OPINION // NATIVE TEXAN
Old and Lost in Chambers County are music to a nature-lover’s ears
Joe Holley July 27, 2018 Updated: July 27, 2018 5 a.m.
1of5Chronicle outdoors writer Shannon Tompkins uses a clam shell as a barometer of Old Rivers health.Photo: Joe Holley
3of5Joe Landry, mayor of Old River-Winfree, has seen a lot of changes during his 25 years in office.Photo: Joe Holley / Joe Holley
4of5Marshlands around Old and Lost rivers are a paradise for birds, including this green heron.Photo: Shannon Tompkins / Shannon Tompkins
5of5The cypress-lined Old River is actually an abandoned channel of the Trinity River.Photo: Joe Holley
OLD RIVER-WINFREE - Like many Southeast Texans, I’ve driven by the road signs countless times over the years, the signs on Interstate 10 near Baytown that mark a bridge over OLD AND LOST RIVER for east-bound traffic, LOST AND OLD RIVER for west-bound. I know now that RIVER ought to be plural, since we’re talking about two Trinity River tributaries instead of one; nevertheless, there’s something evocative about the phrase, singular or plural, east-bound or west — so evocative, in fact, that it inspired a haunting orchestral work. I could be wrong, but I know of no other road sign that can make such a claim.
In 1986, New York composer Tobias Picker was working as composer-in-residence with the Houston Symphony. Preparing new music for the symphony’s celebration of the Texas Sesquicentennial, he happened to notice the I-10 sign as he drove eastward. His “Old and Lost Rivers” premiered in Jones Hall on May 9, 1986.
“It is obviously an extremely poetic phrase,” Picker told the Chronicle years later. “It is just full of meaning and implications and symbolism. It can mean many things to many people, if you think about it.”
Earlier this week, I decided to explore the meanings and symbolism for myself in the company of my Chronicle friend Shannon Tompkins. The veteran columnist not only happens to be the best and most knowledgeable outdoors writer in Texas (and beyond) but also was born and raised in the area.
“A college-educated swamp creature who spends most of his life outdoors” (to quote the late Gary Cartwright of Texas Monthly), Shannon has hunted, fished, trapped and roamed the sloughs, rivers and bayous of Chambers County his whole life. Halfway between Houston and Beaumont, within sight and rumbling sound of I-10, this green and marshy land is perfect for a devoted outdoorsman. It boasts more than its share of rich historic lore, abundant wildlife and bounteous bird species.
Lost River is an old channel of the lower Trinity, abandoned by the restless river before the area was settled. The meandering, tree-lined Old River, also an abandoned channel, begins in Liberty County and flows southeasterly to Old River Lake and ultimately into Trinity Bay.
As we meandered along country roads in Shannon’s Ford-F150 pickup (a 2004 model with 353,000 miles on it), passing through verdant coastal prairie populated by great egrets and roseate spoonbills, white-faced ibis and green herons and, of course, alligators, he reminded me that we were in Faulkner country. “Once you learn the old families, it’s Old South more than anything else,” he said.
As in Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, many of the original families have white and black branches. I learned about one still-prominent family who divvied up the land between black and white in the early 1900s, the black family members received the swampland portion. As fate - or geology -- would have it, these descendants of slaves turned out to be proprietors of the oil-rich portion of the original family holdings. (“God has a sense of humor,” Chambers County Museum administrator Marie Hughes mentioned.)
True to its Old South traditions, the area tolerated the KKK, both during Reconstruction and in the 1920s, when Prohibition and anti-immigrant sentiments roiled the populace. As one local historian suggested a few years ago, the masked avengers were merely a gallant group of guys employing “corrective measures” to keep the peace. (The Cuban barber at Mont Belvieu they ran out of town or the many others they bullied and mistreated no doubt thought differently.)
Long before transplanted Southerners moved into the area, it was Spanish country. Near present-day Wallisville in 1756, two Franciscan missionaries established Mission Nuestra Senora de la Luz to minister to members of the Orcoquiza and Bidai tribes; a contingent of 30 Spanish soldiers built Presidio San Augustin de Ahumada a mile away to guard against French encroachment from the east. The state historical marker near the Chambers County Museum describes the mission and fort as “two of the most misfortune-ridden outposts of Spain in Texas.”
The elder of the two friars died soon after arrival, and the younger complained of ravenous insects, extremes of heat and cold and the “thick and stinking water” in the lake near the lonely mission. The soldiers were ill-prepared, the 50 families who were to establish a town never showed up and the natives were restless. By 1771, the Spanish were gone.
The pirate Jean Lafitte nosed about the neighborhood - two of his ships are said to be buried in the mud of Lake Charlotte -- and hot-headed Texans in and around nearby Anahuac plotted rebellion against Mexico. Other things have happened, as well, as I learned at the superb, little county museum (on I-10 at the Wallisville exit).
I learned about the Dick Disturbance, an 1880s-era cattle-rustling scandal that began when John Dick, a former British army officer, moved into the area with his 12 children. His boys were desperadoes and thieves. “Everybody was afraid of them, because they always rode in a bunch armed with .44 caliber Winchester rifles and six shooters,” early settler Forest W. McNeir wrote in a 1956 memoir.
When Sarah Ridge Pix, a former Cherokee princess, discovered altered brands on her cattle and other ranchers noticed that they were losing animals, two of the Dick sons, George and Benajah (known as Ninny), became prime suspects. Suspicions were confirmed when the Chambers County sheriff and his posse discovered a freshly slaughtered bull and green hides in the hull of the Dick family’s sloop.
I also learned about the Hog War. In December 1906, Wallisville civic leaders sought to prevent domestic and feral hogs from making their regular winter migration into town to feast on garbage strewn about the courthouse lawn. The proposal requiring hog farmers to keep their animals penned was approved by three votes, but the hog farmers managed to channel opposition to the new law into efforts to move the courthouse to Anahuac. A referendum to that effect passed in 1907, and Wallisville lost its courthouse to the upstart across Turtle Bay.
“We have spits and spats still,” said Joe Landry, mayor of Old River-Winfree for the past 25 years, but nothing like the old days. For Landry and other elected officials, the challenge is keeping up with rampant growth. Once rural and largely undeveloped, this coastal prairie dotted with small communities is rapidly giving way to suburban sprawl.
Not completely, though, as my friend showed me this week. Still lingering, at least for a while, are snowy egrets with bright yellow feet and majestic blue herons and ducks of every variety. Still lingering are mysterious cypress swamps and shawls of Spanish moss and brilliant-green water plants and pinkish-white marsh mallow flowers, as well as raccoons and muskrats and yellow-eyed gators gliding through clusters of water hyacinths. Still lingering are coffee-colored streams, Old and Lost, where bird calls echo among the tall pines and cypress, where a busy interstate and massive chemical plants and subdivisions spreading amoeba-like across the prairie seem far away. At least for a little while.
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Native Texan Joe Holley is a former editorial page editor and columnist for newspapers in San Antonio and San Diego and a staff writer for The Washington Post. He has been a regular contributor to Texas Monthly and Columbia Journalism Review and is the author of two books, including a biography of football hero, Slingin' Sammy Baugh. He joined the Houston Chronicle in 2009.
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