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Panthers in the park

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —

Growing up on Kentucky Boulevard in the ‘60s, my “backyard” included Panther Canyon. All the streets in that hilltop neighborhood dead-ended at the canyon, including Kentucky before New Braunfels High was built. We called it simply “the canyon” and it provided many hours of imaginative exploration, old tires for us to make into tire swings, and a quick way down to the park. There were a few cave-like holes in the cliff face which we were certain were the lairs of panthers and bears, although we never saw any.

In 1853, Hermann Seele described an incident which occurred at Comal Springs in the local paper. It was reprinted in the 1906 Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung Kalendar and then translated into English by Oscar Haas in 1970. In the article, Seele described the humbling beauty of the springs and the crystal clear waters of the Comal. Then, he cut to the chase.

On a pleasant April evening in 1852, Maria Z. had taken medicine to an indigent family living in the forest and had come to the main spring. After having rested there for a length of time … she suddenly heard a scream which she at first took to be the voice of a woman. However, of this she was soon disillusioned when at the same moment there came out of the thick underbrush, a huge panther which rolled himself close to her side.

Maria was, understandably, so frozen in terror that she didn’t even call out. She and the panther locked eyes for several long minutes. The panther made no move to attack her and she had almost decided it was all her imagination when it began to whine loudly in pain. Maria then noticed that the animal could not close its jaws — at all — never mind having her for lunch.

Now looking more closely, she was astounded to discover that a large bone was wedged in between the molar and eye teeth, which prevented the animal from closing its jaws … the animal turned its head slowly closer as if to show the difficult situation it was in.

Could it be possible, she thought, that instinct tells wild animals that man can help them if he wants to? She recalled the story about the slave Androcles and the lion … but even if it had been in her power to dislodge that bone, would not the danger then be even greater?

Apparently, Maria and the beast exchanged a look that gave her the courage to move closer and relaxed the panther so that he moved his paws away from her. Picking up a nearby stone and wedge-like stick, she knocked the bone free from the panther’s jaw. Maria remained very quiet and still and watched as the animal moved over to the springs to take what could have been his first drink in hours, if not even days. As the panther drank his fill, Maria high-tailed it to the nearby cabin of George Klappenbach where she promptly fainted. Waking half an hour later, Maria told the family about her fantastic adventure.

The family hardly could believe it, but walking well-armed to the spring, found there the bone on which the impressions of strong teeth were plainly visible, also the slaver-covered wedge and stone, and in particular the impress in the grass where the panther had lain, and the still fresh footprints at the spring. The next day the footprints were followed far up into the hills; but the panther itself never was found.

Was this story responsible for the name “Panther Canyon” being given to the gorge behind the springs? Now, if only my brother Tobin and Randy Lohman and I had known that story back-in the-day. The adventures we could have made up!

While on the search for the answer, I came across some interesting ideas this community has had for Panther Canyon in the not-too-distant past. Did you know that the canyon was acquired by the city in the mid-’40s? That in 1958, the park wanted to have a pony ride concession down in the canyon? That in 1961, the Chamber of Commerce proposed building a replica of the Braunfels Castle to use as a museum somewhere in the canyon’s tree-shadowed bottom? That the Lions Club had looked into erecting a 1600-seat amphitheater under the limestone cliffs in 1963? That in 1968 and again in 1973, the city seriously considered building a bridge across Panther Canyon to connect California Boulevard to Fredericksburg Road in order to cut down the traffic through the park?

These proposals, products of their time, seem odd, even unthinkable, to us now. We know the area as a nature trail and truth-be-told, I’m rather glad none of them came to fruition and “the canyon” retains some of the wildness of my childhood memories.

I still don’t know when citizens began calling the gorge Panther Canyon. The Sophienburg has drawings and maps as far back as 1845 showing the canyon, but it doesn’t appear named on one until WPA plans in 1936. If anybody out there knows please let me know. Until then I’m going with Hermann Seele’s story as the source.

One more thing. In 1971, there was a resident on Panther Canyon who recorded big cat tracks measuring 2½ to 3 inches wide in the mud of the usually dry creek bed after a hard rain. Who knows what might still be lurking in the leafy, quiet depths of what we call Panther Canyon.

Hermann Seele at the Comal Springs, January 30, 1894. Sophienburg Collection (1075B)

Hermann Seele at the Comal Springs, January 30, 1894. Sophienburg Collection (1075B)

Sources:

  • Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung, New Braunfels Herald and New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung
  • Oscar Haas Collection — Sophienburg Museum and Archives
  • Historic Map Collection — Sophienburg Museum and Archives