Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Old Bluffton: A Ghost Town Rises from the Lake

Old Bluffton (from Texas Observer)

Greeting from Lake Buchanan, Texas! We are spending Christmas with Cindy’s parents, Jim and Maxine Heath of Buchanan Dam, Texas. Their house sits on the (sometime) shore of Lake Buchanan, formed when the Little Colorado River was dammed in the 1930s. I say “sometime shore” because the lake level has been down considerably for several years due to drought. Right now, the lake is 25-30 feet down, and the shore is a quarter mile or more below their yard. Previously, they could launch their sailboat directly from their property.

House foundation
The lowering lake level brought up the remains of the ghost town of Bluffton, submerged when the lake was formed. You have to travel nearly two miles on the old lakebed to reach the ruins. I made a brief attempt last February; I was dog-and-house-sitting for my in-laws while writing my current book. But the descent from the modern road to the lake-bed seemed too steep and difficult for my 2-wheel-drive Ford Ranger (my daughter April teases me about my wimpy truck-- she drives a big F-150). With Jim Heath’s four-wheel drive Chevy Suburban, however, it was not hard to get out to Old Bluffton. We were returning from visiting the Fall Creek Winery a few miles to the north (excellent Texas wines!).

Bluffton cemetery being moved before the flood
Bluffton was founded by the David family, who moved from Arkansas in 1883. The town burned down at one point and was rebuilt some distance to the south. Residents harvested pecans and grew corn and cotton. When construction began on the dam, the Lower Colorado River Authority bought up people's properties. Some residents moved to the new town of Bluffton nearby and others left the area. Engineers in 1937 calculated that it would take four years for the lake to fill in behind the new dam, but heavy rains shortened that time to a few months. All but one grave from the cemetery were moved prior to the flood.
House foundation

The ruins today are not very spectacular. I only had a short period to see the site and take a few photos. Visitors to the site seem to be aware they are not supposed to remove artifacts, and people have piled up broken glass, potsherds, and rusty iron objects on top of the cement and stone remains at the site.

Artifacts piled on a cement slab
Artifacts piled on a building stone


Not much is left of old Bluffton. The ruins are considerably sparser and in much poorer condition than the many old mining towns and other ghost towns that litter my state of Arizona. But the fact that we know something of the history of the town and the names of its residents gives this site a rare immediacy. The glass jars and rusty nails seem familiar - they look like they could be five years old, not 75 or more. 
My father-in-law and I look at an old well
Another way to visit old Bluffton is with the Vanishing Texas River Cruise. They sometimes stop at Old Bluffton (I've taken their river tour of Canyon of the Eagles; it was great). Or you can find instructions on reaching the site on a number of websites. For more information, check out the website describing a field trip to the site by the Llano Uplift Archaeological Society. They have nice photos and a sketch map. (I attended one of their monthly meetings last February - a nice group of archaeologists and knowledgeable amateurs.) There are articles about Old Bluffton in the Texas Observer, focusing on the history of the town, and on the website, Texas Escapes.

Friday, December 14, 2012

How to compare cities, using digital methods

 I am writing from the city of Leeds in Yorkshire, where a very nice conference on comparative urbanism just finished up. This is a quick post about the session, and maybe I will write something in more detail at a later time. The session was called “ACUMEN: Assembly for Comparative Urbanism and the Material Environment." with the subtitle: “Digital methodologies for social research for processes of urban landscape development.” The conference was the brainchild of Benjamin Vis, an archaeologist who is now in the Ph.D. program in Geography at the University of Leeds. It was held at Haley’s Hotel in Leeds, a comfortable place to talk about urbanism with a bunch of fascinating people (although they aren't going to win any awards for their internet service - I may or may not get this thing posted before I leave town!). There is some information at the pre-conference website.

The ACUMEN conference brought together people working on various approaches to comparative urbanism and using various current methods, in particular historical/archaeological GIS analysis. There were geographers, historians, archaeologists, architects, and some folks difficult to classify. In addition to presentations by established scholars, the conference include a “PechaKucha,” an event that was new to me. A group of people, mostly students, gave very brief presentations of their research, limited to 20 slides and six minutes.

I gave the opening talk, and a summing-up at the end. Benjamin called me the conference “Ambassador,” but I am still not sure what that meant. It was fascinating to hear about a bunch of creative and important urban research projects. My approach to comparative urbanism, which should be clear if you have followed this blog, has been to start with a theme that cuts across many periods and regions, especially ancient and modern cities. Themes I’ve written about (here and in articles) include informal settlements, urban sustainability, urban sprawl, neighborhoods, and gated communities. So far, my comparisons have not been done in great detail, except perhaps for the theme of neighborhoods.

Most of the participants in the ACUMEN conference used one or both of two alternative approaches to analysis and comparison. The first is methodological. GIS analysis is rapidly becoming the standard method in research on urban form (and other topics) in archaeology, geography, and history. We heard about some great urban-GIS analyses, particularly the historical mapping of Paris by Eric Grasso and colleagues, and studies of medieval British towns by Keith Lilley (I apologize for this hasty posting, without links; I will try to get them done, but it may have to wait till I am back in Arizona). GIS is a method to provide a standardization of data for comparing cities.

The second method to comparison discussed at this conference is theory- or approach-driven. The two main examples here were space syntax and urban morphology. Space syntax, a method of analyzing the uses of and access to spaces in buildings and cities, has become increasingly popular in some archaeological traditions. It is not a universal method, because its applications rely on complex room arrangements within buildings, or street patterns in cities. In my own case, Aztec houses have one room and Aztec cities do not have streets. But for the western urban tradition (plus a few examples from other traditions), space syntax is very useful. Sam Griffiths, a space syntax expert at the University College London (center of the space syntax movement), gave an interesting talk on the methods, its uses, and its limitations. A number of the other participants are using, or have used, space syntax previously. (links will be provided……).

Urban morphology is more of a method or approach than a theory. See the journal Urban Morphology for examples. This approach fits well with GIS (as in Keith Lilley’s work) and with space syntax. While only a couple of the participants work within the urban morphology approach, most of the work featured at the conference focused on urban morphology or form in a broader sense.

This was a great session, and we all left with new ideas and inspiration to try to keep the cross-disciplinary dialogue going somehow. Benjamin Vis will probably be setting up a website for ACUMEN before long, and I will talk more about this in the future.

I also got to spend part of a day in York, looking at Roman, Viking, and medieval remains. And it was great sampling the local ales.