9.27.2008,6:45 AM
Butterfield Trail: River Crossings
River Crossings and "You can't get there from here"

“Lonely river
In the stillness of the night
Your restless nature keeps you raging on
Changing courses
Shallow waters, tangent streams
Lonely river, do you wonder what it means”
-Lonely River, lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick, Michael W. Smith

Civilization around the world blossomed on the banks of rivers, lakes and oceans. Rivers exemplify change: a trickle or flood of fury, sweet or salty, sandy bars and towering cliffs. They can change course overnight and gnaw out a grand canyon over eons of time. They supply us with everything we need: food, water and navigation. Rivers are the arteries and capillaries of the earth.

Possibly no other river southwest of the Arkansas is filled with as much history as the Red River that divides three states, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Although the name derives from the red-clay farmland around its watershed, much blood was lost in and around its waters.

Several famous trails crisscrossed the Red River before and after it became a dividing line for Texas and Oklahoma. A favorite waterway of the Comanche to the west and the Witchita and Cados to the east, many lines of military, wagons and thousands of cattle crossed its waters. Many forded the river waters on foot or horseback near sandy banks. Some were swept downstream.

A half-Chickasaw citizen, Benjamin Franklin Colbert, foresaw the commercial enterprise of supplying a ferry across the river on the Texas Road that ran north and south through Oklahoma and Texas. In 1853 Colbert was granted permission by the Chickasaw nation to operate a ferry service across the river. It was to become the main road crossing the river with access to Texas and the last stop in Oklahoma for the Butterfield stagecoaches. It also became a matter of widely reported controversy years later.

Trying to find the exact location of the ferry on both sides of the river was a goose-chase. A historical marker near the Texas end of the HWY 69/75 bridge on claimed the ferry was alongside the modern bridge. No doubt, the ferry was located somewhere east of the highway and railroad bridges. But how far down? Where?

Of course, the explorer in me asked, “Can I get there from here?”

While contemplating the river on both sides of the bridge, I took advantage of scrutinizing the trestle for the bridge built by the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway. This is the second bridge built by the MKT after the Red River flood of 1876 destroyed the first one (1872). Suspension and railroad bridges are especially photogenic; I couldn’t resist this one, too.

Several late night hours zooming in on Google Earth and collected location claims from books and websites led me to one or two candidate places for the ferry on both river banks. Considering that the last ferry crossing there was around 1873, guesses were shots in the dark. River banks dramatically change from furious floods, washed away trees, wild vegetation growth and human carvings. They could be anywhere within a mile downstream of the modern bridges.

The only way for me to find them was to ride there and see for myself. Well, I soon learned I couldn’t get there from here.

Like most of the land the Butterfield trail covered, the banks within a mile east (and beyond) from HWY 69/75 are private property. Respecting landowners privacy, I certainly wasn’t about to traipse around the banks of the river and dodge bullets. So I shot off an email to the Grayson County Historical Society requesting information on the landowner where the ferry led up the Texas-side riverbank. The reply was less than helpful, “Try the county legal register.”

From my online research, Oklahoma appeared to be more aware and preservation minded of the Butterfield Overland Trail than here in Texas; at least north Texas. Ironically, more details of the Texas crossing side of the river is accessible on the website of the Oklahoma Historical Society and their long-time publication, Chronicles of Oklahoma, even first-person accounts by one of Colbert’s slaves and a ferryman.

I sent an email to the OK Historical Society and was astonished at the helpful response. A staff member contacted Bryan County and traced the current landowner. Despite her Herculean efforts with phone calls and contacts, apparently the current landowner is unaware of the property’s historical significance and less than cooperative.

The next plan was to ride the back roads of where we hypothesized the locations and ‘see what we can see.’ Nothing ventured, nothing gained. First, a stop near the town of Colbert at the Oklahoma Visitors Center, where a row of bikes gleamed in the bright sunlight.

These riders were from Texas on a day ride through OK. A couple on a spot-tourer asked me questions about the Sherpa. They thought it would be a great first-bike for the lady, but she was doubtful about it’s endurance on the highway. I then explained with examples all the places that little pony has ferried me. I could see a few eyes light up and shine; they liked the idea of being able to ride almost virtually anywhere and over everything with a light bike.

After the photo op and farewells, we entered the Visitor Center. I posed the question, “Anyone know where Colbert’s ferry was on the river?” I had three or four different replies and listened to several stories handed down through grand and great-grandmothers. Few of them agreed. After being referred to a lady at the florist shop in Colbert, we headed out into that town to pursue the lead.

Although the woman was not at the shop, I saw a book on Colbert’s ferry, compiled and published by members and descendents of the town. It contained first-hand accounts and stories of the ferry and the Colbert family. I would gladly have bought one of those, but I didn’t have the opportunity to ask if they were for sale.

The day was becoming hot. Realizing we had reached another dead end, we decided against any more wild goose chases and ride back roads we had marked on Google maps. I was hoping that one might lead us to what now had become analogous to a treasure hunt.

I knew from reading various sources that several historic ruins and items were, or are, still present on the property that once was a thriving and busy thoroughfare. According to sources, foundations remain of Colbert’s house and a well. Another coveted find on my list was the Colbert family cemetery, also on the property. Again, you can’t get there from here. Or there.

Our hunt took us on a narrow winding road, under and over bridges including this strange bridge on which trees and various undergrowth resided.

Although the road eventually paralleled the river, a jungle of vines and thick tree and shrub canopies obscured any views of the water or banks. At the intersection of the paved road and a gravel road snaking south, I stopped. This looked like the spot where the OK Historical Society had placed a marker commemorating Colbert’s Ferry. But I couldn’t find a trace of it anywhere. I think the comment made by one of the women at the visitor’s center was correct: it had been moved to a place in the center of the town, a few miles north.

(it was; found it)

Not far down the gravel road was a dead-end: a gate. According to Ed’s GPS, the road through that gate led down to the river. By now fully frustrated, I voted to ride down a gravel road to the left. A street sign indicated it was public, but we weren’t too sure about that. It was like riding down a dark hole in Alice in Wonderland.

At a curve the road narrowed and Ed suggested I wait there while he scouts ahead. He didn’t get far before he started turning around and I heard a barking dog. While I waited, my curiosity was fixated on a rough two-track trail traversing a bank and into the trees. I wondered…… is that it? Is that the old trail to the ferry and river?

By that time, I think hunger and thirst made me think all the roads heading towards the river were candidates for the trail and ferry. We gave up. Yet I still felt a strong pull to go forward, through the gate and into the looking glass.

We both agreed with fatigue in our eyes that it was time to conceed and head for some food and liquids. To Texas, young riders! And a feast on bar-b-que. Oh, and ice cream.

Next: Camp sweet camp

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posted by Macrobe
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