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Texas Depression-era historical markers suffer an unenviable fate

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I'm a digital subscriber (get it free as part of my Sunday hard copy), but can never access the articles. Frustrating, but never seem to have time to call the Chron to figure out the issue.

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By Allan Turner

November 5, 2013

HUNTSVILLE - Deep in the Great Depression, Texas leaders - bursting with a pride that perhaps only Texans can understand - went on a celebratory centennial building spree. From San Jacinto to the West Texas mountains, statues, monuments, markers and museums sprouted along roadsides, in pastures and in towns and cities. Thanks to almost $800,000 in state and federal money, Texas' glory, it appeared, would be enshrined for eternity.

Eternity, though, may not be as infinite as it seemed. Just 77 years after the 1936 centennial blowout, more than a fifth of the state's 1,028 old historical markers and plaques have met an ignominious fate. Cow-rubbed, bullet-pocked, rust-stained, tilted, fallen or totally missing, the bronze and granite tradition-bearers are decaying in obscurity.


Now, though, the Austin-based Friends of the Texas Historical Commission is poised to launch an effort to clean, repair and replace the deteriorating markers, about a third of which are in East Texas. Officials said work in the greater Houston area should begin next year as funds, collected through a public subscription campaign, become available.

Statewide, at least 12 markers, valued at $5,000 each, will need to be replaced said Robert Brinkman, historical commission markers coordinator. Bronze stars, wreaths, plaques and steel supports will be replaced on about 111 markers, 21 will be set upright and 92 will need professional cleaning.

"What's important is the stories the markers tell," said Rebecca Borchers, the state agency's development officer and friends' group director. "If the markers are lost, the stories are lost as well."

Brinkman said centennial markers initially were devoted to the leaders of 1836 battle for independence and their associated sites, but the program's scope quickly grew.

"They didn't even go by the 50-year rule," Brinkman said. "They had one for the Lucas Gusher at Spindletop and that was just 35 years in the past at the time … They did all this in the middle of the Depression, but Texans were so proud of where they had come from in 100 years. Now we're almost at the 200-year mark. We want to get everything back in good shape."

Time the biggest enemy

Inscribed on most of the gray or pink granite markers are terse summations of a site's significance. "The language on some is really poetic," said Brinkman, adding that while some are "one-sided or insensitive" others reflect a "forward thinking vision." Those that are found to contain factual errors will be corrected on the historical commission's website.

About 10 of the granite markers requiring professional cleaning are in Harris County. Among them are the state gravestones for San Jacinto battle veterans Moses Brigham, John Cheevers, Fielding Secrest and William Durham, all in the Founders Cemetery near downtown Houston.

Time has been the markers' biggest enemy, but some damage clearly was caused by thieves - out for the bronze Texas star and wreath - and vandals. Unsympathetic landowners also may have played a role. Two years after the centennial, a marker vanished from a Northeast Texas site associated with U.S. Vice President John Nance Garner, Brinkman said. It later was recovered from a pig sty.

A mini-park someday

Typical is the lichen-splotched gray marker in San Jacinto County, about 80 miles north of Houston, that marks the home site of George Wood, Texas' second governor. Elements and perhaps the burrowing of forest animals, have toppled the stone.

Point Blank resident Bill West, a retired high school coach active in historical groups, said the stone is all that remains at what once was a sprawling antebellum cotton plantation.

The Wood home long since has moldered away.

West gingerly picked his way through dense, sticker-studded undergrowth, stabbing at tree limbs with one hand, wielding an oversized janitor's broom in the other. Silently he moved through the forest. Clouds of mosquitoes rose with every step. Then he stopped at what seemed a slight rise in the forest floor.

He raised and lowered the broom, pushing away inches of leaves to reveal the still legible letters in the hidden stone: "Site of the home of George Thomas Wood. Colonel of a regiment in the Mexican War. Senator in the congress of the Republic. Governor of Texas, 1847-1849."

Once the stone is righted and cleaned, Point Blank residents hope to transform the site into a mini-park, complete with paved walkways and directional signs.

In adjacent Walker County, a similar marker designating the home site of Henderson Yoakum, Sam Houston's friend and attorney and early Texas historian, likely never will be anything but remote. As with the Wood home, the Yoakum residence, a two-story frame dog-trot building, collapsed decades ago. Only the fireplace bricks remain, said Huntsville Mayor Mac Woodward, a Yoakum descendant.

Despite the marker's relative inaccessibility - visitors must follow a railroad track into the countryside, then make their way through 50 yards of dense forest - vandals apparently found it.

Missing from the stone are half the bronze wreath and the tip of the Texas star.

Woodward eyed the mutilated tribute to his great, great, great-grandfather and grew somber.

"It's tragic," he said. "These markers, like historic documents or artifacts, are one of a kind. When they're gone, they're gone."



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There was an article in the Chronicle last week about Camp Logan, the WWI training base located where Memorial Park is now:


By Lisa Gray

October 27, 2013

After we'd been walking single-file along the muddy, jungelike path for maybe half an hour, Louis Aulbach said, "Huh, I think I missed a turn."

That startled me: I thought if anyone could find the ruins of Camp Logan, it would be Louis.


Louis and his partner, Linda Gorski, are writing a book about the place, the enormous World War I training camp that's almost disappeared from Houston's collective memory. Louis literally drew the map of Camp Logan's remains - or at least, the map used earlier this year to designate its three significant sites as a State Archeological Landmark. As vice president of the Houston Archeological Society, he leads winter forays to those spots.

Besides all that, he knows his way around the outdoors: He's written a half-dozen guides to canoeing Texas rivers, and has just finished a guidebook to hiking trails in Big Bend.

Louis, the photographer and I stayed on the trail a while, just to be sure. "It's easier to find in the winter, when there aren't so many leaves," Louis said.

Finally we doubled back. We walked up steep hills and down: thrilling bayou-land topography in this otherwise flat city. At least once, we made a complete circle, passing a distinctive vine-covered clearing yet again.

I decided not to worry. The October day was gorgeous. Louis was telling interesting stories. And how lost could anyone possibly get in Memorial Park, smack in the middle of the Houston metropolitan area?

Louis looked intently at the occasional red plastic ribbon, trying to guess whether it marked a mountain-bike trail or indicated the path that we wanted. "The reason that lots of archeological sites have lasted so long," he said, "is because they're not easy to find."


I'd called Louis because, after nearly a century of being forgotten, Camp Logan was suddenly newsworthy.

About a month ago, I started following a proposed flood-control project for Buffalo Bayou. The Memorial Park Demonstration Project, as it's called, is a big deal: It would reshape the banks of the bayou for the mile and a half that it winds past River Oaks Country Club, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, a residential neighborhood and Memorial Park's wild southern edge. The project would change the bayou's course, widen its channel, raise and lower its banks, fill in an oxbow, change a tributary, and strip away enormous amounts of vegetation. The difference would be visible from outer space.

The Harris County Flood Control District (along with its quiet partners, the River Oaks Country Club and the City of Houston) argues that there's a desperate need to reduce erosion and improve the water's quality. Encouraged by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the district applied for a relatively speedy permit - one used for noncontroversial projects, one that doesn't require public meetings.

But this wasn't a noncontroversial project. In protest, the Sierra Club called a meeting of its own. "We do not need to destroy the bayou to save it!" said one flier. Conservationists worried about the habitat that would be destroyed, and were not comforted by the flood control district's example of the kind of native plantings it planned to do. A letter-writing campaign urged the Corps of Engineers to say no.

Which it did. Harris County Flood Control and its partners will have to apply for the regular, slower kind of permit. In the letter denying the speedier permit, the Corps mentioned "many public interest concerns." But the main reason the letter cited wasn't environmentalists' concerns; there was nothing about native plants or habitat or park usage.

The main reason was archeological. The giant flood-control project was delayed by stuff that most Houstonians have never seen, remains of a place that most never knew existed.

The riot

Odds are, if you've even heard of Camp Logan, it's because of the Camp Logan riots - which happened not at Camp Logan but in Houston, before Camp Logan was built.

In April 1917, the U.S. entered World War I. The country wasn't yet a global power, wasn't yet a military power, but it set to work quickly. Noting Harris County's warm climate and the presence of its new Ship Channel, the War Department ordered the construction of two bases: Ellington Field and Camp Logan, a place to train the soldiers that the United States had begun to draft.

In late July, a battalion of African-American soldiers arrived in Houston to guard the Camp Logan construction site. About a month later, one of those soldiers tried to intervene when he saw police officers assaulting and arresting a black woman, dragged partially clothed from her house. The police beat and arrested the soldier, too. That afternoon, when a corporal from the base tried to investigate the arrest and arrange for the soldier's release, the police beat, shot at and arrested the corporal, too.

A race riot ensued - a riot that involved 156 armed black soldiers marching on the city, and left 20 people dead.

Many historians, Louis included, prefer to call it "the Houston Riot," but that name never really stuck. In the Houston psyche, it's the Camp Logan Riot. The thing we remember about the place is something that didn't happen there.

The War to End All Wars

"There it is," Louis said, nodding to a big gray concrete thing: the ruin that we'd come to see, the remains of an abutment for the bridge over the bayou's surprisingly steep banks, remains that looked like low walls from a house. There's a surviving concrete pier from the bridge, too, Louis said, but it's in the bayou, and only visible when the water is low. He figures that the flood-control project would almost certainly remove the pier in the water. If the earth-moving plans wiped out the abutment too, they'd destroy most of the site - one of the three that are all that are left of Camp Logan.

I stared at the abutment, trying to get my head around the size of the bridge that used to be there. The bridge was 186 feet long, Louis said, 26 feet wide and rose 25 feet in the air. It connected the two sides of Camp Logan.

"The camp was on both sides of the bayou?" I asked. Now I was trying to get my head around the size of the camp.

"Oh, yes," Louis said and pulled out a map. The enormity of the camp shows just how quickly the United States threw itself into becoming a military power, a world player. The camp sprawled over 9,560 acres; the developed area covered 3,002 acres. Distances inside it were measured in miles. The main part of the camp was in what's now Memorial Park; the artillery firing range is in what's now Addicks Reservoir.

The camp's tents could house 44,899 men - this, at a time when the population of Houston was around 100,000.

Besides the tents, there were 1,329 buildings: headquarters, a base hospital, multiple post offices, a library, Knights of Columbus halls, a YMCA and even a YWCA where female visitors could meet the soldiers. There were barns, motor pools, mess halls, bakeries, a movie theater, canteens and latrines.

And there were grimmer things, too. On one of the other archeological sites, Louis told me, are the barely visible remains of the trenches where the soldiers trained: the place where they prepared themselves for what was then a new, deadlier kind of warfare, one in which soldiers on each side sheltered themselves in dugouts protected by barbed wire, howitzers and machine guns. On the front, to leave your trench was to risk death.

The Illinois National Guard's 33rd Infantry Division trained at Camp Logan, then arrived in France in June 1918. They fought in the Muese-Argonne offensive, the battle of the Argonne forest, part of the major offensive that broke the German army's will to continue. It was the U.S. Army's largest and deadliest commitment of troops. In the 33rd Division alone, 6,173 men were wounded, 691 killed.

We all know that the War to End All Wars didn't end them all. We all know that war now as World War I; in our minds, it seems to lead inevitably to World War II. But that wasn't how it seemed at the time. Americans wanted to believe that the nation would never again plunge itself into Europe's troubles. Camp Logan was first turned over to the U.S. Public Health Service and later deserted, its land sold off to developers Mike and Will Hogg. Part of that land became what's now the ritzy River Oaks sudivision. Part of it the Hoggs sold at a sweet price to the city of Houston with the condition that it become a park.

Memorial Park, to be precise: a memorial to the soldiers who trained there, who risked their lives when their country called. These days, most of the park's runners and golfers have no idea that those men, and that camp, were ever there. It's a memorial that forgot the thing it was supposed to remember.

"Oh!" said Louis, suddenly pulling a GPS from his pocket. Memorial Park is undertaking a grand new master plan. He'd like to think that the bridge's remains will survive any flood-control plans, and that they could become part of a history trail devoted to Camp Logan.

He clicked, recording our coordinates. Next time, he'd remember.



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I am not a digital subscriber but would love to read this article. Can anyone help.


For future reference, a little trick I learned about these sort of articles is if you google search the title (in this case, "Texas Depression-era historical markers suffer an unenviable fate"), usually the very first result at the top will be a link to the free access view version. I hope this helps! :D

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My son in law scours the Camp Logan area (south of Memorial Drive) with his metal detector. Never found anything to speak of but we have found some of the old foundation remains and did a bit of caching as well.

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