Burial ground site in the path of Grand Parkway Segment E. All photographs by Brett Sillers.

A Heartbreaking Loss: Grand Parkway Segment E Ruins Site of International Significance

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.

A detention basin near the intersection of 290 and Segment E.

The Hike

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.

Crossing prairie in search of the burial ground.



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!

A car and a port-a-potty frame the burial site with the lone tree at the center.



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.

TxDOT takes precautions to protect some wetlands while fragmenting the landscape.



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.

The unblemished trabeated structure of the highway.



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.

Grand Parkway cuts through farms and hunting grounds.



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.

Detail of the burial site. Click for larger image.



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

A stark contrast of highway and prairie.

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    18 Comments

    1. 1

      Excellent work. I’m glad to see this writing here on OffCite.

      I am hoping we, as local residents, can do something to build awareness about what’s been done, bear witness and hopefully stop it from happening again.

      I also am left thinking that someone should be held responsible for this sorry state of affairs. It seems there were numerous irregularities at every stage of the process, perhaps even criminal negligence, though I am not a lawyer

      Thanks again for your work. I hope attention to this story grows.

      Best,

      JP


    2. 2

      Rip rap.

      That’s TxDOT’s material of choice, here, to deal with the excavation and help to “continue the sanctity of the burial”?

      A fantastic essay, Raj. Informed and even-keeled and lyrical. Thank you.


    3. 3

      Great essay, Raj. Thank you.


    4. 4

      Thank you, Raj. Excellent essay. I hope it will be widely read.


    5. 5

      Great essay, Raj. You pack so much information into such a concise and lyrical piece, and Brett’s photographs provide the perfect compliment.

      I have one minor correction, and then a few observations to add. First, Judge Reece Rondon presides over the 234th District Court of Harris County, not the 234th Court of Appeals.

      You say that a proper scientific excavation could have taken place at some point between the site’s first discovery in 1996 and the beginning of Grand Parkway construction in 2011. I think it is important to note that, while you are correct, nobody is asking for a 15-year injunction against the construction.

      In court records from the September 10, 2012 hearing in Judge Rondon’s court, Dr. Kenneth Brown, Professor of Archeology in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Houston asks not for 15 years to properly study the site by hand excavation but a mere two to three MONTHS. (Construction has already been delayed more than four months as the mechanical excavation continues.)

      A proper, scientifically rigorous excavation could already be complete as of today–and construction could thenceforth continue unimpeded, with all parties satisfied–if it had been done the right way from the beginning. Unfortunately, the indelicate mechanical excavation may already have rendered the site all but useless. (Harris County Historical Commission attorney Glen Van Slyke says he personally witnessed mechanical sorters shaking excavated earth so hard that bolts were falling off the machine.)

      TXDOT says it is in the public interest to expedite the building of this freeway, but they have not, to my knowledge, proven their case. As you note, the Katy Prairie, which Segment E cuts across, is pretty sparsely populated, and much vacant land is available within the city’s existing confines. One could therefore argue, that it is in the public interest not to build yet another bypass in a sparsely populated area, but to encourage denser urban development/living and to spend the $322 million on viable public transportation.

      Anybody who says that building roads reduces traffic is either delusional or lying. New roads do nothing to reduce the number of cars on the road (which are most often carrying single passengers). Rather, public transportation reduces the number of cars on the road, and that is what reduces traffic.

      This new construction will only encourage more, ugly suburban sprawl, more SUVs, more gasoline consumption, more traffic jams even farther out from the city center, and more outlet malls where American citizens (I mean “consumers”) can buy even more Chinese-made, soon-to-be-obsolete crap that they will need more, bigger, cheaply-made McMansions to store once it falls out of disuse. This new construction does not serve the public interest–it serves the interests of real estate developers and construction companies.

      But my anti-sprawl rant is beside the point. The Harris County Historical Commission, instead, concedes the point that construction of the Grand Parkway may very well be within the public interest. Rather than arguing that point, they assert that it is ALSO in the public interest to advance scientific/historical knowledge, and that this highway’s construction is not at all at odds with that research. All they ask for is a two to three month period to do the proper research, after which they will step aside and let construction continue, unimpeded.

      In court records, Judge Rondon clearly shows that he is not an unbiased arbiter. At one point, Judge Rondon asks Dr. Brown what length of time would be necessary to do a proper study of the site. Dr. Brown answers that a period of two to three months would probably be sufficient (depending on the number of available archeologists and the size of the site). Judge Rondon then asks Dr. Brown, and this is a direct quote (from page 67 of the court “Reporter’s Records and Exhibits”), “So at the end of three months, is it possible that we continue to build this road?”

      Judge Rondon’s use of the first-person plural pronoun in phrasing that question shows, without a shadow of a doubt, that Judge Rondon identifies with the road’s proponents. I am no legal expert, but are judges not supposed to be impartial?

      That Judge Rondon considers this a trivial matter is further demonstrated by the way he rushed the hearing. I was not present, I have only read the testimony, but the words of attorneys from both sides suggest that they are attempting to get the hearing done quickly in order to appease the judge. This entire hearing, which decided the fate of a site which could have caused the reappraisal of long-standing theories of human migration to the western hemisphere, began at 2:30 pm and ended by 3:49 pm–a mere hour and nineteen minutes. Again, I am no legal expert, but I consider that disrespectful and trivializing to the import and gravity of the matters at hand.

      That TXDOT wants this story to disappear is also beyond dispute. They are required by US Federal Law (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA) to notify six tribes with legal claims on any archeological finds within the state of Texas. They are required to do this by either certified mail or by a personal visit. TXDOT chose, instead, to notify the tribes via an email which contained nothing about the discovery of human remains in the subject header of the email–in fact, there is no mention of human remains until the fifth paragraph on the second page of the email (paragraph seven of the fourteen paragraph letter).

      As Raj points out in the article, TXDOT’s staff archeologist, Scott Pletka, refers to “unfortunate media attention” in his cross-examination. I have no idea why Pletka might consider the media attention site 41HR796 received prior to Raj’s article “unfortunate,” because not one of the articles I have read has been the slightest bit critical of the project. It seems to me that Pletka and TXDOT consider ANY media attention, and therefore any public knowledge of their attempt to pave over this important site “unfortunate.”

      But what do they have to hide? Why the seemingly deliberate attempts to quietly destroy not just the sanctity but also the scientific integrity of this site?

      In some reader comments beneath the few Houston Chronicle stories on site 41HR796, commentors say things like “Why dwell in the past? Why stall progress for the sake of ancient?”

      To them I would say, this historical knowledge has political implications. This site was visited by multiple groups of people over the course of millennia. The site contains artifacts gleaned over a wide area. Findings at this site show a level of sophistication not commonly afforded to the “savages” commonly depicted in history books, and if, as Dr. Brown believes is possible, this DNA evidence from this site is able to disprove the theory that humans migrated to North America only via the Bering Strait–that multiple migrations, including coastal, waterborne migrations took place–one would really have to be a racist ignoramus to deny their sophistication.

      Sites such as this directly challenge the childish, white-supremacist notion that Columbus “discovered” the New World, and this land lay empty and underutilized when white settlers arrived. Furthermore, as more and more Latin Americans rightfully claim a Native American identity, white supremacist claims of “You don’t belong here–go back whence you came,” become invalid.

      Finally, the six nations with the legal authority to intervene have been lied to by TXDOT. TXDOT has told them the site is protected by a guard, on-site, 24 hours a day and with a chain link fence. Six of us approached the site on a Sunday morning with absolutely zero impediment by the guard on-site. Instead of a chain-link fence, we saw flimsy orange construction netting. TXDOT has also told the tribes that the graves are covered with heavy, steel construction plates. No such plates exist–the graves are covered, if you can call it that, with plywood boards, propped up with orange five-gallon Home Depot “Homer” paint buckets and weighted down with stones.

      As for “progress,” these commentors are taking an exceedingly short view of human history and the future of human civilization. I seriously doubt that the future will have much space for sprawl and its attendant fossil fuel consumption. These sprawling developments and the roads that encourage them will not stand the test of time–these pronouncements of “progress” are exceedingly myopic, exceedingly short-sighted. The cynic in me suspects that powerful developers and political figures are aware of their short-sightedness, and that they knowingly choose to make a quick buck at the public’s expense and our common long-term interests.

      I leave you with some quotes from the song “(Nothing But) Flowers,” by the Talking Heads. The lyrics are by David Byrne, who, in his 1986 film about the Texas sesquicentennial, says “Freeways are the cathedrals of our times,” an apt comparison when you consider the amount of planning and resources that go into building freeways, that once went into building town a town’s cathedral. (It is also worth noting that Bret Easton Ellis’s epigraph to his novel AMERICAN PSYCHO is taken from this song–“And as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention.”)

      from “(Nothing But) Flowers”

      There was a shopping mall
      Now it’s all covered with flowers…

      This used to be real estate
      Now it’s only fields and trees
      Where, where is the town
      Now, it’s nothing but flowers
      The highways and cars
      Were sacrificed for agriculture
      I thought that we’d start over
      But I guess I was wrong

      Once there were parking lots
      Now it’s a peaceful oasis…

      This was a Pizza Hut
      Now it’s all covered with daisies…

      I miss the honky tonks,
      Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens…

      I dream of cherry pies,
      Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies…

      We used to microwave
      Now we just eat nuts and berries…

      This was a discount store,
      Now it’s turned into a cornfield…

      Don’t leave me stranded here
      I can’t get used to this lifestyle


    6. 6

      Really enjoyed this.


    7. 7

      I made two corrections to the article. As Harbeer Sandhu notes, Judge Reece Rondon presides over the 234th District Court of Harris County, not the 234th Court of Appeals. The second correction was to note that the Sierra Club sued the Federal Highway Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers in two separate lawsuits.


    8. 8

      I enjoyed reading this very much. It makes me want to go have a look for myself.
      I do have one question though. Here and many other places, especially regarding freeways, beams are referred to as girders. Are they not girders but beams that were dropped in place with writing on them? The old saying “all girders are beams but not all beams are girders” comes to mind. Most of the Parkway construction appears to have decks supported by beams, which are supported by girders, which are supported by columns. Correct me if I am wrong.
      Regardless I found this article very informing.


    9. 9

      As a former archaeologist, those excavations look typical. Under that plywood is likely square test units that have been hand dug, and there is a datum for surveying eqipment somewhere at the site.


    10. 10

      …and I can pretty much guarantee that underneath each and every house where each and every one of these whining liberals currently lives, there existed at some time a “pre-historic” civilization. What…you thought that you were the first person ever to set foot on “your land”? Get a life people…this rock has been around a long time. Good luck finding a “pristine”, never before occupied piece of land anywhere near where you hypocritically pen this nonsense from.


    11. 11

      A extremely well-done piece — if depressing. The essay ought to be expanded into a book.


    12. 12

      Excellent article, enjoyed reading it. More sites such as this one have been destroyed in the name of progress than all sites that have been dug by so called “Pot Hunters” in search of artifacts. Damn shame!


    13. 13

      The agencies never stop trying to get out of or doing as little as possible for the last 46 years. This site was known early enough to have been avoided.


    14. 14

      I worked with the crew of archeologists on this site. The author of this article is ignorant of what actually took place at this site and jumps to many incorrect conclusions. He was also trespassing on this hike. Professor Ken Brown has also stated mistruths about the excavation there. The truth is that DOT did all it’s due dilligence in complete compliance with the law, and the archeological dig was done professionally in excruciating detail. Since the court wouldn’t allow excavation and removal of the burials, they will be left in place in accordance with the wishes of current Indian tribes. They’ll be backfilled with earth, with a layer of concrete over top to permanently protect the site from looters. There’s really no controversy here. Some people just want to invent fake controversy to further their own ends.


    15. 15

      Excellent article. One small correction: the “prairie dog” mounds were actually created by pocket gophers, which are just as cute as prairie dogs, in my opinion.


    16. 16

      Thank you Wallace Ward. I made the change to pocket gopher.


    17. 17

      So, I see archeologists’ rebuttle to this. I would like to see more archeologists comments and also can someone that specializes in flood plains/ engineering comment on the “Katrina” factor mentioned in this article?


    18. 18

      The archeologists cannot comment due to their professional ethics. You would have to wait for the official report to be published. The archeologists were contracted by the DOT, and that’s the organization who has the formal right to respond to these allegations. Check with them.