An illustration of people standing and swimming in falls over rocks
Illustration by Pete Lloyd

Parting the Waters

Generations of family memories wash away in Silver Falls

by Bobby Alemán

I wipe the water from my eyes and peer at the canyon walls. It’s the early 1980s and I’m 10 years old, swimming in a pool formed by the White River, surrounded by shale and cliffs of sandstone. Right in front of me is the rarest of Texas landscapes: a series of small waterfalls flowing gently over staggered shelves of rock. The sounds of laughter, splashing, and gleeful shouts echo across the canyon.

I see one of my uncles walk out of the water, completely soaked, his plain T-shirt and jean shorts gushing with trapped water. He chuckles as he waddles onto a rock, his wet feet making a splat with each step. I look up toward the 15-foot-high rock ledge from which only the bravest dare to jump. Silver rays of sun blind my eyes, and I block the glare with my hand. The great cottonwood trees creak, showing their age, their leaves shimmering. Below, the maiden ferns that grow from every crack of rock drip with spray. Then someone jumps, diving from the ledge with a big splash into the deep pool. I hug the bank, wide-eyed, and watch.

It’s the only time I remember swimming at Silver Falls, outside my hometown of Crosbyton in the Panhandle. It wasn’t just a swimming hole. It was also a rest area and roadside park—the largest in Texas. Drive in from US 82 today and it looks just like any other safety rest area. But if you get out and take the stairway down the hill, walk onto a lengthy grass lawn in a poplar grove dotted with Depression-era picnic tables and benches made from native stone, and continue alongside the canyon wall, you’ll happen upon the rock ledges and pool of the once-flowing Silver Falls.

For years, families gathered at the park for cookouts, reunions, and Easter egg hunts. Lovers, young and old, escaped the eyes of a small town and rendezvoused at caves near the falls, carving their initials on the rock face with pocketknives. “X+X” circled by a heart. My own grandmother and grandfather had their first date there.

My family moved to Lubbock not long after that magical day of swimming, and I didn’t think much about Silver Falls again. When I went back to Crosbyton over the years to visit family, apart from cruising by in a fast car to turn around at the rest area, I rarely made the 4-mile drive outside of town to the water.

I live in Austin now and have developed a love of the outdoors and become an avid hiker. My wife, Vanessa, and I often hit the road for impromptu hikes to discover new corners of the natural world. Maybe that’s why I recently thought of that glorious day at Silver Falls. Like developing a lost roll of film, the memory of swimming by those waterfalls had uncovered a forgotten oasis from my youth, and it startles me to think it might still be there. I hadn’t seen the place in 25 years.

I call my cousin who lives in Crosbyton to find out what it looks like now and if people still swim there. “I haven’t swam there in 20 years,” David says. I ask him if there are still waterfalls. He laughs.

If you drive on US 82 into Crosbyton from Lubbock, you’ll pass water tower after water tower painted with the towns’ colors, like a coat of arms on a medieval shield. Green and yellow for Idalou. A maroon jackrabbit for Ralls. And purple and gold for Crosbyton—the Chiefs.

I was born just north of this road in Lockney, after a high-speed drive from Ralls in a terrible rainstorm. Dad was going 100 mph on State Highway 207, my grandmother tells me, and his duties didn’t stop there. During my mother’s 72 hours of labor, the hospital experienced a flashing power outage. Ever helpful, my 20-year-old father assisted the maintenance crew in getting the generator back on. Not long after he made it back to the room, I was born.

Dad had raced to Lockney with the mother of his child to welcome a new life. But just two years prior, on that very road a few miles south of Ralls, he was a passenger in an ambulance racing to recover the body of a child who had died. My father was working for a funeral home in Ralls that assisted with medical transports. A local farm worker—a father of 18 children—had accidentally run over his 33-month-old boy. While the farmer was stopping home for lunch in his tractor, his son, who was playing outside, walked over to the tractor, nestled himself underneath, and fell asleep. When the farmer got in his tractor to leave, he ran over the child.

My father and his coworker were on the way to the scene. But in just a few minutes, they would need medical transport of their own.

A family of four was returning home to Silverton after a vacation at Lake Travis. Likely coming around a bend in the road, their Buick, which was towing a boat, collided with my dad’s ambulance and burst into flames. In the crash, Dad’s seat belt buckle gutted his stomach, rupturing his appendix, almost costing him his life. My grandfather, a Southern Baptist preacher, tells me he prayed over him day and night, bargaining with God to save his life.

My father is on my mind as Vanessa and I explore the areas I’d never seen before by driving across the entirety of Blanco Canyon, a roughly 30-mile stretch along the Llano Estacado. From Austin, we drive up SH 70 through the towns of Sweetwater and Spur until we reach Dickens and hang a left on US 82 to Crosbyton.

When we finally arrive, the first thing I want to see is my late grandmother’s restaurant and motel, Maria’s Hacienda, in front of the football stadium. It’s been closed for years, and someone else owns the building and land now. But the need to connect is strong. I pass the old gas station across from the Allsup’s on Main Street, where I got my first hearing test as an 8-year-old. I had overinflated my front bicycle tire until it burst so loudly, I swore I could hear a pod of whales singing from the ocean. My ears pinged for days, and my eardrums filled with pressure like I was sitting on an airplane flight. I still hesitate when I air up tires.

The town, only about 12 blocks total, looks the same as it did when I left it almost 40 years ago. Every turn-in, every intersection invokes a memory. I had my second birthday party in a kiddie pool right there by the side of an old white house on Main Street. I still have the picture of me crying, sporting a fresh bowl cut and short bangs, wearing the tightest blue swim trunks I’ve ever seen. My cousins are seated at a table all around me. They were my best friends. And nothing will ever beat that: being able to call your cousins your best friends.

It’s late, so we pull into the Smith House Inn, the bed-and-breakfast we booked for the trip. Portraits from the early 1900s hang on the walls, and the old wood floors creak. We try to keep quiet, but it doesn’t matter. There are more than 30 rooms in the house, but we’re the only guests.

As far as I can tell, there isn’t anywhere to eat in Crosbyton. But we come prepared. We drive to the Silver Falls rest area late that night and warm up veggie noodle soup over our camping stove. As I eat, I stare into the canyon floor below us, knowing that just down the steps and at the end of the streambed by a grove of cottonwoods is the place I drove all this way for, covered by the darkness of night.

In the 1870s, Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie’s Fourth U.S. Cavalry relentlessly pursued and pushed out the remaining Comanche who likely had made the Blanco Canyon their home since the first half of the 18th century. Mackenzie’s field adjutant, Capt. Robert G. Carter, kept diaries of his time there. Compilations of these accounts can be found in On the Border with Mackenzie, a book Carter wrote sharing his side of the tragedies and privation that took place 150 years ago. He also mentioned how the canyon was the only place where his troops found pure, refreshing water, sourced from what was then called the Freshwater Fork of the Brazos, or Catfish Creek, now known as White River.

His descriptions of the flora and fauna are almost shocking to read now. His diary entries spoke of a wild land with native plants and animals that thrived before early settlement and the clearing of land for farming and ranching. He wrote of a prickly environment of scrub oak and chaparral, of a prairie dotted with holes in the ground from prairie dog towns, and a land crawling with rattlesnakes, “lobo wolves,” and herds of antelope.

Carter even claimed to witness the most remarkable and unlikely of birds—white swans. I couldn’t believe what I was reading; when I grew up here, we joked about the desolation. There are no trees to speak of, just plowed fields and dust blowing in the wind across the yellowed grass. But I guess we can’t associate the original state of a place with its aftermath. And perhaps I’ve been wrong all this time with my characterizations. Maybe the desolation I think I know is just the result of what is missing. After all, there was an obvious reason the Comanches made this area their home: At one time, the canyon was full of buffalo.

“As far as the eye could reach,” Carter wrote of the once-countless herds. It’s hard to bring that image to mind when all I see are cotton fields around me.

It wasn’t very long after the U.S. military campaign that the buffalo were decimated, hunted down one by one, and the land cleared. The Blanco Canyon started its transformation into ranchland and farms, a land of barbed wire open for business. It was an opportunity for one group of entrepreneurs from Kentucky to trade in their whiskey business for cattle.

In 1882, the Tilford-Johnson family from Louisville started the Kentucky Cattle Raising Company in Blanco Canyon and surrounding areas. They bought 233 sections of land, including Silver Falls. They raised a breed of western cattle and Kentucky shorthorn bulls. They built a ranch house, the Two-Buckle Ranch Headquarters, in 1884. The house burned down in 1944 but was rebuilt and, while no longer a residence, is still visible today, overlooking Silver Falls.

“At almost every turn a spring issued from a shady nook in the rock,” wrote journalist John Duncan on his visit to the ranch and nearby White River in 1888, in an article for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. He described the topsoil as the finest chocolate loam and concluded that Silver Falls produced a “splendid water supply, there being enough of it here even in the driest season.”

Though it grew to an estimated 20,000 head of cattle, the Kentucky Cattle Raising Company folded in 1899 due to slumping beef prices. Multiple portions of the land were sold to investors and farmers. In 1916, Mineral Wells businessman Sidney Webb bought 40,000 acres, along with the Two-Buckle ranch house. He would go on to transform a stretch of the land along the White River into an unlikely venue that would attract thousands of Texans from all over the South Plains for almost two decades. But first, he had to build a dam.

Completed in 1923 and located just above Silver Falls, the dam formed a lake where he built a gathering place. The new “pleasure resort,” as it was described by the manager in one newspaper, was aptly named Silver Falls Lake. Regularly advertised as “The Playground of West Texas,” the venue included a dance pavilion, skating rink, and café, all by the newly formed lake. The lake had three diving boards and a slide and, with a depth of about 20 feet, provided boating and fishing for guests. There was even a golf course on the property that employed an attendant just for removing cow patties from the greens.

Silver Falls Lake hosted rodeos and barbecues. Families camped alongside pastures. Acts played big band music on Saturdays, and road weary West Texans danced the night away. There were reports that one Independence Day celebration attracted more than 10,000 people, with 3,000 cars parked along the roads.

It’s hard for me to imagine a venue in the South Plains attracting so many visitors in the 1920s and ’30s. But it may be as simple as the water. Even though the resort was in the middle of nowhere, Silver Falls Lake was the only body of water in these parts. And as my wife and I have found on our hiking adventures, the allure of water on a hot summer day in Texas is undeniable.

Sometime around the early 1940s, the resort closed. The dance pavilion burned down, and according to the Crosby County Historical Commission, efforts to rebuild it were abandoned after the contractor ran off with the money for the project. The Playground of West Texas would never return. The lake is now reduced to silt, sand, and just enough grass to serve as a pasture for grazing cattle.

In Crosbyton, I meet a retired farmer and pawn shop owner who grew up going to Silver Falls not long after the resort’s heyday and the construction of the rest area. Ramon Johnston, whose father journeyed to this region by covered wagon from the Oklahoma territory, was born here in 1935. He recounts how, as a child, he and his older brother would leave town on Saturdays and bike to Silver Falls to play all day. This was a 4-mile trip downhill into the Caprock on what was then a two-lane highway.

“It’s a wonder we hadn’t got snakebit or something,” Ramon says. “We’d hide-and-seek all in that canyon.” They would pack a sack lunch and drink water from the spring pipe still there today. Getting back to Crosbyton was a different story, he says. With one gear, riding their bikes back was out of the question. He and his brother had to push their bikes uphill on the highway to get back home.

Ramon says Silver Falls flowed “a good stream of water” back then. “It used to flow probably a foot deep and 5 or 6 feet wide,” he says. The water was clear, too, and you could drink right out of the stream. Then I ask him about the waterfalls. Why doesn’t Silver Falls flow like it used to? “All the irrigation wells,” he says matter-of-factly. “When they quit pumping so much, it raised back up and the stream would flow real good again.” It seems during irrigation season, water is pumped heavily from the ground.

I also get a chance to visit with my aunt and uncle Irma and Charlie. Before retiring, my aunt worked as a nurse in town, and my uncle was a shop foreman for many years at a cotton gin in nearby Owens. My aunt remembers swimming at Silver Falls as a kid and reminds me that our extended family went there for picnics and Easter celebrations. It was such a popular destination, it was not uncommon for a family member to have to stay there overnight to save a spot.

When my uncle was growing up, Silver Falls flowed year-round. This was before contour farming, which holds all the water back, was introduced to the area. The water would come rushing down across the dam and create a deep hole in the creekbed, forming a pool. That’s where they would all dive in. “Now it only flows when it rains,” he says.

When it does, people like to go out and watch the deluge and hear the roar of the water. It can be dangerous. I mention that I remember hearing about drownings growing up. My uncle looks down at the table for a moment and pauses. He reveals that one of his cousins who was his age drowned behind the dam wall in sixth grade after getting caught up in vegetation. He and my aunt try to remember his full name, when suddenly my aunt looks at me and exclaims, “Your dad! Your dad!”

She struggles to put words together to tell me about a separate incident involving my father. It turns out my dad once saved a drowning child at Silver Falls. He pulled a 6- or 7-year-old boy out of the water and performed CPR. The boy’s parents were hysterical. Screaming. “They were sure he was gone,” she says. “He just pulled the boy out, right?” I say, puzzled. “No! Your dad brought the boy back,” my aunt emphasizes. “He was as limp as can be.”

I’d never heard this story, but it didn’t surprise me. My grandfather tells me a similar story from many years ago about my dad spotting an injured hiker stranded on a ravine, most likely in the Guadalupe Mountains, when he and his girlfriend were on their way to Mexico for a trip. He was able to flag down help and get aid to the woman. My dad died in 2005 at the age of 50—too young. But since he’s been gone, his stories keep finding their way to me.

Rebekah Robertson, proprietor along with her husband, Byron, of the 101-year-old Smith House Inn, makes breakfast for Vanessa and me every morning. On our last day in town, she prepares crepes and sausage, served with a delicious jar of homemade Dutch honey syrup. The surprise tip she gives me about Silver Falls all but makes my trip complete.

Rebekah tells me about a rumor that Roy Rogers once shot a movie in the area and visited Silver Falls. I look it up; she’s right. In 1975, “The King of the Cowboys” came out of a 21-year retirement to act in his last feature film, Mackintosh and T.J. He filmed two scenes at Silver Falls, one by the waterfalls on horseback, the other by the streambed. Rogers was there right around the time my father was making that high-speed drive in a rainstorm to the hospital.

Vanessa and I hike Silver Falls later that evening. After parking, we walk up to the safety walls and look down into the canyon. We descend the beautiful, white stone staircase and find the spout for spring water Ramon drank from in the 1940s. Just a trickle of drops comes out. We walk across the bridge and see countless black willow trees blowing in the wind and rough horsetail in the streambed where the water once flowed.

I climb almost every bluff and read countless initials on rock after rock from all the travelers and locals who came before me. We make our way to the falls. But the only thing falling is the broken ledge from the large shelf of rock where people dove off. It is still majestic, though, even with all that’s missing.

I stand there, overtaken by the scenes filling my mind. Kids playing and chasing each other, running from cave to cave looking for Easter eggs. Lovers carving their names in sandstone and stealing away to kiss by the cottonwoods. And my uncle laughing, standing on the rock dripping wet. I nestle underneath these memories and think about my dad and the stories that follow me. The desolation I feel is from what is missing. Water missing from the falls; a father missing in the life of a son. Hiking in, I didn’t think he would find me here. But he did. And just like that, I am 10 years old again, full of joy, calmed by the water.

From the January 2023 issue
The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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