Exploring What Lies Below: Bayou Park Cistern

     A cistern….really? If you think that doesn’t sound worth seeing I’m here to tell you it absolutely is!

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     Thousands of people walk the paths of this beautiful park every day without ever knowing what lies beneath their feet. Let’s go underground and take a peek!

     Park your bike or car and step into the visitors center next to this entrance to meet your tour guide. They are part of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a non-profit that is restoring the historic Houston waterway, and are so have so much fascinating knowledge to share and make your visit memorable.

     The valve wheels just outside are a good photo opportunity for kids and just fun to play with . . . don’t worry – they aren’t connected actually to anything any more. They used to be stationed around the perimeter of the cistern to allow the water flow to be turned off when the cistern was full.

 

     Following your guide through the metal doors you’ll walk through a poured concrete corridor to one last metal, sliding door.

     Stepping inside the cistern you’ll be greeted with a view that seems more grand than functional. It’s the columns – row after row – that together create a sense of being in some sort of exotic Roman underground grotto rather than just a few steps from Houston sunshine.

     The expanse that visitors take in includes 221 columns, 165 of which are are 25 feet tall. They stand stoically in a cavernous space of over 87,500 square feet – about a football field and a half in size. When filled to capacity the cistern could hold 15 million gallons of water standing within six inches of the ceiling.

     The water plant where the contents would drain used to be where the nearby Aquarium Restaurant stands today.

     A comfortably wide walking path with metal railings surrounds the water storage area allowing access around the entire perimeter.

     The cistern was built  in 1926 as an underground drinking water reservoir for the city by Standard Construction Company, and took 95 days to construct in a pre-excavated site. Over 6,000 cubic yards of concrete and over 800,000 pounds of reinforcement steel were used. Half of that alone went into the 8″ thick ceiling that tops walls that are 8″ thick at the at top widening to 18″ at the bottom.

     On your tour you’ll hear about the challenges of obtaining water in the early days of Houston for uses such as putting out fires led to decisions that ultimately building the infrastructure that included the cistern. If you normally think talking about history is pretty dry, well . . . this story’s all wet. (Sorry!)

     In 1926 the cistern was called the City of Houston 15 Million Gallon Covered Reinforced County Reservoir. Today’s name of The Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern is sure easier to remember!

     There wasn’t always an entrance tunnel to the space. On each of the four sides there is a 50-pound hatch in the ceiling with a ladder extending down into the cistern, and a concrete stairway down to the water. Maintenance workers would have had to navigate the wet ladder and climb down to balance on what used to be a two-foot ledge before proceeding to the stairs, carrying only a dim lantern to guide them. Makes me wonder how many lost their footing and ended up in the water!

     The small amount of water now provides a beauty and esthetic quality as well as moisture that helps maintain the concrete of the structure. We all need a bit of “maintenance,” don’t we  – and the cistern will be 94 years old this summer!

     In 2010 the City of Houston was searching for a contractor to demolish the decommissioned cistern when members of the Buffalo Bayou Park project “discovered” the site. Seeing its historical significance, they took over the cistern and had it restored.

 

     And now for my favorite part of the tour: turning off the lights! Yes, it’s definitely a bit spooky, and this is when you realize how happy you are that your guide was carrying such a large-faced flashlight. As the lights shut off, you’ll experience the very definition of dark!

     Watching as the wide beam from your guide’s light is directed in different ways, it’s fascinating to see the illusions it creates.

     Today the water at the base of the columns is only about eight or nine inches deep, but light on the water gives the illusion of  the columns being twice as tall and the water much deeper than it truly is.

     As the guide shines the light toward one specific point, the vision of the columns seems to stretch into infinity. It’s truly breathtaking.

     Now if you’re as lucky as I was, you will be assigned one of the talented guides who happens to have a beautiful singing voice. Hearing the songstress’ a cappella performance reverberate around the cistern was awe inspiring. The water, concrete walls, columns and their symmetrical placement create an echo that lasts 17 to 20 seconds, and audibly seems to travel around the area.

     The Park group recently hosted their first two projected light art installations by artists, and hope to offer a third this fall. It’s a wonderful way to take advantage of this unique space.

     Thanks to a permanent installation named “Down Periscope” by artist Donald Lipski, you can take peer below even if you aren’t on a tour. Visitors to the park above the cistern can use the periscope to see what’s going on below. If you’re further away, it can be viewed and controlled online. Just click this link to take a look. (NOTE: during the current quarantine, the periscope isn’t operational online or in person.)

Stay above ground, but peer below with “Down Periscope.”

     Buffalo Bayou Park’s cistern is the only defunct reservoir of its size open to the public in the United States. The closest thing in stature is the Basilica cistern in Istanbul, Turkey which was made around 500 A.D.

     It’s one of the few magnificent views in the city that doesn’t depend on the weather.


     Walking tours of the cistern are available between 10:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesdays and last for about 15 minutes. They’re given on a first-come first served basis and only cost $5.

     Longer private tours for larger groups (great for photographers and history enthusiasts) are available as well and can be booked online here.

     Be sure to check their website ahead of time for rules and restrictions that may affect your visit.

     See you beneath the city!


Free Fossil Hunting in Mineral Wells…Can Ya Dig It?

     When I was a kid I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up.

     Now mind you, this was in the days (dark ages) before the Indiana Jones movies, so my parents didn’t quite know what to do with this aspiration, other than try to direct me elsewhere.

     I’ve never quite gotten over my fascination with archaeological dig sites, and recently I went to the Mineral Wells Fossil Park where visitors can dig for and keep fossils over 300 million years old!

   Think of it as the fossil equivalent of searching for seashells along a beach.

     Mineral Wells Fossil Park is a primitive, unique site that’s a fascinating place to explore by yourself or with your family. Offering eight acres to comb, the park used to be the city’s “borrow pit,” which is an area where dirt is taken from to fill other areas. The resulting pit eroded over the 20 years it was used, exposing thousands of fossils from the Pennsylvanian Period.

     It’s one of the few parks in the nation where visitors are legally allowed to remove fossils from the site, taking home true treasures.

     There is plenty of parking in the gravel parking lot, where you’ll also find clean, portable toilets, but no running water. If you’re going to want to wash your hands or rinse off a bit after your outing before you re-enter your car bring an extra jug of water.


     Take time to read the informational signs in the parking lot. They’ll help you to identify things you might otherwise overlook.

     If you’d like to take along a “cheat sheet” click this link to find a handy, printable reference sheet of fossil types, courtesy of fossilcentre.com.

     The park is primitive in more ways than one. You may encounter dangerous insects or animals (it IS their turf, after all) so keep a sharp eye out for them. And once you descend into the pit, don’t expect your cell phones to work. See? Magic – time travel.

     Follow the path to the pit (there’s one way in and one way out to minimize damage to the site). A chain handrail will help steady your balance on the rocky soil as you follow the walkway into the search area.

     My visit was on a day after a light rain which was ideal, since it washed the top layer of dust off of things and revealed new items in the channels where water runs down the sides of the pit. I had been told that I wouldn’t really need to “dig” for the fossils since most of them would be laying right on the surface, but I was skeptical. I was wrong . . . and it was amazing.

     You might find fossils of ancient sea species like trilobites, crinoids (urchins), brachiopods, pelecypods, (clams and oysters), corals, plants, and even sharks.

     The type I found with the least effort were sea lilies (which sound much more impressive when referred to as crinoids). Sometimes called “Indian beads” or “Indian buttons” (what my great-aunt used to call them) in reference to their button or bead-like shape, people used to collect and string them into necklaces. Not to get to “science-y”, but this illustration will show you what where in the plant (columnal) they were originally. Fossils from the other parts of the plant can be found as well.

 

     Who would have thought a big pit could be so much fun?

   Bring a picnic lunch or snacks and PLENTY of drinking water. Even in non-summer months, there is no shade in the actual digging area and you’ll need to stay hydrated. There are no nearby places to eat, so if you’re planning to stay at least a couple of hours (and you should!) your hard-working archaeology crew might get the munchies.

     There is a shaded table area as you enter the park that makes a nice place to give yourself and your family a break from the sun. If your visit will be in the summer months, it would be wise to plan to be there early in the day, or late in the evening.

     Yes, it’s basically a dirt pit, so dress appropriately. C’mon, that’s half the fun!

     You’ll want to make sure everyone has rubber soled shoes (old tennis shoes are perfect) to help with footing on the loose-soiled slopes. (Say THAT 3 times fast: loose soiled slopes, loose sloiled slolpes . . . never mind!)

     Other take-along suggestions: baggies or nail aprons to hold your finds, small hand garden trowels to loosen the dirt, an umbrella for extra shade, a wide brimmed hat, sunblock, bug spray, a bucket to carry tools and water bottles, and a small rubber gardening knee pad to sit on (it’ll feel a lot cushier than the hard ground). As always, please keep a first aid kit in your car to take care of minor boo-boos. Even adults need antiseptic and bandaids, ya know.

     Oh, and did I mention water? Water, water, water.

You’ll also want to bring along your sense of adventure and patience. Once your brain adjusts to what it’s searching for the fossils seem to become more and more abundant.

     Here’s a quick photo I took of the surface at the side of the pit. No, I didn’t even disturb it by beginning to dig! How many fossils can you spot?


You may even see a few “future fossils” during wildflower season.

     The park address is 2375 Indian Creek Road, just northwest of Mineral Wells, Texas. From Mineral Wells, head west on Highway 180. Turn north on Indian Creek Road and drive approximately 2 miles to the Mineral Wells Fossil Park entrance.

     It’s open daily from 8 a.m. until dusk and is admission free, which fits my travel budget just fine.

     Personally, I can’t wait to go back. Who’s up for an archaeological adventure?

Long, Tall Tex Randall Rides Again

     If you think you have trouble finding clothes to fit, just be thankful you aren’t a 47-foot tall cowboy!

     You’ve heard the saying that everything is “bigger in Texas,”

     “Tex Randall,” the 47-foot tall, seven ton statue in Canyon, Texas was designed and built in 1959 by Harry Wheeler (1914-1997) to draw Route 66 tourists to his Corral Curio Shop and six-room motel. Wheeler, an industrial arts teacher, spent ten months forming the lanky cowboy out of six-inch wire mesh, rebar and concrete.

     And here’s the really amazing part…

     Though his clothes are painted on today, they weren’t originally! Tex’s first Western-style shirt was made by Amarillo awning, using an impressive 1,440 square feet of material. Wheeler sewed it closed in back with sailboat thread, and created sheet aluminum snap buttons and a belt buckle the size of a television screen.

     Levi Strauss’ nearby plant made real jeans for him that had to be sewn onto the statue on site. The pants were lifted into place with a crane, and Wheeler stood below, adjusting the “fit” and sewing them together. How’s that for a tall tailor order?

     Tex’s boots and features were painted onto the surface of the statue, and he was crowned with a Stetson style hat.

     As far as relics from the Route 66 heyday, this tall Texan definitely fits the bill. He became one of the roadside attractions that people would drive miles to see and photograph.

     Due to reconstruction of the highway, business at his shop and motel declined. That and personal business caused Wheeler sold the property in 1963. He refused offers to buy Tex that came in from Las Vegas and businesses along Route 66, preferring that his labor of love remain in Canyon.

     The following decades of Panhandle winds and weather shredded the figure’s fabric clothes; a semi-truck crashed into his left boot and the original cigarette was shot out of his right hand. The elements sandblasted away large portions of his skin, and his concrete fingers began to crumble.

     An Amarillo area businessman purchased Tex with the intention of moving him to his business, but gave up when he learned it would cost $50,000.

     In 1987, local community leaders began a “Save the Cowboy” campaign and raised the money to restore Tex. The no longer socially acceptable cigarette in his hand was replaced with a spur, new clothes were painted on to replace the lost fabric set, and he was given an 80s-style moustache.

     By 2010, it became apparent that a more thorough restoration of the statue was needed, and the Canyon community and Canyon Main Street volunteers rallied to save the icon.

     The Texas Department of Transportation stepped in to help and set aside almost $300,000 to turn the land around Tex’s boots into a park.

    Tex’s cameo appearance in the 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue provided the exposure to increase interest in the project. After six years of fundraising and work, the project was completed in December 2016, and Tex received his own Texas State Historical Marker in 2017.

     Tex’s appearance now more closely resembles his original 1950s appearance, and much to Wheeler’s daughter Judy’s delight the moustache is gone.

     Tex isn’t the state’s “biggest Texan” any more … he is outsized by the Sam Houston statue in Huntsville, but this lanky character holds a special place in generations of Panhandle residents’ hearts and tourists’ photos.

     If you plan to go by and say “Howdy” to Tex, swing into 1400 North 3rdAvenue, Canyon, Texas.