Castle Gap is a pass through the Castle Mountains, whose rimrock suggests the parapets of a castle, between Crane and McCamey at the edge of the Edwards Plateau in extreme western Upton County (at 31°18' N, 102°17' W). The gap is a mile long and only yards wide at its narrowest point. It lies 421 feet below the summits of Castle Mountain to the north and King Mountain to the south, each of which rises to an elevation of 3,141 feet. The pass opens westward to the arid lowlands of the Pecos valley and toward Horsehead Crossing, twelve miles west-southwest.
Geologically, Castle Gap originated 135 million years ago as marine limestone deposits that eventually resulted in a great mesa subsequently split by erosion. In prehistoric times the gap was a natural gateway to and from crossings on the Pecos River for Indian nomads seeking buffalo on the Edwards Plateau or salt at Juan Cordona Lake, fifteen miles westward. Springs at the gap later prompted Comanches to name it Weick Pah, "Gap-Water."
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca describes a river flowing north to south with thirty leagues of plain on the west and an eastern ridge, identical to the topography of the Pecos River adjacent to Castle Gap. This fact suggests he may have passed through the break in 1535, when he traveled from the Texas coast to settlements in Mexico. In the fall of 1760 forty-one Spaniards dispatched by Capt. Felipe Rábago y Terán likely passed through Castle Gap in scouting a route from the presidio at the site of present-day Menard to Santa Fe. With the advent of the Comanche War Trail by 1800, Comanches, Kiowas, Rocky Mountain Utahs, and Plains Apaches used Castle Gap as a route to and from their raiding grounds in Mexico. Dr. Henry Connelly became one of the first English-speaking men to pass through the gap when he and a guard of fifty dragoons freighted seven wagons of bullion from Chihuahua City, Chihuahua, to an army post in what is now Oklahoma in 1839. By the late 1840s California-bound prospectors had established a wagon route from the confluence of the branches of the Concho in what is now Tom Green County up the Middle Concho to its head and across sixty-two miles of desert to Castle Gap.
The necessity of surveying the region brought several parties to Castle Gap in 1849 and 1850, including those of John S. (Rip) Ford and Maj. Robert S. Neighbors in April 1849, Bvt. 1st Lt. Francis T. Bryan in July 1849, and John Russell Bartlett in October 1850. From 1858 to 1861 Butterfield Overland Mail stages passed through the gap twice a week on their 2,795-mile, twenty-five-day trips between Tipton, Missouri, and San Francisco. The first stage traversed the pass on the night of September 25, 1858, en route to fresh mules at Horsehead Crossing. Butterfield soon constructed a two-story stage station of native rock at the gap's west end, where a spring supplied the needs of attendants and stage teams. In an 1869 sketch, Col. Thomas B. Hunt pictured the station as two structures lying immediately south of the road.
In 1864 William A. Peril drove the first cattle herd of any size through Castle Gap en route from the Hill Country to Chihuahua. The most noteworthy drive occurred in the spring of 1866, when Charles Goodnight, Oliver Loving, and eighteen men trailed 2,000 longhorn steers and breeding cows to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, from the Brazos in North Texas by way of the Middle Concho and Castle Gap. The drive opened up the Goodnight-Loving Trail for hundreds of succeeding drovers, who used the route as a springboard to push cattle as far north as Montana.
In the 1860s and 1870s Castle Gap was the frequent site of raids on cattle herds by Indians, who used the cattle as barter with Comancheros in New Mexico. Because of this, alternate routes were employed as early as 1859. The railroad subsequently bypassed the gap to the south, and erosion destroyed the wagon road. Castle Gap was closed as a practical route between 1910 and 1920.
Treasure hunters still frequent the gap in search of any of eight treasures supposedly lost in the vicinity. They include gold said to have been cached by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1540, the Catholic Cross Cache of 1780, a horseshoe keg full of gold lost by a returning California Forty-niner, a Butterfield stage treasure hidden in 1860, gold cached by Old Bill Castle and Little Bill Castle in the 1860s, $40,000 stashed by outlaws who preyed on passing wagoners, gold and rifles from a United States Army wagon train of the late 1860s, and the treasure of Mexican emperor Maximilian, stashed in 1867.
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John Russell Bartlett, Personal Narrative of Explorations...Connected with the United States and Mexican Boundary Commission (New York: Appleton, 1854; rpt., Chicago: Rio Grande Press, 1965). Patrick Dearen, Castle Gap and the Pecos Frontier (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1988). John S. Ford, Rip Ford's Texas, ed. Stephen B. Oates (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963). Clayton W. Williams, Never Again, Texas (3 vols., San Antonio: Naylor, 1969).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 25, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
December 1, 1994
Most Recent Revision Date:
September 11, 2019