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Michael Barnes

Repost: Texas River Tracing: San Marcos

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Good news! We were able to recapture virtually all the lost blog posts about our project to trace 50 Texas rivers. Not all of Joe Starr‘s fine photographs have survived, but the words live on. See the post on the Medina River for links to other posts already rescued and reposted.

We began to trace the relatively short San Marcos River after an earlier visit to the Texas Rivers Center on the Texas State University-San Marcos campus. That day on bountiful Spring Lake at the Aquarena Springs site intrigued us.

SanMarcos3

Photo courtesy of AustinFlyFishers.com.

It was easy enough to retrace our steps this time to the broad parking lot that served the former amusement park. We dawdled in the gift shop, disappointed that the map of Texas river basins was not for sale, and, outside, examined the glass-bottom boats, now mostly quiet, and the strange old fairground buildings.

Then we walked as much of the lake shore as possible, watching the novice scuba divers, noting the relics from the amusement-park days – such as the elaborate, organically shaped base of the aerial cable car system – taking the wetlands trail around the slough, spotting a green heron and an Eastern phoebe. Someday, this will all become a nature education center. Someday.

By car, we crossed to below the dam that impounds Spring Lake, and the little industrial complex that became a series of restaurants – now Saltgrass Steak House – and the thick vegetation under a hidden second dam.

Later, we were to realize this was just the beginning of a series of bigger impoundments and weirs on the San Marcos, since the swift, steady flow of water attracted mills and cotton gins during the 19th century, just as the Piedmont region did on the East Coast.

Below the mill pond we traced a few miles of university and city parks, created over the years and therefore varied in their styles and functions. Here, the river is unsettlingly tame, perfect for tubers, or, on this overcast April day, kayakers. Efforts have been made recently to “free up” the San Marcos a bit here and there, but decades of human improvements leave it unavoidably unnatural.

We chanced a turn on Old Bastrop Highway just outside San Marcos, which led to a one-lane bridge over the river. Here we found two historical markers announcing that the high banks above the San Marcos River served as the first location of the city by that name. A group of 50 or so Spanish colonists had settled the spot in 1807, but they were promptly flooded out – a persistent theme along these Hill Country streams – and so they moved upriver.

We continued along the north bank to authentically quaint Martindale, whose one-block commercial district has served more than once as a movie backdrop. We explored the strangely located Martindale cemetery – right above the river – finding tombstones that reached back to the earliest days of Anglo colonization. A faint whiff of New England settled on the grounds. They knew how to soften death for the living back then.

By chance, we hooked down a narrow, gravel road down to a low-water crossing, only to stare up at a large dam attached to a massive, brick cotton gin. Fishermen dotted the shore, despite the no trespassing signs. The survival of these dams through flood season after flood season amazes me.

We crisscrossed the river through several other minute burgs, including Prairie Lea – a “lea” is a meadow, something that comes up in art history – until we reached Luling, approximately halfway down the river. Here we stopped for barbecue, first at the famous Luling City Market, with its butcher paper, simple menu and, to a stranger without a guide, complicated ordering pattern. Wished I were back on the uncomplicated, fast-flowing river.

The place was packed, so we repaired to Luling Bar-B-Q across the highway and its more helpful signs and staff (“You’ll want a drink with that, ” said the counter goddess after I ordered jalapeño sausages on a bun). A brief downpour chased us across the railroad access to our car.

Luling maintains one of those lovely, old-fashioned river parks – like Seguin, Gonzales and Victoria – also home to a spectacular dam and mill complex. A flood-watch tower sits by the river with a frightening 38-foot marker. I would be so, so far away from any river at 38-foot flood tide.

I had always wanted to visit Palmetto State Park, located on a lazy stretch of the lower San Marcos River. Since childhood, I had read about its semitropical vegetation, overflowing mudpots and warm springs. Quite the contrast to the prairies and post oak brakes on the rolling hills above the hidden valley.

What I didn’t know was that the park encompassed the town of Ottine, an open spot that looked not much different from a mid-19th-century, pre-commercial settlement. It had been requisitioned by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression – fascinating panoramic photos can be found in a hallway at the park headquarters – and a large, white, tiled sanitarium building remains, practically the size of the rest of the hamlet.

“It was a big place during the polio days, ” my father told me the next day. Who knew? We hiked the trim trails to find sensibly laid-out campgrounds and family activities abounding on an Easter weekend. I didn’t see much in the way of tropical overgrowth until we headed around the oxbow lake, which led us to a view reminiscent of the Old South.

Our last glimpse of the San Marcos River was from a high bridge reached from a lonely Gonzales County road. The wood slats were breaking up and the steel spikes rattled in their holes. The whole experience rattled me, too, as I stared down at the river, which had turned gray-green from its upstream blue-green.

As usual on a river tracing, we couldn’t get access to the actual mouth of the river, which converges with the Guadalupe River just above the large town of Gonzales. It sits behind private-property fences guarded by herds of curious cattle. Still, the San Marcos is pretty dramatic for such a short river. I can see why it remains so popular, recreationally, although far less developed than the upper Guadalupe. And for good reason. The floods, ladies and gentlemen, the floods.