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Texas Tales

published: September 20th 2019
by: Mike Cox
On Dec. 13, 1879, the Atlanta Constitution published a brief story that should have been big news in Texas, but somehow no editor in the Lone Star state picked up on the Georgia daily’s report.
The story dealt with the purported solution of a 29-year-old mystery in Central Texas, the disappearance of one John Roan. 
In November 1879, the Constitution told its readers, someone exploring a cave near “Point Rock” in Lampasas County discovered a human skeleton inside. But there was more to the tale than that:
“Near the skeleton was a rusty blade of a bowie knife, with the handle rotten with age. On a smooth limestone rock was carved in capital letters the following: ‘I fell in here four days ago when the Indians were running me. I am starving. If Bill don’t find me tomorrow I will run this knife through my heart. I can’t stand to starve to death. John Roan.”
The date of the inscription was Nov. 1, 1850. 
The only other snippet of information the article included was this:
“The cavern walls cannot be scaled without the aid of a rope twenty-five feet in length, and the aperture is exceedingly small. Roan’s own efforts to save his own life would have been unavailing.”
Like many interesting things I’ve run across over the years, I found this long-forgotten newspaper story by accident while looking online for something else. Immediately, I set about—pardon the expression—trying to flesh out the details of this skeleton tale.
Alas, so far my efforts have proven fruitless. 
For starters, a subscription website with thousands of old U.S. newspapers available for digital search reveals only one other contemporary news story about the discovery of the skeleton. That was in the Vernon Clipper, a newspaper published in Lamar County, Alabama And that story, printed six days after the appearance of the first report, clearly is only a rewrite of the At-lanta article. I’ve found no mention of Roan’s bones in any Texas newspaper.
On top of that, I can’t find any community or landmark in Lampasas County called Point Rock. 
Over in East Texas there is a community in Grimes County called Roan’s Prairie, which was named for one Willis I. Roan, an early settler from—interestingly enough — Alabama. He settled in the area that would bear his name in 1841. Judging from assorted genealogical websites, the Roan family flourished in Texas and John is certainly a common given name. 
But nowhere online or in any of various books on Lampasas County is there any mention of such a compelling story as a skeleton of a long-missing person being found in a cave. Nor do online listings of those lying in various Lampasas County cemeteries record a grave occupied by anyone named John Roan. (The county’s Oak Hill Ceme-tery does have the final resting place of one Eddie Roan, who died at 12 in 1948, but no other Roans are shown in any other cemetery in the county.)
Of course, it should be noted that in 1850, when Roan supposedly fell into a cave while being chased by Indians, Lampasas County did not yet exist as a political subdivision. In fact, the first settler did not put up a cabin in the vicinity of what would become Lampasas until 1853—three years after Roan supposedly met his fate. And it was three years after that before Lampasas County was or-ganized.
But there were plenty of Indians in that part of Texas in 1850 and it’s conceivable that Roan could have been in the area on a wild horse gathering expedition. Or maybe he had left the settlements to hunt buffalo or deer, which also were plentiful at the time. The Bill referred to in Roan’s allegedly self-composed epitaph could have been the person hunting with him, perhaps having become separated from him when the Indians confronted them. 
Lampasas County does have some limestone caves, particularly in Colorado Bend State Park, but one would think a cave with a carving such as described by the Atlanta Constitu-tion story would be well known. 
So, in 1879 did some bored journalist make up the story of John Roan’s lonely suicide and the discovery of his remains nearly three decades later, or did it really happen? 
***
I rousted my 15-and-a-half-year-old from bed at what must have seemed like the middle of the night—9 a.m.
“Come on, let’s go find the ghost town I told you about that’s resurfaced at Lake Buchanan.”
“No, I just wanna sleep,” she begged. 
“Hey, it’ll be cool,” I said, trying to be hip. “The lake’s lower than it’s been in 25 years. No telling what we might find.”
Finally, she gave in. 
An hour later, which if you knew Hallie you would understand is fireman-down-the-pole fast, we were on our way to find Old Bluffton, a 1850s-era town in Llano County inundated when Lake Buchanan filled in 1937. 
In the mid-‘30s, as workers poured concrete at the dam site and laborers just happy to have a job in hard times used handsaws to denude the landscape in the future lake bed of oaks and cedars, the Lower Colorado River Authority paid to have the occupants of the Bluffton Cemetery exhumed for reburial at a new site well above the future shoreline. The town’s living residents soon followed, settling what for a time they called New Bluffton. 
Hoping to get my teenager more invested in this history-oriented ad-venture, I handed her a “Mission Impossible”-like case file for her study en route. The documents included a map, a satellite image, an email with directions, and a printout of the “Texas Tales” column I wrote on Old Bluffton in 2003.
Though she actually read the piece, I could tell Hallie still lacked full engagement in the expedition. 
Then I remembered the quicksand.
“Oh,” I said casually, “We’ve got to be careful. There’s quicksand where we’re going.”
“Quicksand?”
I could see her processing that information, clearly thinking of the various movies and TV shows she’d seen in which someone sinks to their doom in a bottomless pit of the treacherous mix of sand and water. 
“Awesome,” she finally said.
Following the directions, we drove along parts of the normally-submerged old road between Llano and Burnet to a point more than 2 miles out into the lake. Then, armed with walking sticks, bottled water and plastic bags for any treasure we might find, we set about exploring the dry lake bed. 
At this writing, the normally sprawling lake is only 51 per cent full. On this getting-hotter-by-the-minute July day, a dry south wind whipped up moderate waves that slapped against the shore. Except for all the mineralized, iron-like tree stumps left by the “brush cutters” as they were called, it was like walking on a Gulf beach, complete with a liberal scattering of mussel shells and fish skeletons.
While a few traces of the old town have become visible, most of it is still under water. But we did find one substantial rectangular rock foundation and a scattering of artifacts, including the base of a green Anchor-Hocking Depression glass bowl and a piece of melted lead from an even earlier era.
We hadn’t been doing this freshwater beachcombing for long before my right walking shoe disappeared in the fine granite-mica gravel.
“Well, here’s the quick sand,” I said. “Use your walking stick to check where you’re planning to walk.”
Hallie began stepping more gingerly while poking here and there with her walking stick, now in full buy-in. 
What excited me was not the quicksand, but the prospect of finding old fishing lures. By the time we were ready to admit that the sun had more staying power than we did, I had picked up at least $15 worth of lures snagged by normally submerged stumps. 
“I can’t wait to tell everybody I was on quicksand,” Hallie gushed. “I’m so glad I came.”
By this time, the temperature had risen well over 100. Our water bottles as low as our energy levels, after about two-and-a-half hours we turned to head back to our SUV.
Suddenly, in mid-stride, my right foot again sank in quicksand. But this time it took in my leg all the way to the knee. I put down my left foot hoping to get enough footing to extract my sunken foot but it too sank.  
As Hallie laughed joyously, I stood in quicksand up to my knees. 
“I gotta get a picture of this for Facebook,” she said, a delighted lilt in her voice. 
Envisioning circling buzzards, I reluctantly posed for  a couple of shots while planning my exit strategy. OK, I thought, how would Tarzan handle a situation like this?
At least I was not sinking any deeper. But in the full grip of the grainy goo, I was beginning to wonder if I’d have to call someone with a chain and four-wheel drive vehicle to extricate me. Hallie, I knew, would find that positively hilarious.
Fortunately, with less effort than I thought it would take, I managed to get un-mucked.
“This is so awesome,” Hallie said, digging in her pocket for her cell phone so she could start texting her friends to report her dad had been mired in quicksand.
Back home, after a long shower and supper, I found a digitized story-poem written by a Bluffton old-timer in 1932, when his home town’s fate was sealed.
“Old Bluffton, Old Bluffton, for thee I sigh,” he wrote. “When the big lake is finished it will be a sight I will love to see…the great big dam with its great white wall, but the memories of Old Bluffton will rise above them all.” 
He didn’t mention quicksand.
***
People still get their kicks remembering old Route 66, but Route 66 plus one – U.S. 67 – is still kicking.
It may not be the Mother Road, but U.S. 67 stretches 1,560 miles across five states, connecting Iowa to Mexico. The highway extends through Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois to the intersection of U.S. 52 in Sabula, Iowa, population 670. Six hundred thirty-seven miles of U.S. 67 are in Texas, from Presidio to Texarkana.
One of 45 U.S. highways in Texas, work on the Lone Star segment of U.S. 67 started in 1927 when road builders began an extension from Fredericktown, Missouri to Dallas. In 1930, the Highway Department (now the Texas Department of Transportation) began developing the highway from Dallas to Presidio. The highway reached Brownwood in 1932 and had been completed to the border by 1934.
That doesn’t mean that U.S. 67 was a seamless ribbon of pavement from Brownwood to the Big Bend, or from Big D to Little B when it first opened. A 1932 map shows the south-bound pavement out of Brownwood ended just past Talpa, the rest of the way to San Angelo being what the map’s legend referred to as a second-class road, “gravel or graded all weather.”  The pavement picked up again at Ballinger and continued through San Angelo.
West of San Angelo, the pavement played out about halfway to Mertzon, with no more hard surface until the Upton County line. Then a motorist had smooth driving to McCamey. After that, except for a brief stretch near Alpine, U.S. 67 ran unpaved all the way to Presidio.
North from Brownwood, the pavement ended at the Comanche County line and didn’t resume until Hood County. From tiny Bluff Dale, drivers had pavement all the way to Texarkana.  
When engineers first began designing a state highway system, some of the routes they selected for pavement had already evolved from animal trails to wagon roads to graded roads. In other instances, engineers planned roadways paralleling railroads. Much of U.S. 67 ran adjacent to the railroad tracks from Dallas to Brown-wood. 
Between Santa Anna and Coleman, the highway parallels the old Orient Railway, which came from Kansas City to Presidio via San Angelo and Fort Stockton in 1911.  
By the 1930s, Texas had a respectable highway system, but traveling still was not as easy as it is today. The speed limit had been set at 45 miles an hour in 1928, and held there until 1941, when the Highway Commission bumped it to 60. That lasted until 1942, when war time shortages forced a reduction to 35 miles an hour to conserve gasoline, oil and rubber.
At the end of the war, the speed limit went back to 60, where it stayed until July 1963. That summer it went to 70, the limit until another gasoline shortage in 1974 resulted in a slowdown to 55 that held until the speed went back to the present 70. 
The long Texas highway has seen a couple of Golden Eras. The first came during the latter heyday of Big Lake, Rankin and McCamey, with oilfield activity at its peak. The second U.S. 67 boom came during World War II, when Brownwood’s Camp Bowie served as a major Army training facility. GIs who did not reach Brownwood by train came in on U.S. 67.
After the war, a group of transportation and tourism proponents organized the Big Bend Trail Associa-tion, a non-profit corporation headed by Claude W. Meadows of San Angelo. The group touted U.S. 67 as the prime route to the new Big Bend National Park, and advocated a continuation of the highway to Chihuahua City in Mexico and from there on to South America.
“Along the route of U.S. 67,” the old Texas Parade Magazine said in 1952, “is a loyal and devout group of representative business men who believe in their hearts that the Big Bend Trail is one of the greatest boons that has come…to the Southwest.”
No matter the beliefs of businessmen, with the completion of Interstate 10 in the early 1970s, traffic on U.S. 67 west of San Angelo dropped considerably. The decline of oilfield activity between Big Lake and McCamey brought a further reduction in traffic, particularly from San Angelo to the I-10 intersection outside Fort Stockton. 
The Big Bend Trail Association eventually changed it name to the U.S. Highway 67 Association and continued to promote the route, publishing a four-color brochure touting U.S. 67 as “The Big Bend Trail” and “Family Vacation Route.”
Despite the best efforts of the now-defunct organization, U.S. 67 never received the kind of press Route 66 enjoyed. But unlike Route 66, replaced by I-40 in July 1984, U.S. 67 is not likely to become a ghost road, though in West Texas you don’t have to deal with much traffic. 
SLS

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