Friday, March 20, 2009

Alligators Along the San Gabriel

Alligators were common along the San Gabriel in the early 1800s; when the Santa Fe Expedition crossed the San Gabriel just east of Georgetown in 1841, members of the party spent an afternoon shooting alligators in the river. Jack Berry shot a seven-foot alligator at the mouth of Berry Creek near Towns Mill in 1870 and a three-foot alligator was killed there in 1883 (Scarbrough, 1973). A major branch of the San Gabriel is Alligator Creek, which drains an area southeast of Salado. The creek was named for the abundance of alligators found along its banks. A rural community named Alligator was established near Alligator Creek in 1892. By the end of the 19th century, alligators had largely disappeared from the river.

One of the last records of an alligator on the San Gabriel was a large one trapped in Blue Hole at Georgetown around 1897. Jeff Ake, a local fisherman, and ten-year old Bob Gaines knew that an alligator was in Blue Hole. Gaines, who was interviewed in 1973, reported that Ake had two hooks about a foot long welded together. He baited the hooks with a soft-shelled turtle and attached them to a chain and rope, which he secured to a large tree. The alligator took the bait, and was caught, but a team of horses was required to pull the alligator from the water (Scarbrough, 1973).

Reference: Scarbrough, Clara Stearns. 1973. Land of Good Water (Takachue Pouetsu) : a Williamson County, Texas, History. Georgetown, TX, Williamson County Sun Publishers.

The Mexican Buckeye

Last week, as my dog Molly and I walked the San Gabriel River Trail, I spotted one of my favorite trees, the Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa Endl.), also known as the Texas buckeye and canyon buckeye. Really more of a shrub than a tree, the Mexican buckeye is easily distinguished during much of the year by its reddish brown, three-lobed fruits that hang from the tree and that rattle when shaken. Inside are three large, lustrous black seeds. The Mexican buckeye grows along rocky ravines and bluffs above streams in Texas and New Mexico. The tree Molly and I saw on our walk was actually growing on top of a limestone boulder about 30 feet above the San Gabriel. In the spring, the tree has clusters of small, beautiful pink flowers, which eventually give rise to the fruits and seeds.

The seeds of the Mexican buckeye have been found in large numbers among Native American archeological sites, but experts disagree about whether the seeds were eaten, used as psychotropic substances, or worn as ornaments. The seeds contain compounds that are known to be toxic and there are anecdotal reports of people becoming sick and even dying from eating the seeds. However, several botanists claim to eaten eaten the seeds with no ill effects. Regardless of what the botanists say, I don’t recommend trying them!

Reference: Turner, M. W. 2009. Remarkable Plants of Texas: Uncommon Accounts of Our Common Natives. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Southwestern University Student Projects on the San Gabriel River

Last fall, I taught a First Year Seminar Course at Southwestern entitled A River Runs Through It: The Ecology and History of the San Gabriel River. Students in the course were required to plan and carry out a group research or creative project that focused in some way on the San Gabriel River. Another requirement was that the project include members of the community. Here are brief summaries of the student projects, written by the students.

Memoirs of the San Gabriel River
Bridget Miller, Jessica Perry, Elizabeth Marzec, and Erin Landry

Rivers are an essential part of civilization, both as a cultural hub and a resource. The San Gabriel River and Park is no exception. Despite being an extremely important river in Georgetown and Williamson County, there is very little documented about the river, especially personal tales. We realize that the San Gabriel River is a significant part of the Georgetown community and attempt to convince others of this as well. In efforts to prove the significance of the San Gabriel and collect a lasting oral history of the river, we interviewed residents from all over town, of all ages, to capture feelings and memories involving the city of Georgetown and more specifically the San Gabriel River and San Gabriel Park. We comprised the interviews into a documentary DVD. Through this project we have discovered the positive feelings of fondness that the community has for the beloved San Gabriel River and Park. We hope this film will help teach the residents of Georgetown about the history of the area and for them gain more appreciation for its rich history.

Fossils of the San Gabriel River
Kirby Crone, Kate Castles, Kristen McCollum, Kim Sump

The community as a whole does not know the history of the San Gabriel River and its past, so our group decided to teach them by means of fossils that are found in the region. We hiked along the river and in nearby areas and found nine different kinds of fossils. We classified the fossils and put them into three groups (commonly found, occasionally found, rarely found). We then designed a kiosk to put at the head of the San Gabriel River Trail that has pictures and descriptions of the fossils we found, an illustration of how fossils are formed, and a map that details the geological history of the area. Our project's purpose is to inform and educate the community about Georgetown's past and encourage children to become enthusiastic about science by means of fossils. Fossils commonly found included Turitella, and Texigryphaea. Fossils occasionally found consist of Ostrea, Protocardia, and Pecten. Fossils rarely found are composed of Pholyadomya, Loriola, Tylostoma, and Inoceramus. On one of our many fossil hunts, we went to Lake Georgetown. It was about a twenty minute walk through a forested trail until we got to the waters edge. Right as we were getting there the sun was starting to set, so we had to find fossils quickly. This was not a problem because when we looked down we realized the entire ground was just covered in various types of fossils. By going on each fossil hunt we have been able to see into a world that few have been able to explore. It is truly amazing to see what had been millions of years before our existence and hold that piece of history in your hands.

Analysis of Trash on the San Gabriel River Trail
Kevin Burge, Allard deJong, Alex Essex-Carmona, and Alexander Reinsch

On a hike along the San Gabriel River Trail, these students noticed litter along the trail. They decided to conduct a scientific analysis to better understand where along the trail litter might be a problem and how it might be better managed. An initial hypothesis was that litter was more likely to occur where there were fewer trash cans. The students divided the trail into sections. They collected trash along the trail, recording the number of pieces of trash found in each section and the type of trash collected. They also interviewed trail users to determine their impressions and attitudes about trash along the trail. Results of the study showed that the trail is relatively free of litter and trash. The amount of litter was not related to the presence of trash cans. Instead, areas that contained more litter were located near roads and streets, suggesting that most litter does originate not from trail users, but comes from passing vehicles. Adding additional trash cans is unlikely to decrease the amount of litter that occurs along the trail.