Historic Chisholm Trail Still Draws Visitors in Texas
By Greg Fieg
The life of a cowboy on a frontier cattle drive has often been romanticized in the movies, but the reality is that his existence was harsh and difficult. Cattle drive routes such as the fabled Chisholm Trail, a drover's route that began at the Mexican border near Brownsville and meandered through Fort Worth north to Kansas, presented a fierce challenge to the men who rode herd to the midwest railheads that supplied beef to a growing nation in the mid- and late 19th century.
Remains of the Chisholm Trail can still be seen today in San Antonio, Round Rock, Waco and elsewhere. But the development of the U.S. rail system, commercial ice production and later refrigeration long ago obsolesced the need to transfer huge herds on the hoof. Thus, remains of the more than 800-mile route through the Lone Star State have all but been obliterated.
The streets still loop from side to side the way the cattle shaped them. And an inspection of the architecture along the pavement reveals that today's trendy tap rooms and cafes are housed in structures that were once the saloons, hotels, dry goods stores, liveries and other establishments that generated handsome profits serving itinerant horsemen.
The Chisholm Trail wound north from Brownsville, more or less tracing U.S. 77 and Interstate 35, but included feeder routes from outlying ranches from which stock was herded toward the main route. Along the trunk of the trail, water and grass were most plentiful, and undergrowth and elevation the least impeding. But the cowboys could never be sure what they would find: sometimes the streams were dry, other times flooded so badly that the herd, not to mention the drovers, could not ford without risk of drowning.
From a vantage point near Five Points north of Corpus Christi can be seen a huge natural basin that served as a King Ranch consolidation point for cattle rounded up along the Gulf Coast. At Round Rock between Austin and Fort Worth on Interstate 35, wheel ruts created in part by Chisholm Trail chuck wagons can still be seen in the bedrock where herds crossed Brushy Creek. The spot is marked by a large round rock, after which the city is named, and which the cowboys used to find the place where the creek could most safely be forded. To visit exit I-35 at Highway 620 and drive east for a few hundred yards.
The first to lay down wagon tracks along the trail was a half-breed itinerant merchant, Jesse Chisholm, who discovered the natural route through trial and error. His trail had been charted before the Civil War, but it was not until after the war that Confederate and Union veterans began exploiting the route in great numbers, moving herds as large as 5,000 or more to Abilene, Wichita, Dodge City and other locations in the midwest.
Marauding Comanches seldom attacked the drovers directly, but hostile young braves showed little compunction when it came to encircling a herd to shout warhoops and fire carbines to try to stampede the animals. Once the herd was scattered the cattle could be rustled later. It could take very little to start a stampede: a loud voice, a clank of a tin pot at the chuck wagon or thunder and lightning. The cowboys practiced to move easily and quietly, and averaged little more than 10-12 miles a day.
The Stagecoach Inn near a historic Chisholm Trail fording spot on I-35 in the Waco area was once a key stopping point for the cattle drives. The inn has been remodled and expanded as a modern restaurant and motel complex. In addition to the drovers, Jesse James, Robert E. Lee and George Armstrong Custer were among the noted guests there.
Stagecoach Inn reservations can be made by dialing 254-947-5111.
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