It started, as many cases do for Eugene Fernandez, director of South Texas Center for Historical and Genealogical Research, with a phone call.
“They said ‘Mr. Fernandez, you don’t know me, but…have you seen Lincoln Park lately?’ and there was this pause and I said ‘oh my God why’,” remembers Fernandez.
On Oct. 26 a TxDOT ground crew working in the old Lincoln Park, now a TxDOT right of way under the elevated US 83/77 Expressway, pruned two of the hundred-year-old Montezuma cypress trees that grew in between the main lanes.
Fernandez was out at the site within an hour of the call.
“My heart went into my stomach,” he said.
The trees had been over-pruned to the extent that almost nothing remained of their former leafy crowns. Fernandez was horrified, not only at the loss of the trees themselves, but for the loss they represented to the history of Brownsville.
Montezuma cypresses are in some ways a rarity in the Rio Grande Valley. According to Fernandez records of the tree’s presence here stretches back to 5,000 years ago as they traveled from Mexico along the Sabines River into the Rio Grande.
However they were one of the few sources of lumber in the Valley and the cypress forests were depleted by the late 1800s. In Brownsville the trees are largely found now at the Jagou Plantation and the old Lincoln Park.
The park was part of decades of development starting in the 1920s with further additions and improvements coming through WPA funding and labor as part of the New Deal.
Lincoln Park was forested with numerous Montezuma cypresses and other species that flourished along a leg of Town Resaca that ran through the grounds.
However, time marched on and with it came an end to the park as the US 77/83 Expressway was expanded to connect with Los Tomates Bridge in the late 90s leaving behind only three of the cypresses.
Fernandez, a known champion of the trees through his work with the Jagou Plantation, was ready to take up their cause.
He reached out to the city of Brownsville and crafted an online petition to send out to his 1,500 followers collecting signatures that could then be presented to TxDOT to get reparations. City municipal code requires an assessment from the city forester to remove major trees of importance, according to Fernandez.
Never one to air a problem without a solution, Fernandez proposed that TxDOT purchase 12 Montezuma cypress trees from a nursery in Harlingen. Two trees could be planted to replace the ones lost, while the others would be placed on vistas around Brownsville for the public.
Then each tree could be adopted by one of Fernandez’s followers and watched over for a year until established enough to survive.
In late December TxDOT agreed with the plan.
“As partners, we work in a way that is responsible and in harmony with local authorities. In this case, to show our goodwill, TxDOT has agreed to provide the city with 12 cypress trees to be planted on the city right of way and to be maintained by the city,” said Octavio O. Saenz, Public Information Officer for TxDOT in a statement on Dec. 18.
“With twelve trees growing up in the legacy of the two that were sacrificed, we feel as though that is a fair trade,” said Fernandez.
There’s even some hope for the original trees. Cypress trees don’t re-sprout or coppice easily, but it is possible if conditions are right.
“Some tree species coppice very easily and some don’t at all, cypress is in the middle,” said Bill Green, a community forester with the Texas A&M Forest Service.
There is a small chance that, given time and luck, these two cypresses will see Brownsville through another century alongside the 12 planted as their legacy.