The author’s river journey resumes at Lake Texoma and the
Central Red River Valley
By E. Dan Klepper
The headwaters of the Red River, A gathering of creeks and forks with names like the Prairie Dog Town and Tierra Blanca, ramble lazily across northern Texas, rolling through red rock canyons and the broken plains of the Panhandle along the way. Once across the 100th meridian, the waterway merges with the North Fork to become the Red River proper, commencing its service as boundary line between Texas and Oklahoma, then traveling 640 miles before finally quitting the state for Arkansas and Louisiana.
Halfway to Texarkana, however, the Red stoves up just above the city of Denison, where it broadsides the 160-foot Denison Dam. Too deep here to hold its namesake russet color, the river becomes a slate gray reservoir, covering 89,000 acres, cut with chop on a windy autumn day and turning blue as an ocean in the summertime. Remnants of a deciduous forest populate its southern shoreline, growing right up to land’s end, where sandstone bluffs and tree trunks collapse into gentle waves. I took my first lake laps here years ago, paddling the shallows, held afloat by my grandmother’s grip, and later, as a young adult, swam with friends and camped along the shoreline, sleeping in a hammock strung between the limbs of driftwood trees.
Along the southeastern edge of Lake Texoma, you can enjoy a similar retreat at Eisenhower State Park. Campsites with water and electricity offer a shaded hiatus beneath dense stands of oak, elm, cedar, and dogwood, and plenty of more formal lodging can be found nearby and outside the park. Anglers will appreciate the fish-cleaning station and lighted fishing pier, while a launch ramp accommodates boaters. But the park’s swim beach, located in a secluded cove below a peninsula called Elm Point, may be its finest amenity. This sandy, soft-bottomed spot features a graduated water depth, a pebble beach perfect for sunbathing, cozy bluffs sheltering each end, and a string of orange buoys stretching across the cove’s deep-water entrance to discourage jet skis and motorboats from coming ashore. If you’re planning a visit, don’t forget the picnic, the inflatables, and the water-resistant sunscreen. Floating dreamily in the cove’s calm waters will occupy your entire day.
If you find you’ve taken on too much sun and fun (it can happen), devote an afternoon away from the water sports to admire the Denison Dam, the 13,350-foot-long earth embankment that makes it all possible. Completed in 1944, this U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project was once the largest rolled earthfill dam in the world. Built for flood control and hydroelectric power, the dam holds back more than two-and-a-half million acre-feet of water. Although its power tur-bines are off limits to visitors, opportunities to examine the dam’s architecture arise in viewing points above the riprap abutments, below and along the impressive berm, and from a concrete overlook above the sluiceway.
My father was raised in this Red River Valley before the dam, when the Red ran a slender course from Coesfield east to Kidd. After the dam was built, he would row a boat halfway across the reservoir to hunt the lake-made islands with his dog Old Red. My grandparents eventually moved to Lake Texoma country, acquiring two acres along Preston Peninsula in the late 1940s. The isolated peninsula, a sliver of high ground covered in red oaks and cedars and striated with deep ravines, still pokes into the lake water like a bony arm with a clenched fist. Long before inundation, the land that spread out beyond the peninsula provided a backdrop for much of North Texas’ pioneer history.
Trapper and trader Holland Coffee established a trading post on the north banks of the river sometime around 1833, moving it south across the river in 1837 to a high bluff in the Washita Bend of the Red. A small community called Preston, also known as Preston Bend, developed around the trading post and served as an important river crossing, accommodating an estimated 1,000 wagons per year. Preston also gained a reputation as a rowdy and lawless community, a reputation that may have been promulgated by Coffee himself, whose trade with the region’s Shawnee, Tawakoni, and other tribes included guns and whiskey for stolen cattle and horses. Despite an early run-in with the law, Coffee served in the Texas House of Representatives in the late 1830s and, with his wife, Sophia Suttenfield Aughinbaugh (aka Sophia Porter), established Glen Eden, a successful plantation in Preston Bend. The remains of Glen Eden now lie submerged beneath the lake waters of Texoma, but visitors to Preston Cemetery, a peaceful retreat at the peninsula’s end, may explore the shaded tombstones—many dating to the 1800s, including Coffee’s and Sophia’s—and examine the historical marker commemorating the Coffee trading post.
Another historical Red River figure, Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower, was born in the downstairs bedroom of his family’s rental house in nearby Denison. The tiny, wood-framed house now sits on a six-acre state historic site downtown. Eisenhower, who rose to the rank of General during World War II, was instru-mental in Germany’s surrender, and after a run for the Presidency, served two terms as our 34th President. Although the child “Ike” spent little more than a year and a half in the house before his family returned with him to Kansas, the site provides a convincing vision of pastoral Red River Valley life at the turn of the 20th Century, with woodlands, a coop full of chickens, and an array of blooming gardenscapes.
Elsewhere in Denison, much of the historic 19th-Century architecture has undergone extensive renovations, particularly along downtown Main Street, where specialty shops, art galleries, antiques stores, and restaurants now occupy many of the storefronts. Denison, a railroad town, arose from a relatively wild frontier community during the 1870s when “tent cities,” occupied by bars, gambling halls, and brothels, surrounded the more law-abiding selection of businesses along Main Street. Denison’s first train arrived on tracks laid for the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad, rolling into town on Christmas Eve, 1872.
Today, Denison’s renaissance as a vacation destination is due in large part to its downtown facelift together with its proximity to Lake Texoma, one of the finest water-recreation spots in the state. Restaurants like Watson’s Drive-In and Watsonburger, two classic Mid-Century burger joints, make for great lunch retreats; the Gourmet Waffle Shop & Cafe provides an old-school, coffee shop-style breakfast. An Italian lunch or dinner requires a stroll down Main Street, where Devolli’s offers homemade pasta dishes. You can also choose from a selection of more than 20 wines, including Homestead Red and the Rose of Ivanhoe, from Homestead Winery. Homestead’s Denison tasting room, one of three in North Texas, shares the old Star Movie Theater building and the renovated 1920s Art Deco storefront next door with Devolli’s.
If you follow the Red River Valley eastward from Denison, through bucolic horse pastures and grain fields to Ivanhoe, you can tour Homestead’s vineyards, where grapes ripen in the fields of the Parker family farm. After the tour, sample wines at the tasting room in the 112-year-old family home. Opened in 1989, Homestead Winery is the Red River Valley’s oldest continually operating winery and a way for owner Gabe Parker to carry on his family’s century-old farming tra-dition. Cabernet Sauvignon and syrah grapes have replaced the grain crops that Parker’s grandfather raised a hundred years ago, but the chestnut soil, laid down in the wake of the Red River’s deluge, remains the same.
The Red River makes an appearance here just north of the Ivanhoe vineyards at Sowell’s Bluff, where Texas 78 spans the ruddy waters courtesy of the Red River Bridge. The steel and concrete bridge, opened in 1946, is actually the third to connect this river crossing. The first, a suspension bridge completed in 1927 and christened with a bottle of Red River water by a “Miss Isabel Moor, attended by her la-dies in waiting … ,” collapsed into the icy January waters in 1934 after a cable snapped on the Tex-as side. The second opened in 1938 but succumbed to flood waters three years later when the Red decided to push its north bank boun-daries, changing course and making an end run around the bridge, washing away the north half of the bridge in its wake.
A leisurely drive across the Sowell’s Bluff bridge casts a staccato of black shadows along the windshield and dash, an effect made possible by the summer sun and the open lattice-work of steel girders passing overhead, while a rickrack of rivets and crossbars orchestrates the rolling Red beyond. The river flows with tranquility here, as if discharged of its ran-corous and untamed past, a perception perhaps consequential of the soft afternoon light and the verdant generosity of the river’s shoreline. But I know better. The Red is nature’s rebel, just as all rivers are, forever resisting boundaries, reviving in the most unlikely moments, quick to rally, willful when ready, and always, always rising again.
From the July 2012 issue.