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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Ernst Tinaja

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The 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.

While being 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 in Big 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.
Boat in Rio Grande River

Crossing the Rio Grande at Boquillas

TE Photo
Located 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.

Over the 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.

The 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.

The 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.)
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June 16, 2011 column

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