The railroad and visionaries like Sam Robertson deserve much of the credit for development of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Before the arrival of the railroad, the Valley was a no man’s land. Towns such as Brownsville and Matamoros, Mexico, relied on the Rio Grande and the
Gulf of Mexico for access to the outside world. Travel from Brownsville to Corpus Christ took days of slogging through the Wild Horse Desert, the vast jungle of mesquite, cactus, chaparral and brush-covered country that was infested with bandits and cattle thieves.
In 1903, as Robertson fulfilled a contract to lay the first rails from Corpus Christi to Brownsville, he noticed that the peculiar topography of the area along the Rio Grande looked much like that of the Nile River—higher by several feet than the surrounding landscape. Unlike other river valleys that drain into nearby streams, years of flooding left behind silt, resulting in the Rio Grande flowing at a higher level than the surrounding terrain—ideal or harnessing the water for gravity irrigation into the fertile land along its banks. Robertson also observed dry riverbeds left behind after centuries of the Rio Grande flooding, then changing course, and cutting new channels. Locally known as resaca’s, or ox-bow lakes, the 400-foot wide dry canals twisted through the area north of Brownsville offering readymade irrigation potential.
Robertson convinced local investors to join him in purchasing 10,000 acres to begin land development and laying out the town of San Benito along one of the curving resacas. The developers cut a canal from the Rio Grande to introduce irrigation water into the dry resacas and began selling land to northern farmers looking for new opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley. The farmers, forced to travel on dirt roads using horses and mules to get their produce to market, sought to buy land next to the railroad, which led to Robertson taking the railroad to the farmers. In 1912 the San Benito and Rio Grande Valley Railroad, an intricate network of lines and spurs snaked thirty-nine miles across the valley.
The train made two round trips daily at a grand speed of fifteen miles per hour, picking up both passengers and freight. Many farmers built tiny loading platforms beside the track, while others merely flagged the engineer to take on travelers or a few bushels of produce. The twisting route earned it the title of Spiderweb Railroad, and the train was called the “Galloping Goose” because it often jumped the track, forcing passengers to help lift it back on the rails.
By 1924 the Missouri Pacific took over the line, but the little railroad, whose track never extended beyond 128 miles, had served an important role in opening the rich Rio Grand Valley to worldwide markets.
Robertson’s visions extended to establishing ice plants for refrigerated railcars carrying vegetables to city markets. He served as San Benito’s first postmaster and two terms as sheriff before joining General John J. Pershing’s army chasing the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. During WWI, Robertson once again proved his competence building light rail lines to the front trenches and remained in Europe after the war to help rebuild Germany’s rail system.
Upon Robertson’s return to San Benito, he embarked on his final grand scheme—developing Padre, the barrier island paralleling Texas’ southern shore, as a resort community. He built a “trough” causeway from the northern end of Padre to the mainland near Corpus Christi. A trestle supported four parallel wooden slots constructed wide enough to accommodate a standard car tire. With automobile wheels set firmly in each trough, traffic flowed both directions across the causeway
In his zeal to attract tourists, Robertson opened ferries at Port Aransas and at the south end of Padre Island. Then, he built a hotel and four houses on the southern end of the island and a fifth house near the causeway on the north.
Although the unusual trough causeway boasted 1,800 cars the first month and 2,500 cars the second, interest began waning, after the 1929 Stock Market Crash. By the next year, Robertson’s dream appeared doomed; he could not pay his debts. He sold his interest in the development and must have watched in horror as the 1933 hurricane destroyed all the structures on and leading to Padre Island.
Sam Robertson died in 1938, twenty-four years before his dream came true. Congress established Padre Island National Seashore and President John F. Kennedy signed the bill into law on September 28, 1962.
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