Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Up the Hill: Memories of Ranger Hill on US-80 and the Bankhead Highway

Old time truckers have many tales of Ranger Hill in the days before Interstate 20 toned things down. It's still quite a hill to climb and there are remnants remaining of the earlier roads that took different, more difficult paths to climb the steep grade.

Ranger Hill really starts in Eastland County at about where IH-20 and SH-16 meet a few miles south of Strawn. It's on the flat plain skirting the lower Palo Pinto Mountains.  For those headed west, the escarpment juts up steeply and is a real barrier to any reasonably straight approach to Ranger and the cities beyond it on the way to Abilene and El Paso. The 300 foot elevation change from the bottom to the top of the hill would have made it almost impossible for use as a wagon road without multiple switchbacks. In times past, Ranger Hill has also been called Thurber Hill, although that usage is not as common today.

Old Road From Strawn to Ranger Pre-1919 ~ No Direct Route From Thurber to Ranger

As far as is known, the earliest main road from Strawn and Thurber followed the Texas & Pacific Railroad as it stayed at water level through Wiles Canyon into what was Tiffin and then Ranger. The Texas and Pacific Coal Co., which owned the coal mines at Thurber and had the oil play around Ranger, seem to have pushed their own privately financed road up across the Hill in about 1919 after which it was taken over by the State Highway Commission as part of SH-1 and the Bankhead National Highway. By this time cars and trucks that could handle the climb were in more common use. 

Ranger Hill From SH-16 to First Crest ~ Click to Zoom
We can see how really steep the Ranger Hill grade is by using the Google elevation display.  Starting at about 1130' above sea level (Almost 600 feet higher than Fort Worth) a sweeping left hand turn ends up about 200' higher in a very short stretch.  Still climbing, it's another 60' to the first crest at 1400' elevation. From this point it levels for a while and then climbs a little more than 100' to about 1530' at the site of the old Ranger Hill Station complex.

Just to the north of the main road is the old US-80/SH-1/Bankhead Highway route that attempts to cut the grade a little by circling wider around a hill and then pushes on up to the 1400' crest point where it rejoins the present highway on the way up.

Ranger Hill Station Today ~ Click to Zoom
For a place that was once known as a welcome landmark on the trip from Fort Worth to points west, Ranger Hill Station looks pretty sad today. However, in its day it was an oasis for those with steaming radiators, flat tires, burned clutches and useless brakes.  A whole community grew up on the Hill, aimed entirely at needy travelers and their vehicles.

The Ranger Hill Community ~ Click to Zoom
The Ranger Hill Station is located about a half-mile up the hill after exiting IH-20 to Ranger. This is the old US-80/Bankhead route. To the west of the station, were other service stations and buildings and shops some of which are in use today for other purposes.

Interestingly enough, it has just recently been announced that much of the area north of Ranger Hill will probably be in the new state park which begins just to the west of Strawn.  

Old Service Station-Now a shop ~ Click to zoom
The station itself had a coffee shop and there were at least two motels to shelter those who got caught at the top of the hill as well as at least one other gas station. There was a well-built field stone motel on the north side across from the station and it also appeared to have a coffee shop in the main building.

Motel Office and sign. Probably a Coffee Shop as Well ~ Click to Zoom
The shells of these buildings and their roofs appear to be in fair shape today. There is no name on what was once a lighted sign.
Stone Motel Office and Cabins ~ Click to Zoom

On the south side of the road to the east of the station and set back a little are the decaying ruins of another motel with cabins. There's no way to know how these might have looked back in their glory days..

Decaying Cabins On South Roadside ~ Click to zoom
Ranger Hill Station and the little service community that grew up around it was the stuff of legends among early truck drivers, oil men, commercial travelers and tourists. It's surprising that there hasn't been a song or two written about the wrecks and near misses and the shady things that may have gone on at the hilltop. Ranger Hill  has faded now, baking in the hot sun or enduring the cold northers, but its a place that ought to be visited before it is no more.

From Ranger.. Looking West ~ Click to Zoom

Once past Ranger Hill Station, it's a few miles into Ranger itself where there are some interesting buildings, some history and  some almost pristine remnants of the old red Thurber brick Bankhead Highway to Eastland......

Another time..

All images from The Electric Books Collection

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Little History is Passing: The Old Saginaw Airfield Is About Gone

Things change around us in the blink of an eye. Last July I was headed into Saginaw to have breakfast at JR's. The sun was in my eyes, and as I moved east on McLeroy past Knowles Street I sensed something was different at the old airport.  Something was missing.  Something was new.

Hangar at Saginaw Airport East End ~ Click to Zoom
What was missing was the older yellow brick house, its garage and the outbuildings around what had been the airport center. In the space of a week, everything was changed. What was new was the hangar.  Not  really new, but you never could really see it before because of the clutter.  It struck me as impressive, in a way.  I stopped and pulled into the driveway for some pictures.

2001 ~ Looking north.  McLeroy Street in foreground..
I have lived west of Saginaw since about 1997 and am into and out of the town several times a week, sometimes several times a day. I knew that the field had been built in about 1945 by a man named McNeil. The land had been sold for development several years ago. The paved runway had been plowed up and the T-Hangers on both sides had been taken down with one exception. 

Hanger East Side ~ Click to Zoom

Now on this day there is just the big hanger. However, that hangar took on a whole new dimension without the clutter around it. The place almost becomes an Aerodrome in the classic sense. Built of common materials it still becomes a little stately in its appearance. Solid. It has seen the best and worst of aircraft and probably some that were unique or improbable. Just picture a stagger-wing Model 17 Beechcraft in front of it, or a big radial engined Cessna 195.  

West Elevation ~ Click to Zoom
I talked to the man who rents the hanger and he told me he thought the owner had the rest of the buildings pulled down and plowed under because they were in bad shape and there were some liability problems. He said he had no idea of what was in the future for the old hanger, but that it was serving his purposes nicely.

There is one old building remaining to the west of the big hangar. It's a closed shed hangar that has been used occasionally for "estate sales", but everything else around it is gone.

Old Hangar Facing McLeroy ~ Click to zoom
I suppose it it hopeless to think that someone might come up with some way to save the big old hangar and use it without too much change. At 65+ years old it could be considered historic in a technical sense, but I have an idea that the land is probably zoned commercial and if the economy ever turns around,  then we'll see it disappear overnight as well.

I'll enjoy it while I can..

Here's' the whole story on the airport history from the Abandoned Airfields website...

All images from The Electric Books Collection

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Macabre Mansion~Edwards Funeral Home in Strawn Has a Creepy Mascot~I Wonder If They Know?

I was returning from a scout through Ranger Saturday when I decided to take a quick run up to Strawn in hopes that I might be able to get into Mary's Cafe for lunch. I was a little early so I ran up SH-16 to the north end of town and took a right just before the river onto Watson Place a street that runs in front of the abandoned water pumping plant and Edwards Funeral Home.

View From the West ~ Check the East Chimney ~ Click to zoom
The funeral home is in a magnificent old mansion style building. Local history says the business was started in 1963 by Jerry & Pat Edwards in the 1919 George J. Watson home. The home was modeled after a West Virginia mansion and has double-brick walls, 7 fireplaces and elaborate decoration.

What's that thing on the east chimney?
As I was admiring the building, my eye caught something on the east chimney..  Big pigeon?  Hawk?

View From the East ~ Click to Zoom ~ Bird Looking At Me?
I drove over to the east side and got a little closer. It certainly was a bird of some kind... The evil little kid in me started thinking... What if it was a .... Naw!..  it couldn't be.   Perched on a funeral home?

The sentinel of the east chimney ~ Click to zoom
I racked the zoom up to the max to get closer. No doubt about it.  A good size buzzard doing its best to look buzzardly on that fine chimney crown. Probably the highest point, other than the old water tower, in all of Strawn. The murky bird was just sitting, totally unaware of those of us that harbor quirky thoughts.

Just carrion on ~ Click to zoom
What, other than hunger, do you suppose is motivating this big guy?  Is there something significant about the vista to the north?

We are not to know..

Maybe it's prophetic that Halloween is not too far away.

North Strawn ~ Click to zoom
A final note:  The old house is anything but "macabre". It's just that I've always wanted to write the word in a sentence and this was an opportunity..

I never did get into Mary's.  By 11:45 AM every bit of parking within 1/4 mile was crammed and it was way too hot to walk very far..

All images from The Electric Books Collection

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Gordon: The Lost Town On A Bankhead Highway Map ~ Twists and Turns Between Ranger & Fort Worth

The Bankhead Highway History Group has become very active on Facebook. It is open to anyone with an interest in this historic old highway. Some interesting topics have been posted lately.  One of them revolves the development of the Bankhead Highway around the area west of Fort Worth to about Ranger. Much of this area is in the rugged Palo Pinto Mountains. I found some old maps of the 1919-1922 era to show how the routes developed..

By 1920 Rand McNally had established themselves as one of the major road map publishers and their Auto Trails series were widely considered one of the best and most accurate. They were updated often.

Click to zoom
When the State Highway Commission finally set the routes and alternates for State Highway #1 in 1919 they also adopted the Bankhead Highway designation as well. For several reasons alternate routes were often established sometimes for political reasons as well as to offer choices when another route was impassible.

Click to zoom
The Bankhead Highway from Weatherford to Mineral Wells passed through Millsap at this time. Our 1922 map is one of the few to show the very rough northern alternate route which more of less followed the rails of the Weatherford, Mineral Wells and Northwestern railroad and passed through Garner and the Rock Creek mining community. If you will check the map legend above you will see that this route was part of the Dixie Overland Highway at this time.

On past Mineral Wells the terrain becomes very rough and the Bankhead became a challenge to build and later to drive. Here is where we find some surprise destinations on this map and the verification of an obscure mountain valley pass that the Bankhead Highway used for a short time.

Click to zoom
The Orange box shows that at this time, on  this map that instead of dropping south a few miles out of Strawn the highway went straight west following the T & P railroad into the rugged Wilde canyon then west to Tiffin before entering Ranger from the north.  Very few maps show this pass as part of the Bankhead  Highway but since Rand McNally was a respected map maker and motorists depended on them, we have to assume that the route was used as least for a short time at least.

Wilde Canyon West of Strawn ~ Click to zoom
The Red box brings another map surprise: After leaving the city of Palo Pinto, the Bankhead Highway is shown as dropping south to Gordon rather than continuing on west to Metcalf Gap and then down to Strawn as most maps of the period do.  There is almost no documentation of this Gordon route but it also shows it on the earlier 1921 Fort Worth Auto Club Texas Map below:

Click to zoom

Were these two maps showing the little town of Gordon as a destination on the Bankhead Highway a regrettable mistake on their part?  If so, why do two maps published 3 years apart still show the same route?  A map maker would certainly have changed it if it was reported as wrong, wouldn't they?

For now, it's a small mystery.  Perhaps someone on the Bankhead Highway History Group can come up with an answer....