Saving Texas’s only natural lake


Aptly named, Salvinia molesta threatens to choke Caddo Lake to death. As Caddo Lake is the only natural lake in Texas, and a site of outstanding beauty and great natural treasure, the friends of Caddo Lake are fighting back.

Spraying Salvinia molesta on Caddo Lake - NY Times photo by Michael Stravato

The New York Times features a lengthy story on the lake and the fight to save it in this week’s Science section (July 31, 2007 – Science is part of the Times every Tuesday).

Every Texas social studies teacher should know Caddo Lake and its stories as well as anything else. It’s the stuff memorable classes are made of.

1. It’s the only “natural” lake in Texas, though it is formed by a dam. The “only honest lake in Texas,” in the local lingo. The original lake was formed by a monumental log jam on the Red River, probably trees blown down by a massive hurricane several hundred years ago.

2. Caddo Lake is named after the Caddo Tribe, the tribe whose word for friend, “tejas,” gave the state its name. (See my earlier post on Caddoland.)

3. Caddo Lake straddles what was once “no man’s land,” or the Neutral Territory, a buffer zone between English/French, then American, and Spanish, then Mexican settlements. It was a haven for criminals, scalawags, filibusterers and revolutionaries. The area plays a large role in the decades of fighting to steal Texas from the Spain, and later from Mexico. Texas history is much better understood when one knows the lake.

4. Caddo Lake once was the means to make Jefferson, Texas, a port city. Until Col. Shreveport dynamited the logjam that made the lake in 1873, Jefferson was a bustling center of commerce. Today Jefferson boasts some wonderfully preserved historic remnants of that era, many converted to bed and breakfast inns, a great weekend getaway. Fishing is good, photography is great.

5. Ladybird Johnson was born nearby, and her family still lives in the area.

6. The Hughes Tool Company had its beginnings on Caddo Lake, where Howard Hughes, Sr., tested his drill bit, “the rock eater,” designed to cut through mud and rock to where the oil was; this is the home of the fortune that Howard Hughes, Jr., inherited, to build to one of the greatest fortunes in the world. That the younger Hughes was a rake, a mechanical genius, an air pioneer, daring movie producer, and weird as hell only makes the story better. Hughes named his movie production company after the lake, Caddo Productions.

6. Contrary to most of Texas’s political leanings, local people around Caddo Lake have rallied to efforts to protect the lake and conserve its rare beauty. The area is designated for protection as a Ramsar Treaty critical wetlands site — a designation that most conservative Texans ridicule and fear (at one point the Texas Republican Party platform opposed conservation easements to protect the lake bizarre). Latter-day Caddoans welcome the designation, and when we toured the area they sang the praises of Don Henley, the rock and roll musician who is aiding their efforts to save the lake. It’s an odd combination for any political work — uniquely Texas. (Here’s your chance to play the Eagles for your classes, teachers!)

7. When it comes to Texas botany, zoology, and biology in general, Caddo Lake provides the local angle for water quality, water shortages (one proposal is to steal water from the lake for Texas cities far away), wildlife management, and of course, the invasion of exotic species.

8. Everything about this area screams Texas quirkiness. Uncertain, Texas? An often-told story (accurate?) is that when the town applied for a post office, there was a dispute about what to call the town. The fellow who filled out the application wrote “uncertain” in the blank for the town’s name — and that’s how the U.S. Postal Service approved it. Another story holds that the name “Uncertain Landing” caught on because the landing was treacherous mooring for boats. You got a better story about your town’s name? I doubt it.

Save the article from the Times, teachers! You’ll be glad you have it later this year.

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5 Responses to Saving Texas’s only natural lake

  1. [...] Nota bene:  Surely you’ll want to read in Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub about the efforts to save Caddo Lake, under a headline we n…. [...]

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  2. [...] Not many people know Texas has but a single, natural, lake. Just wanted to share an excellent read. [...]

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks for the correction.

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  4. jack canson says:

    Your sketch about Caddo Lake is good to find. Ralph Blumenthal’s NY Times article that you cite is indeed excellent. There have been some other good ones about the struggle at Caddo to control invasive aquatic plants, most notably giant salvinia.

    However, I would like to correct one error in this piece re “Col. Shreveport dynamiting the log jam that made the lake.”

    Actually, the Great Raft — the gargantuam long jam on the Red River which did indeed cause Caddo Lake to form — was originally attacked by Captain Henry Shreve, beginning in 1833. Shreve was Superintendant of Western Rivers for the US and he was a remarkable steamboat man whose stature is surpassed by no one, not even Fulton. Working with snagboats of his own design and laborers with axes and saws, Shreve opened the Red River between New Orleans and Coates Bluff, near the present day city of Shreveport, which was named for Shreve. Steamboaters eventually found their way onto a chain of raft lakes that included Caddo, eventually making it as far as present day Jefferson, Texas. As Shreve warned, without maintenance the raft would eventually reform. In 1872, Lt. Eugene Woodruff of the Army Corps of Enginners was put in charge of again removing the raft. Nitroglycerin had been invented by this point, and Woodruff was able to remove far more debris much faster,. This did indeed cause water levels on Caddo to gradually drop and commercial navigation was over by the end of the century. Lt. Woodruff had anticipated this problem and had interesting ideas and plans to counter that. Sadly, he contracted Yellow Fever while behaving herocially during an epidemic and died at Shreveport September 30, 1873.

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