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Reflections on the Neches

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When Geraldine Watson's father was a teenager around the turn of the last century, he spent a summer floating down the Neches River, called Snow River by the Indians. Watson grew up hearing his tales of the steamboats, log rafts, and the flora and fauna of East Texas. So when she was sixty-three years old, she decided to repeat his odyssey in her own backwater boat. Reflections on the Neches is both the story of her journey retracing her father's steps and a natural and social history of the Neches region of the Big Thicket. The Neches, one of the last "wild" rivers in Texas, is now being subjected to dams. Watson's story captures the wildness of the river and imparts a detailed history of its people and wildlife. Profusely illustrated with drawings by the author and including maps of her journey, Reflections on the Neches will appeal to all those interested in the Big Thicket region and those indulging a feeling of wanderlust--and float trips--down the river.

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GEOMORPHOLOGY

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Introduction

know: I’m not going to live a life of fear and deprivation of joy and adventure because of some bad thing that might happen.

I chose the time of year for my trip for a purpose, also. Mosquitoes are less active in late autumn, and the river is low and clear. The gorgeous weather of Indian summer is more pleasant and less likely to produce violent storms.

My dog and I are in the autumn of our lives. Springtime on the river, with its burgeoning buds, leaves and flowers, the fast-rising, full-flowing water, and quickening life is for the young. I am old. What more defiant gesture to the approaching decrepitude of old age than to embark on an adventure that most young people would not dare, and to do it in the autumn. I, my dog, the trees, the river, the animals—we know that winter is coming; but we’re going to go out in a blaze of glory.

GEOMORPHOLOGY

I seem to have been born with a sense of “why,” for I always felt a need to know the reasons for everything I see in this natural world. Around 40 years of age, when I began to wonder why the river changed its course, why the vegetation changed on different parts of the floodplain, why there were high, rocky banks and boulders in parts of the river and not in others, I suspected it all had something to do with geology. I sought out the answers in university classrooms and in any published literature I could get my hands on, as well as talking with any and everybody who thought they had answers.

 

FLOODS

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Introduction

with Village Creek where it reaches sea level, it is depositing. However, there is a section between John’s Lake and Evadale where the stream has cut a new course and the channel is narrow and the water swift. There are always exceptions to the rule.

FLOODS

Floods come in predictable cycles. There are annual floods of normal height and coverage. The 10-year flood level is higher than the annual floods, 25year flood still higher, but the 100-year flood is talked about for generations.

Terrace levels that are not inundated any other time are under water then.

There are probably 500, 1,000, and even 5,000-year flood cycles of which there are no records. The flood of Noah’s day could have been a 5,000-year flood. All cultures have tribal memories and legends of such a flood so there must be some truth in it.

The normal and natural flood cycles in America, however, have been greatly influenced by the activities of European man. Beavers once dammed every streamlet, holding back runoff in thousands of small reservoirs. The prairies were covered with dense grasses where deep mats of roots held the soil in place and formed a cushion against beating rains and acted as a sponge to hold water. Forests with their deep roots and thick mulch also prevented erosion and sudden runoff of rainwater. After the vegetation used what moisture it needed for growth, the excess was gradually released as springs on downhill slopes.

 

Area Map of Neches River

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Detail maps

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Part One Day 1

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Reflections on the Neches

Part One

Day 1

LAUNCH OFF

River Mile 108 12:00 Noon

It was a glorious autumn day, the river was just right, my boat was packed with simple necessities, I was ready. My 15-year-old blind samoyed dog, Ulysses,

Jr., was also ready, and David, my son, was ready to launch us off. We were putting in at Town Bluff and I had left my VW van at Sheffield’s Ferry (Highway

1013), the takeout point. Junior and I climbed aboard my 14-foot flat-bottom riverboat, and David pushed us off into the current to begin our odyssey. Ulysses,

Jr., posed proudly like a figurehead in the prow, his ears erect to catch the sounds of all the things his poor blind eyes were missing. How joyously he had leaped into the boat when I said, “Yes, Darling, you can go!”

At this point, I should have sailed grandly and majestically off onto the river and into my great adventure, but, alas, the Corps of Engineers, who regulate the release of water at Dam B, just a few hundred yards upstream, had decided to hold the water for awhile, so there was no current. A strong wind came up and pushed my light craft backward, so there I sat, paddling furiously and going nowhere. David stayed long enough to have a good laugh and left me to the mercy of the wind and river. Finally, the wind slacked, and I made enough headway to get downstream into some current. I continued to wield the paddle with vigor, however, in order to get away from the developed areas below the dam before night fell. My heart was set on camping the first night on the big sandbar at Cowart’s Bend. Another

 

Part One Day 2

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Part One, Day 1

Part One

Day 2

BURIED FOREST

River Mile 103.5 10:30 A.M.

It was a misty, magical morning. The gentle rain lasted a short time; a dense fog lay over the water, but it was dispersing, so I packed and stowed my gear and pushed off over the glassy water into the mist.

About ll:00 A.M. just below Cowart’s Bend, I came upon a high, colorful bluff. It was once a steamboat landing, and was the terminus of a branch of the Magnolia Springs road. The cutting action of the river here reveals about

25 feet of floodplain history covering possibly 5,000 years. At normal water level, there is at the bluff base a shelf of the rock-like gray clay found at various shoal sites between Dam B and Sheffield’s Ferry. It appears to be of

Fleming Formation age as it tests high on the pH scale. (I carry a small bottle of 10 percent hydrochloric acid to test materials suspected to be calcareous.)

Above this rocklike clay are several strata of different materials. There is a layer of ocher-colored silt above the clay, then a layer of compressed snowwhite, fine-grained sand, over that a layer of red iron oxide sandy clay, all topped by a dark topsoil. The erosion of these materials has created many strange and beautiful shapes and colors. They are transient in nature as the heavy rains, water seepage, and floods erase them and make blank walls for new creations. One white wall had an abstract design of brilliant red oxide painted onto the surface by water seepage from above. Buff-colored walls

 

Part One Day 3

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Part One, Day 2

Part One

Day 3

BOB PARVIN

River Mile 97.8

Just after launching off on my third morning, I discovered that I had stopped too soon the previous evening, for just around the bend was a perfect camping site. There were two open-water lakes in a broad, short-grass pasture with a ridge between the lakes and the river. The ridge was populated with young pine trees which provided a cozy shelter. Apparently, grazing cattle kept the area as clean of weeds and brush as a mowed lawn. Several shore birds were wading the shallow edges of the lakes. They were common egrets, little green herons, and what appeared to be willets. I took my binoculars and walked over the berm, around the lakes and behind a grove of vegetation in the center of the large opening. Behind the vegetation was a beautiful oxbow lake, a remnant of what had once been a large bend in the river. Judging from the tracks, many animals come from out of the woods to graze on the grass, so it is a good site for animal watching as well as birdwatching.

 

Detail maps

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Part Two Day 1

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Part Two, Day 1

Part Two

Day 1

SCOTT’S LANDING

River Mile 94 3:30 P.M.

A year passed before I continued my journey. It was autumn again. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect: cobalt blue skies, brilliant, sunshiny days and cool, crisp nights. And I had just been given my annual no-pay furlough from the Park Service, so it seemed a most auspicious time to begin the second part of my Neches River voyage. I had just finished building my little backwater boat and tried it out on Massey Lake near my home and it didn’t sink, so I packed the bare necessities for survival, and my daughter, Regina, drove me to Sheffield’s Ferry (Highway 1013 crossing) to launch me off.

I hadn’t intended to build a boat for this trip. I had thought for years that I would return to Deweyville where the old boat maker lived from whom Daddy had bought his backwater boat many years ago and try to find him, but kept putting it off. I didn’t even know his name. Then one night I had a dream.

Daddy came to me and said, “Sister, if you want a backwater boat, go to that

 

Part Two Day 2

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Part Two, Day 1

Part Two

Day 2

SECOND DAY

River Mile 89.5

That second morning simply could not have been surpassed for beauty. Where everything turns a rich, rosy gold at evening, the mornings are silver and pearl. Mist covers the river and the sun, rising into an opalescent sky, strikes the dew drops that cover every leaf, twig, and branch, and turns them to flashing diamonds. It is interesting to know that dew neither “falls” nor “rises.”

During the day, the sun heats the earth. At night, the air cools and the earth radiates heat back into the atmosphere, condensing water in the air one molecule at a time on objects that have a lower temperature than the air. There is no dew underneath objects, as even a leaf can prevent the radiant heat from rising.

There were no fresh animal tracks on the sandbar that morning. After the crows advertised my presence the evening before, all the forest knew that

MAN was on the sandbar and avoided it. This is a good reason for barring camping on sandbars except in designated areas.

 

Part Two Day 3

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Reflections on the Neches

Part Two

Day 3

THIRD DAY

River Mile 86

8:30 A.M.

Next morning, after an uneventful night, I launched off and stopped at the next cutbank bend and climbed the bluff, planning to explore an inland lake called Morgan Lake. The once magnificent forests adjacent to the river here have been clearcut and the rough road, which led from the bluff toward the forests, fanned out in numerous branches into the clearcut. I was unable to locate the lake, but did find something else more interesting. Where the soil had eroded along the road leading from the bluff, I found flint chips, bits of charcoal, and pottery shards, which indicated that this bluff had been an Indian habitation site. All these bluffs where the river cut into higher terraces must have been inhabited by the aborigines. I would have liked to spend more time exploring here but planned to spend the night at the Eason camp and wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get there, so I proceeded on my way.

SMITH’S BEND

River Mile 84

 

Part Two Day 4

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Reflections on the Neches

shack was usually a tent on the last crib. When the raft hit land in the bend of the river, she saw that it was beginning to break apart and pile up, so she dived into the water and swam clear. That must have been an awesome sight: those great logs piling up like match sticks. She always told I. C. that if the river ever got low enough to expose the logs, he should pull them out, for they were virgin longleaf pine logs and would be as good as new due to submersion in the water. The year Saul Aronow, Ranger David McHugh, and

I canoed the upper Neches, it was lower than I had ever seen it and that was the year I. C. pulled out a good portion of the logs. The fence around his house on Highway 92 was made of hand-rived pales from these logs.

The river was the only way they could transport timber from the Neches watershed to the big lumber mills in Beaumont. Loggers would kill the trees by girdling them, wait a year for them to dry standing up, then cut them down with axes and two-man crosscut saws. Oxen and mules dragged the logs to the sloughs, then, when the winter floods came and water rose, the logs were floated. The main routes in the flooded bottomlands had the trees along them cut while the water was down, and they were called float roads. The logs were fastened with wooden pegs into cribs, or small rafts, and the cribs were connected by chains or ropes to make a long raft. The end of each log was struck with a sledge hammer that had a raised letter on it, thus branding the logs so the receiving mills would know to whom the logs should be credited. Perhaps the owner suspected some enterprising loggers might decide to sell a few logs on their own and pocket the proceeds.

 

Part Two Day 5

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Reflections on the Neches

Part Two

Day 5

GORE LANDING

River Mile 61

9:48 A.M.

Just above Pearl River Bend was Gore Landing. I got out of the boat here and looked around, but found no evidence that it had once been an active and busy place. It was probably a summer port as the access road is across the multiple drainage pattern from Deserters Baygall and must have been a booger to traverse during wet weather.

Gore Landing Road follows hummocks through the bottom and joins the

Old Maids Road near Gore Cemetery at the edge of the terrace. It then proceeds west along the ridge dividing Deserters Baygall from Round Pond Baygall to the Gore house on the Old Wagon Road where the terrace rises to the upland. The Old Maids Road was named for two sisters, Tina and Lisha Gore.

Never having married, they lived in the family home after their parents died.

I used to stop by and visit them—oh, it must have been in the late 1960s. They lived exactly as their forebears did and in the same house.

The Gore house was set back behind two big live oak trees and a handsplit rail fence, and several big mulberry trees grew along the fence row.

 

Detail maps

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Part Three Day 1

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Part Three, Day 1

Part Three

Day 1

EVADALE

Part Three, Day l 9:00

AM

After a night of rest and revictualing, I took to the river again. The TV weatherman had warned about rain and thunderstorms, but I dismissed the possibility with the confidence born of the experience of seeing many a TV weather prediction come to naught. Regina drove my pickup home. We did not leave a vehicle at the landing site as I had the Park Service radio to notify her of my arrival at my destination. There was a good current, the sky was sunny, and my heart was light.

Shortly after leaving the Highway 96 bridge, I came to the site of the old highway. Its span over the stream has been removed, but the railroad bridge, picturesque with its framework of iron girders, is still in use. I remember when the old highway bridge was built around 1931! It was the first bridge to span the Neches River and its presence was the finish to the steamboat era.

On the bluff, where the riverboats discharged and took on cargo, there were docks built of great pilings and large planks of virgin longleaf pine. One of my earliest recollections was going down to the wharves to see the steamboats.

 

Part Three Day 2

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Part Three, Day 1

Part Three

Day 2

L.N.V.A. CANAL

River Mile 37.4

The morning after the storm, the canal was smooth and lovely, reflecting the still-green trees and the few maples and Chinese tallows which had begun to turn color. The bends are small compared to those of the Neches, and only the first few have sandbars. The canal was constructed in 1925 and, though it is artificial, it follows a series of sloughs and cypress swamps, so retains a natural configuration. One particular cypress swamp on the right is broad and deep and one can paddle about and explore it to some extent. I wanted to save my paddling arm for Cook’s Lake, however, so I passed it by.

One bend is especially wide where a slough from the interior of the island enters the canal and becomes like a lake. Daddy and I once came here fishing, and witnessed a sad sight. A mother with her two teenage children, a boy and a girl, had come to picnic and swim. The young people were splashing about in the shallow water near the shore when the girl slipped off into a deep hole. She couldn’t swim, so the brother jumped in to help and was dragged under also. The mother was almost drowned trying to save them, but managed to struggle to shore and go for help. Divers found the bodies while we were there and brought them to shore. Their limbs were frozen in that last moment when the muscles relaxed in unconsciousness and they drifted downward. The air in their lungs, mixed with blood and mucus, oozed out and formed exotic pink foam flowers about their mouths. The mother

 

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