Texas drought reveals graves, ghost towns

The year of drought in Texas has caused lake and reservoir levels to recede so severely that the remains of ghost towns and graves that have been submerged for decades are now on dry land. Most of the lakes in the state were manmade, created by the construction of hydroelectric and flood control dams, hence the presence of entire towns underwater. With an average rainfall 13 inches below normal for the year, most of the lake levels have dropped over a dozen feet.

The old town of Bluffton, normally under 20 feet of Lake Buchanan, is showing its bones, literal and metaphoric. The gravestone of a little boy, Johnny C. Parks, who died in 1882 just a few days shy of his first birthday, is now in plain view. The remains of the gas station/general store, the grist mill, hotel and cotton gin are now tourist attractions for hikers, as are the rusted hulks of old oil tanks and the town well.

Local historian Alfred Hallmark, whose great-great-great grandfather helped establish Bluffton, said his research showed 389 graves were moved starting in 1931 when dam construction began. That’s the same year Bluffton’s 40 or 50 residents started moving several miles west to the current Bluffton, which today amounts to a convenience store and post office at a lonely highway intersection serving 200 residents.

Residents had to leave their ranches and abandon precious pecan trees, some of which produced more than 1,000 pounds of nuts each year. “It was devastating,” said Hallmark, 70, a retired teacher, of the move. “They had no choice.”

Some had even fewer choices. This summer an entire children’s cemetery was found under the Richland Chambers Reservoir near Dallas-Ft. Worth. Bones and a single grave had been found before on the shore of the lake, but it wasn’t until the drought that a burial ground containing the graves of 25 children buried before 1890 was discovered. The bones found on the shore dated to around the same time — 100 to 120 years ago — and were consistent with a male of African descent.

A descendant of the 19th century owner of the land that became the reservoir notes that “black people worked for my family and other white families like mine,” meaning her great-grandfather, who moved to Texas from Mississippi in 1866 to start a cotton farm and horse ranch, had sharecroppers living on the property. This might be their cemetery. Archaeologists are working urgently to get the county to fund the full excavation and respectful reburial of the human remains before the drought breaks and the site is resumberged.

The Lower Colorado River Authority, the non-profit public utility that completed Buchanan Dam after the collapse of the holding company that first fund during the Great Depression, has an incredible collections of pictures from its archives documenting the construction of the dam from 1931 onward on its Flickr page. Go back a page to see their photographic archives of the construction workers’ camp and of the newly relocated Bluffton cemetery with its freshly dug graves. It’s amazing, really, how deep a visual record they’ve kept. Every public utility should upload their archives.

You can see the ruins of Bluffton in this news clip:



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Comment by LadyShea
2011-11-23 10:35:54

I think you and I talked a bit about this, but aren’t these sites being looted and disturbed by the public? Are there experts on the ground at any of them to…I dunno catalog the sites at the very least?

Comment by livius drusus
2011-11-25 12:43:07

Yes ma’am, some of these sites are prime looting targets, particularly the ones where the receding waters have revealed Native American artifacts. There has been state protection afforded the more notoriously looted sites, including night time security patrols. I don’t know how successful they can be. Too much ground to cover, too few personnel, too little money.

Comment by Zahara
2012-02-04 18:38:11

I wonder if it’s because of Global Warming.
R.I.P Johnny C. Parks….

Comment by Texas Drover
2012-04-04 21:47:17

All in the name of progress. Foundations and artifacts are one thing while abandoned graves reveal our character.

Comment by Paul G. Noack
2012-10-30 03:55:16

Very interesting. I am currently trying to find the graves of three young me killed by Indians on July 4th, 1865. i have talked with descendants and local people who are interested in assisting me. We will locate this “Fourth of July Cemetery” in Frio County, Texas near the mouth of the Leona river. When we locate we will record GPS coordinates and install a large marble marker. John “Bud” English, Dean Oden and Dan Williams are remembered by many.

Comment by Virginia Burton
2013-05-08 13:56:41

As a native Texan, I have always heard that every lake in Texas is manmade, not just most of them. Of course, Texans are born liars, uh, exaggerators.

Comment by Texas Drover
2013-05-08 15:14:35

My dear Mrs. Burton. Surely you jest. lol

Comment by Rebeca Fleming
2015-03-12 18:59:34

:cry: So so sad.I wounder just how Jonny died.He was only 1 years old he was way way to young to die.
R.I.P Jonny C. Parks :cry:

Comment by Andrew Beachum
2015-03-31 14:20:13

I have been researching this incident, too. I don’t know a lot about the area (having never been to Frio County), but I know quite a bit about Levi English and kin, and other settlers in the area, and their lives before and after this tragedy. One aspect that has always interested me is that writers (including J.S. Ford) say that Ed Burleson was the rancher who first encountered the Indians that day. I cannot find that Ed Burleson lived in this area during this timeframe, but I know that John R. Burleson did, and was closely related to most of the individuals involved in this incident. I would love to share info, or hear what you or other researchers might know.

Comment by Paul G. Noack
2015-03-31 17:06:22

I would bet my money, the little I have, that I was within a few yards of the grave sites that constitute “The Fourth of July Cemetery.” All accounts of where the graves are located include, “overlooking the old Frio State Park”, “just across the fence outside of the park and up the hill that overlooks the state park.” I also have a newspaper copy of a photo of two gentlemen posing at the grave sites.(1963) There are cactus uncommon to the area included in the photo. All of these details place a searcher within a pretty well defined small area. With help, I believe the graves could be located. They were marked by only rocks stacked over the graves but I would trust that this would be enough to identify the site. Actually there are only two graves because Bud English was buried in one grave and the other two boys were brothers – in – law and they were interred in the same grave. I have not abandoned efforts to locate and remark these graves. It should be done. Texans are too proud to allow this to continue undone.

Comment by Vicky Johnson
2015-04-12 00:25:18

My Grandfather, Otto A. Gross fell from the Bluffton Bridge, Jan. 15, 1912 and died Jan 17, 1912. He was 29 years old. I have a picture of his original grave marker. I was trying to find out if his grave was one that was moved. Just looking for information about him and the accident also. Thanks

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