White Rock Big Spring Threatened

A story older than Texas itself. One that has been told and retold countless times in English, Spanish, French, Comanche and Caddo. A story told in those languages at the very spot seen above over two dozen centuries. The fight over water. You don’t realize how valuable water can be until you don’t have it or someone else wants yours. Water. The good stuff.

Jim Flood, Bill Holston, Scott Hudson at White Rock Spring June 9, 2012

Cliff Notes: Sadly, the historic Big Spring has become threatened. One of the few remaining natural springs left in Dallas, it is a priceless treasure. A commercial business started illegally drawing water off the spring using a hose and pump for their operations. The spring became impaired as a result. I became aware of the situation shortly after Memorial Day and after I pulled myself off the ceiling in anger, I started asking around who could help. That help came by way of the most well known concerned private citizens familiar with the Great Trinity Forest. Master Naturalists, authors, scientists and professionals in their chosen field. Jim Flood, Bill Holston, Dr Tim Dalbey and Scott Hudson. If you could ever assemble a blue ribbon group of experts on the Trinity River, this would be it. To have them all gather in one spot on a Saturday to discuss the plight of the spring is exceptional and underscores the seriousness of the situation.

Scott Hudson and Dr Tim Dalbey taking field notes at an ancient Indian site

Back story: The story to protect this spring, White Rock aka Big Spring, Sam Houston’s Spring, Pemberton’s Spring, is not a new one. Tucked into a terrace just above the Trinity River floodplain the spring has faced challenges before. Flooding, commercial gravel operations, sewer lines and utility right of ways all have threatened the spring. Voices of reason stepped forward and saved it. In this very spot man has fought for the spring. With sticks, then arrowheads, then musket, then rifle and now the preferred weapon…email. Each fight as serious as the last. Only the faces and weapons change. Man has been drawn to this spring for centuries. Stone tool pieces from Native Americans are underfoot at every step around the spring. Subject of archeological surveys, countless artifacts turn up with every new search.

Illegal sump box and pump hose at the spring

A big hats off and thank you to the city attorney’s office and especially the Trinity Watershed Management office who put a halt to some of this in short order. I think that there are a couple special people working in the offices there that worked quickly to resolve the illegal pumping. I’m afraid though that this is just the first inning of a nine inning game to protect the spring. With rumors of a well that might be dug up the terrace, coupled with past poor land stewardship by the business, the threat to the spring is just beginning. Read on and I’ll get to that.

The spring itself is part of what geologists call a perched aquifer. The spring sits on a slope overlooking the Great Trinity Forest. Above the springs is a sandy gravel some 30 feet or more thick. Water percolates through this strata with ease. Where the sand and gravel contact an impervious layer of bedrock water flows horizontally till it reaches the spring site.

One threat to a perched aquifer and spring such as this is the pollution at ground level that can easily enter the water. Poor land practices, drilling and surface contamination can sour a spring like this in days. There is a good reason to worry this might happen to this spring. Like I said above, read on and I’ll get to that.

The water in the spring is crystal clear. Home to minnows, crawfish and the random turtle, the spring serves as a year round water supply for local wildlife.

The provenance showing title ownership of the land here can counted using the fingers of one human hand. 500 years back. John Beeman in the 1840s was the first pioneer to patent and own this land. His oldest daughter Margaret Beeman inherited this property along with her husband John Neely Bryan, founder of Dallas. Here they built a home near the spring and raised a family. Margaret Beeman eventually sold the land to Edward Case Pemberton in the 1880s. Edward Case Pemberton operated a dairy farm at this location and also ran a small store just down the road. He was murdered at his store in 1914. The land was inherited by his seven sons. Today the spring portion of the property is owned by the City of Dallas. Now part of a larger parcel of land known as the Great Trinity Forest at some point in the future this site will be integral into telling the history of Dallas. North Texas is often overshadowed in Texas lore by the great Spanish Missions of San Antonio or Indian battles of the west. This spring site holds a place among those missions, battlefields and unique land features. It’s a history that is largely unwritten and waiting to be discovered.

The spring is a special place. I wish more people could visit, learn about the rich history behind it and drink straight from the source. It’s a cold sweet water even on a hot day. Within minutes at the spring site, everyone who visits realizes that it should be left in a natural state. No fancy concrete trails, picnic tables or landscaping would make it better. Just leave it be. Seems simple enough.

The spring has undergone a number of name changes over the years. Called White Rock Spring by the Sam Houston treaty party, then noted as Big Spring on Civil War era maps. Later called Bryan’s Spring and Sam Houston’s Spring. I’m not sure what it might be officially called. It is not labeled on contemporary USGS topographical maps or noted in the Springs of Texas by Gunnar M. Brune. Springs of Texas is the encyclopedic reference to locating many of the natural springs in the state. For whatever reason, this one was missed. It could be that during the writing of the book in the 1930s, that the springs were forgotten, hidden away on the back side of a dairy farm. Since the land has always been closely held among just a handful of families, the location might not have been known.

President Sam Houston and His Treaty Party

Sam Houston’s last term as President were filled with heavyweight issues. His highlighted concerns were Indian relations, war on the horizon with Mexico and Texas annexation into the United States.

He had lived with the Cherokee people for years as a young man, had a fondness for the tribes and wanted them treated fairly as their lands were taken over by civilization despite their depredations against the settlers in Texas. For months Houston sent messages to his Indian friends proclaiming he would hold a Grand Council of the Tribes at Fort Bird(presently in the Mid Cities area) during the full moon of August 1843. Similar to what we might consider a general assembly meeting of the United Nations.  Houston sent Indian Commissioner Joseph C. Eldridge out months in advance of the date to bring the Comanches and others to the treaty council.It was in August 1843 when Sam Houston and an expedition of about 30 men departed Crockett in East Texas, and began their trek to the Three Forks of the Trinity to negotiate with the chiefs of the Indian tribes.  Their route was well documented traveling roughly on the same route into Dallas that US Highway 175 takes today. This route was an ancient Pre-Columbian trail used by Indians for many centuries as an important trade route between the Piney Woods of East Texas, the Plains and Indians living north of the Red River. Scyene and Preston Roads share similar distinctions in Dallas as ancient Indian trails that later became major roads.

One of the men in his group was an Englishman by the name of Edward Parkinson. He kept a detailed account of the trip in his diary. It’s believed he came along just for the adventure of seeing real live Indians on the plains. At the time the Beeman family was still living in a blockhouse near present day Dolphin Road and Military Parkway. The account below mentions that they did not see the Beeman family until the next morning. This is because the Beeman family had not moved. There was a mix up in the titleholders of property back then. The land they originally settled was actually already claimed by someone else. The moved to the spring site shortly thereafter.

“We encamped that night at White Rock Springs, so called from the calcareous nature of the rocks abundant here about one mile from the White Rock Fork of the Trinity. In the morning some settlers from the infant colony opened about the Forks of the Trinity River visited us, accompanied by some travelers examining the country, they brought us no news of the expected Indians and were on foot, stating that some little time previous the wild Indians had stolen all the horses but one or two belonging to the settlement.

We then saddled up and proceeded to the fork at White Rock Creek which we found very difficult from the rain which had fallen making the bank on the other side one slide of about thirty feet, from top to bottom. We were obliged to dismount and drive the animals over, some of them describing curious mathematical figures, from their inexperience in the science of sliding. However, all got over safe,  and on reaching the prairie on the other side arrived at one of the colonist’s cabins{that of John Beeman} where we were regaled with an acceptable and plentiful supply of buttermilk. My horse(a mustang) having become almost knocked up, I determined upon resting here, and was hospitably entertained until the following day, the company in the meantime moving on to Cedar Springs, where they rested a day or two previous to marching on to Bird’s Fort on the West Fork of the Trinity the appointed Treaty Ground, great anxiety prevailing respecting the Indians but no news of them.”–Edward Parkinson 1843

Jump to 2012

Bill Holston with a mouthful of spring water

Our own visit to the spring 169 summers after Sam Houston, was to see first hand what was going on there, what could be done and getting a brief inventory of the trees, water quality and observable artifacts. Plus some general screwing around too.

Scott, Tim and Billy Ray talking about something -this- big

Tim and Scott measuring the Bur Oak

Dr Dalbey brought along a number of things with which to measure and document. One was a tape measure to get a size on the very old and very large Bur Oak next to the spring. At 11 feet 9 inches or 141 inches it stands as a giant among other trees in the vicinity and would be considered large for its species. There are larger Bur Oaks that pepper DFW but few with such a history. Absolute miracle this tree stands here.

Walnut Tree at the spring with a spike driven in it noting the highwater mark of the 1908 flood

A water sample was also taken for independent analysis to establish not only the water quality but also to serve as a baseline for the future. I have drank freely from the spring numerous times and I hope to continue to do so. It’s 55ish degrees year round and tastes sweet.

Part of our trip was exploring the known and unknown Native American sites between White Rock Spring and the future Texas Horse Park. On the terraces above the spring evidence of ancient man once littered the ground. These areas were reduced by Depression era gravel mining in the 1930s. Still, some pockets of untouched Indian camps and arrowhead making sites exist today. We took a brief walk following the old terrace contours to the south while Dr Dalbey an archeologist took heavy field notes on what he saw.

Wandering to the Horse Park

Untouched prairie in the powerline right of way between the spring complex and the Horse Park

I guess to grasp what we saw at the Horse Park, it needs to be divided up into three categories. First, the ancient Indian terraces, camps and remains that are visible on the ground. Second, the historic structures of the old farmsteads and buildings dating back from the turn of the last century. Finally, the contemporary structures and the issues surrounding them.

The Ancient Native American Sites And Fossils

Dr Dalbey holding a piece of worked chert

To my untrained eye, I could not see what we were standing on was an old tool making spot for Native Americans. The hammered off pieces of chert flakes, the burnt limestone rocks of ancient campfires covered an area on the terrace. The dirt road nearby had worked flakes, where someone had sat and chipped arrowheads and tools into hunting implements. Much of this area has never been studied in detail and sits in the footprint of some future Texas Horse Park buildings. Hopefully it can be studied in great detail before the clearing begins for construction.

I cannot underscore the dismay we all felt when Dr Dalbey said that some of the terraces, the ones with the most artifacts were destroyed recently by bulldozing and grading by the previous tenant. Now buried under many feet of building debris and slaughterhouse refuse, the Native American site listed as a possible candidate for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places is gone forever. To untangle that mess of discarded animal fat, bones and just trash might not be worth the effort. Would it shock you to learn that the same business responsible for that is the same one sucking water from the spring?

The other issue is the unique fossil record underlying the soil here. Like a Dallas version of the La Brea tar pits, this piece of land has yielded dozens of mammoth skeletons over the last one hundred years. It’s a certainty that more lie below the ground here.

The Discovery Channel even produced a television show on the mammoths found in this part of Texas called Prehistoric Dallas.

Discovery Channel Prehistoric Dallas

The show discusses in some detail how the mammoths ended up in these sandy gravels and soils. At the time they wandered over Dallas, the area was a flat river plain. The salts and minerals probably attracted these cousins of modern day elephants. Whether through quick sand, predators or drowning they died by the dozens between Lake June and Loop 12. Mixed in are bones of now extinct ancient antelope, camels, bears and large cat species that preyed on all of them. Many of the finest examples of mammoth skeletons now found in museums worldwide came out of the area in and around the Texas Horse Park.

The Historic Era 1800s-1950s

Wallace Jenkins era maintenance shed and work bays

The old farm that once sat here was known in the communities of Pleasant Grove and Elam as the Kirby Farm. Some of it might still be here dating back to the Civil War Era. It’s hard to look at some of the old cabin foundations and wooden structures to place an age on how long ago it might have been built. Some are much older than others. The more substantial buildings were built post 1938 when a man named Wallace Jenkins owned the property. Mr Jenkins built some really nice structures on the property, including a set of dams for a creek, maintenance buildings, a cattle loading dock and ranch headquarters.

Ranch building possibly a residental home for a caretaker or a ranch office

The old dilapidated building you see above probably at one time would have been a nice place. A poured concrete front porch facing south with double french doors it would have made for a nice residence or office on the ranch. Overlooking the ranch headquarters for the Jenkins property, Billy Ray Pemberton believes it was built in the 1940s.

The Jenkins structures have for better or worse stood the test of time. Were it not for all the recent lack of maintenance they might have been salvaged into part of the Horse Park.

Contemporary Structures–if you can call them that

Panorama of some buildings at the 811 property (click to make larger)

Hard to get a grip on what has probably been going on there recently. The standing Jenkins Farm structures of decades ago in some cases have been refitted to serve other purposes while “newer” structures stand in their own new footprint. The newer construction does not feature a single structure, piece of plumbing or electrical work that looks up to code. Not one. I wonder how this was allowed to happen. It sits on city owned property and the previous tenant rented the land. The mess left behind is just epic in destruction.

Understand this was used a commercial animal slaughter facility. In the local Dallas media in 2012 another animal processing facility came under scrutiny for a discharge of animal blood into a tributary of the Trinity River in Oak Cliff. The mess here at 811 Pemberton Hill Road is many times larger. Pits with animal remains, a large area in the trees covered with what looks like layer after layer of rendered animal fat. Since all this now sits on city owned property the taxpayer will fund the cleanup. Bulldozing is a tricky matter too, since scraping the site of debris will take many of the ancient Native American artifacts with it. Tricky.

The Well

While the blight of the Horse Park was disturbing we were more interested in the condition of a formal well on the property. Probably over a century old the well was once pumped by a windmill, the metal frame of which still stands over the well today. The concern here is that the well could allow contamination into the aquifer and poison the groundwater.

Well shack pumphouse

The haphazard shed here serves as the well house. First glance you see a gallon sized bottle of Clorox bleach on the ground which is never a good sign. Absent is the pump that pulled water from the well. The well itself is open to the elements without a screen or door covering the top.

PVC piping leads down the well, I would guess some 15-20 feet to the water. Cockroaches line the interior of the well and bugs of all kinds lay on the surface of the water. Other than the unsanitary conditions, the open well serves as a hazard if someone like a child were to fall in.

A look inside the cockroach lined well at the Horse Park site.

The concrete work for the foundations seen to the east of the well are all substandard. Thin veneers of concrete that I was told served as the slaughterhouse floor. Plumbing is largely absent and I have no idea where or how animal remains were disposed.

I post this not as a “look what we found”. If that were the case I would have done that a couple years ago when I saw the carcasses and trash. The concern here is that the same outfit that did all this has now moved just north of the Big Spring and is setting up what appears to be similar operations with a large animal herd directly uphill to the northeast in the 1100 block of Pemberton Hill Road. With no pasture, no water source and little shade I wonder how someone can hold dozens and dozens of animals on property like that through the hottest part of the summer.

When you leave a mess behind like this it seems hard to offer someone a second chance to clean up their act. You lose the right, forfeit the right, to the benefit of the doubt.

Down The Terrace

The further you get away from 811 Pemberton Hill, the Horse Park property begins to revert back to nature. The over grazed pastures lead down into Post Oak Savannah breaks of trees and scenes similar to that of East Central Texas. A small sliver of this Post Oak ecosystem fingers through SE Dallas County and along the sand terraces of Pleasant Grove and Scyene. Unique only to this part of Dallas.

Bill and Tim walking down a cedar break canopied ranch road in the Great Trinity Forest

One of the great scenes of this area is a hidden pond, almost large enough to be called a lake that sits at the base of the sand terrace. Sitting a little higher than White Rock Creek and the Trinity River, this pond was most likely formed as a gravel pit that filled with aquifer water. Looking on old maps, it dates back at least 80 years and is now ringed with large trees along steep banks. The water is shockingly clear. 8-10 feet of visibility at least with a color that takes on that of the sky above. A hidden jewel, hard to get to and not marred by recent activities up the hill.

Spring fed lake with clear water in the Great Trinity Forest

I really hope I don’t have to revisit this whole spring issue again. The facts are clear. Clear as the water coming out of the aquifer itself. Some disputes over land, water and the law there is a middle ground to be found, a compromise that can be reached. This is not one of those situations. No compromise. No mediation. No discussion. What happened here and the fear of what might happen in the future is not acceptable.

Sam Houston once said “There are no strangers in this world, just friends we’ve never met.” I think that’s a good way to leave it for now.