Ghost Town Wednesday: Glenn Springs, Texas

GlennSprings_GenStoreThis area near the present-day Big Bend National Park was known for its abundant source of water.  According to the National Park Service, evidence was found indicating that Indians used the water source – flint chips and bedrock mortar holes1 were scattered over the area indicating the area was once a permanent Comanche settlement.

Some historians believe it may have been visited by a camel expedition led by Edward L. Hartz in 1859.  In 1836 Major George H. Crosman advocated for military use of camels in dealing with Indians in Florida because the animals could get by with little food or water.  When Franklin Pierce became president in 1853 he appointed his friend Jefferson Davis as his Secretary of War.

Following the Mexican Cession of 1848 the army’s resources were depleted, but immediately following his appointment, Davis was confronted with the issue of dealing with Indian depredations, especially in Texas.  Based on his belief that the western United States was largely uninhabitable, he petitioned Congress to provide funds to test whether camels might provide a more efficient means of transportation to the desert Southwest than horses.  On March 3, 1855 Congress appropriated $30,000 to purchase and import camels for military purposes.

The next president, James Buchanan, directed his secretary of war to continue the experiment by sending out more expeditions.  Some of the animals were eventually turned loose and some even fell into Confederate hands during the Civil War.  Ultimately, it was decided that although the camels were up to the task and proved to be excellent pack animals, the experiment was ended – soldiers and handlers detested them (mules were much easier to handle), they smelled bad and spooked the horses.

In the early 1880’s the first permanent Anglo settlers began migrating to the area.  The spring had long been identified on maps as Jordan Spring, but when W.J. Glenn came to the area and dug out the springs, they were renamed Glenn Springs.  There he ranched and grazed his horses but was later killed by Indians and Mexicans.

In the early 1900’s ranching and mining attracted more settlers, both American and Mexican, to the area.  In 1911 residents discovered candelilla, a native plant which was ideal for making wax candles.  In 1914, C.D. Wood and W.K. Ellis built a wax factory near the spring.  Several Mexican workers were employed to run the operation and Wood and Ellis hired O.G. Compton to run the general store and post office.

As it turned out, Compton played an important, although tragic part, in Glenn Springs history.  Last year I wrote an article about Oscar Garnett Compton which will give you a bit of history (read it here).  Yesterday, I wrote an article about his son, Oscar Garnett Compton, Jr. – in case you missed it, you can read it here.

With the establishment of the factory, general store and post office, the town of Glenn Springs was established.  Adobe and reed houses were constructed and other businesses established.  Eventually about sixty to eighty people resided in the village.  Since candle-making required large amounts of water to process, a pipeline from the springs to the factory was laid.

Producing the wax was a long, hard and hot process and workers were paid $1.00 per day.  The National Park Service describes the process:

The workers boiled the stems in large vats of water, adding sulfuric acid to separate the wax from the stems. When the wax floated to the surface, the men skimmed it off and boiled it again to remove excess water and impurities. They let it cool, broke it into small blocks and put it in burlap bags for shipping. Two boilers provided the steam to cook the wax. Dried, cooked plants were used as fuel to keep the boilers going.2

For years the region had been plagued with Mexican bandit raids led by Pancho Villa and others.  The United States government dispatched troops as early as 1911 and Glenn Springs was one of the stations.  However, on the night of May 5, 1916 there were only nine soldiers camped there to provide protection.  An unsuccessful raid by Mexican bandits on the village of Columbus, New Mexico had occurred in early March.  Yet, President Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to provide a large military contingent, believing it would only incite more violence.

When Mexican bandits raided Glenn Springs on the night of May 5, it was reported as a shocking surprise to United States government officials.  Three soldiers were killed and one young child, Oscar Garnett Compton, Jr.  The raid made headlines around the country and Wilson was forced to act.  Before he served in World War I, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing was dispatched to lead a campaign against the Mexican bandit incursions.

Parts of the village had been pillaged and burned during the raid.  Glenn Springs was rebuilt, but due to the continuing threat of violence it was difficult to find workers.  Ellis sold his half of the partnership (which included the Mariscal Mine) in 1919 to William D. Burcham.  Although a permanent military camp had been established following the raid, it was abandoned in 1920 when the situation improved.  Burcham continued to live in the area and ranch until the mine closed in 1923.  Burham sold the Glenn Springs property to Walter and Scott Yancy who quickly sold it six months later to J.J. Willis, an Odessa car dealer.

Willis organized the Chisos Mountains Club in 1932, offering hunting, fishing and camping for members.  After the venture’s lack of success, he transferred the land in 1942 to the National Park Service.  The spring dried up temporarily during a drought in 1950, but returned –  “a golden flow of water in the desert.”3  Today the National Park Service at Big Bend offers a Glenn Springs Road Tour where the remains of the town, wax factory and military outpost can be explored.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.


  1. Big Bend National Park
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.

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