Miracles take place every day. Some of them just happen to take place over millions of years.
Texas is a spectacular state with plenty to see and experience. Whether it’s enjoying all the hidden treasures here in the Rio Grande Valley, being mesmerized by the immensity of the Palo Duro Canyon, camping under the stars at Big Bend National Park, standing in awe at the foot of the majestic Gorman Falls, or traversing the inspiring Monahans Sandhills in West Texas, there is an abundance of astounding natural beauty to be seen all throughout Texas.
Some of the most wondrous natural sites include areas of petrified forests.
Formed over millions of years, the petrification process turns trees and tree-like plants into glimmering fossils of various colored crystals. And you can find these wondrous relics of the past all throughout Texas (and the United States) including Deep South Texas.
Petrified wood is a special type of fossil that forms when plant material is buried under sediment - like volcanic ash - and avoids decaying because of a lack of oxygen. Once the tree or plant material has been buried, water rich in minerals such as silicate, quartz, calcite, pyrite, and opal, begins to flow through it, slowly replacing the organic remains with stone in a process known as permineralization.
The minerals - over millions of years - eventually crystallize in the tree but help to retain the original structure of the stem tissue and preserve details of the bark and wood. The organic materials will eventually decompose and the remaining fossil will essentially become a stone.
Depending on the level of preservation, some fossils of petrified wood will look exactly like the original piece of wood but weigh much more. Most, however, will begin to take on a distinctive look featuring exotic colors that can include copper, cobalt, pink, and on rare occasions, red and green hues.
Amazingly, entire petrified wood forests exist all throughout the world - including in Texas.
Luckily for scholars, historians, and amateur geologists alike, there are plenty of sites in the world where petrified wood can be found. Whether in volcanic deposits, sedimentary rocks, mudflows, or coal seams, fossilized forests tell the story of a world without humans.
In the United States alone, there are an abundance of petrified forests, including:
There are also petrified forests in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Egypt, Germany, India, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and a number of other nations across the globe.
Not to be outdone, the Rio Grande Valley has its own unique history with petrified wood.
Many of the petrified forests that exist in the world were created by volcanic explosions that left huge tracts of trees and land covered in thick layers of volcanic ash. One such site is the Calistoga Petrified Forest in California.
Noted as one of the most impressive petrified forests in the world, this fascinating spot was created as a result of an especially violent volcanic explosion by Mt. St. Helena that took place more than 3 million years ago. The eruption of the now extinct volcano was so powerful that it leveled the Redwood trees that were seven miles away.
The petrified forest was to remain hidden for millions of years before a man by the name of Charles Evans would discover the stone-hard logs on his pasture.
What does this have to do with the Rio Grande Valleya?
Well, potentially a lot.
Dr. Juan Gonzalez, geologist and UTRGV associate professor in the School of Earth, Environmental, and Marine Sciences, and his colleagues, have found evidence of volcanic ash and activity in Starr County. But there is still plenty of mystery surrounding the site.
The team of scientists have found clear examples of the Goliad Formation, which was formed five 5-7 million years ago. Directly below the Goliad Formation is the Catahoula Formation, which is estimated to be around 27 million years old.
Intriguingly, there is no geologic record of the 20 million years of history that took place between the two eras. To add to this puzzle, the 27 million-year-old Catahoula Formation has been found to be made of ash. The ash of only one eruption that left a 20-meter thick layer of volcanic ash in the Rio Grande Valley.
But where exactly was this volcano? That’s what Dr. Juan Gonzalez, his collaborators, and UTRGV students are hoping to find out.
Still, consider this. If there was a volcanic eruption that took place near the Rio Grande Valley, then perhaps this cataclysmic event left behind petrified trees or even a forests that has yet to be discovered.
Or has it?
The Rio Grande Valley has plenty of historically significant gems to offer. From ancient oyster beds in Roma to the aptly named La Sal Del Rey salt lake in central Hidalgo County, there’s an amazing world of wonders that few people are aware of.
One of these phenomena which seems to have been lost to time was a petrified forest near Roma. Local newspapers like The Brownsville Herald noted the petrified forest as far back as the 1930s.
Harry W. Foehner, of the Valley Morning Star, wrote in 1938, “There’s a strange upside down world near Roma...nearly all the hills on Natividad Ranch, about a mile and a half north of the highway, are covered with the petrified remains of trees, oyster shells sponges, and even snails. Although the petrified forest as it is generally called, has been there for thousands of years, it is only within recent years that is has become generally known to the people of the Valley.”
But it appears that the petrified forest would gain considerable recognition in the years to come. While Foehner wrote of the petrified forest, enthusiast Zenon Pena of Roma, was gathering what was then the largest single collection of petrified tree specimens in the entire state of Texas. The Monitor highlighted his accomplishments in 1957; originally a barber in Roma, Pena discovered his first specimen of petrified wood ever unearthed in the Valley in 1929. Years later, he would retire from barbering and would instead come to devote his time to cattle raising and growing his petrified wood collection. The largest piece of petrified wood discovered by Pena was a 13-foot-long section that took eight men to dig it out.
Zenon Pena’s collection would soon come to fill his yard while tourists would venture to the region to see some of the most amazing pieces in the state.
Another interesting site in the Rio Grande Valley was the home of Mr. and Mrs. R Cummings east of Donna. Built in the late 1920s from petrified trees taken from the petrified forest that existed near Roma with some pieces weighing between 400 to 500 pounds. The idea was initially to only use the petrified wood on the corners but the aesthetically pleasing effect of the unique material was so profound that the owners decided to build the walls of the house with it as well.
Unfortunately, the petrified forest appears to be no more. Jim Chapman, in 1992, wrote in The Monitor, “Several books written in the 1940s and ‘50s mentioned the petrified forest near Roma. More recent books do not, because the ‘forest’ is now gone. It was...hauled away or sold off. Pieces still turn up in gravel pits and eroding hillsides, but a day spent pursuing the exact location of the former forest proved futile.”
But there are remnants still to be found in the region. One such site that carries the history of this lost petrified forest is the Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Rio Grande City.
Built in 1928 primarily by Rev. Gustav Gollbach, the grotto is 33 feet high and 90 feet wide. The grotto is decorated with plants from the region surrounding Rio Grande City as well as rocks and petrified wood from Escobares.
While, sadly, not much may be left of the Roma petrified forest, there still remains plenty of petrified wood to be found throughout Texas including in areas such as College Station/Bryan, Leon County, Titus County, Wise County, and Live Oak County.
As families travel throughout Texas on summer vacation, there are a number of interesting buildings and sites that might be worth checking out for those keen on petrified wood including:
Texas - and our beloved Rio Grande Valley - is indeed a state like no other.