Burial ground site in the path of Grand Parkway Segment E. All photographs by Brett Sillers.
I visited the most sublime site in Houston. In the vast expanse of the Katy Prairie, the pure column and beam form of an elevated highway stretches into the distance, not yet topped by roadway or stained with leaking oil. Deer, coyotes, and raccoons have left tracks next to those of horses, heavy machinery, and booted workers. Then, the highway construction abruptly ends, and in the center of the gap is an excavation of human remains that could be 14,000 years old, potentially making it the oldest multiple burial ground in the Western Hemisphere.
The story of how the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) knew of the site in 1996 and failed to preserve it exposes more than a loss of heritage for this city, region, and continent. The treatment of the burial ground highlights a pattern of disregard at TxDOT and other governing bodies for the objections that citizens and experts raise about flooding, water quality, recreation, noise, traffic, and the loss of farms, hunting grounds, and wildlife habitat. To that list, we can now add contempt for history and scientific knowledge.
On the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, I accompanied six others in an eight-mile hike through the Katy Prairie in search of the burial site with only a bend in Cypress Creek on the map as a reference point. The night before, we assessed possible routes. At one site, in a new neighborhood of single family homes, the moment we stepped into the prairie, a band of coyotes announced their presence by yipping and howling, but we could not make them out in the moon-lit night.
The next day, we parked off a Highway 290 feeder road and walked for about two miles through an enormous detention basin. The grass was freshly mowed and the sound of the highway not far off, but I was immediately awed by the epic western expanse of earth and sky. For a brief stretch, we walked along a path punctuated by shell casings, along with deer feeders and blinds in the trees. There, the stewardship of hunters was apparent. The flora and fauna seemed more intact to me. The crisp morning air was filled with a chorus of grasshoppers never heard in town. I caught one and held it delicately between my thumb and forefinger. The thrum of its brown and black-striped body was startling and I let it go. The final leg of the trip was along a dirt road. Cows and calves rested under some scrubby trees. What seemed to be big ant piles were everywhere. I thrust my hand in one to the horror of my fellow hikers. The earth was buttery, soft, and ant free; they were pocket gopher burrows.
Finally, the new Grand Parkway loomed on the horizon. We crossed a field of dry grass that poked through our pants and socks. Physically exhausted, I had forgotten to emotionally gird myself, and I was surprised by how I felt. The concrete was fresh and gleaming white under what was now a noon-time sun. The only marks on the girders were the dates they were dropped into place, written by hand, just one or two weeks past. The prairie and the highway were both astonishingly beautiful in their own right, and their juxtaposition was suck-the-breath-out-of-you…something. “Terrible” isn’t quite the word because at first I felt giddy and inspired. The huge cranes and earthmovers stood silent, casting their shadows in the stark light. The keys were left in the ignition. I let wild thoughts about the massive structure play in my mind. Maybe it isn’t a highway. Maybe it is a giant Richard Serra sculpture!
Then the highway construction ended and picked up again about 100 yards later. Between the two stretches of Grand Parkway Segment E, at the center of the gap, was the excavation of human remains. Though designated an “area of interest” and eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places since 1996 because spear points had been found there, it appeared as if TxDOT had aimed the 15-mile-long highway segment directly at the burial ground. The highway was suspended, figuratively and physically, like an unintentional monument honoring the burial grounds, like Texas was trying to tell anyone in an airplane or spaceship to LOOK HERE.
I was again startled by how I felt. Anger and shame surged through me. A man was in a car parked near the site, presumably to protect the remains from looters. We walked past the car. The man seemed to be asleep. Our group dispersed somewhat and some murmured private prayers. One woman, who is of native ancestry and background, burned sage at the edge of the excavation. I scrambled down the banks of the creek, a few feet away, and splashed my face with water. I crawled through a concrete passage under the new roadway, found more paw prints, and scrambled back up.
The site itself was both unremarkable and shocking. A blue port-o-potty squatted at one corner. A single tree remained, towering, somehow intact, in the center. Several stumps kneeled around it. I tried to picture what the site had looked like before the construction. I imagined the cool shade from the riparian edge of Cypress Creek extending to this spot. I imagined a breeze and a rustling of leaves. What I saw were several pieces of plywood, propped up on five-gallon paint buckets, covering what I presume to be the human remains and the tools, buffalo teeth, and other objects found with them. The plywood was weighted down with rocks. I have no experience in archaeology. To my amateur eyes, the excavation looked makeshift and tenuous, not systematic or professional.
At that moment, a lawsuit by the Harris County Historical Commission had halted construction and negotiations were underway with six federally recognized Native American tribes. Since then, the Houston Chronicle has reported that construction has resumed, though the reporter did not seem to have visited the site and witnessed its condition.
Following the Money
The history leading up to this moment is rather convoluted but may also seem familiar to Houstonians. Real estate developers in Texas have long furthered their projects by pushing or leading the government in the expansion of infrastructure. For example, in the 1950s, Frank Sharp donated the right of way for the Southwest Freeway through Sharpstown. The state, controlled at the time by Democrats, followed his lead. Real estate speculation is also at the core of the Grand Parkway, given that very few people lived along its path during its planning.
According to the Grand Parkway Association, government documents have shown the Grand Parkway since the early 1960s. At that time, the western boundary of the Houston suburbs was only beginning to cross what is now the 610 Loop. The Grand Parkway, or SH99, is over 20 miles from downtown and, if completed, will traverse seven counties making it the longest circumferential road in the world at 180+ miles.
In 2009, an attempt was made to use federal stimulus funds to build Segment E of the Grand Parkway, which would connect I-10 to 290 through the Katy Prairie. In October of that year, Art Storey, head of the Harris County Public Infrastructure Department, blocked the time-sensitive plans because he doubted Segment E would receive a wetlands permit in time (or ever). Activists celebrated. Federal and state budget deficits seemed to guarantee that Segment E would be on hold indefinitely. Furthermore, furor over plans for the Trans Texas Corridor, a massive new network of toll roads that would be operated by the Spanish company CINTRA, led to cancellation of that project and jeopardized that model of funding such infrastructure. Yet, the public-private partnership approach for parts of the Grand Parkway was approved by the state legislature. Segment E, however, is funded by tax money. (See this pdf for TxDOT’s documentation of funding and timelines.) In 2012, when the education budget was cut by over $5 billion and TxDOT faced future deficits, Texas found over $300 million to complete Segment E. Exxon’s decision to move its headquarters from downtown Houston to a site on the planned Grand Parkway route appears to have been a key factor in the urgency with which Grand Parkway is being built.
Storey’s initial prediction turned out wrong and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted a wetlands permit. The Sierra Club attempted but ultimately failed to block the highway by suing the Federal Highway Administration regarding the adequacy of its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and suing the Army Corps of Engineers on the grounds that its studies did not account for the increased runoff from development in the Katy Prairie. A Houston Press article from June 2012, “If the Addicks and Barker Dams Fail: Experts Say the Resulting Damage Could Be Bigger than Katrina in New Orleans,” gives coverage to that effort. In an appeal, Judge Keith Ellison found in favor of the Sierra Club and ruled that the Army Corps failed to fully consider the impacts of Segment E, but he did not place an injunction on construction. However, this decision may lead to improved wetlands preservation and a more rigorous analysis of future permit applications.
Concerns for flooding and wetlands protection are not the only objections made to the building of the Grand Parkway. Cite and OffCite have published pieces regarding the threat to the region’s drinking water supply, pointing to the abundance of vacant land in Houston’s current footprint (download pdf), and calling for more public investment that would support more ecologically and economically sustainable urban environments.
Why did the Grand Parkway proceed over the objections of so many? Angie Schmitt from Streetsblog hones in on Ned Holmes, who is a major campaign donor to Governor Rick Perry, real estate developer, TxDOT commissioner, and head of a company called Parkway Investments. A TxDOT employee told Schmitt that Holmes does not have any personal conflicts of interest involving the Grand Parkway and Schmitt was unable to find any direct evidence. It is evident, when looking at the maps of Grand Parkway routes through farm land, that real estate speculation and highway expansion remain as linked as ever in Texas, though the party in power has switched since Frank Sharp’s time.
Discovery of Prehistoric Remains
Construction of Segment E began in September 2011 and prehistoric human remains were found. TxDOT applied for an ex parte order for their exhumation and removal, which was granted by Judge Reece Rondon of the 234th District Court of Harris County. The Harris County Historical Commission appealed, asking for more time for archeological study. Court documents from September 10, 2012 show that TxDOT knew the site was of archaeological interest in 1996. Transcripts from the court proceedings show that TxDOT chose not to redirect the highway’s path, despite having been granted that option by the US Army Corp of Engineers. According to Scott Pletka, the state archaeologist, “Option one was to avoid the site and 100-meter buffer around it. Option two was to conduct a program of data recovery excavation to mitigate project effects on it. Because of project design constraints, TxDOT decided to employ option two and undertake the data recovery excavations.” By “data,” Pletka refers to human remains which are potentially 14,000 years old, which could, through DNA testing, conclusively lay to rest the theory that all Native Americans descended from people who crossed the Bering Strait during the last glacial period.
With about fifteen years of lead time, one would expect a thoroughly professional excavation in which archaeologists carefully brush away each layer of dirt by hand and methodically record the strata in which each object is found. Kenneth Brown, an anthropologist at the University of Houston, noted that mechanical sifters were used by TxDOT, which “prevents scientists from determining where in the soil the bones were found.” In that sense, much of the knowledge and cultural heritage of the site appears to have been ruined before the discovery of human remains became public knowledge through what Pletka refers to, in court documents, as “unfortunate media attention.” Brown has called the rushed excavation a “heartbreaking loss.” The appeal from the Harris County Historical Commission seeks an additional 100 days for study, which begs the question of why the site had not been properly excavated during the 15 years since its discovery.
The second major question raised in court was whether federally recognized Native American tribes had been given adequate notice of the unearthing of human remains. Under state and federal law, when remains are found, possible descendants must be notified and their wishes respected. A November 30, 2012 Chronicle story states, “In response to the wishes of tribal leaders, the Texas Department of Transportation will drop its request to remove the bones and take steps to protect the burial sites during construction of a 15-mile, four-lane segment of the Grand Parkway, a planned 180-mile loop around greater Houston. The deal will allow the state agency to resume work without changing the route.” During our trip to the site, the person who appeared to be a guard did not ask us any questions. The chain-link fence and heavy metal construction plates for protection of the excavation, described in court proceedings, were nowhere to be seen.
According to the Chronicle report, “protection” of the burial site means that “TxDOT will fill the excavated areas and cover them with rip rap, creating a permanent burial site near where the road would cross Cypress Creek, about three miles south of U.S. 290.” A member of the Alabama Coushatta tribe is quoted as saying that bones should not be removed to “continue the sanctity of the burial.”
To actually visit the burial site is an extraordinary experience. If I lived in India, I would fly around the world to see that site. The way the highway cuts through the wild and pastoral prairie, the way the lone standing tree retains some trace of another way of life, the knowledge that buffalo hunters were right there between 2,000 and 14,000 years ago (we may never know!)—what can I say? We must value such places. Even if it is too late and the construction has already moved forward since I visited, we should bear witness and commit to stopping future travesties.
Text by Raj Mankad
Photographs by Brett Sillers