© 1998. All rights reserved. John Bramhall.
If it's true that certain geographic loci throughout the world act as magnets for supernatural phenomena, the Espantosa in southwest Texas is certainly one. Situated in sparsely populated Zavala County, just three miles south of Crystal City, Tex., (pop. 8,245) on US-83, Espantosa Lake is noted as a key watering stop along the old Texas-Mexico colonial mission trail. Today, large irrigated farms grow massive amounts of spinach in this region; indeed, Crystal City is the self-proclaimed "Spinach Capital of the World" and boasts a giant statue of Popeye in the town square.
But spinach isn't the only thing the area is famous for. While the travel guides tend to skirt the issue, wizened locals will tell you that Espantosa's reputation is built upon a bevy of dark secrets and mysterious occurrences that date back at least two centuries.
Dark waters, darker mysteries
The appearance of Lake Espantosa is certainly forbidding enough; Steep banks are shrouded in thick mesquite trees, serpentine vines, and a variegated overgrowth of creeping foliage from which anyone or anything might seemingly emerge. Or be lost forever, for that matter. The bare limbs of long-dead trees reach up from the water like skeletal fingers.
But it is in the lakes's dark waters where one confronts the telltale sense of foreboding; the legendary murkiness makes it impossible even to see an object just beneath the surface. This impenetrable darkness seems to change at a glance, and its reflections sometimes appear to project images of things both discernible and unknown.
It is not surprising that, to this day, Espantosa's legends continue to resonate with the area's residents and visitors.
A legacy of fear
Some of the earliest settlers in this area of Texas feared camping along the Espantosa's banks--they were certain that spending even one night there would be their last.
One of the earliest recorded fatal instances occurred in the early 1800's, when several Mexican families, en route to San Antonio, made camp there. As the group prepared to retire for the night, one woman went down to the murky water's edge to wash a few clothes. Soon afterward, the otehrs were awakened by her screams of "Por Dios!" (My God!).
Though her companions rushed immediately toward the water's edge, they arrived only to see the swishing tail of a huge alligator disappearing beneath the lake's surface. Unable to recover the woman's body, the other settlers erected a cross at the site in her memory.
Shocked and mournful, the group finally bedded down for what was agreed upon to be the final night there. But their slumber was disturbed again by the same scream, ringing out again and again: "Por Dios!" It was unmistakably her voice. At that, the campers packed up and left, but not before imparting the name that would stick: "Espantosa," a Spanish word meaning "fearful," "haunted," or "lake of the ghost."
Mermen and the greedy lake
The historic Presidio trail started around the lake's lower end, making the bank there one of the best known and conveniently located camping grounds on the highway between San Antonio, Tex. and Coahuila, Mexico in the first half of the 19th century. But talk of the Mexican woman's death and haunting return combined with a scattering of similar incidents over the next few years, soon transfigured the lake into the site of regional folklore. Legend held that a strange species of mermen supposedly inhabited the lake, emerging only to seize young women who dared approach the water's edge after the sun fell from the sky.
Every bit as enduring is the legend of the treasure-laden wagon. This Spanish wagon, hailing from San Saba, was filled with money,gold, silver, and jewels, and found its way to the banks of the Espantosa just a few years later. The wagoneers decided to camp there for the night, and after watering and hobbling their horses, they bunked down. No sooner had they drifted off to sleep, however, the ground suddenly began to tremble and shift beneath them. In a flash, the entire party --- men, wagon, and horses --- was swallowed with the collapsing earth. There were no survivors.
Of course, of such stuff are legends made.
The legend of the haunted wagon
It was only a few years after that mysterious engulfment that a cattleman named Cleary was camped with his hired man near the lake. Cleary had been advised by a local storekeeper that a supply wagon was expected soon and the cattleman had a taste for some tobacco, so he decided to wait it out. As they bedded down for the night both men heard the unmistakable sound of a wagon clattering down the road. Naturally, they believed it to be the supply wagon, and Cleary decided to head for the store the following morning.
When morning came, Cleary saddled his horse and rode toward the store, but was advised by the storekeeper that no wagon had arrived. Curious, Cleary rode out to the Presidio road to check for wagon tracks, and was stunned to find none there.
Shortly after Cleary's stay at the lakeside, a group of cowboys made camp there. That night, they all noted the same sound of a wagon rumbling toward them. One cowboy jokingly suggested that it might be the famed "ghost wagon" that had disappeared by the lake a few years before.
Another member of the party scoffed at the legend, and declared that he would prove that the wagon they were hearing was indeed real. Planting himself in the middle of the road, the skeptic drew his six-shooter and waited for the approach of the wagon. Even as the sound was nearly upon him, however, no discernible form of a wagon was evident in the dark, moonless night. The clatter of hoofbeats and wagon wheels drew still closer --- dangerously close --- and the cowboy drew his gun, shouting "Halt!"
The approaching noises continued unabated, so the cowboy tried Spanish: "Parate!" Still, the wheels and hooves approached. He could even hear the jingle of reins now.
Suddenly --- just as the noises were practically on top of him --- the tumult ceased. The silence endured only a moment; just behind him, as clearly as before, the wagon sounds continued onward past the lone figure in the road. Puzzled, the cowboy fired a single shot toward the sound, but the "wagon" continued along its way without so much as a pause.
Other, similar reports of the wagon have surfaced since then, though the sounds have only been reported as approaching the lake, never leaving it. One fortune hunter, after hearing of these tales, decided to dig a shaft at the foot of the lake where the treasure wagon was believed to have vanished. Water and mudslides overcame the shaft, however, and the fortune hunter was forced to abandon his search.
Ghosts of a massacre
In 1836, Dr. Charles Beale led a group of American colonists to the lake, where they stopped to camp en route to San Patricio. Their timing couldn't have been worse; General Santa Ana's Mexican army --- on its way to the Battle of the Alamo --- found its way to the lake just after they arrived, where they bivouacked, forcing Beale's settlers to seek cover in the nearby chaparral.
Tired and starving, the colonists re-emerged after the Mexican soldiers departed and re-established their lakeside camp. But before they could break camp and resume their journey, they were attacked by a band of Indians; nearly all of the colonists died in the ensuing battle.
In spite of the already-numerous tales of the misfortune befalling those who dared camp at the Espantosa, some intrepid American settlers and Mexican goat herders continued using the area as a campground. Others were undoubtedly attracted there to hunt for the treasures that had plunged beneath the ground inside the acclaimed "ghost wagon." Though no treasures were ever found, many would-be fortune hunters did return to the nearest towns wide-eyed and hyterical, swearing that they had seen the members of the lost Beale colony roaming the lake's edges at night.
The strange tale of George Dent
Perhaps the strangest tale of the Espantosa, though, is that of George Dent, who had camped near the lake with his pregnant wife while traveling in close proximity to the Beale colony. Possibly out of a wish for privacy, the Dents pitched camp a half-mile from the Beale group and thus were spared from becoming victims of the Indian massacre that obliterated most of the Beale group.
After hiding out from human predators for the second time, Dent maintained the campsite near the Espantosa; his wife was near the end of her pregnancy and was hesitant to travel. A severe thunderstorm occurred one night, during which Dent's wife went into labor. Alarmed, Dent mounted and rode off for help.
He came at length upon a small band of Mexican goat herders. Dent frantically told them of his wife's condition and begged some of the women to come and assist in the child's delivery. Upon learning of Dent's camp location, however, the superstitious Mexicans informed him that they wanted no part of Espantosa's ghostly environs, particularly at night, when the spirits were said to roam the lake and its shores.
Desperately, Dent pleaded with them, and eventually he prevailed upon one old woman to accompany him back to his camp. No sooner had the pair mounted up, though, than the already fierce storm resounded with renewed fury. Thunder crashed, and lightning illuminated the sky. Just such a bolt of lightning struck Dent, in fact, dropping him from atop his mount and killing him instantly.
After waiting out the violent storm, the goat herders mounted up and, following Dent's vague directions, tried to find his camp. The darkness and poor directions obscured their search, however, and the herders were forced to double back many times. Finally, at daybreak, they found Dent's campsite.
What they found there, however, was Mrs. Dent --- dead. She had obviously delivered her child, but the baby was nowhere to be found. After surveying the surrounding wreckage, the fang marks on the woman's body, and the numerous wolf tracks everywhere, the goat herders naturally surmised that the baby had been carried off by a pack of wolves.
The legend of the Espantosa "Wolf Girl"
And that's where the story ended --- until about 15 years later. At that time, four cowboys were herding cattle near the Espantosa. A pack of wolves approached, and the herders chased the potential predators off. But as the wolves fled, the men were stunned at an unbelievable sight. Running with the wolves was what appeared to be a young, naked girl.
Spurring their horses onward, the cowboys managed to separate the creature from her lupine companions and chased her into a steep draw, where they cornered her and used their lassos to immobilize the strange being. They examined her and noted her human appearance, in spite of her wild mannerisms and non-human characteristics. She was nude, but covered with hair, and lacked the capacity for speech, save for her low growling sounds. She was quite agile on all fours, but moved very awkwardly when forced to stand erect.
After some speculation, the men took the wolf-girl to an abandoned farmhouse, where she was locked in a back room. The cowoys took turns standing guard. After darkness fell, the creature began howling in a loud, shrill voice that not only unnerved her captors but pierced through the night and aroused the pack. Before long, the wolves crept toward the house and charged the cottage furiously, clawing and scratching at the doors and windows. Finally, they began attacking the horses and other domestic animals outsided, forcing the men to run outside to fight them off.
As the battle between men and beasts continued outside, there arose a din from within the house. Glass shattered and wood splintered. Afterwards, the cowboys examined the locked back room, only to find that its floorboards had been pried open, allowing the "lobo-girl" to escape. The strange creature was gone forever --- or so it appeared.
Spawn of the Wolf-Girl
Within two years of her capture and escape, sightings of the wolf girl were reported by area residents. Without fail, these claims told of a young, naked, hair-covered girl running with a wolfpack. One Espantosa visitor gave a graphic account of seeing the wolf-girl drinking at the banks of the lake as newborn cubs tugged at her breasts. Subsequent reports followed of wolves with human faces.
Of course, no beast can create more mayhem than its human counterpart, and the consequences of human folly have carved a large chunk of the lore that surrounds Espantosa.
In 1876, a large roving band of Mexican bandits camped at the Espantosa, only to be surprised by a pursuing posse of Texas Rangers. A tremendous battle ensued; when the smoke cleared, the Espantosa's banks were once more littered with the bodies of the dead and dying.
The legend continues
A stone marker was erected at the battle site in the '70's by the Texas State Historical Society. Although the plaque commemorates the 1876 battle, it also alludes to the many legends surrounding the Espantosa.
These legends are as powerful today as they were in their heyday; among them is the proverbial tale of adolescent lovers parked in a car at the lake's edge, only to meet with trauma or tragedy. Many area residents still claim to have heard the sounds of the woman screaming, the "ghost wagon" approaching, even the sounds of an unseen gun battle. Still others claim to have seen nocturnal visitations by members of the Beale colony, or a strange animal in the nearby woods that looks disturbingly human.
Whatever the veracity of these claims, the Espantosa remains a popular camping and recreational spot. Though the many legends distance some from the lakeside, they tend to draw just as many there for the same reasons. Regardless of whether its mysteries tantalize or terrify, one thing is certain: the Espantosa's lore and allure will endure as surely as the years roll onward.