Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Little Railroad and How It Grew

                                               A Little Railroad and How It Grew


                  Norman Rozeff, Harlingen Historical Preservation Society, May 2004


The San Benito and Rio Grande Valley Railway, or as it was affectionately called the "Spider Web" or "Sam Robertson's Back Door Railroad", was the product of San Benito and Houston principals.  They realized that the irrigated lands served by the San Benito Land and Water Company as well as other canal companies, could not be sold unless the purchasers, who would mainly be growers, had some means of getting their produce to market.  Adding impetus to this need was the high capacity sugar mill to be constructed in San Benito. Sugarcane would be impossible to transport over long distances on the then existing fair-weather-only unpaved roads.

What most people remember as the Spider Web was hardly the modest railroad that first started.  With the purpose of constructing and operating rail lines in Cameron and Hidalgo counties, it was initially chartered as the San Benito and Rio Grande Valley Interurban Railway on June 28, 1912.  In August of that year its name was changed to the San Benito and Rio Grande Valley Railway Company.  With its principal place of business in San Benito, it had a capital of $500,000.  At that time its first board of directors were: Samuel A. Robertson, Samuel Spears, W.G. B. Morrison, and L. O. Bryan, all of San Benito, and Abraham M. Levy, John W. Link, Jonas S. Rice, R. H. Kelley, and DeWitt C. Dunn, all of Houston.  To finance the project Robertson had asked the Water Company to give him a lien of $10/acre on unsold land within a mile of the proposed railroad tracks and $5/acre for that within two miles.

The fact was that the railroad had been initiated in 1910 in the name of trustee Robertson, acting for the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad Co. (Frisco), which advanced funds for the construction.  Benjamin Yoakum was the president of the Frisco at this time and had his hand in many early Valley endeavors.  Robertson went to Palestine, TX to purchase the necessary steel, ties and, as he related, "junk locomotives and cars" from George M. Dilley and Sons. By November 1910 Robertson had already laid three miles of track north from San Benito and on 6/7/11 it reached Riohondo [Note: The original spelling of the name was Riohondo.  In a letter, dated 7/20/25, to the town's postmaster, First Assistant Postmaster General John H. Bartlett requested that the town's spelling be changed to Rio Hondo to be effective August 15, 1925.]  When the charter was issued in June 1912, thirty-nine miles of both completed and in-progress trackage was deeded by Robertson to the Interurban.  A few days later it signed a contract with the Frisco to complete the railroad.  The Frisco became the controlling interest.

By the end of 1912 there were thirty miles of serviceable track from San Fernando (about three miles north of Rio Hondo) and where the present-day Fernando East Road commences its eastward run and Santa Maria. Later an additional six miles were laid between Fernando and La Leona. Along the initial route, communities starting from Fernando, where the Sugarland Subdivision there supplied cane for the San Benito Sugar and Manufacturing Company mill and its successor, the Borderland Sugar Company, were in order: Rio Hondo, Rancho Colorado, Fresnel (El Fresnos), Lantana, Elrain, Nopalton (later Place Junction), San Benito where it connected to the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway, Boulevard Junction, Highland School, Heywood, La Paloma Junction, Landrum Station, Carricitos (Alcala), Los Indios, Rangerville, and Santa Maria. At La Paloma Junction a one mile spur ran southeast to La Paloma.  At Los Indios another one mile spur ran south to Head Gates between the pumping plants for the Harlingen and San Benito canals.

Later a loop starting at Boulevard Junction, about two miles south of San Benito, was started in April 1910 and completed in June 1912. It ran two miles northeast from the junction before turning southwest passing Nebraska and Ohio Stations on it way to Los Indios. Nebraska Station was along today's Oyama Road and Ohio Station to its south was just north of where the Bill and Randy Mc Murray families homestead.

With the benefit of a land bonus, the company, on 11/11 started a totally separated segment. The nearly 20 mile line running from Sammons (near present-day Madero south of  Mission) to a point two miles east of Monte Christo was completed 7/13.  It crossed and connected with the Sam Fordyce Branch of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway at Mission.  The coming of the railroad to Monte Christo drew settlers to this isolated community founded in 1909 by the Melado Land Company of Houston.  Soon it boasted thirty-six farm families, a feed store, post office, service station, hotel, lumberyard, church, and a wholesale/retail store.  The town was to fail when its deep water well ran dry and 1915-16 border raids frightened off some residents. Today few traces can be found that it ever existed.

In 1914 S.A. Robertson was listed as president of the company; J. W. Link of Houston, vice president; G. H. Winsor of San Benito, secretary, auditor, traffic manager and general superintendent; J. T. Lomax, treasurer; F. H. Hamilton of St. Louis, assistant secretary and assistant treasurer; Andrews, Streetman, burns and Logue of Houston, general counsel; Morrison and Robards of San Benito, general attorneys; and L. H. Thacker, master mechanic.

By October 1914 a company schedule noted the distances between stations.  On the Landrum Branch distances from San Benito were:

Boulevard Junction    1.2 miles

La Paloma                  6.6

Landrum                     8.3

Los Indios Junction  10.3

Headgates                 11.4

Templer                    14.4

Towne                       17.6

The alternate route commencing in Fernando north of Rio Hondo had:

Fernando                  12.2

Rio Hondo                 8.7

Nopalton                    2.9

San Benito                 0.0

Nebraska                    6.8

Ohio                           8.2

Santa Maria              16.3

Kern                         16.8

Progreso                   31.2

Hidalgo                    45.2

Sammons                 58.0

Hoits                        59.7

Mission                    65.7

Alton                        69.1

Monte Christo          77.9

As time passed stations would be added, others dropped.

As innovative and ambitious as Sam Robertson was, he was always strapped for cash for his enterprises.  With the Frisco in debt to the Equitable Trust Company of New York, the S. B. & R.G.V. was in receivership. So it was on March 1, 1916 that the San Benito and Rio Grande Railway, the Spider Web, was acquired by the New Orleans, Texas and Mexico, itself emerging from receivership. The latter continued to operate it as a separate company.  Robertson remained as president and chief operating officer until he went into the army during the Great War and went to France to work on transportation systems. Mr. George H. Winsor, who had been auditor, secretary, traffic manager, and superintendent, then took over as president and chief operating officer.

In 1916 the line owned two locomotives, seven cars, and operated a bit over seventy-five miles of track.  It reported passenger earnings of $6,000 and freight revenues of $20,000.


                                                    The Spider Web Grows


It was in the mid-20s, after all the sugar mills had closed—the last one being the Donna mill in 1922, that the San Benito and Rio Grande Valley Railway or Spider Web railroad began an expansion that doubled its size.  In 1925 its two disjointed sections were united when a thirty-two mile line was laid between Kern just west of Santa Maria and Sammons, just south of Mission.  Stops going westward from Kern were Thayer, Progreso, RayPaul (Runn), El Gato, and Hidalgo.

The Spider Web, its parent, the New Orleans, Texas and Mexico Railway Company, which took control of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway in the account of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad Company (Frisco), were all acquired by the Missouri Pacific Railroad on January 1, 1925. The original names were kept in place, and the companies operated as separate entities until March 1, 1956 when they were fully merged into MOPAC.  Two employees who retained their seniority when the consolidation occurred were conductor L. H. Thacker with a start date of 7/1/14 and engineer J.H. Sanders, 3/4/10.

In 1928 more trackage was laid, but this same year the connection above Rio Hondo to Fernando and La Leona was discontinued. From just north of San Benito, a nineteen mile line via Laureles and Bayview was put in to reach Abney, a no-longer existing community where the Border Patrol now has its detention facility. In 1940 this line would be extended 3 ½ miles south to Esoes (now HWY 100 south of Laguna Vista) and then east to Port Isabel by a nine mile acquisition of an existing line owned by the Port Isabel and Rio Grande Railway. Another unrelated extension was from La Paloma six miles southeast to Santander, now San Pedro.

With the north end of the Valley about to develop, the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway constructed a line running from Raymondville west through Lasara, Filagonia, Hargill and Faysville to Monte Christo. Later it would tie in San Perlita, Willimar, Porfirio, and Santa Monica to Raymondville's east and southeast.  To serve the Delta Lake area track was run from Hargill through Rollo (Monte Alto) to Edcouch and south to Weslaco.  A spur from it ran west to Engelman Gardens northwest of Elsa. It was in the early 1940s that the total system reached its maximum trackage of about 138 miles.

With fluctuating traffic and the initiation of better Valley highways, the railroad incrementally abandoned trackage over time.  In 1955 the company reported freight revenues of $127, 400 and the operation of 115 miles of main track. In 1957, the line from Faysville to Monte Christo was discontinued; in 1968 the rail line from Edcouch to Monte Alto was dropped; and in 1969 the segment from Alton to Monte Christo was abandoned.

All of the system is now gone. One can see reminders here and there of its existence.  These may be the straight elevated beds curiously dissecting cropped fields west of Raymondville, the odd-shaped lots and right-of-way in Monte Alto, and the yet to be paved over former track beds along Sam Houston Street in San Benito.  This latter was the first to be constructed and possibly the last to be torn out in the late 1990s.

The Spider Web served the Valley well over many years, but time, progress, and the changing nature of agriculture made it obsolete and uneconomical. We'd like to hear from Valley readers about their memories of the railroad here. Does anyone recall a type of self-propelled combination passenger/locomotive type car? These combined either gasoline or diesel with an electric motive power.  In other parts of the country these self-powered passenger cars were called doodlebugs.

 One major manufacturer of this type rail car was the J. G. Brill Company of Philadelphia. "The J. G. Brill Company and its various incarnations dominated the world of trolley and undercarriage manufacturing for most of its seventy-year history. Based in Philadelphia, Brill was founded in 1865 by a German immigrant and held in family hands well into the 1930s. At its height the J.G. Brill Company owned plants in six states as well as Canada and France." Other manufacturers of self-propelled railcars at the time were the Edwards Railway Motor Company, Osgood Bradley, Wason Manufacturing, Cooke, and American Car and Foundry (ACF).














Saturday, July 13, 2013

                                           Bagdad, Mexico---The Lost City of Sin


                                                             Norman Rozeff

                                                                  April 2011

Time, hurricanes, and the changing course of the river have obliterated what once was the vibrant town of Bagdad, Mexico at the mouth of the Rio Grande. It certainly has not been forgotten, for many vivid memories of its short existence have been preserved and have given it an air of mystery. Let me bring back its aura of yesteryear.
Bagdad, approximately 500 yards south of the river, was first noted in a map drawn in 1847 and is said to have been established in 1848. Today its approximate location is ten miles north of Washington Beach. Although it wasn't named Bagdad until later, it likely existed as the small community of  Boca del Rio for decades. From as early as 1780 it may have even been to destination for rich Spanish families of Matamoros seeking recreation.The origin of the name Bagdad is uncertain. Some claim that an American with a sense of humor gave the non-descript collection of jacales and mud and oyster shell-plastered huts with thick thatched grass roofs the name at the time of the Mexican War. Ancient Baghdad in Mesopotamia was considered sophisticated and glamorous in sharp contrast to what existed along the sand dunes. Also the thieves in The Arabian Nights might have offered some similarities to the rateros frequenting the area.  The area natives had another story as to its name. William Neale, the early pioneer settler of Brownsville, wrote that the famous pirate Don Jean Lafitte or his followers around 1835 were responsible for the title. Inhabitants of the area believed that the pirates had buried vast sums of money in the nearby dunes.

The site was officially designated as a Custom House Port of Entry in 1840. Custom officials were stationed there to keep items from being smuggled up the river. At that point the very small entity may also have been called Resguardo, custom house port in Spanish.

M. Kenedy and Company beached its steamboats there to repair them. While there was a limited steamer traffic to this second class port in the Matamoros Custom District, it likely ceased for the most part by 1846. A hurricane in 1844, one of several that would be experienced over time, knocked down whatever structures existed at the site. Like the mythical Phoenix, the town would rise again after a period of rebuilding. This hurricane was a serious one. It left the natives of the area naked and bruised, forcing those at the La Burrita Rancho to the west to take refuge on the side of a small hill. Further south many perished in the storm.

In 1846, Luther Giddings, an officer of the First Regiment of Ohio volunteers passed through the area and described it as "a small collection of mud and reed huts occupied by Mexican herdsmen and fishermen." By a year later it had grown somewhat, been improved and "Americanized." Off-duty soldiers from the U.S. Army Brazos Island Depot likely used Bagdad for their rest and recreation activities.

The American Flag newspaper in 1847 commented somewhat tongue-in-cheek about the community. An observer wrote of  " the inventive genius of its people who could live and acquire money without performing any labor or showing any visible signs of gaining a living. Their intent was merely to attract all who came to the mouth of the river into Bagdad where money was extracted by means of liquor, decoctions, cards, dice, threats, smiles, and caresses, or, these failing, by more potent means, such as club, dirk and pistol." Early on then one can detect what a den of iniquity might grow from these sour roots.

As an entity, populated primarily by fishermen, it certainly didn't amount to much until the Civil War really put it on the map. A very strange confluence of events was to draw the small village into big-time activities. On April 19, 1861, seven days after the war had begun, President Abraham Lincoln gave an order to blockade all rebel seaports, including that of Brazos de Santiago (transl.: Arms of St. James. Originally the name of the settlement was Brazos de St. Iago. After shortening to Brazos St. Iago, it was corrupted to Brazos Santiago.) on the very north end of Brazos Island. As President Lincoln's blockade, part of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan, of the Confederate States of America's ports tightened, the CSA's chief source of revenues, namely the export of cotton was stifled.

The CSA quickly sought diplomatic relations with Mexico. American citizen, Juan A. Quintero, Cuban by birth, was sent on May 22, 1861 to Monterrey to establish favorable trade relations with the three northern states of Mexico—Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas. They agreed to deliver salt peter used in the manufacture of explosives, military supplies other than small arms and flour in exchange for 850,000 lbs. of cotton. Arms and ammunition also came from Havana and British Belize to Bagdad. In short order a regular steamship line was established between London and Matamoros via Bagdad.

Innovation eventually found an alternative to the dangerous operation of blockade running. This was to move cotton from Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and other areas of the Trans-Mississippi area to the Texas-Mexico border. Texas became a "blockade-running haven" referred to as the "back door" of the Confederacy. Most cotton was exchanged for gold coin as prices rose steadily when the war progressed.
Once here it was transported across the river to Mexico where custom and regulatory officials could profit handsomely by declaring it of "Mexico origin." Indeed, some didn't even have to touch Mexican soil except on the its last leg of its journey. This was because the  Hidalgo-Guadaloupe peace treaty of the Mexican War, finalized in 1848 had declared the Rio Grande an international waterway to be used freely by both nations. Crafty entrepreneurs as Charles Stillman, Miflin Kenedy, and Richard King  simply re-flagged their shallow draft steamboats with the flag of Mexico thereby evading inspection or confiscation of their cotton bale cargo by Union forces. According to Dr. Jerry Thompson "By January 1864 more than 150,000 bales of cotton had been carried across the Rio Grande, and by the end of the war, 320,000 bales had been sent into Mexico."

Bagdad itself had no natural harbor or breakwater. In fact, a troublesome sand bar offshore had a clearance of only four to five feet of water. This meant that any exported or imported cargo had to be transferred from offshore vessels to skiffs and lighters of shallow draft. Ships of all nations, including those of the United States, sometime numbering up to one hundred, anchored offshore.

Cotton, of course, was the primary export while the CSA imported powder, sulfur, mercury, lead, cloth, brown sheeting for Negro clothing, sugar, blankets, and more. Mexico initiated a flat 12 ½ % export tax. Monthly revenue duties for the Mexican government ranged up to $100,000. Naturally banditry increased, and custom officials were frequently targeted.

South Texas and certainly Bagdad were not healthy places. The fall of 1862 saw the town in the grip of a yellow fever epidemic. Sick inhabitants became general and with that the mortality rate rose. Naturally this partially paralyzed the commercial transactions.

Within months over 200 carpenters descended on Bagdad to build the city of unplanned boards and scrap lumber on pilings driven into the marshy area. A later exception was the two banks built of brick, places halfway safe that were needed to secure the riches from the abundant thieves patrolling the area. Initially scalpers were doing a land office business selling or renting tarpaulins to protect people and goods from the elements.

Bagdad became a bustling community with a telegraph office, hotels, grog shops, and houses of ill repute. It even had a sizeable abatoire. Money flowed freely as even common laborers could easily earn $5-6 a day. Skiffs and lighter fees were $20-40. A simple meal was to cost $2-3 while lodgings for the night ran $5-8.

William Neale, who had operated a stagecoach line from Matamoros to Bagdad in the years 1837 to about 1846, again re-instituted that service in the 1860s. The 35 mile run took three hours. He ran ten trips per day and charged a handsome fare of $5.00 that also included a meal. The road between the two entities was so heavily trafficked that its surface was ground to a fine, dusty powder.

Like magic Bagdad had grown dramatically in but a three-year period. One historian characterized its population as heterogeneous—whites blacks, mulattos and Indians but most of all Yankee entrepreneurs. With French forces having been recruited from many European nations and seamen from others the city would see French, German, Italian English, Austrian, Spanish, Belgium Hungarian along with the Confederates, Yankees and Mexicans. Such a motley crew brought with them "constant brawls, stagecoach robberies, street fights, knifings and shootings."

Audrey Simmons of Harlingen gathering information from Clarksville native Teresa Clark Clearwater, wrote "At its height, the city had grand hotels with elegant names, theaters, two-story buildings set upon pilings to avoid the tides, and sidewalks built of wood which were usually covered with water when the tide was in. Many of the businesses and places of entertainment had French names supplied by the owners who had drifted in from New Orleans." She goes on to relate "…by 1863, the lazy, dreamy village of Bagdad across the river from Clarksville had begun its skyrocket course to the dizzy peak of  25,000 human beings---most of whom were the scum of the earth, adventurers and sharpers from everywhere. Many of them came from New Orleans, but also venturesome Brownsville people went to this funnel of gulf traffic to seek their fortunes." In addition to the brothels, many restaurants, saloons, and gambling houses the town even had a small church, and also a cemetery adjacent to the sand dunes to the southeast.

Belgium Oblate Father Pierre Perisot detailed the community as "The cosmopolitan city of Bagdad was a veritable Babel, a Babylon, a whirlpool of business, pleasure and sin." This mostly shacktown was populated with gamblers, prostitutes, tavern keepers and assorted gentry. Newspaper accounts portrayed the town as a "sand hole on the gulf", "a dirty, filthy place where the streets are covered with slime and mud puddles." The New York Herald characterized it  "an excrescence of the war. Here congregated… blockade runners, desperadoes, the vile of both sexes; adventurers, the Mexican, and the rebel gather and where (there are) numberless groggeries and houses of worse fame [where the]  decencies of civilized life were forgotten and vice in its lowest form held high carnival while in the low, dirty looking buildings… were amassed millions in gold and silver." One blockade runner described Bagdad as a place where everyone was trying to grab what he could by using whatever scheme possible to make money out of crisis. A Brownsville paper, according to Thompson, described the town as a place where "fandangos were held every night and women as beautiful as houris exhibit their charms, without the least reserve." Famed Confederate Navy man, Admiral Semmes, passed through this "back door" on his way to his beloved southern home. He described the town as "This seashore village rejoicing in the dream Eastern name of Bagdad. It was so unique that it could easily be fancied as its name imports, really under the rule of the Caliphs, but for certain signs of the "Yankee", that met the eye."

Some sources put the peak population of Bagdad at about 15,000 while others suggest that it may have even been as high as 35,000. The sailors coming ashore from the many vessels helped to keep the revenues flowing into local coffers.

In September 1862, 20 ships were to be counted anchored offshore. By January 1863 the number had risen to 60, and by April 1863, 92 were to be tallied. In June of 1863 Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, notified Secretary of State, William Seward, that there were 180 to 200 vessels of all nations waiting to discharge and load cargo at Bagdad.

While the U.S. Navy initially tried to intercept cotton moving offshore, these seizures led, of course, to diplomatic protests. The Navy was soon cautioned by federal State Department officials in Washington not to create any international neutrality incidents. Soon circumventive action was also taken by the merchants who were exporting smuggled, southern cotton. To avoid confiscation by blockading navy forces they began to fly the flag of Mexico on the lighter boats ferrying the cotton to British and other ships.  Eventually the ships made sure to anchor in Mexican waters for discharge of merchandise to Bagdad, Mexico and the subsequent on-loading of cotton bales. In a peculiar twist of history some of the exported Southern cotton made its way to New York City, and undoubtedly some found its way into cloth for Union military uniforms. The proof of the pudding was lading slips indicating one arrival to New York City from Matamoros in 1861, 20 in 1862, 72 in 1863, and from January to March 18, 1864 32 ships.

On March 3/8/63 Bagdad had served as the embarkation point for Union sympathizers fleeing Texas, the new state in the CSA. One hundred forty refugee individuals were transported by the unarmed steamer Honduras to New Orleans. While Union forces had retreated from the Valley in February 1861, they returned with an invasion force of nearly 7,000 on November 1, 1863. The Rio Grande Expedition, as it was named, had as one objective the interceding of cotton transport to Mexico. Although not specifically stated another of its objectives was to keep French forces in Mexico from abetting CSA operations and providing succor to the Confederacy. For some time the U.S. government was leery that France and Britain might recognize the CSA as a nation.

In 1862 the Imperialist forces of Napoleon III invaded Mexico. Ferdinand Maximilian von Hapsburg was to chosen to become Emperor of Mexico, though it was never to be totally conquered. Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, the legendary and controversial leader in Tamaulipas, would more than once swing his allegiance to conflicting parties. In early 1864 he declared against the Napoleonic forces. In April 1864, hoping to obtain the friendship and intercession of Cortina's Liberal troops to hinder the cotton trade, Union General John A. McClernand, in a formal ceremony at the Plaza Hidalgo in Matamoros, gave Cortina ten artillery pieces. This interference with the affairs of Mexico was, of course, a violation of U.S. neutrality. After the Union army abandoned Brownsville on July 28, 1864, Cortina would soon change alliance and allow CSA cotton to flow across the border. As an indication of the great trade and money involved Matamoros had a population of 9,000 before the war commenced and had 40,000 people by the summer of 1864.

In the summer of 1864 on August 22, 400 French and Austrian troops initially landed at Bagdad to take possession of it. French forces in the area were increased over the following months. This elicited considerable new construction in Bagdad. Cortina's soldiers would conduct a skirmish with the French near Bagdad, but the results were insignificant. At the time, for whatever reasons, Confederate soldiers on the north bank of the river fired on Cortina's forces. Later it was revealed that CSA Col. Rip Ford believed Cortina had his eyes on capturing his old nemesis, Brownsville. This didn't come to pass. In October 1865, 700 French soldiers from Bagdad were sent to Matamoros to reinforce Imperialist General Tomas Mejia on his way to that city with a force of 2,000 men. After the city was conquered  Cortina could do little except harass his enemies by cutting the telegraph line between Matamaoros and Bagdad.

By August 1865 the mercantile market of Bagdad bottomed out. Merchants were selling items for 1/5 their cost, even if they could give it away. For sale signs sprouted everywhere. The exhilarating ride was over.

In late 1865, a reporter for the New York Herald communicated that the small French garrison in Bagdad was "poorly armed, demoralized, and bedraggled…devoid of spirit, seemed indolent, and were positively little better than a pack…of ragamuffins." There then was initiated a chapter of Bagdad's history that is clouded with contending interpretations of a wide range.

Professor Thompson in his book Cortina writes that the episode began when, on November 5, 1865, a small band of American filibusters led by William D. St. Clair and Francisco de Leon, moved across the river to Bagdad, seized the small steamship Rio Grande from its lone guard, and towed it across the river. Their aim was to arm it then move upriver to challenge the Imperialist occupiers of Matamoros. Before this occurred, it was  seized by American authorities at Clarksville, for the ship actually belonged to someone from New Orleans, not the Empire.

This was only the start for besieged Bagdad. According to Thompson, a month later Captain R. Clay Crawford of the Union 5th Tennessee Infantry conceived the idea to seize the entire town. Together with filibuster Arthur F. Reed, they obtained commissions in the Liberal army and began recruiting "army deserters, outlaws, adventurers from Galveston, and border riffraff." Payment in gold and expenses were offered as compensation. On January 4, 1866, after a planned feint by Cortina forces at Matamoros to keep Mejia occupied, Crawford crossed the river from Clarksville and gathered his men at the Globe Hotel. The next day their surprise actions captured the Imperial soldiers guarding the ferry. They were part of the 180 Mexicans garrisoning the town. At the same time 150 or more blue-uniformed soldiers crossed from Clarksville into Bagdad. Most were Blacks. The town's whole Imperial garrison was soon subdued and residents fled into the sand dunes. Confusion reigned because Cortina was soon on the scene with forty of his own men and other Liberals there, who tried to take charge, were rejected by both Crawford and Cortina. Without resolution pandemonium ensued. The town was thoroughly looted and ransacked. The plunder carried across the river was said to have filled fifty lighters and took days to transport from Clarksville to Brownsville. The loss of life was put at four raiders killed, eight wounded, and eight Imperialists killed and 22 wounded. Still others placed the American dead at eight with two women also killed in the town.

In later years, the exact truth of the episode became obscure, at least in local quarters. All too easily individuals with personal prejudices laid blame almost wholly on the Black soldiers who were broadly portrayed in a disgraceful picture. Teresa Clark Clearwater was one who took the Black soldiers sorely to task. After all her father, the founder of Clarksville, also had a mercantile store in Bagdad, one which was cleaned to the rafters. The alternate story was that some Americans had been incarcerated in Bagdad. When their release wasn't effected, 300 (200? 150? Take your pick.) Black soldiers and other officers crossed to free them. Subsequently they went on a drunken spree that lasted three days and was the basis for the wild melee that had ensued. One historian sought to explain the rampant destruction in Bagdad by writing that perhaps the Blacks "hailed [it] as a symbol of the Confederacy."

Petitions relative to the sordid affair were sent to Washington. Four army officers were appointed as a commission to investigate the matter. They produced an eight-point report to U.S. authorities. The soldiers involved were given a clean bill of health, the essence of the matter being that Mexican officials had requested the soldiers' help in dispelling the French. The report contended that the soldiers involved had been discharged and were awaiting transport home. The U.S. government therefore claimed no responsibility for the filibustering acts to the citizens and did not punish the soldiers. While no compensation was forthcoming, the Union military did return some captured armament to the French but only after the French threatened to blockade Brazos Santiago. On January 25,  contra, French marines, 120 Austrians, 100 Rurales, and 300 Mexican Lancers reoccupied the town. It was but a skeleton of its former self, for as many as 7,000 of its citizens had departed. The fact was that with the end of the Civil War Bagdad had suffered an immediate and severe depression; $1000 lots now sold for $15 an acre or less. The last Imperialist forces themselves would depart Bagdad forever on June 23, 1866.  They were transported to Veracruz.

The final chapters in the life of Bagdad center around hurricanes. The first was the hurricane of 10/7-8/1867. Even with the vagaries of tropical storms it is difficult to fathom the path of this one. The storm in the gulf hit the Texas coast on 10/2-3 just south of Galveston which we all know is a considerable distance from South Texas. It then turned south and moved all the way to the Rio Grande. The survivors at Bagdad would later record that from the middle of the night on 10/7 the winds ranged were about 20-25 mph. At daylight they were from 25 to 30 mph out of the north until sunset when they rose to 40-60. Winds of 60 miles per hour were in force by 8 PM and from 10 to midnight had risen to 80. At 12:30 AM the brunt of the storm had quickly passed. It was the tidal surge in the gulf that caused the major damage to Bagdad. The perpendicular height of the water was said to have risen eight feet. That propelled it inland anywhere from five to 25 miles according to The Daily Ranchero of 11/7/67. Brownsville and Matamoros were struck by the hurricane winds, but the damages there were exacerbated when after midnight a tornado coming from the southwest violently swept the two cities.

One historian writes that a purported 10,000 lives were lost in Brownsville, Matamoros, Clarksville, Bagdad and the remainder of the Valley. Considering the low Valley population at the time this number is horrific. It is likely exaggerated. Depending on accounts not a house was left standing at Bagdad and only two remained at Clarksville while another states that ten houses survived at Bagdad.

The hurricane of September 3,1874 lasted 60 hours over three days. It moved across the area in a north-northwesterly direction. Longtime Brownsville publisher, Paulino S. Preciado, stated in a reminiscence  that 1000 had died in Bagdad. Pilot James Baker of the river steamer San Juan was to quickly deliver supplies to the area and remove people to Matamoros. Mr. Van Ripper, the telegraph operator, also offered aid to the dispossessed. The storm totaled what little number of habitats remained in Bagdad. No attempts to rebuild were made by survivors. Father Periot was to call the storm "El Castigo de Dios" (The Punishment of God.) Mother Nature had reclaimed what was once desolate, salt-sprayed sand dunes and marshland. Bagdad had been physically obliterated to live on only in history, tales, and memory.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Airports, Airlines, and Airplanes in Harlingen—A Brief Survey



Historical Timeline of

Valley International Airport Harlingen Texas

© 2013 Norman Rozeff
10/29/18 Returning home for his brother Gordon's funeral, Lon C. Hill, Jr. lands the first airplane ever in Harlingen. The light bi-wing aircraft puts down in a football field close to where the present Harlingen airport exists. In his trip from San Antonio he has refueled at the King Ranch and approaching Harlingen looks for sheets spread along side the grass field selected for his landing.
1923 The first locally owned plane is brought to town. Leman Nelson and Clay Rader have purchased a surplus WWI bi-plane, still in its crate. They purchase an engine for it bringing the total cost to $600. Later it is destroyed by high winds. In time Leman Nelson and Bill Williams open a flying school. Two students plan to hi-jack the plane to Central America. With Nelson in the front cockpit, the student shots him while airborne, intending to dump the body in the Gulf, land, and pick up his accomplice. Instead the novice crashes between Harlingen and San Benito. As rescuers move to the plane he commits suicide.
The site of the municipal airport is a 72 acre triangular piece of land wedged between the Arroyo Colorado on its east and the Main Canal on its west side. It is at the south end of the municipal golf course. It possesses a gravel-dirt airstrip.
6/29 The Harlingen Star on its editorial page daily promotes among others the following for the city and area: A Modern, Fully Equipped Airport.
11/29 Harlingen boosts that its airport was the first in the Valley to be rated by the Department of Commerce. In May after a committee was appointed to find a new 400 acre site for a city airport, it begins to draw up plans to enlarge and modernize the existing facility and equipment. Mid-year efforts to entice Pan American Airlines here from Brownsville had fallen on deaf ears despite occasional flooding of the Brownsville strip.
1930-34 A Valley resident since 1930, C.W. Blackwell has a flying school in the area. Mr. and Mrs. O.N. Joyner's daughter Evelyn is one of his students and is considered to be the youngest woman pilot in the country. After she earns a flying license, her father purchases a plane. Blackwell makes most of his living with his pioneer agricultural dusting service and will manager the old Harlingen Airport for a number of years. At age 67 on 5/15/59 Blackwell passes.
3/41 Army Air Corps officials in Washington announce approval of Harlingen Air Training Base and in May this is confirmed. Later authority to proceed comes with the approval of a $3.8 million appropriation.

7/41 Harlingen Army Airfield is established for the training of gunnery students.
By 1945 more than 48,000 gunners have utilized the facility, now the Valley International Airport. With its palm-lined streets and flowering shrubs it was known as the "showplace of the air force."
11/28/41 Col. John R. Morgan, who will become the airfield commander, lands first base aircraft, a BT-13, on new southeast runway. At this time only a one-chair contractor's shack exists.
1/43 The 72 acre municipal air field is leased to an individual concern.
1/5/46 The first hint of the closure of the Harlingen Army Air Field comes in an AP story noting it will be declared surplus, the last of four such bases in this area to be deactivated. Others have been Moore Field, the Brownsville Army Air Base, and the Laguna Madre Sub-Base of the HAAF. Col. Louis R. Hughes is commanding officer of the 5,000 men, both trainees and permanent personnel, now here. By 1/29 negotiations start on the use of HAAF. On 2/1 the base is placed into inactive status and four days later declared surplus property. HAAF base commanding officer Col. Roy T. Wright had received orders on 9/17 to go overseas. Col. Lewis R. Hughes, deputy CO as of 4/13, then took command of the base. On 10/5/45 Col. John R. Morgan, commanding officer of the 79th Flying Training Wing with headquarters at HAAF, had been ordered to assume command at Keesler Field, Mississippi. He had been here since 1941.
In 1946 E.O. Young establishes the Young Flying service. It is purchased by Wayne French in 1979. By 1985 it is a full, fixed base operation handling fueling, and on-call maintenance of smaller aircraft, air charters, sale of new Piper and Cessna airplanes, and rentals. Its 43 employees have a payroll of $437,000 by 1984.
2/46 Harlingen Army Airfield is deactivated and formally taken over by the city on March 21. On 3/21/46 the field is taken over by the city.
9/7/46 Harlingen Field dedicated as a municipal airport by Rear Admiral C.A.F. Sprague, commander of the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. From this field is flown the first air cargo ever from the Valley. It is a planeload of strawberries for Canada. From 1947 to 1951 when it is reclaimed by the military the airport is called the All-Valley Regional Airport.
4/22/47 Nationwide Air Transport flies into the All-Valley Airport, Harlingen with the its first international air cargo ever. The DC 3 carries 7,000 lbs. of shrimp from Carmen, Mexico.
1947-48 Trans Texas Airways, with its 21 passenger DC 3s, offers twice daily flights.
The city is advertised as the "Valley's Commercial, Industrial and Transportation Center."
3/2/48 Trans Texas Airways has its first flight between Harlingen and San Antonio.
1949 Merle Huston is manager of the Harlingen All-Valley Airport.
1949 Val Air lines headquartered in the Madison Hotel building operates two flights daily to San Antonio and return to Harlingen.
6/21/51 The Defense Department seeks $15,462,000 to construct Harlingen facilities at the All-Valley Airport. It is to be transformed into a school for Air Force navigators. In the end
$14,721,000 is appropriated as part of the defense spending bill, $100,000 of which will be used to repurchase real estate sold since the army air field closed.
4/1/52 The once deactivated military air field turned into a city-owned regional one is reactivated as the Harlingen Air Force Base. While the original Harlingen Army Airfield cost just over $20 million, the reactivation this year will cost $15 million. Its mission is to train navigators, an urgency brought on by the initiation of the Korean War in June 1950. At its peak there are 3,500 military personnel and 600 civilians. The annual payroll comprises $15 million.
1952 Charles A. (Cut) Washmon is Mayor (12/15/52-12/15/56), when the Harvey Richards Field, Harlingen's municipal airport is opened on August 3, 1954 (but dedicated in November) in what is now the Harlingen Country Club in Palm Valley (26.2 N/97.76 W). It has a small terminal and a 3,650' runway. A 1963 directory shows that it had by then two paved runways with the primary one (19/35) being 4,900' asphalt, a third runway, taxiways, an apron, several hangars, and a terminal building. Operators listed were the Elliott dusting Service, Elliott Aviation Co., Valley Flying Service, and Young Flying Service. It is updated in 1959. Air travel times from Harlingen to major Texas cities are: Houston 3 hrs 22 min., San Antonio 2 hrs 32 min., and Dallas-Ft.Worth 4 hrs 50 min.
Texas International Airline operates from Harlingen. In 12/55 it is given permission by the CAB to provide four a day plane service from Harlingen to Dallas with stops in San Antonio and Austin. It pulls out 12/74 and returns in 4/75. In May 1979 it leaves again. Later it is merged into Continental Airlines, which commences flights into Harlingen in the 1990s.
1/12/59 $600,000 construction funds are set for the planned Harvey Richards Municipal Airport expansion six miles west of the city. One half of this amount will come from the FAA and one half from the Harlingen Airport Board, whose chairman is C. Grant Kloperstein. Others on the board are J.R. Fitzgerald, Harvey L. Richards, A.J. Wittenbach, E.D. McDonald, H.W. Bahnman, and D.B. Blankin. No local tax monies will be involved.
With the purchase of 160 additional acres a runway of 4,900' is constructed.
1/29/59 Mayor C. Worth Wood announces a 25 year lease for city-owned land of 1,489 aces for the Harlingen Air Force Base.
4/30/60 The Harvey Richard Municipal Airport is rededicated with its $70,000 terminal building which is but part of a $400,000 improvement program. Congressman Joe M. Kilgore gives the dedicatory address. Trans-Texas Airways is to move here on 7/1/60.
3/19/61 The first public announcement is made that the Harlingen Air Force Base is to be closed.
1962 The Harlingen Air Force Base closes and throws the city into an economic slump of major proportions. Between April and December the military complement at the base drops very sharply as does civilian employment.
Harvey Richards Municipal Airport is operating. Four flights arrive daily while six flights depart. The north-south runway is 4,950'; the NW-SE one 3,400'. It also has a third turf runway, taxiways, an apron, several hangars, and a terminal building. Operators at the field are Elliot Dusting Service, Elliot Aviation Company, Valley Flying Service, and Young Flying Service. In 12/67 the facility is to close as the airlines move to the much larger runways of the former HAFB.
2/21/63 A City Commission resolution to establish a regional airport in Harlingen elicits protests from McAllen and Brownsville interests.
8/65 By a four to one margin Harlingen voters approve a $1.25 million bond issue to convert the former HAFB to a major jet international airport.
4/14/66 The proposed movement of the airport from Harvey Richards Field to the former HAAF is opposed by some, but the economics are there as well as the future of an industrial park at the site.
11/66 George Young is Mayor. He is to serve from 12/13/66 to 12/8/70. Under him the municipal airport moves into the former HAFB and the Confederate Air Force is invited to establish its facilities at the airport.
11/1/67 The old Air Base becomes the Harlingen Municipal Airport and Industrial Air Park and the commercial airline facility. Between 1/68 and 2/18/69, a total of 3,000 passenger boardings occur. In January Trans Texas Airways starts its jet service to Harlingen on a newly extended runway.
1968 The Confederate Air Force, an organization formulated to preserve World War II military aircraft in flying condition, outgrows its facilities at Rebel Field , Mercedes, where one of its founders Lloyd Nolan runs a flying service, and moves to several hangers and buildings on the north end of the old Aerial Gunnery School facilities at the Harlingen airport. This has been facilitated by the $25,000 September 1967 fundraising campaign spearheaded by Dr. George Willeford and Don Bodenhammer.
2/24/69 With work having commenced 1/26/68 the new Harlingen Airport terminal is dedicated.
1/71 Spartan Aviation, a Los Angeles company, now has 500 employees in its over 150,000 square feet hangers at the airport. It repairs airplane engines. Its time here is short-lived. Plans to start a small plane manufacturing operation here are given considerable publicity but never reach fruition.
7/25/72 It is announced that the Hawaii firm Murray Air will build giant agricultural crop dusting planes here under the company name EMAIR and with George Roth as partner. The company is to occupy Hangar 38 at the airport.
7/30/73 EMAIR rolls out the first of its giant crop dusting aircraft manufactured here.
1974 Lamar Muse announces that Southwest Airlines, founded in 1971, has plans to fly to the Valley. With its unusual no-frills method of operations and a single type of aircraft, the Boeing 737, it becomes a phenomenal success while other national airlines struggle.
2/16/75 Texas International Airlines announces plans to pull out of its Harlingen operations and concentrate its services in McAllen. It had provided three daily non-stop flights to Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. Southwest Airlines will fill the void with 12 flights daily on Boeing 737s.
10/78 Mexicana Airlines begins service here but pulls out in 11/82 due to the peso devaluation and losses.
1980 Don Wiles establishes Gulf Avionics when he makes a lease/purchase arrangement with Eddie Anderwald for his avionic shop, then a part of Air Central, Inc. at the Harlingen Industrial Airpark. He officially opens for business 1/1/81. Months later David Garza is brought in as a general partner. The business remained a partnership with the name later changed to Gulf Aviation when aircraft maintenance was added to the services. In 1987 the business was incorporated as Gulf Aviation, Inc. In 1990 Wiles left the company and started Gulf Avionics, Inc., which is continuing to operate at the Valley International Airport in 2004. Garza bought out Wiles' interest in Gulf Aviation in 1993.
1981 The Eagle Bus Company leases a large hangar at the airport to manufacture buses but goes broke the following year.
11/26/80 Continental Airlines is cleared to commence flights into the city and will do so in early 1981.
3/13/81 Mal Kasanoff becomes chairman of the Harlingen Airport Board. Architect Whitey Fletcher will present it a $2.7 million plan for terminal expansion to the north, parking and drainage improvements, and radar acquisition.
9/9/81 Braniff International begins Harlingen service with four flights daily to Dallas-Ft. Worth. In December American Airlines begins Harlingen service, at first only to Dallas. It spends $1.3 million/yr here. On 5/13/82 Braniff files for bankruptcy and closes its operations forever.
11/18/83 The Valley International Airport has its grand opening with the very attractive and efficient terminal being welcomed. Its size has grown to 21,000 sq. ft. Fire Station No.5 at the airport will be manned by Harlingen Fire Department personnel, but the physical facility is under the Airport Board.
9/9/81 Braniff International begins Harlingen service with four flights daily to Dallas-Ft. Worth. In December American Airlines begins Harlingen service, at first only to Dallas. It spends $1.3 million/yr here. On 5/13/82 Braniff files for bankruptcy and closes its operations forever.12/81 Gulf Aviation commences servicing the South Texas area. David Garza and Don Wiles are co-owners. The firm sells aircraft, performs maintenance, aviation electronics, supplies fuel, trains student flyers, rents hangar space and tiedowns.
12/82 Trailways starts a bus-making plant in Harlingen after obtaining a building in March. By October 1984 work for 175 people diminishes. Through 2/85, 55 workers recondition older buses. By April only 11 people are left at the plant.
5/87 General Dynamics Services Center is set up in Harlingen. An immense super-modern hanger and support facilities are constructed at the southwest side of the airport. It is able to accommodate the largest commercial aircraft. In 1/91 the unit's name changes to General Dynamics Base Systems. In 5/94 the Martin Marietta Corp. acquires the facilities. In 3/95 this company is merged into Lockheed and the facility is under the aegis of Lockheed Martin. It has been assembling one component of the Atlas missiles. In the beginning of 2004, 234 employees are at the plant.
1991 In a major tourism loss to the city, the Confederate Air Force organization headquartered in Harlingen departs its Harlingen Airport base for Midland, TX which has offered it a $1 million facility/museum.
1991 The CAF has nearly 7,000 members nation-wide and about 140 flyable WWII aircraft.
11/96 Minneapolis-based Sun Country Airlines begins to serve Winter Texans of the mid-west with direct flights to Harlingen. It will serve VIA seasonally from November through April. For a time after the 9/11 terrorist attack it will pull out of the market but resume by 2003. It sets records for passengers carried when it goes to five flights a week in 2004. By November 2006 it marks its 10th anniversary with the local airport scheduling three round-trip flights per week and four during the holiday season.
12/02 Lockheed Martin added 36 employees to its Harlingen payroll during the year. The current total stands at 225. The plant at the Valley International Airport puts together components for the Atlas launch program, F-16 jetfighters, and Theater High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD). The latter is an interceptor missile.
12/30/03 Valley International Airport (Harlingen) controls 53% of the domestic boardings of the three Valley airports. The Texas Dept. of Transportation attributes $52.9 million as VIA's direct contribution to the local economy. The 245,000 annual visitors it handles are estimated to contribute $97.2 million directly to the economic output. The VIA's total economic activities stand at $259.5 million. Besides Continental and Southwest Airlines (and Sun seasonally), other major tenants are Lockheed Martin, FedEx, UPS, Airborne Express, Gulf Aviation, Gulf Avionics, and Amigos Aviation. Roy Rodriguez is chairman of the aviation board, and Ernie D. Arredondo, director of marketing.
3/14/04 The NAFTA CargoPort has opened in the 60,000 square foot facility built by LYXNS Holdings. In addition to Bax Global and Menlow Worldwide, Swissport, a company which works closely with air cargo carriers, will be a tenant. The setup will facilitate the movement of parts into northern Mexico for manufacturing operations there.
4/14/04 FedEx ,which handles air freight to the Valley using Harlingen as a terminal, replaces its standard cargo airplane with a larger and more fuel efficient aircraft. This is the French-
manufactured Airbus A310 which may carry up to 40 tons of cargo. Increased business to the Valley and northern Mexico necessitated the change. The twin-engine plane has 25% greater holding capacity than presently use craft.
5/12/04 As its aerospace business slows, the local plant of Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. lays off 19 employees. The Denver–based company will retain 211 people in Harlingen.
5/10/06 Valley International Airport becomes "international" again when FedEx commences a five times a week flight schedule to transport freight between Harlingen and Monterrey, Mexico.
1/08 This month saw the demolishment of an historic World War II Army Air Field building. This was Hanger 38 with its distinguishable orange and white stripes. Its longtime lessee, EMAIR, ceased operations in 2002. Also to see the dust this month were the Field's four railroad-accessible warehouses just across the road from the museum. The tracks, which once connected to the Southern Pacific Brownsville route, paralleled Loop 499 and were torn out many years ago.

A Short History of the Beginnings of U. S. Navy Radio Communications and the United States Navy Point Isabel Wireless Station

The Navy's Role in Early Radio Development and Its Use

© 2013 Norman Rozeff
American military communications as a separate discipline began with Confederate forces in 1862 and the Union Signal Corps was to form in 1863. Innovations were to follow as methods advanced from flag and torch signaling to telegraph and numerous other inventive schemes.
Few know of the important role that the United States Navy played in the development and perfection of long-range radio communications at the turn of the 20th century. Still fewer remember or are acquainted with the Navy wireless transmission facility which once existed in the southwest portion of Port Isabel. How and why this station came to exist will be explained here. Its evolutionary background was definitively addressed by Captain Linwood S. Howeth in his 1963 book History of Communication-Electronics in the United States Navy, U. S. Government Printing Office. What immediately follows are extracts and paraphrases from his comprehensive study.
The first electrical use in communications in the U.S. Navy was that of electrical signaling lights in 1875. It was the Spanish –American War which brought forth the establishment of coast signal stations. By April 1898, 230 land stations along the coasts of the country were tied together with telegraph and telephones and used various physical systems to communicate to ships off-shore. These stations, primarily lighthouse and weather service facilities, were manned by Navy personnel. The operation was termed the Coastal Signal System.
The system which we now call radio consists of the sending of electromagnetic waves created by a generator and received by a conductor connected to a suitable receiving circuit. Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell had laid the scientific groundwork for electromagnetism in the mid-19th century. While others were to build upon their work such as Dr. Mahlon Loomis as early as 1872 to be followed by Amos Dolbear in 1882 and Phelps and Edison in 1885, it was Heinrich Hertz, before his death in 1884, that developed an oscillator for generating high-frequency electro-magnetic waves, essentially the first radio transmitter.
Recognizing the fact that it would be of great use to the service, U.S. Navy Lt. Bradley A. Fiske researched and experimented with wireless communications in the decade following 1885. His work therefore preceded that of Marchese Marconi. Marconi was less an inventor than an individual who could develop engineering and applied research. This in the 1890s he did, accumulating information on radio signaling from numerous individuals, including Prof. Popoff in Russia. The outcome was by July 1898 the steamer Flying Huntress became the first ship outfitted with radio for commercial purposes.
In early 1899 several dramatic incidents related to maritime safety and the use of radios accelerated their installation. That year the Royal Navy commenced testing aboard three of its ships. By 1900 it had installed radio equipment in 26 ships and coast stations.
In September 1899 the U. S. Navy authorized personnel to observe radio communications monitoring the America Cup Races. In November this generated a favorable report to the Secretary of the Navy. The Navy in fact had by October 1899 been conducting its own tests on non-Marconi equipment but experienced interference problems. However a report recommended further testing and the establishment of a station at Newport, Rhode Island.

In 1901 the Navy was operating in a more observatory mood rather than experimenting. However, some personnel were assigned to Europe to acquaint themselves with the operation of radios. In 1902 no decision was made on the purchase of Marconi equipment though it was deemed superior to that of the Germans. Still prior to the end of the year, six different manufacturers were ready for comparative tests.
By January 1902 the Navy was issuing instructions that ships masts be prepared to accommodate antennas. Ships under construction were required to be provided with masts suitable for use of radiotelegraph apparatus.
Shore radio stations by May 1902 were to be located at five East Coast lighthouse stations and one near San Francisco.
Training operators was slow to be implemented and when in 1903 13 students were assigned to a school at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the number was far less than that required.
In 1903 seven manufactured systems were tested aboard two warships, the USS Topeka and USS Prairie. Reception distances ranged up to 62 miles for Slaby-Arco (Germany) to only 13 nautical miles for Rochefort. Lack of equipment and trained operators hindered the testing. By September the Navy had acquired 37 Slaby-Arco devices and 18 by other manufacturers. Naturally American manufacturers began to complain about the purchases from the German outfit.
In this period individual naval squadrons were more or less autonomous. This type of organization was a deterrent to early rapid development of naval radio communications. Additional transmitter stations were set up in 1903, two along the northeast coast, one in Puerto Rico, and two in the Philippines. Lack of trained personnel had only five stations manned by summer 1903. By the summer exercises of 1903, seven warships were equipped with radios, this being the Navy's first strategic use of them. "Old Navy" had reactionary views of this new technology and the issue was heatedly debated.
The efforts of the Marconi interests to establish a wireless monopoly and the shady dealings of the De Forest Co. lead the Navy to ask that the Government have absolute control of wireless stations in "time of national peril." An international conference on the subject of radio was held in Berlin in August 1903. No protocol was agreed upon by the attending nations.
An Interdepartmental Board appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt submitted to him in July 1904 a report recommending that the Navy be designated to provide coastwise radio communications for the U. S. Government and when not in competition with commercial stations to receive and transmit all radio messages to and from ships at sea. It would also empower the Army to erect stations and sought legislation to prevent radio telegraphy by monopolies or trusts. Vested interests kept these proposals from going to Congress.
In 1904 the Navy contracted with the American De Forest Radio Co. to provide and install three 35 kw transmitters and receiving equipment and accessories. These would be used to signal the Canal Zone and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba from Key West, Florida. These were completed in late 1905 and for the latter in early 1906. At each location three masts of 208' each were set in a 300' triangular arrangement. In 1906 the Navy was reporting it had 60 transmitters furnished by eight manufacturers. Ranging from1 to 35 kw in power they averaged 7 kw.
Early Navy radio had two components. One was the shore radio system under the individual commandants of the Shore Establishment Notice to Mariners. Fifty ships provided weather data for this system. Naval time was also transmitted. Atmospheric disturbances continued to plague transmissions from still rather primitive equipment.
The second system was fleet radio. It often lacked discipline and unified protocols. One success story of fleet radio was however during the San Francisco earthquake of April 1906. The USS Chicago moved into the area was able to provide valuable transmissions after other sources were disrupted.
In May 1906 a second International Radio Telegraphic Conference was held in Berlin. After considerable debate from delegates of 27 nations, a protocol, to be effected July 1, 1908, was adopted. It stipulated that any brands of radio equipment could be used to send and receive radio message, that inter-ship communications would be instituted, that radio stations would give priority to distress calls, and that all would work toward the elimination of interference between stations.
In this period the U. S. radio industry was in perpetual disarray with conflicting claims, patents, inventions, etc. In 1907 Lee De forest joined with James Dunlop Smith, a star salesman, and Samuel Darby, an honest patent attorney. They formed the De Forest Radio Telephone Co. One of its first customers of its radiotelephone was the Navy which in 1906 had purchased 26 of them. These were improperly utilized and for this reason proved a failure.
Reginald Fessenden of the National Electric Signaling Co. worked on continuous wave reception in the first decade of the 20th century. He would not succeed until De Forest developed equipment to satisfactorily generate local oscillations. Fessenden won a Navy contract in late 1908 for 100 kw transmitters capable of signals across arrange of 3,000 miles. These never met specifications. The company did sell the Navy 50 sets of other transmitters over the next two years.
It was the Poulsen system of continuous undamped oscillation and California scientists/entrepreneurs at the Federal Telegraph co. that provided the Navy reliable 35 kw transmitters. This company was eventually purchased by the Navy during World War I.
With the U. S. Senate still being appointed by sate legislatures prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment, many felt that the majority of Senators was under the influence of big business hence opposed to Government control of radio.
An July 1909 collision of two passenger ships SW of Nantucket greatly influenced public opinion. About 1, 650 persons were saved and only six reported lost due to radio messages received on shore and relayed requesting rescue efforts by two vessels in the area.
Finally becoming effective 1 July 1911 was the Radio Ship Act of 1910. It mandated provisions for radios in vessels carrying over 50 passengers on the high seas.
After many a year, in 1909 Democrats gained control of the house. This led to the ratification of the 1912 Berlin Wireless Telegraph Treaty. Congress then finally authorized Government control of radio in 1912. It was the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 which soon brought needed amendments resulting in the Radio Act of 1916.
Although Navy line officers were frequently reactionary in regards using radio for tactical purposes, they were eased into its use. In the summer of 1911 the Navy used its first radio plan. It was a fairly simple one.
Undamped waves, as emitted by an arc transmitter, were a breakthrough for long-distance transmissions and were nicknamed "the Navy darling." To go along with this in 9/12 a transmitter frequency changer had been perfected. An enthusiastic Navy asked Congress for a $1 million appropriation for construction of high-powered radio stations in the Canal Zone, California, Hawaii, Samoa, Guam, and the Philippines. It was approved and later raised to $1.5 million.
The end of 1912 saw the organization of the Office of Superintendent Naval Radio Services. This would be a major step for technical control and training. On 12 May 1913 the Navy Department issued the "Battle Signal Book of the United Sates Navy, 1913". This was a "strictly confidential" radio codebook.
When President Woodrow Wilson sent ordered troops to Veracruz, Mexico on 4/21/14 radio communications proved inadequate. Finally a warship had to be stationed at Tampico in order to receive messages via the station at Key West.
Prior to WWI an accelerated period of radio improvements occurred with both private and Navy scientists contributing. Receivers, amplifiers, vacuum tubes, and condensers were upgraded in performance.
In the Navy Act of August 1916 Congress authorized a $600 million program for the construction of ten battleships, six battle cruisers, and 140 more naval vessels during the next three years.
The Establishment of the Point Isabel Wireless Station
With the opening of the Panama Canal in August 1914 adequate communications between Washington and the Canal Zone became pressing, especially if war was to ensue.
In preparing for the possible U. S. entrance into the Great War additional stations were constructed. The Navy Communication Service set up the Point Isabel Navy Wireless Station within the Eighth District having New Orleans as District Center. This district also operated stations in Pensacola, Florida and the Heald Bank (Texas) Lightship.
The first inkling of the Navy's interest in the Point Isabel site is reported in the 1/15/14 issue of The Daily Sentinel, a Brownsville, Texas newspaper. It noted that the local engineer Kowalski, employed to survey the area for possible sites had recommended three alternative satisfactory locations at Point Isabel. In its 1/19/14 issue, the paper stated that Lt. Commander A. J. Hepburn was closeted with Point Isabel landowners to secure a wireless station site jointly owned by James B. Wells and Charles Champion. The latter had delivered an option for his half undivided interest at a very low price and even stated that he was willing to donate the land to the Navy if necessary. H. Skelton who previously held an option on the site from Champion had relinquished it upon learning of the Navy's interest.
The paper went on to report the background for the siting. The Point Isabel Station would be in almost a direct line with the station on the California coast and one at Panama so would occupy the most strategic position of any wireless in the United States. If established it would put the three sites, the one on the Pacific coast, the one at Arlington (Virginia), and the proposed one at Point Isabel in a V shape covering the whole of North America. It was hinted that its establishment might even entice the Navy to improve the harbor at Brazos Santiago.
By December 1914 the land title had still not been cleared to the satisfaction of the Department of Justice. At this time an agent was sent into the interior of Mexico, which was undergoing many domestic revolutionary disturbances, to obtain an affidavit from a woman whose family once was connected to the property. In the beginning of January 1915 word came that the affidavit had been secured and that J. B. Weller had sold and deeded his ten acres to the government. On 1/5/15 this was confirmed in a letter to Valley Congressman John Nance Gardner from R. S. Griffin, Engineer-in-Chief U.S. Navy, and that payments to Weller and Champion would be on the way. In addition he noted that construction contracts would be let soon. By the 17th John E. Green and Lt. White had arrived in Brownsville to close the land deal. They revealed that the construction contract would be let about 3/1. It was on 7/8/15 however that the newspaper reported that the construction work would begin at once and that the construction contract had been let a month earlier.
As extracted from the Navy Department Annual Report, R. S. Griffen, Engineer-in-Chief, Bureau of Steam Engineering (U.S. Navy) noted "The new station at Point Isabel, Tex. is in operation and has contributed to efficient communications with vessels in Mexican waters."
Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, in the same Annual Report for Fiscal Year 1916, 12/1/16, had also reported "In addition, a new medium-power station has been completed and will soon be in service at Point Isabel, Tex. This will be of great service to the merchant marine in that section, as well as to the Government in facilitating communications within Mexican waters."
The fact is the towers were indeed up by the second half of 1916 when famed Brownsville photographer took pictures of them from atop the Point (now Port) Isabel Lighthouse. He was documenting in part the encampment of the First New York Cavalry. This unit had been sent to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in response to bandit and other incursions occurring from Mexico during its period of revolution. Part of this Army force was encamped and utilizing the area set aside for the wireless station.
A May 18,1916 newspaper article tells something of the logistics involved in the station's erection. Headlined: "Heavy Machinery Rushed to Point for Big Wireless", the article went on to relate:
The Rio Grande Railway Company is preparing to handle heavy shipments of machinery and other equipment for the great government wireless plant that is being rushed to completion at Point Isabel. Officers of the road stated yesterday that most of the machinery has been received in the local yards and was now being loaded on cars preparatory to shipment to the Point. One indication of the great size and capacity of the plant can be gained from the size of the engine alone which weighs 27,000 lbs. Other machinery and equipment is massive and heavy in proportion.
The Point Isabel plant, which will be one of the transcontinental stations is being rushed to early completion and should be in operation within a few weeks.
Less than a month later the same paper headlined this item: "President Asks Haste on Radio at Point Isabel". This article read:
Work on the government's great radio station at Point Isabel is being rushed with all possible dispatch, and one of its 330-foot towers has been completed and work has been begun on the other. Workmen are putting in ten hours per day on the job, and a night shift would be used if there were electric lights.
The unusual rush to complete the station is the result of instructions from President Wilson himself, who asked all possible speed be made.
Extraordinary precautions have been taken to safeguard the giant steel towers that are pushing skyward. Arms and ammunition have been issued to every man on the job while sandbags have been provided for defense in case of attack.
The urgency involved the considerable military operations then being conducted along the border and even into Mexico in pursuit of bandits, revolutionaries, and others making incursions into the U.S.
To help augment the station's communication with the outside world a new telegraph line was completed from Brownsville to the wireless station on 6/29/16. A lesser wireless station at Fort Brown had received its first ever transmission (from Arlington VA) on 10/7/14.
Congress was to declare war against Germany and her allies on April 6, 1917. In its Annual Report of November 1917, the Navy Department was to report that it had 1,282 new radio installations on its vessels.
Before the war Germany had considered establishing refueling stations in Mexico, so this added impetus to good radio communications in the Gulf of Mexico. A successful German U-boat fleet in the area could have wreaked havoc. Prior to the war the United States had some history of intervention in the area including Nicaragua (1912) and Mexico (1914). These types of military actions also lifted the importance for reliable radio communications for the area. Point Isabel became an important link.
The Navy had a secret strategic plan, Plan Black, prior to the war. It dealt with the Caribbean area. This plan was made obsolete by the realities of the 1914 situation. The U.S. Navy then entered into the process of unparalleled expansion, moving away from a coastal defense strategy to broader goals. Radio communications would play an important part.
Navy records state the following:
Point Isabel, Tex. (TL-R) disestablished 24 August 1923
Brownsville, Tex. (TL-R) established 24 August 1923
TL = low powered transmitter; R = receiver
The shift in designation from a medium power transmitter in 1915 to a low power one in 1923 likely indicates an advancement in powerful transmitters over the period rather than a physical diminishment of the existing system. The transmitter at Fort Brown was still active in 1926. Its status after that year until May 1944 when Fort Brown was deactivated is unknown.
When the Point Isabel Station was deactivated the local population continued to call its compound area "The Reservation" and did so for many a year. The station was abandoned for the most part then buildings on it were rented out until 1936 when the whole reservation was put on a reserve basis.
The Physical Station
The history of Port Isabel is concisely laid out by The Handbook of Texas Online (Appendix 1). About one-half its area had come into the possession of Judge James B. Wells 1886. Charles Champion purchased for $17,500 the other half-interest in 1904 from E. K. Butler, President of the International Harvester Company of Chicago. It was from the estates of Wells and Champion that the station land was purchased. The Champion House/General Store constructed in 1899 remains today as a unique landmark and is part of the Port Isabel Museum complex. Together
with the Port Isabel Lighthouse constructed in 1853, they are lasting reminders of the community's history.
The station encompassed an area of approximately 20 acres. In the year 2006 this area is bounded by W. Madison Street on the south, W. Adams Street on the north, S. Musina Street on the east, and Leal Street on the west. Dividing the Reservation and equally spaced were the east-west street W. Madison and to its north W. Jefferson. At a later time Cisneros Street and Yterria Street to its east were carved out in a north-south direction.
The Reservation was then approximately 1320' east to west and 660' north to south. With one tower located near the southwest boundary and the other along the northeast boundary, the maximum distance between them could have been about 1250'. The towers were 330 feet in height. The two triangular steel towers were affixed to concrete bases none of which exist today.
Port Isabel resident Mrs. Harbert Davenport in an address to the Lower Rio Grande Valley Historical Society, with some hyperbole, related "In 1916 (during World War I) the largest wireless station in the world was stationed at the Point."
The 1916 photos of Point Isabel by Robert Runyon were taken to document the site as it existed at that time and also to portray the military activities in the area. Because of "Bandit" problems and other incursions from Mexico occurring at the time both regular Army and National Guard troops were dispatched to the Lower Rio Grande Valley and other U.S.- Mexico border areas. The First New York Cavalry was encamped in Point Isabel. Part of the contingent was set up at the new wireless station as indicated by the photos of tents and horse-drawn ambulances adjacent to the towers.
Runyon's 1916 photos indicate that the supporting infrastructure at the station was only partially in place. Next to the southwest tower may be a transmission building. To its north is what appears to be a sizeable barracks, likely for enlisted personnel. To its east is what may be an administration building besides which stands slightly elevated water tank. Lastly there is one building farther north, which is the housing for officers.
In January 2006 a survey of the whole former wireless station area revealed that only five of the original structures which once existed on the station still exist. Three of the former four barracks buildings along the north side of West Jefferson Street are extant. Each is separated by an intervening lot having a small residence on it. The former barracks at 202 has a garage constructed and attached to its front. The barracks at 212 is considerably altered with a second floor placed on it. The third barracks in the line at 220 is the most authentic and unchanged in outside appearance. It is in the process of restoration to near its original 1916 exterior appearance.
Behind several of these barracks and close to them there once existed catchment cisterns to collect rainwater running off the roofs of the barracks. The concrete lids of these were demolished and the cisterns filled in, though excavations would certainly reveal the internal structures of the original tanks.
On the northeast corner of Cisneros and Madison is a square two story original building which has undergone extensive change. It is stuccoed and its main entrance has been changed from the north to the south side of the structure. In the service alley behind it are four original concrete foundation blocks about sixteen feet apart in a square conformation. They once supported a tower upon which was a large water tank. This tower and tank are visible in some Runyon photos.
On the southwest corner of the intersection of Adams and Musina Streets is the First United Methodist Church. It consists of a complex of buildings. The main sanctuary however is a wooden structure moved to that site from elsewhere on the Reservation. It once served as an enlisted man's barracks. A small bell tower was added to its front.
On the northwest corner of the intersection of Monroe and Musina is a small brick building which is said by some old timer residents to have been used as a water plant for the station. This has not been confirmed, but the industrial looks of the building lend credence to this possible use.
The remainder of The Reservation has been subdivided into lots and most are occupied by modest residential structures. There are no commercial buildings in the area, but there are at least four churches and a two-block area having a recreational park in it named Washington Park.
From 1907 to 1927, with the exception of the wireless station, little developmental activity had occurred in the seaside community. It was mainly utilized for recreational activities such as fishing, boating and swimming. On 8/30/27 the townsite was sold to Capt. C. R. Tyrell and associates who commenced to subdivide it and generate lot sales. On August 1, 1930 the name of the town was officially changed from Point Isabel to Port Isabel.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s the property went into bankruptcy court.
Twin antennae of the U.S. Wireless Station in 1916. The First New York Cavalry camp utilizes some of the reservation area as well as the town itself.
Southwest radio antenna of the U. S. Navy Wireless Station, Point Isabel, TX in 1916 when the First New York Cavalry unit sent to quell border unrest was encamped at the site.
Northeast view of the Wireless Reservation with the Champion Building in the left foreground, 1916.
The USS Arizona built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1915 and shown here in the East River after commissioning in 1916. She displays the latest in Navy wireless receiving and transmitting antennae. She was to be destroyed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
USS Texas in 1907 with some of the first radio antennae on U. S. Navy ships.
Receiving radio equipment of the 1914 era. The caption reads: "Typical receiving room installation. 1914 equipment consisting of Type A (Cohen) receiver, Wireless Specialty Co. (IP75) receiver, crystal detector, ultraudion detector."
Electrician Mates stationed at the U. S. Navy Wireless Station, Point Isabel, 1919 and brides. It would be several years before the rate of Radioman was to be established by the Navy