Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Canadian, Texas


Westbound grain in the valley of Red Deer Creek.  The grain elevator of Canadian, Texas, rises in the background.

A previous article (https://www.waltersrail.com/2016/01/railroad-photography-bnsf-transcon-in.html) discusses the BNSF Transcon as it runs through the small, northern Texas Panhandle settlement of Miami.  To the northeast sits the larger town of Canadian, though no town in the northern Texas Panhandle is "large."  With a population of about 2,300, Canadian is nonetheless the most significant attraction on the Transcon between Woodward, Oklahoma, and Amarillo, Texas.


Canadian River Basin.

The town is surrounded by bluffs of the Canadian River.  Some residential streets climb those hills to reveal an old oil mansion, now a museum, totally out of proportion to this harsh country, as though one of the Gilded Age homes from Newport, Rhode Island, had been airlifted to the middle of nowhere and were now seated on a throne above a river that most of the year is more sand than water.

Red Deer Creek flows northeast into the Canadian, and the Transcon follows it to the southwest on a moderate grade (0.6 percent), climbing from the valley to the Llano Escatado, the tableland of southeastern New Mexico and northeastern Texas.

The valley of Red Deer Creek is honey-combed with oil wells and accessible only on the rugged service roads that cross the country like vericose veins.  The roads are all privately owned but no one seems to mind your driving on them as long as you do not disturb the livestock. 

One of the parade of BNSF westbound stacks.

Another.  This image shows a few of the hundreds of wells.


These eastbound stacks have crossed the Canadian River and are headed to Oklahoma.

Weather in the Texas Panhandle is extreme -- bitter cold, blazing heat, snow, sleet, ice, wind, dust, fire.  Because of the low humidity, the skies are severe, frequently lacking clouds, and when the dust is down, you can see as far as the curvature of the earth allows.

Average annual precipitation is around 15-20 inches.  Rain, when it falls, can come in torrents, an inch or more per hour.  Thunderstorms spawn tornadoes.  The old-timers know that when the sky is deep purple and the wind suddenly dies, you head for shelter.

This was the heart of the Dust Bowl, and though modern land practice has severely curtailed a darkening prairie, spring gales can still produce reminders of that grim past.  A rancher near Canadian once told me that the grass in his pasture grew mostly on soil blown from Amarillo, 100 miles away.

Near sundown, an eastbound manifest rolls downhill toward the Canadian River.



The river after which Canadian, Texas, is named is the longest tributary of the mighty Arkansas, with headwaters on the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, around 9,600 ft in southwestern Las Animas County, Colorado, about a mile and a half north of the New Mexico border -- near Raton Pass.  Almost 1000 miles later, the waters flow into the Arkansas River in far eastern Oklahoma -- in an immense flood plane that becomes a lake during heavy rains.

Confluence of the Canadian and Arkansas Rivers.

The three main tributaries of the Canadian are the Little, Deep Fork and North Canadian, all contained entirely within Oklahoma.  They come together near the small town of Eufaula.  Slightly downstream is Eufaula Dam, which impounds the contents of the lake of the same name.

Lake Eufaula Dam.

The Canadian passes through the dry plains of the Texas Panhandle and far western Oklahoma, the prairies of central Oklahoma, and the forests and mountains of eastern Oklahoma. In the west, water often flows beneath the sand.  In the east, the river runs  above ground year-round.  The bed in the west contains much quicksand, making travel near the river precarious.

The Canadian watershed was occupied by several Native Americans, including the Spiro peoples in the east, followed by the Wichita near the river's confluence with the Arkansas, plus the Plains Apache, Comanche and Kiowa in the west.

Upon European arrival, the river was explored by both the Spanish and French.  New Mexico's governor Juan de Oñate followed the river onto Oklahoma's western plains in 1601.  In 1719 French explorer Bénard de la Harpe traveled from the Kiamichi Mountains in southeastern Oklahoma to the mouth of the Canadian. In 1740 Pierre and Paul Mallet explored the river's entire length, beginning French trade with the Osage and Wichita.

Three major rail bridges cross the Canadian:  the first at Logan, New Mexico, where the Union Pacific (formerly Rock Island) heads southwest to El Paso; the second at Slaughterville, Oklahoma, where the BNSF (formerly Santa Fe) works toward to the Arbuckle Mountains and Texas.

Logan, New Mexico.

Slaughterville, Oklahoma.

The third major rail bridge sits at Canadian, Texas, on the Transcon.  Your author has never taken a presentable photograph.  Cottonwoods surround and crowd the structure on both sides, and there are no nearby bluffs to provide elevation.

There are actually two bridges, side-by-side, the first constructed as part of the Belen Cut-off in the early 20th century, the second as part of the double-track project from the late 20th to the early 21st century.  The following image can be found at https://www.hanson-inc.com/portfolio/BNSF-Canadian-River-bridge-design/96/portfolio-details, the website for Hanson Engineering, the company which constructed the second bridge.

The first (original) bridge is behind and below this new structure.  The photograph was taken before cottonwoods surrounded both.

Inquiring minds may wonder how a river in the Texas Panhandle came to be called "Canadian."  There is no simple answer.  In fact, different sources claim different names.   

Fremont's map of 1845 calls the river "Goo-al-pah" from the Comanche and Kiowa.  I believe that the English translation is "red," a name appropriate for every river in western Oklahoma.

A 1929 article in the Chronicles of Oklahoma by Muriel Wright claims that the river was named about 1820 by Canadians camping along the river's confluence with the Arkansas.

The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture states that Spanish explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries called it Rio Buenaventura (good fortune) and Magdalena (a female name).

Since the river today is called "Canadian," your author assumes that the Canadians must be responsible.

Eastbound stacks have rolled off the Llano Estacado and are beginning the downhill run through the valley of Red Deer Creek to the Canadian River.

Westbound stacks approach the tableland of the Llano Estacado.

Westbound at sudown.

After the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Major Stephen H. Long concluded his 1821 expedition along the Canadian by declaring this country the "Great American Desert."  Obviously, he had never seen the Mojave or the Sonora.

Traders who knew otherwise established stations along the river. Edwards' Post was erected at the mouth of Little River.  In 1834 Colonel Henry Dodge established Camp Holmes. About the same time, Chouteau's Trading Post was built in the Creek Nation near present Lexington, Oklahoma.  In 1843 Captain Nathan Boone led dragoons up the Canadian to the 100th Meridian, at that time the United States' western border.

Ten years later came a large party headed by Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple, with instructions from Congress to survey a railroad route to the Pacific Ocean along the 35th parallel, beginning at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and proceeding to the Pacific.  This blog discusses their trials and tribulations in five separate articles beginning with:  https://www.waltersrail.com/2021/05/the-land-that-swallows-trains-part-one.html.

As history unfolded, no railroad was constructed along the 35th parallel as far west as New Mexico.  Thereafter, significant portions were used by the Santa Fe's transcontinental line to California, operated today by BNSF.

The images in this article were taken in late September after heavy rains. 

Westbound manifest.  Merchandise freights are rare on the Transcon.  The second track in the background was constructed as part of the double-tracking project in the late 20th century.

 Norfolk Southern power near the confluence of Red Deer Creek and the Canadian River.

The Transcon crosses the Canadian River on a north-south alignment.  To the south is Red Deer Creek.  To the north are the stabilized sand dunes prevalent on almost all major rivers flowing southeast out of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  In places the dunes remain unstablized, pure sand.  The Transcon passes one such area at the bottom of Curtis Hill in northwestern Oklahoma, where the tracks cross the Cimarron River.

The open sand dunes of Little Sahara State Park.

The sand was produced at the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, when the massive glaciers in the Colorado Rockies melted almost overnight, releasing torrents of water flowing downstream to the Gulf of Mexico, carrying tiny bits of rock scraped by moving glaciers, plus silt picked up along the way southeast, all of which was deposited along the edges of river beds as the waters receded.

In places, the sand has remained pristine, without vegetation, into the 21st century.  Mostly though, native vegetation has taken root, leaving only lumps as evidence of the distant, cataclysmic flooding. 

The Transcon passes through such lumps north of Canadian.

Eastbound stacks climbing through the stablized sand dunes north of Canadian, Texas.


Westbound Ferrormex pushers.


A "meet" in the stabilized sand dunes.

Those who have never seen the Texas Panhandle think of it as flat, treeless and boring.  And part is flat -- the Llano Estacado -- an immense plateau stretching several hundred miles from southwest to northeast, but it is never boring.  Crossing the Llano is like crossing the ocean, with the same likelihood of storms and disorientation, and few call the ocean boring.  

The Llano was described by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in a letter to the king of Spain in October 20, 1541: 

I reached some plains so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues . . . with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea . . . . there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.

The Canadian River roughly separates the Llano from the northern High Plains, which are like a normal landscape pulled and stretched to gigantic proportions.  A hill is climbed in miles.  A valley is the same.  Trees cluster in lowlands, which collect moisture. 

And everywhere visible is the horizon.  This is the original country of the big sky.  Everything is huge:  land, people, railroads, dreams, ideas, mistakes -- everything.

Westbound attacking the grade to Amarillo.

In the valley of the Canadian River.

Biggest of all is the prairie fire, which can rise from the grassland like hands of the devil.  In the 21st century, such fires are rare because of land conservation and fire prevention.  Even so, with the right circumstances -- heat, wind and sparks -- smoke can darken the sky for hundreds of miles.

A fire can be started by a lightning strike, a campfire, a cigarette, sparks from a train, a charcoal grill -- almost anything.

When the country was home to the Comanche, migratory warriors, a range fire was as common as sunrise.  The natives used fire to keep the High Plains free of brush.  Unlike bushes, which are killed, grass grows back rapidly in burnt pasture.  The Comanche also used fire as an offensive weapon against other tribes and white invaders.

If you have not seen a prairie fire, you should, especially at night.  The spectacle will quickly reveal your insignificance in the cosmos.

Following is a description of one such fire from 1856:  

The first disastrous fire . . . came from the northwest and those who witnessed the spectacle say that it had the appearance of a wall of flame.

A stiff breeze was blowing, which caught up burning wisps of grass and carried them in advance, constantly starting new fires. 

In this way, the Coon River and other streams were crossed. The tall slough grass was dry enough to burn like tinder and the people soon came to realize that all efforts to fight the fire would prove futile. Therefore, they fled from their homes to save their lives, leaving practically everything to the flames.

Wild animals in great numbers also fled before the fire, but the domestic animals were not endowed with sufficient instinct to save themselves, and many perished. A few families were rendered homeless and all the settlers suffered by the destruction of their crops.  https://www.thegraphic-advocate.com/content/preserving-past-prairie-fires-1856-and-beyond

Near the Canadian River, the Transcon is almost inaccessible.  This location requires driving several miles on oil field roads that appear to run in circles.  It took your author about an hour to find this spot and another to find his way out.

This location required a long hike.

Cottonwoods line the banks of Red Deer Creek.

Prairie fires are not simply historical curiosities.  On February 27th, 2024, the Texas Panhandle began burning along the Transcon near Canadian.  The town was evacuated before sundown.  The cause of the fire was, and remains, unknown, but the conflagration was abetted by fierce winds (gusts of 50 mph and more), low humidity (around 15 percent) and high temperatures (80 degrees fahrenheit or greater) -- an unusual day in February even by the standards of that part of the world.  

BNSF held the Q-LACNWH6-23 in downtown Canadian, while Z-WSPPHX2-26  was holding just west of Higgins, TX.  Train Z-WSPLAC2-26 stopped at Shattuck, Oklahoma.  Seven eastbound trains stopped on the mailine west of Pampa, Texas.  Before sundown, BNSF called the fire train out of Amarillo to fight fires along the tracks.  On the morning of the 28th, a second fire train ran, with a third behind it that afternoon. 

Despite the railroad's efforts, the Main Two bridge (the original structure) over the Canadian River caught fire and required repair.  Another small bridge at MP 459.8 on Main Two also burned.  

On February 28th, BNSF detoured two westbound Z trains out of Newton, Kansas, to Hutchinson, Kansas, where they transferred to UP's Golden State Route to Vaughn, New Mexico.  At Vaughn, the trains made a back up move off the UP to the BNSF to go on west.  (The connection at Vaughn is set up only for BNSF trains to run south to El Paso.)

BNSF detoured several westbound trains off the Transcon south at Augusta, Kansas, on the Red Rock Sub to Fort Worth, where they turned west via Wichita Falls to Amarillo and back on the mainline.  Eastbounds took the reverse route.  

The fire burned over 1,000,000 acres (about the size of Delaware), the largest in Texas history.  Dark red smoke blew east across most of Oklahoma, making your author in Oklahoma City think that a dust storm was approaching.

This westbound is climbing the 0.6 percent grade through the valley of Red Deer Creek.



Mid-trains on one of BNSF's 10,000 feet monsters.

Oil and gas are the lifeblood here.

In the Texas Panhandle, the Canadian River flows through some of the more interesting geology in North American.  The oldest rocks exposed here and there along the Transcon are the Permian Red Beds, occupying the High Plains of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, and extending into the Intermountain West.  The red beds acquired their color from rusted metallic minerals in relatively soft rocks that erode in flakes, with the oldest layers on the bottom, younger layers above. 

The area is also home to limestone or dolomite, created when a sea stretched from the Arctic Ocean near Alaska, across what are now Canada and the United States, entering the Pacific Ocean in Mexico.  Because it formed from organic material such as plankton, shelled animals, algae, and corals, Dolomite is extremely hard and resists erosion.

As the climate fluctuated over millions of years, the level of the inland sea rose and fell.  When the water dropped, saltwater was trapped in low lying basins, then evaporated, leaving behind salt and organic material from dead plants and animals, which over more millions of years formed beds of gypsum within the Permian red beds.  Today, when water flows over gypsum, salt dissolves, which is why the Canadian River tastes salty.  (Yes, your author has sampled the water.)

Eastbound in the valley of Red Deer Creek.  The bluffs in the background are the edge of the Llano Estacado, and the Caprock is formed from caliche,  a hardened natural cement of calcium carbonate that binds other materials—such as gravel, sand, clay, and silt. 

Autos headed west.

Caliche occurs across the globe in arid or semiarid regions -- central and western Australia, the High Plains of the western United States, the Sonoran, Chihuahuan and Mojave Deserts, eastern Saudi Arabia and Chile.  The term is Spanish, originally from the Latin "calx," meaning lime.

Caliche generally forms where annual precipitation is less than 26 inches per year and the annual mean temperature exceeds 41 degrees Fahrenheit.   Plant roots excrete carbon dioxide, releasing calcium carbonate trapped in the soil and rocks to dissolve as calcium bicarbonate. Where rainfall is adequate but not excessive, the bicarbonate is carried further down where there are no plant roots.  (Too much rain leaches the calcium completely out of the soil.  Too little does not release it.)  The  bicarbonate then reverts to insoluble carbonate and mixes with clay, sand and silt, first forming grains, then clumps, then a layer, and finally a thick, solid bed, as hard as concrete.  

Because caliche does not easily erode, the soil above and surrounding it washes away over thousands and millions of years, leaving the natural cement as the top of the broad and flat mesas seen throughout the High Plains, looking down upon the eroded countryside, often river valleys.  

The photographer is standing along the edge of the Llano Estacado, looking down into the valley of Red Deer Creek. A portion of the hard caliche (the Caprock) is visible in the foreground.

The contrast between the Llano and the valley of the Transcon is striking.  Your author saw it for the first time when driving northeast from New Mexico through Amarillo on U.S. 60.  The highway is board flat, and the land stretches in all directions to a flat horizon.  This is perfect geography for high speed rail -- no hills, no curves, just straight flat running for hundreds of miles.  Of course, almost no one lives here, so the magnificent high speed trains would be empty.

Northeast of Amarillo, the highway drops suddenly off the Caprock.  The valley appears out of nowhere, without warning, like Canyon Diablo in northeast Arizona.  The tableland is behind, as though you have left the ocean and are standing now on dry land. 

The highway in the valley follows the Transcon to Miami, then climbs up the bluffs, while the tracks disappear behind cottonwoods.  In the short drive to Miami, however, you will almost certainly have seen trains on the busy Transcon.

Then you reach Canadian, Texas, and cross the river, and you will feel that you are approaching civilization.  But you will be mistaken.  You are on the High Plains, not flat just stretched out like bread dough, and you will keep driving and driving and driving across Texas, western Oklahoma and Kansas -- an apparently limitless and virtually uninhabited land.  Though the Llano Estacado has disappeared in the rear view mirror, the horizon in front continues to outrun you, as though infinite, and you will recognize for the first time the fantastic size of a country not yet old enough to recognize itself.  

To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com.

To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.

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