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
Los Indios Junction 10.3
The alternate route commencing in Fernando north of Rio Hondo had:
Rio Hondo 8.7
San Benito 0.0
Santa Maria 16.3
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).