Everything about Santa Anna begins with the mountains. Visitors here are amused that we call them that. After all, they wouldn’t even be good foothills in lots of places in the US. But to us, they look like mountains, standing proudly above the immediate landscape. So I probably should have begun telling tales with the mountains.
The United States Geological Survey says that Santa Anna Mountains climb to 1,932 feet above sea level. The elevation in the “Gap” is 1,675 feet. So the peaks are some 300 feet above the normal landscape. That’s about equal to a building thirty stories tall. Just in front of the southwest corner of the Santa Anna National Bank is a brass survey elevation marker imbedded in the sidewalk. There is another exactly like it on the east mountain directly up from the WPA bandstand and Cross. Anyone can read the numbers on them and do the math. The Mountains are located at latitude – longitude coordinates (also called GPS coordinates) of N 31.747649 and W -99.326726.
To the geologists, Santa Anna’s Peaks are known as erosional remnants (or outliers). They stand in the western part of what geologists call the North Central Plains. Sandstone and limestone are Cretaceous rocks that are exposed at the surface overlying the Pennsylvanian strata and dipping gently to the southeast. These stone layers were laid down from 65 to 145 million years ago when this area was under a vast, warm, shallow inland sea. As the land rose and the water drained away, it eroded the areas around and left the mountains as sentinels above the surrounding plains.
Human beings have long seen Santa Anna’s Peaks as valuable from the beginning. To Native Americans it was obvious. Rising some 300 feet above the surrounding plains, early Indians could observe every movement from forty miles south in the Brady Range to forty miles north in the Callahan Divide. As long as the lookouts on top were awake and vigilant, the camps below were safe from attack. In addition, Indians employed the peaks as centers of smoke signals.
in 1851, Jacob de Cordova published one of the earliest maps of Texas. De Cordova did his traveling and surveying of the state in the late 1830s and 1840s. This is the first evidence of this area being under the control of Comanche Chief Santa Anna. The map marks the relative position of “Santa Anna’s Peaks” north of the Colorado River and west of Pecan Bayou.
Somewhat later, Texas Rangers camped at the foot of the mountain. This was before the area was settled, and cattle drives from South Texas to northern markets passed through the gap in the mountain along what many local old-timers called Military Road. This road helped supply the outpost forts along the Texas Forts Trail. Historians think that the drovers on the Western Trail used the mountains as guideposts when the drives left the Brady range heading north to Dodge City, Kansas.
Later uses of the mountains were not so benevolent. In 1911 sand was discovered here. The sand was extremely high in silica content and useful for making glass. Though interrupted for about twenty years, the mining of sand ceased in 1964 when the vein went deeper and insurance costs became prohibitive. In the 1970s, landowners of the peaks began leasing them to gravel mining companies. Now both peaks have large areas on top that are hollowed out from the dynamiting and crushing of the limestone caprock that created the mountains millions of years ago.
A person can hope that these sentinels on the plains will last another million years.