Sunday, October 19, 2014

Halloween in the Cross Timbers: The Legend of Goatman's Bridge

Graffiti on Old Alton Bridge

To me, halloween is an excuse to indulge in creepy ghost stories and, frankly, morbid curiosity.  For this reason I took my dog on a special excursion up to the eastern Cross Timbers in Denton County. We were going to see the Goatman's Bridge. 

Colby ain't afraid of no goats
Old Alton Bridge is the setting for one of the more widely circulated local ghost stories. Built in 1884, this single lane truss bridge was still in automotive use up to 2001, when it was replaced by a steel and concrete construction that straightened the sharp curve in the road crossing Hickory Creek [1]. Evidently, up until the bridge was replaced, you'd essentially honk and pray for attentive oncoming traffic while roaring across in your car. Now it has been retired from heavy traffic and instead serves as the link between the Pilot Knoll and Elm Fork horse and foot paths. 

There are conflicting reports of the origin of this bridge's specter. Most versions of the story say that a successful goatherd named Oscar Washburn was lynched from the bridge by the Klan in 1938. The klansmen found the noose empty after throwing Oscar over the edge. Enraged by his presumed escape, they crossed the bridge and slaughtered the man's wife and children. Legend has it that if you cross the bridge after dark you'll see the glowing red eyes of a demonic satyr menacing you from the other side. The Goatman is hunting the klansmen who murdered his family, and those descended from the klansmen are cursed to be hunted unto death.

Fortunately, there seem to be no historic records of an Oscar Washburn or of a lynching from the bridge. While there was racially motivated violence in the surrounding area at the time, Oscar Washburn and the Goatman seem to be nothing but a cipher standing in for the guilt felt for all those unjustly persecuted during the racial tensions of the 30s [2].

Another entity also said to reside in the haunted forest resembles the Mexican legend of "La Llorona", the weeping woman who haunts rivers, steals lost children (especially those that disobey their parents!), and marks for death all who hear her. As is so often the case, ruffians attracted by the dark stories cause more trouble than any ill-tempered apparition. The area near the bridge is littered with empty shotgun shells, blown out signs, and broken glass. The local Master Naturalist group has a standing clean-up date on November 1st, putting the park back in order after the unauthorized Halloween night festivities. 

Small red arrow pointing to sneaky clump of sericea
established along the trial. Grr. 
I did encounter one menacing presence along the trail: Lespedeza cuneata, aka sericea lespedeza, scourge of rangelands and forests throughout much of North America. This invasive, perennial legume is not supposed to occur in Denton County (yet), (see comments section) but there it was, making in-roads along the horse trail. This (ob)noxious weed is a prolific seeder and can rapidly crowd out every other plant in a stand. Single ramets (stems) can produce 1,500 seeds per year, and cultivated stands can yield up to 300 million seeds per acre [3]. One is truly sickened when considering the person-hours and herbicides dedicated to the control of this aggressive species. 

Today the park winds through dry meadows surrounded by scrubby post-oak, cedar elm, hickory, and hackberry forests.  It's early autumn in the eastern Cross Timbers, and heath aster, goldenrod, sneezeweed, eryngo, partridge pea, broomweed, and agalinis still bloom. Mothers were taking halloween-themed pictures of their small children on the bridge. It's a little macabre when  one considers that the bridge is famous for an apocryphal lynching. 

I have low expectations for this buckeye's longevity
Despite this, Colby and I had an altogether pleasant walk along this historic path. While we didn't see any satyrs or weeping women, we did see skippers, sulfurs, buckeyes, a red admiral, and tardy monarchs that were flitting around the meadows and low canopy.  Mercifully (?), Colby only cared to snap her jaws at the skippers and sulfurs that were fully capable of evading her, showing no interest in a largely incapacitated buckeye we found resting on the trail. I suppose it wouldn't have been "sporting" to pursue already downed prey. We both have an interest in bugs, after a fashion.

I only walked the first few miles of Elm Fork trail. There are many more miles and trails to explore [4]. Perhaps someday I shall come back to view more of these well-used paths-- during the daytime, of course.

Hickory Creek and Old Alton Bridge

Virginia creeper begins to senesce 


1 comment:

  1. Comment from a reader: "Lespedeza cuneata was logged from LLELA a couple of years back, so has been around in Denton County for a bit. "

    She found sericea as far back as 2012. I suppose the USDA plants map has not been updated yet.