campers moved carefully up the draw in the moonlight, their flashlight beams criss-crossing
the white limestone base of the narrow wash as they checked for any rattlesnakes
that might be out and about looking for something to eat. |
bitten by a rattlesnake is a serious medical matter, something much deadlier lay
ahead in the darkness. Finally they stood looking down into a geologic feature
Bend National Park called Ernst Tinaja, a deep natural water hole dug
out of the bedrock over the millenia by erosion—a place of beauty tainted by a
history of death.
“Tinaja” is a Spanish word meaning big, earthern jar.
“Ernst” honors Max A. Ernst, a German who came to the United States in
1873 and in 1884 to Pecos County in West
Texas. Six years later he gained American citizenship. Settling in Alpine
in 1890, he lived there until 1898 when he leased a section of land around the
landmark tinaja in southeastern Brewster County.
On land overlooking a
branch of Tornillo Creek, along the ore road from Boquillas
to Marathon, Ernst opened a
store to cater to all the miners and prospectors in the area. He built a one-room
school near his store, and in 1903 succeeded in getting the post office moved
from Boquillas to his
store. By then the community he had founded was known as La Nornia, the
well. In addition to being postmaster, he served as justice of the peace, county
commissioner, school board trustee and notary public.
Crossing the Rio Grande at Boquillas
roughly a mile and a half east of Rio Grande Village (formerly known as Boquillas),
Ernst Tinaja is a timeless death trap. When the tinaja is brim-full, it
is easy enough for an animal to satisfy its thirst along its edges. But when the
level is low, any creature jumping into the cool water for a drink or a refreshing
swim likely will never leave. That’s because the smooth limestone offers no purchase,
especially when it’s wet. A frantic animal—or human—would not even be able to
cling to the side, much less scale the tinaja’s slippery walls. Once exhaustion
sets in, the hapless prisoner of the tinaja sinks and drowns. |
years, soldiers, ranchers, naturalists and later recreational hikers have occasionally
found the carcass of a javelina, coyote, or some other animal putrifying in the
water, having floated to the surface as the decomposition process begins. Roland
Wauer, who spent years as the park’s chief naturalist, once found a dead mountain
lion in the tinaja.
tinaja is known to have killed at least one man and perhaps others in the time
before recorded history.
For a time during the Mexican Revolution the U.S.
Army stationed a detachment of cavalry at La Noria. On August 19, 1913, Private
Morton L. Diedel, a trooper in Company A of the 14th Cavalry, asked a fellow soldier
to join him in taking a bath at the tinaja. The soldier declined but Diedel talked
his friend Creed H. Mars into joining him. On their way there from camp, Diedel
told Mars that he could not swim. And Mars admitted he wasn’t a very good swimmer
himself. They took a dip in one of the smaller, shallower tinajas along the draw,
got dressed and where headed back to their camp when Diedel slipped and fell into
the big tinaja. The soldier quickly disappeared under water. Realizing he’d probably
get in trouble too if he jumped in, Mars ran back to the camp for help. At first,
the soldiers tried to bale out the tank, but finally someone who could swim jumped
in and retrieved the body. Acting as coroner, Justice of the Peace J.R. Laudrous
conducted an inquest. After talking with several other soldiers, he concluded
Mars was telling the truth and had no complicity in the death, which he ruled
an accidental drowning.
tinaja also seemed to attrack violent death.
On September 27, 1908 Justice
of the Peace Ernst was on his way back from Boquillas
to his place at La Norina when someone shot him as he stopped to open a wire fence
gate at a gap on the road leading from the river to Marathon.
A .44 caliber bullet hit him in the back and blew out below his stomach. Despite
his wound, Ernst managed to get back up on his horse and made it about two miles
before his intestines began protruding from the exit wound. He dismounted and
staggered over to a Spanish dagger plant, sitting down in the shade beneath it
hoping that someone would soon come by. Knowing he would likely die, Ernst scribbled
seventeen words on the back of an envelop: “Am shot, I expect by one of the Solis
at gate. First shot hit two more missed.”
A neighbor found the wounded
JP and took him to his house, where he died the next day. In going through his
pockets, Rosa Ernst found her husband’s note. That document, along with the well-known
fact that Martin Solis’s store at Boquillas
had been adversely affected by the success of Ernst’s store at La Noria, focused
suspicion on Solis and his family. The following month a Brewster County grand
jury heard the evidence in the case but did not hand down any indictments in connection
with the murder. The investigation went on for three years, but no one ever faced
trial in the case.
Twenty-six-year-old Juan de Leon may have been on his
way to or from the tinaja when someone shot and killed him along the trail leading
up to the water hole on July 19, 1932. Not found until several days later, he
was buried where he died, his murder never solved. A concrete cross marks his
rock-covered grave. The simple monument bears an equally simple epitaph, “E.P.D.,”
(for En Paz Descanse, Rest in Peace.)
Cox - "Texas Tales"
June 16, 2011
Small Town Sagas | West
Books by Mike Cox - Order Now|