded, “We made a dry camp.” At Howard’s Wells, a well-known stopping place just west of the present town of Ozona, he said “the water supply did not apparently exceed five gallons.” At the Pecos River “the water was muddy and strongly alkaline,” and two of Burr’s party placed a bet on whether or not they could cook beans in it. Burr served as referee. After two hours of boiling, he wrote, the beans “were as hard as brickbats.” After ten hours “they were edible but by no means choice.”
The second problem was the weather. Men traveling in open wagons or on horseback were fully exposed all day, and it was cold and windy all the way from Fort Clark to Fort Davis. The mornings frequently started with what Burr called a “Scotch mist,” a freezing fog. Burr often began his day with a hunt on horseback, catching up with the wagons about noon, and on January 8 he wrote that the morning fog was so dense that he had to navigate with a compass. A few days later the wind was “from the North and very keen, making my nose run like a spring of living water.” That night he sat up by the campfire all night, as his tent was too cold to sleep in. At Barilla Springs, twenty-eight miles from Fort Davis, he wrote, “the sun shone brightly but the wind cut like a knife.” Even Fort Davis did not provide relief. Although Burr slept in “a civilized bed” in one of the officer’s quarters, he had breakfast with his party at their camp outside the fort. “ Found it bitter cold and almost a hurricane blowing from the north,” he wrote. “Our cook was endeavoring to cook something to eat, with clouds of sand flying and covering everything. I managed to get a half done biscuit and a well-sanded piece of bacon on my tin plate, but a gust of wind came, whirled my plate over my head and scattered my breakfast in the dust while the plate itself went whirling away on its edge and disappeared down the hill in a cloud of dust.” Burr finally got a cup of coffee and a piece of hardtack, which he ate “under the lee of a big boulder.”
Food was a problem on the whole trip. The party employed a professional hunter, a hefty German who Burr described as having “an avoirdupois of about three hundred and a gun weighing six pounds,” but the German did not bag a single animal on the entire trip. Burr and his young nephew, Duval West, were more successful, sometimes killing one or two deer and providing fresh meat for a day or two, but on January 16, ten days out of Fort Clark, Burr wrote, “too much salt food, bacon and beans and bad bread, have not agreed with me and I am almost on the sick list.” Later he complained that “the confounded bread we eat made of patent baking powders don’t agree with me.” At the one restaurant he ate in, a “table d’hote” in Brackettville where he dined with two members of his party and “two hard-looking nymphs du pave,” ladies of the street, he found the dinner “miserable” and the company “still more wretched.”
From Fort Davis the company traveled south to the Chinati Mountains, where they pitched camp near Milton Faver’s “adobe castle” for six weeks while parties went out to collect rock samples which were assayed in camp by the group’s assayer, E.S. Niccolls. Duval thought Niccolls an “enthusiast” and doubted if anything of value could be found in such a desolate spot, and one gets the sense that he was relieved when the sponsoring railroads called the expedition off and ordered everyone home. Duval led one of the parties back to San Antonio by way of Pena Blanca and the “new military road,” which followed the Rio Grande from Langtry to Del Rio, and made the trip in twenty-five days.
All things considered, I’d rather take that trip now than then.
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Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk