A MAN OF VISION

Rasaca Converted to Irrigation Canal

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

Sam Robertson
Courtesy Valley Morning Star

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

Wooden causeway.
Wikitree

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.

Ferry tugging auto to the island.
Wikitree

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.

Texas Retrieves A 16th Century Treasure

Three Spanish galleons, caught in a storm in the Gulf of Mexico, wrecked on the sandbars just off Padre Island on April 29, 1554. Ironically, as the flotilla sailed from Veracruz, a Dominican missionary on his way for an audience with the Pope, shared his sinister forebodings: “Woe be to those who are going to Spain. Neither we nor the fleet will ever arrive there. Most of us will perish before then, and those who survive will endure intolerable hardships, which will cause the deaths of most of them.”

Map of wreckage. Courtesy Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History

The San Esteban was a merchant ship called a carrack such as this one. Courtesy National Park Service

Four vessels began the journey loaded with about 400 people—old conquistadores and Spanish families heading for home, merchants whose wealth was stored in the ships’ holds, and soldiers eager to see their homeland—plus bars of gold and silver bullion, and chests of freshly minted coins. Twenty days into the Gulf of Mexico, a vicious storm hit with such force that the ships fought to stay afloat. One vessel, the San Andrés, which was severely damaged, limped into port at Havana. The other three, the San Esteban, the Espíritu Santo, and the Santa María Yciar carrying about 300 passengers, tossed without control until all three ships sank within two and a half miles of each other about a half-mile from the coast. Over half of the passengers, grabbing anything they could find to save themselves, drowned before reaching shore. Only the San Esteban remained visible above the waves. The ship’s master and probably the most skilled sailors rescued one of the small boats and left for Veracruz to seek help. Other survivors salvaged food and supplies. Believing a Spanish outpost lay within a few days march, they began walking, unaware that it was 300 miles to Tampico. Only one man, Francisco Vasquez, elected to remain with the wreckage and wait for rescue.

The group met local Indians and accepted the natives’ offer of food, only to be attacked when they reached the campsite. As the Spaniards fled, some of them stripped off their clothing thinking that’s what the Indians wanted. The Indians continued the chase, killing the terrified survivors as they ran and inflicting others with arrows including Fray Marcos de Mena who took seven arrows. His companions, thinking he would soon die, buried him with only his head exposed hoping to protect his body from wild animals. The warmth of the sand apparently revived Fray Marcos, and he dug his way out. As he continued walking, he came upon the ultimate horror—all his companions lay dead. Fighting mosquitos, hunger, and thirst, he pushed on, finally coming to a river only to discover that it was salty. Two Indians found him, gave him food and water, and as they carried him on a bed of hay, they kept saying only one word, “Tampico.” The village lay only a short distance away.

When Fray Marcos’ report of the wreckage verified the account of the survivors who had returned earlier on the boat, the viceroy ordered a salvage expedition to retrieve some of the most valuable cargoes ever to leave the New World. Six salvage ships reached the site in July 1554 and found the emaciated and joyful Francisco Vasquez and the partially exposed San Esteban. Divers retrieved almost 36,000 pounds of treasure, about forty-one percent of the original cargo.

Four hundred years later, in 1967 the Texas General Land Office received information that an out-of-state salvage crew recovered artifacts off Padre Island near Port Mansfield inside the 10.35-mile coastal boundary that belonged to the state of Texas. The company doing the

Oldest dated Astrolabe in the world. Courtesy Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History

recovering was not licensed to operate in Texas, and after several years of lawsuits Texas recovered all the artifacts and the salvage company was awarded over $300,000.

Anchor salvaged from the wreck. Courtesy Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History.

The thousands of treasures, encrusted with centuries of hard calcium carbonate deposits, included a small solid-gold crucifix, a gold bar, several silver discs, cannons, and crossbows. The most valuable find was three astrolabes, extremely rare navigational instruments used in the sixteenth century. The Texas Legislature passed an Antiquities Bill in 1969, which protects and preserves archeological landmarks and resources and sets strict limits on salvaging and excavation by individuals and companies. Although the Santa María had been destroyed in the 1950s during the dredging of the Port Mansfield Channel, excavations in the 1973-74 season, used more advanced techniques to probe the layers of sand and shell to reach the treasures lying in a thick deposit of clay. Over 26,000 pounds of encrusted artifacts were recovered, including a large enough fragment of one ship to estimate the length of the vessel between seventy and ninety-seven feet. After the materials were processed and cataloged, the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History was named repository of the collection.

Padre Island, A Story of Hope and Heartbreak

The treasures of Padre Island, playground on the Texas Gulf Coast, reveal far more than sandy beaches and sand dunes rippling in the steady breeze. Dig beneath the sand castles and you find a legacy of grand visions and broken dreams.

South Padre Island
Courtesy City of South Padre Island.

Padre, a textbook example of a barrier reef island, edges the Texas coast for 113 miles from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande. Its width varies from a few hundred yards to about three miles.

South Padre, the town on the southern tip of the island, enjoys a year-round tourist industry from spring breakers who hang from the rafters of elegant hotels to families who come at other times in search of a retreat from the summer heat and winter chill.

Padre Nicolas Balli
Wikimedia

Approaching the southern end of the island from Port Isabel, travelers cross Queen Isabella Causeway as it rises majestically over Laguna Madre and the Intracoastal Canal to offer the first view of high-rise hotels and condominiums, surf and sand, fun and sun of South Padre Island. In anticipation of an exciting holiday, it is easy to overlook the life-size statue of Padre José Nicolás Ballí welcoming visitors with open arms to his island.

A secular Catholic priest, Padre Ballí was born about 1770 in Reynosa, Mexico, the oldest son of a wealthy Spanish colonial family who owned more than a million acres of land in South Texas. Padre Ballí served as a missionary in the villas and haciendas along the lower Rio Grande. In 1800 he applied for a Spanish land grant of 11.5 leagues (about 154,280 acres) on “Corpus Christi Island,” one of the many names given to Padre Island.

Padre Ballí took his nephew Juan José Ballí as a partner, had the land surveyed, and established the island’s first settlement in 1804 called Rancho Santa Cruz, which lay about 26 miles north of the present town of South Padre. The Ballís ran large herds of cattle, horses, and sheep on their land, and the Padre established a mission to Christianize the Karankawa Indians who lived on the island.

Although the title did not clear until 1829, eight months after his death, Padre Ballí left one-half the land to his nephew Juan and the other one-half to Juan’s brothers and sisters. Juan left for a time and then returned and lived on the island until his death in 1853.

In 1847 a three-masted schooner wrecked during a storm near the south end of Padre Island. Captain John F. Singer, his wife, Johanna, and several sons were the only survivors. The family built a house using material from their ship and wreckage they found along the shore from other vessels.

Mrs. Singer inherited wealth, and in 1851, she bought the Ballí interest in Rancho Santa Cruz. The family rebuilt the ranch, raised large herds of cattle, and grew vegetables, which they took by raft to sell in Port Isabel. John Singer became wreck master of Padre Island and made huge profits salvaging material from destroyed ships washing ashore. In 1861 Singer told the postmaster in Brownsville that he had received a letter from his brother Merritt informing John the $500 he loaned Merritt enabled him to obtain a patent on a device making the newly invented sewing machine more practical for home use. His invention made Merritt quite wealthy and he was authorizing John to draw $150,000 from his bank.

John Singer planned to establish a steamship line from Brazos Island to New Orleans; however, the Civil War halted Singer’s dream. The Singers, known as Union sympathizers, fled to the mainland near Corpus Christi. Stories claim they buried gold and silver worth $62,000 before they left.

The Union army occupied Padre Island for the duration of the war, used the cattle to feed their forces, and tore the ranch apart to build their military installation. When the Singers returned after the war, they discovered shifting sand destroyed every landmark, every guide to where they hid the treasure. After his wife died, John Singer left the island permanently.

Over the years, the Ballí family continued selling pieces of their land believing they retained mineral rights. Meantime, Sam Robertson, a railroad man who laid the tracks for the St. Louis, Brownsville, and Mexico Railway in the early 1900s, saw potential in the rich delta land

Don Patricio Causeway constructed by Sam Robertson.

near the Rio Grande. He developed present San Benito north of Brownsville, and then he turned his development eye to Padre Island. The stretch of hotels and condominiums visitors see today in South Padre represent the dream Robertson visualized forty-five years too early. He saw Padre and Brazos islands as Texas’ biggest resort areas. He confidently began developing the full length of Padre Island—established a ferry across the bay from Corpus Christi in 1927 and built twelve miles of asphalt road to his Twenty-five Mile Hotel. He completed a toll bridge to Brazos Santiago from Boca Chica at the mouth of the Rio Grande, built a bridge between Padre and Mustang islands (at the north end of Padre), and constructed a two-way causeway across Laguna Madre at the midway point on the island.

The stock market crash in 1929 forced abandonment of his scheme and the 1933 hurricane blew away all the new roads and bridges, bringing a devastating end to Robertson’s last big dream. He died in 1938.

Ballí descendants grew to over 300 and continued legal claims over the years to collect vast oil and gas mineral royalties. The Ballí heirs won an $11million award in 2005 claiming they were defrauded out of their mineral rights in 1938; however, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the family in 2008 claiming the family filed their suit after the statute of limitation expired.

When vacationers romp in the Gulf water, build sand castles along the beach, and relax in the luxurious hotels, not many know this tiny strip of sand offers a history rich in grandiose plans and devastating disappointments.

 

Note: This story and 112 more are in my latest book TEXAS TALES, STORIES THAT SHAPED A LANDSCAPE AND A PEOPLE.

Sam Robertson, Visionary

The railroad and visionaries like Sam Robertson deserve much of the credit for development of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  Before 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.  Overland travel from Brownsville to Corpus Christ took days of slogging through the vast jungle of mesquite, cactus, chaparral and brush-covered country.

In 1903, as Robertson fulfilled a contract to lay the first rails from Corpus Christi to Brownsville, he noticed 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—an ideal situation for harnessing the water for gravity irrigation into the fertile land along its banks.  Robertson also observed dry riverbeds left behind after the Rio Grande flooded and then changed coarse as it  cut new channels.  Locally known as resacas, the dry canals twisted through the area north of Brownsville offering readymade irrigation potential.

Rasaca Converted to Irrigation Canal

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.  They 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 rely on horses, mules, and dirt roads to get their produce to market, preferred land next to the railroad.  In 1912 Robertson decided to take the railroad to the farmers and began constructing the San Benito and Rio Grande Valley Railroad.  Soon all the spurs and intricate network of lines snaking across the valley became known as the Spiderweb Railroad, and the train that traveled the route became known as the “Galloping Goose” for the frequency with which it jumped the track, forcing passengers to help lift it back on the rails.

Making two round trips daily at a grand speed of fifteen miles per hour, the train picked 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.

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 into Mexico.  During WWI Robertson 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 (see photo) from the northern end of Padre to the mainland near Corpus Christi.  A trestle supported four parallel troughs, wooden slots constructed wide enough to accommodate a standard car tire within its walls.  With automobile wheels set firmly in each trough, traffic flowed both directions across the causeway.

“Trough” 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.

THE PADRE ISLAND STORY

The treasures of Padre Island, playground on the Texas Gulf Coast, reveal far more than sandy beaches and sand dunes rippling in the steady breeze.  Dig beneath the sand castles and you find a legacy of grand visions and broken dreams.

Padre, a textbook example of a barrier reef island, edges the Texas coast for 113 miles from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande. Its width varies from a few hundred yards to about three miles.

South Padre the town on the southern tip of the island, enjoys a year round tourist industry from spring breakers who hang from the rafters of elegant hotels to families who come at other times in search of a retreat from the summer heat and winter chill.

Approaching the southern end of the island from Port Isabel, travelers cross Queen Isabella Causeway as it rises majestically over Laguna Madre and the Intracoastal Canal to offer the first view of high-rise hotels and condominiums, surf and sand, fun and sun of South Padre Island.  In anticipation of an exciting holiday, it is easy to overlook the life-size statue of Padre José Nicolás Ballí welcoming visitors with open arms to his island.

A secular Catholic priest, Padre Ballí was born about 1770 in Reynosa, Mexico, the oldest son of a wealthy Spanish colonial family who owned over a million acres of land in South Texas.  Padre Ballí served as a missionary in the villas and haciendas along the lower Rio Grande.  In 1800 he made application for a Spanish land grant of 11.5 leagues (about 154,280 acres) on “Corpus Christi Island,” one of the many names given to Padre Island.

Padre Ballí took his nephew Juan José Ballí as a partner, had the land surveyed, and established the island’s first settlement in 1804 called Rancho Santa Cruz, which lay about 26 miles north of the present town of South Padre. The Ballís ran large herds of cattle, horses, and sheep on their land, and the padre established a mission to Christianize the Karankawa Indians who lived on the island.

Although the title did not clear until 1829, eight months after his death, Padre Ballí left one-half the land to his nephew Juan and the other one-half to Juan’s brothers and sisters.  Juan left for a time and then returned and lived on the island until his death in 1853.

In 1847 a three-masted schooner wrecked during a storm near the south end of Padre Island.  Captain John F. Singer, his wife, Johanna, and several sons were the only survivors.  The family built a house using material from their ship and wreckage they found along the shore from other vessels.

Mrs. Singer inherited wealth, and in 1851, she bought the Ballí interest in Rancho Santa Cruz.  The family rebuilt the ranch, raised large herds of cattle, and grew vegetables, which they took by raft to sell in Port Isabel.  John Singer became wreckmaster of Padre Island and made large sums salvaging material from destroyed ships washing ashore.  In 1861 Singer told the postmaster in Brownsville he received a letter from his brother Merritt informing John the $500 he loaned Merritt enabled him to obtain a patent on a device making the newly invented sewing machine more practical for home use.  His invention made Merritt quite wealthy and he was authorizing John to draw $150,000.

John Singer planned establishing a steamship line from Brazos Island to New Orleans; however, the Civil War put a stop on Singer’s dream.  The Singers, known as Union sympathizers, fled to the mainland near Corpus Christi.  Stories claim they buried gold and silver worth $62,000 before they left.

The Union army occupied Padre Island for the duration of the war, used the cattle to feed their forces, and tore the ranch apart to build their military installation.  When the Singers returned after the war, they discovered shifting sand destroyed every landmark, every guide to where they hid the treasure.  After his wife died, John Singer left the island permanently.

Over the years, the Ballí family continued selling pieces of their land believing they retained mineral rights.

Meantime, Sam Robertson, a railroad man who laid the tracks for the St. Louis, Brownsville, and Mexico Railway in the early 1900s, saw potential in the rich delta land near the Rio Grande.  He developed present San Benito north of Brownsville, and then he turned his development eye to Padre Island.  The stretch of hotels and condominiums visitors see today in South Padre represent the dream Robertson visualized forty-five years too early.  He saw Padre and Brazos islands as Texas’ biggest resort areas.  He confidently began developing the full length of Padre Island–established a ferry across the bay from Corpus Christi in 1927 and built twelve miles of asphalt road to his Twenty-five Mile Hotel.  He completed a toll bridge to Brazos Santiago from Boca Chica at the mouth of the Rio Grande, built a bridge between Padre and Mustang islands (at the north end of Padre), and constructed a two-way causeway across Laguna Madre at the midway point on the island.

The stock market crash in 1929 forced abandonment of his scheme and the 1933 hurricane blew away all the new roads and bridges, bringing a devastating end to Robertson’s last big dream.  He died in 1938.

Ballí descendants grew to over 300 and continued legal claims over the years to collect vast oil and gas mineral royalties.  The Ballí heirs won an $11million award in 2005 claiming they were defrauded out of their mineral rights in 1938; however, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the family in 2008 claiming the family filed their suit after the statute of limitation expired.

When vacationers romp in the Gulf water, build sand castles along the beach, and relax in the luxurious hotels, not many know this tiny strip of sand offers a history rich in grandiose plans and devastating disappointments.