Thursday, December 15, 2016

Those Places Thursday: Rodd Field / Bill Witt Park, Corpus Christi

Each time I visit Corpus Christi, I stop at Bill Witt Park.  It is the former Rodd Field Naval Auxiliary Air Station (during World War II) and former NASA Texas Manned Space Flight Network Tracking Station.  It was acquired by the City of Corpus Christi in 1979 (while I was working for its Park and Recreation Department) as part of the federal government's Surplus Property for Parks program (now the Federal Land to Parks program).

Above:  Me at Bill Witt Park, July 10, 2000.                        Below:  Same park sign on June 18, 2016.

In those days (late 1970s), governmental entities could obtain the federal surplus property for free, but the land "must be used for public park and recreational use in perpetuity," with the recipient bearing the costs for any such development.  After completing a thorough formal application process that took nearly a year, the city was awarded 126.97 acres in August 1979, and an additional 9.25 acres containing a hangar in November 1979.  Proposed developments for the original acreage included a softball complex, fitness trail, a recreation center using existing buildings on the site, picnic areas, playgrounds, multi-purpose sports fields, and open space.   The hangar was envisioned as a gymnasium with facilities for tennis, basketball, handball, and racquetball.

I took the photo below at the acceptance ceremony held on August 22, 1979.  Corpus Christi Mayor Luther Jones, on the right, accepts the deed from Edwin Shellenberger, assistant regional director for recreation programs for the South Central Regional Office of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (HCRS).  Mr. Shellenberger is wearing a Corpus Christi Parks and Recreation t-shirt in the photo, because his luggage was lost on the flight from his office in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  The woman to the right of Mayor Jones is Mary Lou Huffman, who was chair of the Corpus Christi Parks and Recreation Advisory Board at the time.  Note that the lower two thirds of this sign was incorporated into the Bill Witt Park sign pictured above.

Above:  Rodd Field Tracking Station acceptance ceremony, August 22, 1979.

The picture above is of the Rodd Field Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) in 1943, in its heyday.  There are photos and stories about this period at the Brown Shoes Project website on early Naval aviation, and Paul Freeman has a wonderful website with photos from the station throughout its entire history.  The original 861 acres were acquired in 1940 for Naval Cadet flight training and as an auxiliary landing field for the nearby Naval Air Station Corpus Christi.  Rodd Field eventually had four paved runways ranging from 4,800 to 5,138 feet long, taxiways, a ramp area, three steel and metal 200-square-foot hangars (two originally, with one including a control tower, with a third added by December 1942), and a street grid with a total of 75 buildings.

The two oldest hangars were relocated from Rodd Field to Chase Field in nearby Beeville in 1954.  By 1958, Rodd NAAS had been closed, and the property was first declared surplus in 1958.  The General Services Administration (GSA) sold portions of it in 1960. Most of the 75-building street grid, at the top of the photo above, became an industrial park, and the site of the two removed hangars, at the bottom two in the photo above, became a rebar fabrication company.

GSA transferred the 136 acres of the northern portion of the base (the part that later became Bill Witt Park) to NASA in 1964.  They opened the Texas Manned Space Flight Network Tracking Station there in March 1967. The hangar housed the station's administrative offices, computers, and communications equipment.  The 30-foot dish antenna was about a half-mile north on the property, near two buildings that, as of June 18, 2016, still stood.

During the Apollo Program, Rodd Field served as a remote station for tracking and telemetry as well as voice communications, and as a lunar vehicle uplink facility to Mission Control Center Houston. The tracking station was closed by 1974, and the property was transferred back to GSA - who, along with HCRS, gave it to the City of Corpus Christi in 1979.

Above:  from a U.S. government brochure about the tracking station / No known copyright restrictions

Below:  The NASA tracking station dish antenna is clearly visible in the upper left corner, and the last NAAF hanger in the lower right corner, in this enlargement from the single frame aerial photo Entity ID:AR1VBVF00020013, taken October 9, 1967, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey via EarthExplorer / Public Domain

Compare the photo above, taken in October 1967, with the photo below, taken in April 2010, of the same area of Rodd Field.  The circular pad for the tracking station antenna in the upper left corner has the antenna on it in the 1967 photo, only the pad remains in 2010 (and only half of it today; a youth football or soccer field has been built over the other half).  The hangar is visible in 1967, only the outline of its location remains in the 2010 photo (and that is pretty much gone in today's aerial photos).  Most remarkably, with the exception of city park lands, much of the old Rodd Field is now covered with subdivisions, like that intruding from the left in the photo below.

Above: The site of the NASA tracking station dish antenna is still visible in the upper left corner, and the outline of the last NAAF hanger in the lower right corner, in this enlargement from the NAIP GEOTIFF Entity ID:M_2709721_SE_14_1_20100424, taken April 24, 2010, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey via EarthExplorer / Public Domain

Below:  from page 3 of the August 1982 "City Quill", the City of Corpus Christi employee newsletter

So what happened to Rodd Field?  First, after the acquisition, it was named Bill Witt Park, in honor of a former director of the City of Corpus Christi Park and Recreation Department, 1951-1974.  As indicated from the City employee newsletter, above, that I worked on (by this point I was with the Information Services office, and I took all of these photographs), by August 1982, the park had a "lighted, four-field softball complex complete with a concession stand / restroom / press box building in the center, bleachers, an automatic irrigation system and other amenities."

A second softball or baseball complex was completed sometime after 2003 and before 2010.  The park is also full of soccer and youth football fields, with a restroom/concession building and playground nearby.  The old runways and ramps serving as park roads and parking lots, and picnic tables appear in the trees near the old tracking station site.  The city acquired an additional 175 acres adjacent to the south edge of the park in 1987-1988, which became Oso Creek Park.  The 1.5-mile Bear Creek Trail, completed in 2015, runs along the eastern edge of Bill Witt Park and connects it to nearby neighborhoods, schools, and other parks, including it terminus at Oso Creek.

However, the recreation center and gymnasium proposed back in 1979 never came to be.  The hangar, already in bad shape then, continued to deteriorate.  A 1996 Army Corps of Engineers report described it as “an attractive nuisance to teenagers who frequent the public park” and recommended its demolition, and it was finally (and quietly) torn down between 2006 and 2008.

Two buildings near the tracking station area that were considered as possible recreation center sites still stand.  They, too, suffer from vandalism and decay.  They seem to be popular sites for flying quadcopters mounted with GoPro cameras and other remote-control aircraft (and vehicles).

© Amanda Pape - 2016 - click here to e-mail me.

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