Trails, Rails and Prairie Dog Tales of the Red River Valley
By E. Dan Klepper
The Red River Valley, lyric of the broken heart and bloodshot prairie, spans the entirety of the state’s north central border with Oklahoma, embracing towns and pasturelands from Electra, Holliday, and Wichita Falls east to Paris, Telephone, and Texarkana. Field rows of cotton, corn, and winter wheat dominate its pastoral plains, and the verdant green of late summer milo—seedheads and flag leaves waving—contrasts with the brash sanguinity of its brick-red dirt. Running roughshod over all, both master and agent at once, is its namesake river, an ambling giant flowing wide and calm across 640 miles of the North Texas boundary. From its Texas origins in the Panhandle, the Red River travels east all the way through Texarkana, then south, a journey of more than 1,300 miles, before finally joining the Mississippi on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Red, considered the second longest river affiliated with Texas, served in the 1700s as a dividing line between territories claimed by France and Spain. Boundary and jurisdiction disagreements across riverbanks prevailed over the following centuries, first between Spain and the U.S., then the Republic of Texas and the federal government, followed by Texas and Oklahoma and their battling militias, until the federal courts tried to resolve what they thought would be the final dispute. However, much like the Red’s own battles with the natural forces of flooding, the settlement gave way to the whims of human nature. It took a final determination of the federal ruling, signed into law in 2000, to confirm the exact parameters of the Red’s boundary dispensation. The law states, unequivocally, that the Texas border ends at the hardwood vegetation line along the south bank of the river, leaving the rest of the Red for Oklahoma. The Red River, in fact, doesn’t belong to Texas after all. But the source of much of its abundant water does, including the Prairie Dog Town Fork, considered the river’s primary root in Texas.
The Prairie Dog Town Fork rises in the Panhandle just north of Canyon, then travels several hundred miles east before joining the North Fork to form the Red River proper. Visitors to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, home to striated canyon walls and wind-whittled hoodoos, will find a dawdling Prairie Dog Town Fork watering the cottonwoods, sideoats grama, and star thistle populating the Palo Duro Canyon floor. State Park Road 5 crosses the Prairie Dog Town Fork no less than six times on its roundabout to trailheads marking scenic stretches along the stream’s banks. Try the Paseo del Rio Trail, perfect for a morning birding walk, or the Sunflower Trail, a late-afternoon favorite of the local wild turkey population.
The particularly adventurous can drive to the equestrian campsite just past the park road’s sixth and final low-water crossing and then follow the Prairie Dog Town Fork on foot as it flows alongside a well-trodden horse trail. Or stay high and dry by hiking the renowned Lighthouse Trail and marvel at what the Prairie Dog Town Fork has wrought. Over the last million years or so, the stream’s waters carved the chasm from the surrounding short grass prairie, ultimately producing a canyon 120 miles long, 20 miles wide, and 800 feet deep. It’s a process much easier to imagine whenever the Prairie Dog Town Fork, swollen with rain, scours the canyon floor with massive and dangerous floodwaters than at the height of summer during a drought, when the stream has been known to run dry.
"So come sit by my side if you love me. Do not hasten to bid me adieu. Just remember the Red River Valley, and the one that has loved you so true." —From the song "Red River Valley"
Farther east in Red River Valley country, the Red gets its first flush of truly navigable waters from the Wichita River. The
Wichita, having risen as three separate forks in the rolling prairies of
northwest Texas, drifts through the city of Wichita Falls before emptying into
the Red. The “Falls,” originally a five-foot waterfall located in town along
the Wichita River’s course, washed away in a flood sometime during the late
1800s. In the 1980s, the city re-created the falls as a 54-foot-high waterfall
along the southern banks of the river in the city’s Lucy Park. The Falls Trail,
a one-mile round trip along concrete walkways, begins at the Falls Trail
parking area off the park’s Sunset Drive, then follows a bend in the Wichita
River before ar-riving at the multitiered cascade. Lucy Park, a 178-acre urban
respite filled with ducks and lotus blossoms, offers plenty
In spite of its location on the river, Wichita Falls remained a humble townsite with few settlers until the railroad boom of the 1880s. At that time, residents managed to at-tract the Fort Worth and Denver Railway Company with abundant property concessions along the proposed track right-of-way and, as a result, the trains began to arrive, inspiring Wichita Falls to thrive. By the turn of the 20th Century, the town served as the transportation and supply hub for five different rail-way companies covering much of the Red River Valley, including all of northwest Texas and southern Oklahoma.
Some of the region’s railway history is on display at the Wichita Falls Railroad Museum, in the city’s Depot Square Historic District. The museum (open on Saturdays only) is actually a collection of vintage railroad rolling stock, including locomotives, Pullman sleepers, baggage cars, and cabooses, scattered across the gated museum grounds. Visitors are free to walk among the cars and other memorabilia, then board some of the railroad classics and explore.
From the July 2012 issue.