Thursday, September 16, 2010

My Historical Marker on the 1921 San Gabriel River Flood

Pictured above is the historical marker I just completed, along with my graphic designer, Carlos Barron. It's an interesting story I found. In 1921, a hurricane hit the coast of Mexico and spun north into Texas. It headed up into central Texas as a tropical storm, dumping a tremendous amount of rain. And I mean tremendous. One town received around 38 inches of rain in 24 hours, which at the time was the U.S. record. The rivers flooded. About 100 people died in Williamson County, Texas. About 100 more died around the rest of the state.

Williamson County has traditionally been a pretty white place. Like most of the Texas, the power structure has remained white and conservative since Americans arrived in the area. The flood is one of the most important events in the town's history. Local historians have told the story. Sort of.

What they did was tell the story from a white perspective. They interviewed local whites about their experiences and wrote them up in books. But most of the people who died weren't white. They were Mexican migrants. Probably fleeing the Mexican Revolution, which led to the first wave of migration north from Mexico, these people worked the cotton farms east of Georgetown on the San Gabriel River. The employers rarely provided workers housing. So they set up tents or shacks along the river, where they could bathe and have a fresh water supply.

Unfortunately, camping along the river also made them susceptible to flooding. The river rose in the middle of the night and washed them away.

In researching this issue, I wanted to tell the Mexicans' story. I found a Spanish language newspaper out of San Antonio that interviewed a woman who survived the flood. She was driving with her son from San Antonio to Taylor, about 20 miles east of Georgetown. The flood washes both her and her son out of the car. She managed to cling to a tree. Her son drowned.

In creating a historical marker around this issue, it was very important to me to make it bilingual. Williamson County, like much of Texas, has seen a huge increase in Latino migrants over the past few decades. They use the park where the sign was placed. Yet their history is not told at all on the historical markers. I thought I would receive some push back from my insistence on a bilingual sign. I know that the old people behind the local historical society have shown zero interest in putting up bilingual signs in the museum for instance. And I wondered if Texas had some kind of English-only law. But no, everyone was cool with it.

So there it is.

But it almost didn't make it. Literally a week after it was put in, which was two weeks ago, the tropical storm that headed into Texas did almost the exact same thing as the 1921 storm. It literally dumped on the I-35 corridor. About 14 inches of rain fell in Georgetown. The San Gabriel River flooded. I was sure my sign would be washed away. I thought this would be the ultimate of ironies. But while the park lost about 60% of its light poles, someone the sign survived.