Wolf Pen Creek Park
As a relatively new resident to College Station—my wife and I have lived here for about a year and a half at the time of this writing—one of our favorite places in town is Wolf Pen Creek Park.
Locals have asked me, “Which one?”
Technically, there’s just one Wolf Pen Creek Park. The name comes from the Navasota River tributary that begins on the A&M Campus and meanders east across College Station. The creek name comes, so the story goes, from research activities conducted at Texas A&M on a pack of wolves.
Maybe. Maybe not.
A Google search reveals no results for “A&M wolf study,” although there is recent mention that a 10,000-year-old dog/wolf cancer still impacts canines; and in 2014, a visiting professor from Sweden, Leif Andersson, was a recipient of the Wolf Prize in Agriculture, considered an equivalent in its field to the Nobel Prize.
We’ll leave the true etymology of Wolf Pen Creek Park to another day, but explain that the 47-acre municipal preserve was developed in three phases and dates back to a plan approved by the College Station City Council in 1988.
Phase I of Wolf Pen Creek Park was built on pasture land the city purchased in 1977. At the time, the road now known as Southwest Parkway marked the southern edge of town. Technically, it was “out of town” as little development and few home sites stretched that far south in College Station. William D. Fitch would change all that, as you’ve read in another story.
The goal of the Phase I plan was to “recognize the interrelationships of drainage, erosion control, and recreation” along Wolf Pen Creek, as well as to create a community attraction for residents and out-of-town guests.
At first glance that seems a rather disjointed set of objectives, but in reality, it is a perfect description of what the municipal-park-building business is all about: turning “bad” land into good, or at least salvaging property which even the most speculative of commercial or residential land developers wouldn’t otherwise touch.
Perhaps that overstates the matter a tad, but terms like “drainage” and “erosion control” are on par with “flood plain” when it comes to scaring off homesteaders.
The intersection of Dartmouth Street and Holleman Drive marks ground zero for the Wolf Pen Creek Park master plan. On the junction’s southeast corner is a lagoon whose picturesque presence serves a very practical purpose: drainage and erosion control. Beyond that is the park’s showcase venue: the Wolf Pen Creek Park Amphitheater.
I interviewed former College Station Parks Director Steve Beachy at Wolf Pen Creek Park, as roadies for the Randy Rogers Band prepared for a concert at the amphitheater that night. Although Beachy had been retired for more than a decade, he still knew every full- and part-time Parks & Recreation employee, several of whom passed by the park pavilion as we talked that morning.
Beachy quickly turned the tide on my interview when he asked me, “Why do you like the park?” I had told him my wife and I occasionally walk our dogs there, but other than that singular experience, I hadn’t given much thought as to why the park has such overall appeal to me.
He proceeded to tell me why. And he was right.
“This is one of the highest elevations in College Station” Beachy explained. “In addition, it’s also got good topographical relief. There’s water, trees, trails, a playground, the festival site, the amphitheater, the shelter, a gazebo, benches, and restrooms.”
That sounded like a lot. I was impressed.
I paused for a moment before replying, “That’s true, but I usually walk my dogs on the other side of the street.”
The “other side” is to the northwest of the Holleman/Dartmouth crossing. “As the creek winds through there,” I told Beachy, “it reminds me a little of the San Antonio River Walk.”
“That was sort of the intent for Phase II,” he replied. “You’ll notice a few of the restaurants that border the park on Harvey Road have patios or decks that overlook the park. That was by design.”
After spending time with Beachy, I found myself even more fond of “The Wolf.” Realizing I didn’t know what the park shorthand might be for locals, another Google search for “what do locals call Wolf Pen Creek Park” revealed that locals call it, “Wolf Pen Creek Park.”
Perhaps “The Wolf” will someday catch on.
Despite all the amenities and scenic vistas on both ends of Wolf Pen Creek Park, what Steve Beachy was most eager to talk about was the amphitheater and its 25-year history.
The first phase of “The Wolf” was dedicated in the spring of 1993. Beyond taxpayer dollars, much of the outside funding for the work came from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the Nina Heard Astin Trust.
Phase I was, literally, the center piece of the intended reclamation project which extends both east and west of the amphitheater. Beachy said starting in the middle turned out to be a bad idea.
“The original master plan had the park stretching from Texas Avenue to the Rudder Freeway” Beachy said.
In fact, on the west side, the park today ends at George Bush Drive East.
“Everyone was excited to build an amphitheater in town,” Beachy said, “so we started Phase I park construction at the location we thought would be most suitable for a performance venue.”
Unfortunately, there was that not-so-insignificant matter of “drainage and erosion.” A small pond—”tank” it would be called if it was built on a piece of rural property with the intent of watering livestock or holding fish—provides a picturesque backdrop from the hillside which accommodates spectators for performances at Wolf Pen Creek Amphitheater.
According to Beachy, the initial design called for that body of water to be considerably bigger.
“We were plagued with horrible weather conditions as we were building out Phase I,” Beachy said. “In fact, once we got done, heavy rains caused flooding in the area, and the silt which came from upstream nearly filled the pond in.
Given the flooding issue, Beachy and his team went back to work to figure out how to avoid future reoccurrences. In fact, the mud which was dredged and pumped from the original pond was used to raise the ground at the festival site west of the amphitheater. The silt left in the water served to give form to the smaller body of water which exists today.
Through the years, some extremely well-known acts have performed at Wolf Pen Creek Park. “Willie Nelson enjoyed coming here,” Beachy said. “When Tim McGraw came through he was just getting started in the business. Everybody fell in love with him. He was the nicest, most polite person.”
Others who have appeared on the Wolf Pen Creek Amphitheater stage include Joe Diffee, Pat Green, several tribute bands, and a purple dinosaur.
In fact, “Barney and Friends” was the show which inaugurated the site.
“‘Barney’ is still the biggest event we’ve ever had here,” Beachy said of the man-sized purple-and-green dinosaur which was all the rage after the live-action television series of the same name debuted on public television in the spring of 1992.
‘We wound up with a line of people showing up early for the show,” Beachy recalled. “That line stretched from here (the amphitheater grounds) to the mall.
“People waited for hours with their kids.”
The hysteria was keen on both sides.
“Children loved him!” Beachy said. “In fact, during the show I looked out into the audience and every kid here knew every word to every Barney song.
“It reminded me of a May-Day parade in Red Square.”
Unfortunately, there were those whose disdain for Barney was also keen.
“They made the guy in the dinosaur costume wear a bullet-proof vest.” Beachy said. “It was craziness.”