Closing of some roadside parks brings end to travel nostalgia

This roadside park on the Williamson-Burnet county line west of Liberty Hill was closed by the state in recent years as an effort to save money. (Photo by Dana Delgado)

This roadside park on the Williamson-Burnet county line west of Liberty Hill was closed by the state in recent years as an effort to save money. (Photo by Dana Delgado)

By Dana Delgado

Once beloved destination stopovers, most roadside parks in the state have become monoliths of another era, lost for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.

They were oasis-like paradises that offered magnificent views, a place for a family meal, a rest area to stretch one’s legs after a long drive, or just a natural play area to explore the native wildlife. Climbing out of a car at a roadside park was not just an exit, but a celebration.

Concrete picnic tables and benches affixed with fire pits afforded families important bonding and rest time as well as meal time. Large native trees or constructed canopies provided much appreciated shade and relief from the hot sun during a long summer drive.  The periodic stops also made the seemingly endless drive more tolerable and provide needed space and respite from siblings crowded in the backseat.   Drivers would often take a much needed snooze.

Those were the days. Roadside parks were in their heyday. There was one pullover on nearly every rural or major road and they never seemed to change.  It was something you could count on. Each nook had its own character and was unique.  Some were cleverly designed while others were very basic. Never was there plumbing for restrooms or anything like that.

The majority of the state’s roadway oases, particularly those near urban areas, have fallen victim to strained state budgets and seemingly having outlived their usefulness.

In the fall of 2009, the Texas Department of Transportation outlined plans to close numerous roadside parks because of cost-cutting measures, but was willing to work with counties or community organizations if they would assume responsibility for maintenance. In 2010, TxDOT began a series of discussions with county judges throughout Texas where roadside parks would be closed.

TxDOT contended that many sites had become public nuisances. The belief voiced at that time by TxDOT Maintenance Supervisor James Petty of the Austin District was that the sites had become havens “for trash dumping and illegal activity.”

In the final round of the public input process, TxDOT identified the sites that would remain open, the sties that would be turned over to other entities and the ones that would be partially or completely closed. It was noted that areas of historical significance would remain open. The land, as right-of-way, would remain under TxDOT’s ownership. For those sites fully phased out, crews with bulldozers moved in and removed most if not all park items and prevented entry.

TxDOT estimates that it will save $9,000-$10,000 for every site permanently closed.

Additional information requested by The Independent from TxDOT had was not provided by press time.

In a June 2011 monthly public bulletin (“My Interstate 35-Main Street News”) distributed by TxDOT, the state agency reported that since 1999 it  had spent $157 million replacing older rest areas, most from the 1960s era, with state-of-the-art safety rest areas that were not only aesthetically pleasing and reflected local history, but also provided enhanced services for road-weary motorists.

In that same publication, Andy Keith, TxDOT’s Maintenance Division facilities branch supervisor, is quoted as saying, “The goal is to provide a safe place in a pleasant environment that encourages folks to stop and rest.”

His quotation was followed by research findings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that showed that 1,500 lives were lost each year and 71,000 people were injured as a result of 100,000 accidents believed to be caused by fatigued drivers.

One closed site rests at the Burnet and Williamson County line on State Highway  29 just west of Liberty Hill. Except for two cement picnic tables and benches, one dramatically situated by a creek while the other is tucked under the broad canopy of mature oak trees, a marker dedicating the little oasis and a unique metal bridge for the pleasure of former visitors, the park has been stripped. The entrance and pavement have been removed making the former park inaccessible to vehicles.

Although abandoned, this oasis is not quiet and there is activity on the site.  Vehicles stream down the adjacent highway, and near the fence line, two feral cats munched on large bowlfuls of cat food provided by some sympathetic caretaker. Piles of empty containers under the picnic table and several filled water containers indicate that it has been a lengthy relationship.

The history of roadside parks in Texas is archived by the Texas State Historical Association on the digital Handbook of Texas. The first oasis was built in 1933 on Texas 71 in Fayette County between Smithville and LaGrange by William Pape Sr., a state highway foreman from 1924-1940.  Over 1,000 such roadside parks followed.

The majority were built in a three-year span from 1935 to 1938 by the National Youth Administration, whose leader was future President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson built the first 200 roadside parks for $230,000. Hundreds more followed.

A 1999 TxDOT publication, however, noted that only 41 roadside parks from the Depression era remained somewhat in their original conditions; and only four of those are in Central Texas.

Texas roadside parks, however, got their start in 1920s. As highways extended across the heavily wooded eastern half of the state, trees were treated as obstructions and potential accident hazards by builders and simply removed. A 1930’s memo by Texas state highway engineer Gibb Gilchrist sought to preserve the right of way of state highways with as many trees as possible setting the stage for automotive sanctuaries. A subsequent memo by Gilchrist in 1934 added that “…Mowing of the right of way should be delayed until the flower season is over.”

The National Interstate Highway System introduced in the late 1950’s completely changed the roadway landscape and seemed to doom the fate of roadside parks.  Gas service stations evolved into convenience stores providing fuel for the car, refreshments, and restrooms leading to the decline in use of many of Texas’ roadside parks. Many were simply abandoned or bulldozed.

The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 inspired by Lady Bird Johnson revived interest in roadsides and parks.  Tables and benches were updated and shelters replaced, yet the awe of the surroundings remained unchanged.  Aged trees, many of them oak, graced parks usually along a dry creek.

Roadside parks were so simple in concept but rich in experience.  They are mostly gone or fading now except in history books and in memories of those who pulled off the road for break.