Raising race horses in 1840?…. it happened here…. McKinney Falls State Park, Austin, Travis County, Texas

One doesn’t think of race horses in 1840 but that was exactly what transpired on the land owned by Thomas Freeman McKinney.


McKinney Falls are just not gorgeous but this area is steeped in Texas history. On the sign it also reads “Camino Real de los Tejas.” The Camino Real de los Tejas translated means Royal Texas Highway. The Camino Real de los Tejas ran from Natchitoches, Louisiana to Mexico City. It was the main conduit for travel into and out of Texas during the Spanish colonial period.

By road mileage McKinney Falls is absolutely the closest to home. But it requires a trip through Austin and through some major road construction, so I don’t come often. They are finishing up the new road which is a toll road so I am on the fence about coming here more frequently.

McKinney Falls encompasses 745 acres of the old McKinney holdings.

The Camino Real de los Tejas ran over this large outcropping to a crossing on Onion Creek.

But the history of this land starts well before that. In the canyons along Onion Creek Native Americans, probably of the Tonkawa tribe lived in a rock shelter on the property.

The Rock Shelter showing signs of an Archeological dig the day I visited
Looking down into Onion Creek Canyon

“Old Baldy” a 500 year old bald cypress tree growing on the creek bank is still a major sight.

Old Baldy

But the biggest story here is that of Thomas Freeman McKinney. Through a couple of business deals McKinney came to own nine leagues (40,000 acres roughly)of a land grant once owned by Santiago Del Valle, an official of the Mexican government of Coahuila y Tejas. In fact the surrounding area is still known as Del Valle (Del Valley) today.

History of the Del Valle land grant

Anyway McKinney is believed to be the first owner who actually lived on the land as he built……..ur…… had his slaves build a limestone house across Onion Creek on the Camino Real de los Tejas.

ruins of the McKinney homestead.

The house, although no longer in family hands, was occupied by tenant farmers until it burnt in the 1940’s. The last known occupants were Sandy Nixon and his wife.

McKinney also built a grist mill on Onion Creek. McKinney’s mill was a bit different then most at the time. A crude water turbine was buried in a channel in the ground attached to a vertical shaft that drove the grinding stone. A massive flood in 1869 destroyed McKinney’s mill.

Ruins of McKinney’s Mill
vertical shaft at the grist mill

But Thomas McKinney’s love was thoroughbred race horses.

Who was Thomas McKinney? McKinney was one of the original 300 to settle in Stephen F Austin’s Anglo-American colony. He made his money as a merchant and in shipping along the Gulf coast and was one of the founders of Galveston, Texas. He also funded 10% of the Texas Revolution, a debt that would haunt him the rest of his life. He served in the first Congress of the Republic of Texas. Thomas McKinney was a big deal in Texas.

McKinney used his land for ranching and raising thoroughbred race horses.

His slaves built rock walls as fences and he hired John Van Hagan to train his horses.

Polo, racing and horse shows all are doing great work to help the farmer and rancher to raise better horses.

Will Rogers

After the Civil War the slaves and Van Hagan left, McKinney died and his wife Anna was left to settle his debts, which she did by selling the property to James Wood Smith in 1885. Smith’s descendants gave the land to the state in 1973.

Remains of the horse trainers cabin
Stone fence sections still run through the woods at McKinney Falls.

I am here today as a last resort. I had a trip planned to Dinosaur Valley State Park but due to rain the Paluxy River is high, the riverside trails closed and the dinosaur prints are underwater, muddy water. So to use the rain to my advantage I came to McKinney Falls. Last time I was here the falls were just a trickle, I was betting that this day would be different. And I was correct……

Upper McKinney Falls

The Upper Falls were thundering over the limestone cliff. I knew it was going to be good when I could hear them from the parking lot. I hiked through the old picnic grounds towards the Lower Falls and took the trail to the Rock Shelter and Old Baldy.

Rock Shelter Trail
Trail at Old Baldy

After taking in these popular sights I moved on down Onion Creek towards the Lower Falls.

Onion Creek

There is a rock formation on the way that I can’t figure out how very much water gets through. There are a couple of narrow channels, but the creek widens below this point. I puzzle on it every time I see it.

this isn’t beside the creek this formation runs across the creek
confluence of Onion Creek and Williamson Creek

I finally reach the Lower Falls after crossing a section of the Camino Real de los Tejas.

Lower McKinney Falls

I hiked down a gravel bar looking for a better picture.

Lower Mckinney Falls

Most times you can cross the creek here where the old Camino Real de los Tejas crossed. On the other side is where the McKinney homestead and mill are located. But today it ain’t happening. Most of the trail miles are also across the creek. So I resort to plan B, the hike and bike trail. although paved, the asphalt is so old and cracked most of the trail feels natural. The trail is 2.8 miles in length and takes you through the wooded section of the park.

Hike and Bike Trail McKinney Falls

All in all a good day, I used the rain to my advantage and got in a five mile hike before the rain returned.

Hike and bike trail
Upper Falls

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