Where Romance and History Meet - www.heartsthroughhistory.com/

Monday, June 7, 2010

Palo Pinto Mountains, Hell's Gate, and Possum Kingdom Lake

Yes, these are real places. In my current time travel romance from The Wild Rose Press, OUT OF THE BLUE, the hero’s mom, Blossom Hunter, has a lovely lakeside home at Possum Kingdom Lake. Folks in our area call it simply “PK.” The hero, Brendan Hunter, is on medical leave from his job as police detective in the fictional city of Radford Springs when the heroine, Deirdre Dougherty, plops down into Possum Kingdom Lake beside his bass boat. She's from 1845 Ireland and thinks she landed at the literal gates of Hell. But that’s another story.

Let me tell you about the Palo Pinto Mountains, Possum Kingdom Lake, and Hell’s Gate. It tickles me that the fictional name in my book is the one that sounds logical, Radford Springs, the town where Brendan Hunter is a police detective and where Blossom Hunter owns a health food store. In truth, there is no large town near PK. Graham and Mineral Wells are the closest towns of any size, and they're both small towns.

One of my favorite drives is from Highway 180 just outside the county seat of Palo Pinto County south on Highway 4 to Interstate 20. This is a winding road through hills reminiscent of New Mexico’s mountains. They may look like hills overall, but the Palo Pinto Mountains are geologically a genuine mountain range. The scrub oaks which cover the hillsides turn bright oranges, golds, and yellows in fall, which gives them the Palo Pinto name that roughly translates as painted posts. Anglo settlement began in 1842 with the establishment of Peter’s Colony. Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight were early ranchers in the area and Loving is buried in nearby Weatherford. Anyone who wants to know more about early ranching in the area should read PAINTED POLE, The Beldings and Their Ranches in Palo Pinto County: Pioneer Days to Computer Age, by Barbara Belding Gibson, from Sunbelt Eakin Press, ISBN 1-57168-561-8. The Belding Ranch has been continuously owned by a member of the family since 1859 and the book gives a good early look at North Central Texas ranching in the 19th century as well as today. In fact, Barbara and her husband Charles Gibson live in the original home. Rather, the original cedar log cabin has been built onto and around and is now a bathroom for their home. Hard to imagine living in a home eight feet by eight feet, isn’t it? They’ve also incorporated the smokehouse and cool room into their home. I love when people respect the past and preserve rather than destroy it.

Many places in the country have a formation known as Hell’s Gate, but here’s the story of how this one supposedly received its name. In the 1800’s, two fur trappers were making their way down the headwaters of the Brazos River. Their pack animals were loaded with trinkets and rotgut whiskey to use as barter in case they met up with any friendly Indians willing to trade. They came upon an encampment of friendly Comanche who had furs and were willing to trade. After several days of barter, the trappers noticed that the best furs were still in the Indians’ pile. The traders were not of the highest moral character and decided it was time to bring out complimentary samples of their rotgut whiskey. Later that night after all the braves had passed out and were asleep, the trappers loaded up the Indians’ furs on their pack burros and headed south down the Brazos. Not only do you have to be greedy to cheat Comanches, you have to be extremely stupid!

To illustrate that crime doesn’t pay, these greedy traders ran into bad luck. One burro broke his leg, so a second had to carry double and soon gave out. The last burro so heavily loaded lost its footing and fell into the canyon below and died. The trappers weren’t making very good time. They realized by now the Comanches they’d stolen from would be sober and awake and on their trail. Smoke signals could be seen and the traders knew their victims were closing in for the kill. They’d reached a point on the Brazos with high limestone cliffs divided by a small creek forming a natural gateway to the river. One trapper wanted only to save his hide. He threw down his heavy load of stolen furs and climbed up the cliffs. The other man was so stubborn and mean that he swore he would go through the Gates of Hell before he would allow the Comanches to recover their furs. The Comanches caught up with the traders and finished them both off. Since then, that point on the Brazos has been known as Hell’s Gate. Who lived to tell the story? I couldn’t say. But the cliff on what is now Possum Kingdom Lake is still known as Hell’s Gate.Of course, since the river was damed, the lake is thirty or forty feet deep at that point. It's hard to imagine climbing those rocks while loaded with a pack of furs.

As for Possum Kingdom Lake, here’s how the area came to be called by that name—or one story why. A peddler named Ike Sablosky came to Texas in 1906 from Pennsylvania to regain his health. At that time, Mineral Wells was famous as a health spa and Ike came there to recuperate. (later Franklin Roosevelt also came to “take the waters” in hope they would help his paralysis.) While living in Mineral Wells, Ike saw an opportunity to get into the hide and fur business. The Palo Pinto Mountains were full of fur bearing animals including possum, raccoon, fox, coyote, bobcat, and cougar. Sablosky’s best source for possum hides came from cedar choppers and hunters in Northwest Palo Pinto County. Ike called these men “the boys from Possum Kingdom.” The name grew and became more popular and the area became known as Possum Kingdom. When the lake was created in the 1940’s, officials named the lake Possum Kingdom Lake. Don’t worry about Ike Sablosky—he moved to Dallas and became a millionaire in the insurance business.

We don't say o'possum here, just possum. I can't abide killing anything that's not poisonous and threatening me, but possums are not my favorite animal. They have long claws and sharp teeth and can squeeze through the smallest of holes. We occasionally find possum scat in our closed up garage. According to my dad, possums especially love persimmons. Can't blame them for that--I love persimmons, too.

This picturesque area around Possum Kingdom Lake is a favorite of mine and I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about this part of North Central Texas. 


Caroline Clemmons said...

I hope everyone enjoys this little trip to Possum Kingdon. LOL

Sally said...

I did indeed enjoy this trip. What wonderful stories, real or not. Thanks for sharing.

Jeanmarie Hamilton said...

I haven't been off the highway much in that part of Texas, but it looks beautiful and well worth the trip. Interesting story about Hells Gate.

I've never seen a possum in the wild. Maybe now I'll be able to recongize one. I'll be sure to keep my distance. Thanks for the heads up on possums and Possum Kingdome Lake. Out of the Blue is a great story, and I love that you set it in that area of Texas.

Wendy said...

This is my area too, live in Weatherford. How nice on my first visit to your blog to see this interesting post. Your book sounds like it needs to go into my on-deck circle as soon as I finish the current one!

Caroline Clemmons said...

Wendy, thanks for stopping by. If you have any questions about this area, my email is

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate that so many rivers were "damed" up.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate that so many rivers were "damed" up.

Yeah, it's much better to have people killed by unchecked river flooding. -progress

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the story, I love history! I went to Hell's Gate last weekend, it is beautiful pd