Posted by: Steve Martinez | February 19, 2010

Thompson Islands Hike

Yesterday’s weather was more than welcome after the weeks of rain and cold. I was fortunate enough to have the day off, so I couldn’t bear to stay inside all day. So to get my legs stretched out I took a short trip out to the John J. Stokes Sr. San Marcos River Park. The park is located on the San Marcos River off of County Road 299 also known as Cape Road. You can find directions to the park here. You will hear the park called by many names here in San Marcos. Some call it Stokes Park; it is officially named the John J. Stokes Sr. San Marcos River Park. Yet another name it goes by, and the one I am most familiar with is Thompson Islands. The park is nestled amongst a system of channels that were diverted from the San Marcos River to power a mill built in 1850. The Historical marker near the entrance to the park states-

“William A. Thompson brought his family and slaves to Texas from Louisiana in 1850. They established plantations in Caldwell and Hays counties. With slave labor, the family built a mill on the San Marcos River near this site. Construction and operation of the mill resulted in the creation of three land masses in the river channel which became known as Thompson’s Islands. The land remained in the family for generations, and the mill, which provided power for local lumber operations and a cotton gin, became an important element in the area’s economy.”

Another historical marker located nearby at Conway and River Road marks the sight of the Thompson’s Island Homeplace, it states-

“Dr. William Alexander Thompson (1803-1879) made an agreement with neighbors in 1850 to use the San Marcos River for irrigation and as a source of energy. He and his sons William A. and James used slave labor to build a gristmill, sawmill and cotton gin. The land masses formed by digging a ditch for the waterwheel and a sluiceway from the river were called “Thompson Islands.” The Thompsons directed the business until 1911 when John Matthew Cape (1861-1933) bought the mill. The use of electricity in 1942 ended the mill’s need for water power.”

Looking for more information about the Thompson family I found another historical marker listed on the Texas Historical Commission website marking the sight of the Thompson Plantations. It does not have a location listed so I am not sure exactly where the marker is located, but it states-

“Part of the Thomas G. McGehee land grant of 1835, this site was the hub of the four Thompson plantations. Confederate veteran William A. Thompson (1836-1913) assembled the adjacent parcels of land, which he later divided among his four sons. He also ran a sawmill, gristmill, and cotton gin in this vicinity. This house was built in 1898-99 and occupied by William H. Thompson (1876-1948) while he managed his father’s property. The fields were devoted to cotton until the decline of that crop in the 1920s. Part of the acreage was then leased to the U.S. Air Force for flight training.”

This is what I find really interesting about this park. Not only is it a beautiful piece of property it is also steeped with history. Hiking around the park you can see the remnants of the machinery used to operate the mill abandoned scattered around the river bottom. Make sure when you visit to explore the park on both sides of Cape Road. The hiking is extremely easy with nice well-beaten trails and even terrain. The park is not too large, and can easily be hiked in entirety in an afternoon. In the summer when the weather is warmer it is fun to swim across the channels and explore the three islands created by the mill. However take caution as the currents can be dangerous. The river is flowing alot faster now than it has in recent history so I would take extra precautions before plunging in around rapids and submerged structures. There are plenty of areas to swim and lounge on the banks of the river. There are even a few rope swings along the banks of the river. The area is also full of wildlife. On my trip I saw Cardinals, Blue Jays, Mockingbirds, a Great Blue Heron, turtles, and squirrels. Weekdays before the schools get out are the best time to come as it gets pretty crowded on the weekend afternoons.
My complaint is the state of the park. It is not maintained to the level I feel it should be. It is not only an important natural area, it is rich in history. Slaves toiled away digging the channels by hand to harness the power of the river. Trees from the area were brought to be milled into lumber to build the beautiful historical homes in San Marcos. The people that owned the mill were amongst the first families of Texas. The machinery and remnants of the mill are scattered about the park slowly deteriorating back into the earth. The city should recognize this treasure rotting away in their city. It is absolutely a piece of San Marcos history. The trails are not marked-there is no mention along the trails of the slaves forced to toil away, the importance of the mill to develop San Marcos, or the amazing engineering that went into harnessing the river’s power. I think the city should remove the machinery, preserve it, and place it in a museum. They could build a great interpretive trail around the existing structures and channels of the old mill creating an attraction for history buffs like myself. They could use the rapids and waterfalls created to build a great boating rapid (i.e. Rio Vista). It could and should be a San Marcos treasure. If you do go visit the park keep in mind the history and the importance of the sight to early San Marcos. On my hike, I noticed a couple of African-American men fishing on the banks of one of the mill channels. I couldn’t help but wonder if they knew how the very concrete they sat on got there. Did they know their ancestors were forced to dig these channels by hand and construct this old mill?



  1. Great first post!

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