MIXING OIL AND WATER

Destination: Beaumont

Successful pairings of odd combinations lead to a fascinating stay in Beaumont.
By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

“Look!”George Newsome slows the white Suburban to a stop, then gestures out his open window toward a muddy flat at Cattail Marsh in Beaumont. In the distance, scores of assorted birds swim and wade in pockets of shallow water.

“Now there’s a pile of birds!” Newsome exclaims. “Look, over there! A common grebe! See him? Watch him go under water. There! Did you see that? Wasn’t that just cool?”

From behind the wheel, Newsome continues to scan the water as he always does when patrolling the 600-acre manmade wetlands. Completed in 1993, the system of eight cells and levees cleanses treated effluent from the city’s wastewater treatment plant. During initial construction, Newsome — then an employee with the water utilities department — operated a tractor. Now he’s water reclamation superintendent.

“I didn’t used to be a bird guy,” he confesses, “but I am now.” Out the window, a flash of pink in mid-air catches his eye. “Look, a roseate spoonbill!”

spoonbill

From wetlands to oil derricks, a visit to Beaumont — a high-energy city a little more than an hour’s jaunt east of Houston — will leave you convinced that, occasionally, oil and water can mix. And in the most interesting ways, too.

I start my three-day exploration on board the Ivory Bill, a covered excursion boat operated by the Big Thicket Association. Members with the nonprofit organization strive to preserve more than 100,000 acres of ecologically diverse habitats collectively known as the Big Thicket. They also educate people about the region’s swamps and bayous through their Neches River Adventures, Saturday morning tours on the Ivory Bill that depart from Riverfront Park near downtown.

A light mist falls as pilot Stuart Liebowitz steers the boat farther upriver.

“You never know what we’ll see on these trips,” Liebowitz says as we slowly motor past riverbanks lush with tall grasses, palmettos and thick vines. Snowy egrets perch atop dead limbs poking up from the water. “The boat doesn’t spook the wildlife much. We’ve even had alligators swim up.”

A red-winged blackbird trills as a ranger with the Big Thicket National Preserve tells us about the Neches River, a murky waterway populated with bass, catfish and alligator gar.

“Cypress and tupelos dominate the forests here,” notes ranger Mary Kay Manning. “We also have maples and sweetgums. The abundance of Spanish moss that you see indicates good air quality.”

A brief description of Big Thicket flora and fauna by Mona Halvorsen, who directs an ongoing species inventory called the Thicket of Diversity, piqued my interest. Next time I plan to try to see the region’s four carnivorous plant species: pitcher plants, sundews, butterworts and bladderworts.

With limited time, I can visit only a few of Beaumont’s many museums and historic sites. After a chocolate shake at the Willy Burger, I head to a must-see: the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum, a collection of Old West-style buildings that represent life after the famous gusher spewed oil on Spindletop Hill in January 1901.

“Gladys City was intended to be a perfect industrial city,” says museum director Mark Osborne. “But after the oil came in, they had to build the city as fast as they could to accommodate all the wildcatters and roughnecks.” What remained of the rowdy boomtown was bulldozed in the 1950s, then rebuilt in the ’70s as a Bicentennial project.

At the tour’s end, Osborne leads visitors to a grassy field, where we stand around a 65-foot-tall replica of an oil derrick. Suddenly, a plume of water rises into the air and gushes some 10 stories high. I manage to stay dry during the impressive Spindletop re-enactment.

The next morning, after a quick egg taco at Tacos La Bamba, I tour the McFaddin-Ward House Museum, which preserves the opulent era that followed Spindletop. Built in 1906, the three-story house was purchased by oil and ranching tycoon W.P.H. McFaddin and his wife, Ida. All furnishings, such as Tiffany lamps, quilted bedspreads, Oriental rugs and framed photographs, are original to the family.

“The house has a total of 12,000 square feet and is just a few feet short from being the same width as the Titanic,” guide Marcus Powers notes. I find myself wishing I could linger in the sunny, mosaic-tiled conservatory and drink a glass of cold lemonade, just as McFaddin daughter Mamie used to do.

At the Texas Energy Museum, two floors of interactive exhibits focus on the geology, history and production of oil. In one display, robotic figures dressed as oil pioneers Pattillo Higgins and Anthony Lucas stand beneath a drilling rig and recall how they brought in the Spindletop gusher. Another exhibit explains the complex process of oil refining.

Since plants fascinate me, I head for the Beaumont Botanical Gardens at Tyrrell Park, a municipal complex that also includes Cattail Marsh, an 18-hole golf course, horse stables and hiking trails. 

“A lot of people pull off I-10 to walk in our gardens,” horticulture director Gary Outenreath tells me. “They relax, then they’re ready to be road warriors again.”

 

Beaumont Botanical Gardens.

In the 10 acres of themed gardens, I stroll down a sidewalk that winds past day lilies, giant monkey grass, Japan painted ferns, herbs and oodles of other plants, including Texas natives. A green tree frog on a branch catches my eye, and a great egret hunting a snack in the garden’s large pond ignores me.

Inside the humid Warren Loose Conservatory, elephant ears, scheffleras, palms and other tropicals reach high to the opaque ceiling. Well-fed koi shimmer in ponds and a ribbon snake slithers across a stone bench. The kid in me loves the prehistoric pterodactyl that “soars” overhead and a huge dinosaur that lurks among the scheffleras.

South of Beaumont, real-deal reptiles star at Gator Country, where owner Gary Saurage and his crew tend 400 alligators they’ve rescued from swimming pools, backyards, and various public places. The gators laze in swampy ponds where they’re grouped by size. Indoor exhibits house other reptiles, including pythons, iguanas, and lizards.

“Once alligators are fed by humans, they can lose their fear,” intern Tyler Lacina explains. “If an alligator is determined to be a nuisance, then a permitted nuisance alligator control hunter may harvest the animal. That’s what Gary does — only he rescues gators and brings them here.”

Big Al, a 1,000-pound alligator that measures 13 feet long, reigns as the preserve’s oldest and largest. Only staff get near Al, who gets weighed every July 4, but visitors can hold 6-inch-long baby gators. With both hands, I hold a young alligator longer than my arm (with his mouth safely secured). His scaly skin feels cold and smooth.

“We show the good side of alligators here, and how they need to be conserved,” Lacina says.

That evening, a half-hour drive along a back road lands me at the Pine Tree Lodge, a down-home restaurant that overlooks a murky bayou. A basket of fried shrimp with sweet potato fries and hushpuppies fills me right up. 

The next morning, I duck into Rao’s Bakery, a brick-faced fixture on Calder Avenue that has turned out cakes, cookies and other sugary treats since 1941. I choose a delicious sausage kolache.

I spend my last few hours in Beaumont with George Newsome at Cattail Marsh. The levee roads, which we cruise in his city vehicle, are open to foot traffic only during daylight hours. More than 200 alligators — migrants from an adjoining bayou — also inhabit the marshes, and a pair of bald eagles has nested nearby for four years.

“We have listed 240 bird species here,” Newsome says as we slow down to watch a black-crowned night heron lift up from the water below us. “It’s not uncommon to see 60-something species on any given outing. This place is a magnet for birds. Food sources are abundant, and they have a clean water source and plenty of refuge in the grass.”

Serious birders hoping to spot a specific species may call Newsome at his city office and ask for pointers.

“One of the highlights of my career was when a lady birder from Vermont saw a thalarope here for the first time,” he recalls. “She got tears of joy in her eyes.”

Birds and gators, water and oil — odd combinations that mix together quite well in Beaumont.