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Texas Trails

published: May 27th 2022
by: Clay Coppedge

Rock boy grows up
    Geologist Robert T. Hill was never one to let the grass grow under his feet. He looked at the ground where he stood more closely and with deeper curiosity and insight than any Texan before him, informing and inspiring many who followed his footsteps across Texas and beyond.
    Orphaned by the Civil War, Hill left his native Tennessee when he was 16, riding a train until it ran out of tracks and then walking across the Texas ground he would come to know so well until he was in Comanche, where his brother owned the local newspaper, the Comanche Chief.
    Comanche was a riotous frontier town in the early 1870s, a place where “buffalo and antelope meat sold for three cents a pound” and “cattlemen ran their stock full speed through the streets.” Hill worked for the Chief and, in his spare time, studied the patch of terra firma called Round Mountain just outside of town. He collected rocks fossils and displayed some of them in the front window of the Chief office.
    People in Comanche called Hill “Rock Boy” and sometimes took his rocks and fossils and threw them at wild hogs in the street. Though he probably found a safer place to keep his finds, he continued collecting and studying the rocks and fossils of Round Mountain. He kept finding seashells there, which deeply puzzled him be-cause Comanche was hundreds of miles from the nearest beach.
    Hill also took off on a couple of adventures, first with a surveying crew and later on a cattle drive up the Western Trail to Dodge City, Kansas. He learned about wild country and how to survive in it, and along the way he looked at the geology of the places he visited and took notes.
    With hopes of solving the mystery of the Round Mountain rocks, Hill ordered and studied a book on geology. The book failed to quench his curiosity, but it made him realize he was asking the right questions. He took a suitcase, his rocks and a few dollars to Cornell Univer-sity in New York, working his way through school and graduating in 1887 before going to work for the U.S. Geological Survey.
    Hill would eventually return to Texas and coin many of the geographic terms and descriptions that we take for granted today including Balcones Escarp-ment, Edwards Plateau, Woodbine Sandstone, Trans-Pecos, Lampasas Cut Plain and others. Known as the “father of Texas geology,” his re-search on the Cretaceous period – when a shallow sea covered present-day Texas – was groundbreaking.
    Though Hill did some of his most influential work in Texas, he also studied the geologies of Southern Cali-fornia, Panama, the West Indies and Central Ameri-ca. He delved into other topics – artesian water, de-serts, paleontology, Native American life, metallic resources, prehistoric peoples, ore deposits, climatology and petroleum geology, all of it stemming back to those seashells he found on Round Mountain when he was a teenager.
    “Hill was the first Texan to recognize and stress the intimate relationships be-tween geology and geography and the economic and cultural development of the land,” his biographer, Nancy Alexander, wrote. “For this reason, he was an advocate of a state geological survey and was instrumental in the establishment of two such organizations. His investigations of soils and of resources in artesian water led to improvements in farming and ranching over large areas of the state.”
    In 1899 Hill and five others surveyed some 350 miles of the Rio Grande River in Texas, including the treacherous stretch of the Lower Canyons where thousands of springs fuel the river to create a series of wild and perilous rapids. That stretch of the river is immune to the pumping demands that so diminish it along the rest of its course and it is, remarkably, as untamed and treacherous today as it was in 1899.
    At least two other successful expeditions ran that part of the river but he was the first scientist and the first person to report on it and take pictures. His trip essentially concluded the mapping of America’s boundaries. But Hill wasn’t done.
    As a witness in the Texas-Oklahoma boundary suit of 1921, Hill helped win for Texas 450,000 acres of farm and grazing land along with millions of dollars in oil. Geologists and drillers used his reports extensively during the early day of oil exploration in Texas. There’s hardly an oil discovery in Texas that doesn’t have Robert Hill’s fingerprints on it somewhere.
    Hill later taught the first courses in geology at the University of Texas and spent the last 10 years of his life in Dallas, writing feature articles for the Dallas Morning News in hopes of making science more accessible for the general public. The orphan of the Civil War died in 1941, the year America entered World War II. His ashes were scattered across Round Mountain.
SLS

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