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Sunday, September 20, 2015 : Fort Davis, Big Bend


Appaling. That's the only word popping into our minds when we see the weather outside, as we pull open our room curtains. It is raining like hell, and there is no indication that it might stop soon, much to the contrary.


After the Skype with the family and the quite rudimentary breakfast (this is an Econo Lodge ...), we take the road to the gas station closest to Interstate 10 entrance. As almost everywhere in this country, it is open on a Sunday, and there are even quite a number of people.


On our program today, we have enough to keep us busy :


  • Fort Davis, and old Army fort, probably a rich historical visit,
  • About 220 mi. to Big Bend National Park,
  • And, according to our time of arrival, perhaps some walk, but it also has to depend on the weather.


It is still raining when we take Interstate 10 eastwards.


I become cautiously optimistic again, when I realize that rain seems to be easing, then stopping. The sky remains threatening, we will see.


Shortly before arriving at Fort Davis, on top of a nearby hill, I notice a huge circular antenna. Later on, while doing the research for this article, I learn that it is one of the ten radio-telescopes of the VLBA, the Very Long Baseline Array, which are studying space-based radio-electrical actvity.


Fort Davis National Historic Site

Fort Davis National Historic Site


While preparing this trip, I had actually noticed Fort Davis but, since I had never visited it before, I was expecting a relatively small fort, with a cavalry regiment, who always shows up on time as anyone knows, inside a high wooden fence to protect it from Indian attacks, as in westerns or comics.


I have it (almost ...) all wrong.


Much to the contrary, Fort Davis is relatively large, about 500 acres. It is not fenced at all. The only correct point is the cavalry regiment. There were actually two of them based in the fort, along with all activities required for their support : storage house, stables, foot soldiers, school, hospital.


Fortunately, rain has now completely stopped. After the visitor center and its very interesting documentary film about the history of the fort, much of the visit is done outside.


U.S. Army soldier, Fort Davis National Historic Site

U.S. Army soldier


Fort Davis was first built in 1854, on the road from San Antonio to El Paso. It was the fifth of a series of seven forts erected to protect pioneers, stagecoaches, mail coaches and freight convoys travelling on the road. By the way, some pioneers did not stop in El Paso, but rather went on further West, sometimes up to California, to take a chance in the wake of 1849 Gold rush.


Fort Davis took its name from Jefferson Davis, whom we already talked about. At the time, long before the Civil War, he was still President Franklin Pierce's War Secretary. Later on, Fort Davis became a small town of 1,000 souls and Jeff Davis county seat, which took its name from the same character.


With Texas joining the Confederacy, Fort Davis was logically abandoned by Union troops in April 1861, and reoccupied without too much conviction by the Confederacy's. The Confederate Army being kept quite busy by Union troops on other fronts, and after a bitter defeat in August 1861 against Mescalero ApacheFort Davis was abandoned in August 1862, as were all other forts west of Fort Clark, near San Antonio. It was only reoccupied in June 1867, this time by Union troops. Two infantry and two cavalry regiments of the famous Buffalo Soldiers, those units entirely staffed with African-American troops with the exception of some officers, occupied the fort until it was finally abandoned in 1891.


Indeed, in the meantime, a much more direct route had been opened up between San Antonio and El Paso, approximately on contemporary Interstate 10 alignment. What's more, the Apache had been pacified and assigned to reservations much further West. Since crossing the region had become much safer, the fort had lost all military and strategic usefulness.


After the Civil War, neither the fort, nor the city nor the county were ever renamed. Jefferson Davis' ghost still lingers on the whole area.


Apache warrior, Fort Davis National Historic Site

Apache warrior


The fort is not fenced, basically because Apache attacks, which motivated its building in the first place, occurred much further West, several hours away on horseback. The fort itself was never directly attacked. Nevertheless, the presence of powerful cavalry units, which could ride very fast to the place of an attack and later be reinforced by infantry troops and, if necessary, by artillery pieces, made up a great close protection for road travellers, as well as a powerful deterrent of further attacks.


Fort Davis' site was chosen on purpose, next to a river and flanked on three sides by rock hills high enough to protect it from the bad North winds sweeping the whole region during winter. Hard to fathom as it may be for us, visiting the fort in summer, temperatures as low as the high-20s are the rule here, in the middle of winter.


Fort Davis panoramic view, Fort Davis National Historic Site

Fort Davis panoramic view


After the documentary and the visitor center, the visit proceeds outdoors.


The whole site includes 100-odd buildings, of which about 20 have been restored and can be visited. The others are ruins in varying conditions, from knee-high wall stubs to mostly complete buildings, but unsecured, unrestored, hence unavailable for visiting.


Fort Davis' visit is a self-guided tour. Marie expresses her keen interest for the French visit flyer.


The large field in the picture already existed when the fort was active. It was used as a parade ground, for training and entertaining purposes. It should be understood that many officers based in the fort moved in with their families, who had to be kept busy and entertained.


The stables, Fort Davis National Historic Site

The stables


Along the parade ground, there were four building used as enlisted men's barracks. The first one hosts the visitor center. The second one showcases what the fort stables were like, with a relevant emphasis on the role of Buffalo Soldiers. The two latter ones are little more than their former ground footprint.


Integration nonetheless had serious limits, and very few African Americans were able to reach officers' ranks. As of this day, the destiny of Second Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper, the first ever African American to graduate from West Point, who was stationed at Fort Davis from 1880 to 1881 and who gave his name to the road that leads to the site, is quoted as an example.


Carriage-mounted machine gun, Fort Davis National Historic Site

Carriage-mounted machine gun


In the same building, we can see that cavalry regiments were supported by infantry troops and artillery pieces. There are a cannon and this carriage-mounted machine gun. Of course, considering how long it could take to bring those pieces to the site of an attack, they were only used in particularly perilous situations. Otherwise, cavalry actually carried out the bulk of the missions.


Enlisted men's barracks, Fort Davis National Historic Site

Enlisted men's barracks


Finally, the last room in the building shows an enlisted men's dormitory. On the right of the picture, as an echo to the harsh winter climate of the area, we can see large stoves to heat the room.


At the time it was active, Fort Davis was considered a relatively pleasant place to live in, not really exposed to direct attacks, well located, well supplied, and with a very decent comfort for its time. Being assigned there was an enviable situation. Other Western forts were much more rudimentary, and did not appeal to the men so much.


Non-commissioned officer's desk, Fort Davis National Historic Site

Non-commissioned officer's desk


As in any decent military institution, Fort Davis had a non-commissioned officer on duty, in charge of assigning the various activities. Indeed, in real life, Indian attacks and other situations requiring to send in troops were fortunately quite rare.


Most of the time was actually spent fighting boredom by multiplying training sessions and maintaining equipment.


The storage house, Fort Davis National Historic Site

The storage house


We are close to the edge of the large field which Fort Davis was built on. In front of us, the storage house has been fully restored, to the same condition as when the fort was active. Deliveries were received and unloaded under the front porch.


Behind the main storage building, there is another warehouse, not yet restored.


The stagecoach is there to illustrate the activity of the former road from San Antonio to El Paso, which crossed the site. This road was used to ship mail, freight convoys and pioneer wagons.


Inside the storage house, Fort Davis National Historic Site

Inside the storage house


Inside, the warehouse looks like any other military storage house. Any and all food and beverages required to support active regiments can be found : flour, coffee, canned food ...


To keep rats from eating goods, the house floor is raised by roughly a foot.


Officers' quarters, Fort Davis National Historic Site

Officers' quarters


We are walking up the northern side of the parade ground. A short distance away, we can see four houses like the one on the picture. Those were single officers' quarters. Each house was divided into four apartments, each occupied by an officer.


Among the four houses, this one is in the best condition. It has nevertheless not yet been secured, much less restored, and is not available for visiting. Perhaps next time.


Inside an officer's house, Fort Davis National Historic Site

Inside an officer's house


The western side of the parade ground is lined with 13 houses large enough for an officer to live in comfortably with his family. Behind each house is a smaller building used as a kitchen. With due respect paid to military hierarchy, the fort commanding officer's house is larger than the others and located in the middle of the row.


All the houses are standing, though in highly varying conditions. Two, the commanding officer's and the second from right in the row, have been fully restored, redecorated and refurnished, and can be seen from outside. The visitor cannot actually walk into the rooms, which are shielded by a plexiglas window to avoid damage. It is therefore very hard to take decent pictures, with the windows creating a lot of reflection. This is unfortunate, because the traces of what an officer's life was like in a Western fort are very skillfully showcased.


The hospital, Fort Davis National Historic Site

The hospital


At some distance from the houses, on a slightly higher position, is the hospital. It too has been beautifully restored and can be visited. Rooms there are also protected with plexiglas, and Marie has exactly the same problem with reflection when attempting to take pictures.


On the picture, we can see that the hospital is made of two parts. On the right is the main building, with the bedrooms and operating rooms. The left part is used as stables, to store the carriages used as ambulances and their horses.


Operating room and surgical instruments, Fort Davis National Historic Site

Operating room and surgical instruments


Unlike our modern hospitals, where all safety precautions are taken, here, operating rooms were not dedicated to this sole usage. In fact, some space was set aside in the doctor's office for an operating table and instruments.


Fort Davis hospital was absolutely compliant with the strictest sanitary standards of its time. But let's remember that, at the time, infection propagation mechanisms were not yet known. It is therefore not a surprise that infections made many more victims than war operations themselves.


The fort hospital was also in charge of the health of officers' families who lived there. This is why, during the visit, we can learn that the five-year-old child of one of the officers could not be saved from diphtheria.


Ambulance, Fort Davis National Historic Site



The second part of the hospital is separated from the first one by a covered corridor, opened at each end. It is actually made of one only large room, used as a shed. It was used to store the vehicles used by the hospital, like this wagon which could be used either as an ambulance or as a hearse.


Our visit of Fort Davis is now complete. We have learned a lot about the Indian Wars, the Army and garrison life. I recommend this visit to anyone with a passion for history, and not exclusively military history.


We take the road again, heading southwards. The good news is that the weather seems to be holding, and perhaps even clearing up a little bit.


As we drive further south, the region gradually turns empty. After Alpine, about 105 miles, there is absolutely no town. We only see a few ranches. I congratulate myself for refilling the car this morning.


Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park


When we stop at Big Bend National Park entrance, the sky is obscured again, but it is not raining. Well, not yet.


Big Bend is a remote park in the deep south of Texas, along the Mexican border, in a large bend of the Rio Grande. It is located more than 60 miles away from the nearest city, if by any chance Marathon, 430 residents at 2010 census, can ever be called a city. It was established in 1944 to protect a vibrant animal and plant life, typical of desert areas. It also includes several Native American archaeological sites, as well as the ruins of several ranches dating back to before the park was established.


Big Bend is a very large park, roughly 800,000 acres, or 1,251 sq. mi., way more than the whole state of Rhode Island. Its remoteness makes it one of the least-visited National Parks, with only 314,000 visitors in 2014, about 800 per day. That is 15 times less than Grand Canyon.


At park entance, we are still 45 minutes away from Chisos Basin, roughly in the center of the park, where most facilities are located : a visitor center, a few shops, a restaurant, and our hotel, Chisos Mountain Lodge, where we are staying two nights.


Window View, Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park

Window View, Chisos Basin


Big Bend is a mountainous park, spread between Rio Grande rim, 1,800 ft high, and its culminating point, Emory Peak, 7,832 ft high. The park's central point, Chisos Basin, is entirely tucked between mountains, and is only accessible by two points : Panther Pass, used by the access road, and the Window, a narrow passage between two mountains, shown on the picture.


We are given a room in a cottage slightly remote from the rest of the lodge. We do not have a direct view of the Window, and I have to walk down a little to take the picture. We are about 1/4 mi. from the restaurant, at the end of a partially unlit road. It is good for quietness : there is not a single noise. It also seems to be very good for authenticity : our room is kind of basic, and the bathroom seems to date back to when the lodge was built, in the 1940s.


We had been warned when we booked the room, quite a long time ago, wi-fi does not reach up to our room, or only very sporadically. Once again, I'm piling up some backlog on blog updates and picture backups. We take some rest under the cottage's front porch, and I take advantage of this break to start a conversation with our room neighbors, a friendly couple on vacation, who are spending a few days in the park.


We have dinner at the restaurant, rather decent and with a diverse menu. We then walk back up to our room, with our headband lamps on. Some time later in the evening, we can hear a wild storm.

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