Teardrop Trail Log: March 28, 2016
We left the county seat, Fort Davis. Debating whether to stop by the McDonald Observatory or not, and saw a sign announcing the Fort Davis National Historic Site. With plenty of time for the hour or so trip to Balmorhea, we decided to stop.
I wasn’t prepared for what we discovered. The site is far enough away from the road that we didn’t see it’s expanse. Billed as the largest partially restored historic fort in the United States, it is immense with a variety of historic buildings in various states of preservation. We stopped in the visitor’s center and spent a few minutes looking through the exhibit. With a nice overview, and interest whetted, we went on to the main event.
Founded in 1854 by Lieut. Col. Washington Seawell, six companies of the eighth U.S. Infantry, and named for the then Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, it was abandoned by federal troops in April 1861 at the outset of the Civil War. It was one of many posts along the San Antonio to El Paso Road, a 600-mile journey along the southern route to California. It helped bring peaceful settlement of the region between it’s reoccupation in 1867 and it’s deactivation in 1891. One surprising fact: Except for a mainly white officer corps, the post was largely manned after 1870 by buffalo soldiers.
First stop, a restored enlisted barracks where we met one of the site volunteers. This was fortunate, since the restored interiors are normally viewed from glassed off entrances. He offered to show us around the barracks. What an amazing step back in time. The building had been carefully restored, complete with period furnishings, weaponry and personal effects. The buildings take advantage of cooling afforded by the adobe brick construction and natural ventilation. Uniforms were a mix of the practical and fanciful. The parade dress uniform was patterned after european models and worn regularly — even in the heat of summer. More practical uniforms were worn for the more mundane work details including the construction of 91 miles of telegraph line west from the fort.
The Commissary served as the local grocery and general store. Supplies for the 500 or so military and their families, as well as other nearby military posts had to be freighted by wagon train from San Antonio. The 400-mile trip took between five and six weeks, so careful planning was essential for the post’s safety and effectiveness. The commissary has been partially restored with example goods lining the shelves, and first-person descriptions of daily fare.
Several interesting exhibits are in the Post Hospital where care for sick and injured soldiers and family members was provided. The building has been partially restored, with examples of the ongoing archeological work visible within. Behind the post hospital, foundations from the original, 1854-1861 fort are visible. It was more modest in scope, and dwarfed by the later version.
Officers and their families were housed in a variety of single and shared quarters along Officers’ Row. One shared quarters building has been stabilized with a restored wooden porch — from there it is possible to peer into the unrestored interior. A couple of single family officer’s quarters have been fully restored with furnishings and personal effects similar to the enlisted men’s quarters mention earlier.
In total, Marilyn and I spent several hours touring the grounds and enjoying the exhibits. The frontier and late nineteenth century and very real here. In the gallery below, I’ve included several of the exhibit signs — they recount the history better than I can. If you’re in West Texas near Marfa, Fort Davis or Balmorhea, this is a worthwhile stop.