Historic El Camino Real To Get Fresh Look with New State Funding
July 7, 2016
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$5.5 Million Project To Offer New Visitor Experiences at Three Texas Historic Sites
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AUSTIN – “Roads are at the core of humanity’s journey. They satisfy our desire to reach out past the horizon and discover what lies beyond the familiar… Over the centuries, the road known as El Camino Real has lain silently watching the journey of humanity. The road carried both cargo and culture; it fostered conflict and cooperation. In the meantime, the land now known as Texas was changed forever—a transformation that was delivered along El Camino Real.”
Those words begin the narrative for El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail interpretive project, a $5.5 million project that will construct a new visitor center at Mission Tejas State Park in Houston County west of Nacogdoches, renovate the flood-damaged Smith Visitor Center at McKinney Falls State Park in Austin, repurpose a historic building into a new welcoming center at Goliad State Park and Historic Site, and place a new Camino Real interpretive display at Mission Rosario near Goliad.
The ambitious project has been in planning and design stages for years, but is getting new life thanks to record park funding approved in the last session by the Texas Legislature. The project is getting $3.5 million in new state dollars for the 2016—2017 biennium. This builds on about $500,000 in seed money from previous years, plus $1.5 million in federal transportation enhancement funding. Construction is set to begin by next year.
In 2004, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rep. Ciro Rodriguez co-sponsored congressional action to designate El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail, a network of trails extending 2,850 miles from the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass and Laredo through Texas to Natchitoches, LA.
Along this route, Native Americans such as the Caddo tribe met Franciscan friars who founded San Francisco de los Tejas mission, not far from today’s Mission Tejas State Park. Set amid the tall trees of the East Texas Pineywoods, rich with both nature and history, the park is about to receive a once-in-a-lifetime improvement. Plans are underway to construct a new headquarters complex of three separate buildings and an interpretive path, including a new exhibit hall to tell the story of El Camino Real and the park through engaging and interactive interpretive exhibit experiences.
Mission Tejas State Park attracts a variety of audiences from young families to retirees to large school groups. Visitors find peace and quiet in the park and spend their time hiking, birding, geocaching, camping, and attending events like the annual Folk Festival. With the new exhibits, from the moment visitors step out of their cars, they will set off on a path of discovery through pine trees and simple buildings that echo and complement the quiet, natural surroundings. As they enter the exhibit hall, interpretive text, artifacts, visual elements like photographs and illustrations, and interactive, touchable components will draw visitors through, alongside a large glass window offering a view of the forest and the Rice Log Home, which was moved to the site to help interpret the Texas pioneer story.
Goliad State Park and Historic Site is known for Mission Espíritu Santo, a Spanish mission reconstructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. But the project will restore a hidden architectural jewel. It will restore a historic caretaker’s cottage built by CCC to create a new visitor interpretive center. As park visitors move through the three main rooms, they will encounter interpretive words and pictures, as well as interactive elements that will help tell the story of El Camino Real, a story interwoven with that of the CCC architects who sought to faithfully recreate the bygone era of the Spanish empire through the mission restoration. Among other offerings, visitors will have the chance to create their own architectural sketch on a piece of “blueprint” paper, inspired by their own connection to the stories they hear in the museum.
Just four miles from Goliad State Park are ruins of the 18th-century Spanish Franciscan Mission Nuestra Señora del Rosario, now Mission Rosario State Historic Site. Other than an historical marker and occasional guided tours, the mission site has not been easy to access or understand. The project will provide a new parking area, access path, and interpretive signs to convey the mission’s story. The idea is to show visitors how the mission may have originally looked, put the ruins into the wider contexts of the Spanish mission system, and tie the site to El Camino Real, Spanish Texas and Native American history.
McKinney Falls State Park in southeast Austin is one of the state’s most visited parks. The 744-acre park offers camping, hike and bike trails, fishing and swimming—but it’s also rich in history. The project will breathe new life into the park’s Smith Visitor Center on Onion Creek, which suffered serious damage from several floods in recent years. It also will make the building more resistant to future flood damage and provide up-to-date accessibility for people with disabilities. The new exhibits will include interpretive media and interactive elements telling the story of El Camino Real’s influence on the settlement and growth of central Texas. Project subthemes include how geology and water converge to form a dynamic ecosystem, humans connect with nature to take advantage of natural resources, Texas and Mexico travel in opposite directions on the road to independence, and Spanish influences continue to shape Texas.