Anna Cora Petz, 1409 Madison Street, Brownsville, Texas.
Note. — Miss Anna Cora Petz has chosen the Rio Grande Railroad as her subject. She tells that this is not only the shortest railroad in the United States, but the only one that remained as a "narrow-gauge" road until 1924. Many people have heard of narrow-gauged railways, but it is likely that very few people know that they are one meter in width. Miss Petz lives at Brownsville, and since her uncle was a conductor for the road a long while, she is especially prepared to give an accurate history of this short railroad. The writing of her essay was under the supervision of her teacher, Miss Leonie Weyand.
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In this essay I have tried to give a history of the shortest railroad in the United States. This little railroad was Brownsville's first "rail love" for it was the only rail communication that the little city had with the outside world for fifty-three years. In 1904 the Gulf Coast Lines came in and overshadowed the little rival in prominence, but not in the love of the people. My uncle from Cuba was for many years conductor on this railroad. His many accounts of the vicissitudes of this road helped to make the writing of the history of this railroad really a labor of love.
The Rio Grande Railroad, which runs from Brownsville on the Rio Grande to Point Isabel on the Laguna Madre, has the double distinction of being the shortest railroad in the United States and the only one which up to November, 1924, had the old French or one-meter gauge.
There are many prominent men connected with its history. Such names as Richard King; his partner, Mifflin Kenedy; Simon Celaya; E. J. Davis, one of the early Governors of Texas; James B. Wells, and Joseph Kleiber, its original founder and promoter, are links in the chain of its successes and failures. Joseph Kleiber dreamed of a railroad between Point Isabel, the only Rio Grande Valley seaport, and Monterrey, Mexico. But Kleiber had many obstacles to overcome before he could make even the embryo of his dream a reality. The chief of these obstacles was the successful competition of Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy, the uncrowned kings of the Rio Grande Valley in its infancy.
Mifflin Kenedy was born in Downington, Chester County, Pennsylvania, on June 8, 1818. In 1835. young Kenedy, feeling the lure of the sea carrying him on irresistibly, took passage on the Stwr of Pennsylvania for a voyage to Calcutta, India. Later, during the Mexican War, Kenedy helped to transport General Zachary Taylor and some of his troops from Matamoros to Camargo, Mexico, in his steamboat.
He also assisted in the organization of the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railroad. Captain Kenedy died March 14, 1895, on his beautiful ranch, La Parra, Cameron County.
In 1850 the inimitable King and Kenedy partnership had been formed.
Captain Richard King was born in Orange County, New York, on July 10, 1825, and died April 14, 1885. In his tender years he worked as a cabin boy on one of the United States vessels during the exciting days of Indian warfare in Florida. He came to the mouth of the Rio Grande in June, 1846. In 1868 he moved to his now famous ranch, Santa Gertrudis, Nueces County, Texas. His widow and children have maintained the ranch since his death; it is one of the largest in the world.
The immediate purpose of the organization of the Rio Grande Railroad was to break up the King and Kenedy monopoly. They had owned and successfully operated a line of twenty-six steamboats since 1850. These boats carried the freight and passengers that landed at the harbor, Point Isabel, from home and foreign parts down the Rio Grande to Brownsville and Mexico. Since King and Kenedy had the monopoly, they charged what the public considered exorbitant rates. The organizers of the railroad hoped to break up this monopoly. A company was formed, officers were elected, and a charter was granted by the Texas Legislature in 1870. In this charter the promoters of the Rio Grande Railroad were given the right to construct, maintain, and own a railroad and telegraph line from Point Isabel to Brownsville. The original stockholders were Simon Celaya, H. E. Woodhouse, Charles McManus, John S. Ford, David Maltby, and Joseph Kleiber. Many of their descendants are now among the delta's most influential citizens.
King and Kenedy saw that this railroad would mean ruin to their steamship line and determined to fight its construction by every means in their power. As the tiger waits in secret and unexpectedly springs upon its prey, likewise King and Kenedy attacked their victim — the Rio Grande Railroad promoters — in the form of an unexpected law suit. They brought suit on the grounds that the State charter had provided that the Rio Grande Railroad was authorized to build a railroad only to the city limits — about a mile from the business center of Brownsville and no farther. E. J. Davis, who afterwards became Governor of Texas, was the lawyer for the Rio Grande Railroad. If the City of Brownsville had won, the Rio Grande Railroad would have been compelled to haul their goods to the center of town in ox carts or on the backs of burros, these being a means of transportation, both picturesque and popular at this period of Brownsville's development. But fate smiled upon the Rio Grande Railroad, and Davis won the case.
King and Kenedy, however, were not daunted. They showed their rivals that they had yet a trump card to play, and this card happened to be an ace. The promoters of the Rio Grande Railroad woke up one day to find that their opponents, with the aid of a wealthy man, Uriah Lott, were planning to build a narrow-gauge railroad from Corpus Christi to Laredo, a distance of 163 miles. Here it was to connect with the main line of the Mexican National Railway. With the completion of this line, freight bound for Mexico was now handled by the Rio Grande Railroad's successful rival, the Corpus Christi, San Diego & Rio Grande narrow gauge railroad.
In spite of these obstacles the Rio Grande Railroad was organized, built, and by 1873 was in operation. It took two years to build the twenty miles of railroad. The rails were purchased from Joseph Railtor and Son, a famous mercantile establishment of Liverpool and were all brought over in the same vessel. Many interesting stories are related about the building of this line. It is said that the construction gang got lost on the prairies and that the many windings of the public road stand today as a result of the efforts of this gang to get back to Brownsville. Another tale relates that a light was placed in the steeple of the Immaculate Conception Church when this gang was out on the Palo Alto prairie to keep them from getting lost a second time. This road had to be repaired several times because floods and hurricanes destroyed parts of it. One time during one of these terrible hurricanes fourteen empty box cars were stationed at Point Isabel. Twelve were overturned and two were blown down the tracks toward Brownsville. The next morning these two cars were found near the roundhouse in Brownsville.
The roundhouse of the Rio Grande Railroad would present an interesting study in the evolution of engines, each discarded locomotive representing a well-thumbed page in its history. First the Rio Grande Railroad had two "saddle-back" engines, which, in spite of their huge tanks holding a vast amount of water, usually "went dry" before reaching their destination. As there was only one filling station, a resaca about five miles from Brownsville, this temperamental weakness of the "saddle-backs" proved somewhat annoying. In order to improve this situation, they were exchanged for four new locomotives. Engines Nos. 1 and 2 were used every day for the passenger train, and No. 3, a heavier engine, was used on the day a steamer came in. Number 4 was built in the shops here. It was a light engine that could carry two or three passenger cars and the mail. This engine was also used for inspection tours over the road after floods and storms. Number 3 is a Baldwin type engine. The Baldwin engine is now extinct. There are only two or three of its kind left in the United States. At present the old engine is fast deteriorating in the yards of the old rice mill. The Valley Historical Association has been discussing plans for its preservation. They would like to have it placed in some museum. This engine has a four-wheel drive with two sets of trucks, and is known to railroad men as an eight-wheel engine. The valve motion is the old Stevenson link type. Its smoke stack is of a type that was dubbed the "Mother Hubbard" by old engineers. The braking is done by the old style wheel-hand brakes. The headlight is a kerosene-burning lamp. The old style grease cup furnished the lubrication.
Don Jose Ayala, an old-time resident of Brownsville, and this Baldwin engine somehow seem as one. For twenty-seven years, Ayala looked over the old engine and by his superior mechanical skill made it "run" when it was long weary of traveling. He was born here in 1850. His first connection with the Rio Grande Railroad was in 1881, ten years after it was organized. Ayala received his degree as an engineer of steam vessels on February 25, 1899. He first worked under George W. Rendall, the first master mechanic of the Rio Grande Railroad, as a helper. He gave forty-five years of his life in service for the Rio Grande Railroad, working first as a blacksmith and then as a master mechanic. All Brownsville mourned his death January 26, 1926. He worked until two days before his death, and during the early hours of the forenoon that he passed away he was still studying his beloved mechanical books. The weather-beaten engine in the yards of the old rice mill looks more desolate than ever; it seems the shell of a body from which the soul has departed.
We pass to a lurid page in the narrative of "the railroad that has made history." "Hold-up" men figure in it as well as a missionary, a shepherd boy, and a frightened woman. In January, 1891, the Rio Grande Railroad train left Brownsville as usual about 9 o'clock. It was a beautiful, sunshiny day but a slight wind was blowing from the east. All went well until the "Green Bug" reached Loma Trosada, a point about twelve miles from Point Isabel. Here by the carefully laid plan of a famous bandit gang, the rails had been loosened and then carefully laid back in place. Wires were attached to the rails so that, at a given signal, these might be drawn apart. The engineer saw all this too late to stop the train, and the engine ran off the track, catching fire as it fell. The passengers got down to see what had happened and as they did so, eight masked bandits sprang out of the tall sacahuiste (prairie grass). The four men in front, who had Winchesters, advanced toward the terrified passengers, pointed their guns at them, and said "Hands Up!" The other four men, also armed, stood in the rear. They asked them for their handkerchiefs so that they might blindfold them. Mr. Robert Kingsbury, who was at that time conductor of the Rio Grande train, realized that the robbers were after the $60,000 in Mexican silver that the train carried. He made a quick movement toward his hip pocket but before he could reach his weapon, one of the men jammed a pistol into his chest. They blindfolded all the passengers except Mrs. Frank Thielen, Jr., the only lady passenger. One by one they robbed the passengers and led them up on a small hill. Reverend Hall, the Presbyterian minister, who was on his way to Cuba on a church mission, threw up his hands and said, "0, por Dios! No me quiten mi reloj porque es de mi esposa." Then he threw his money ($500 in "greenbacks") into the grass. He afterwards found every dollar of it. By the time all the passengers had been relieved of their valuables and the train money stolen, the fireman, who had been badly burned when the engine caught fire, strayed away from the rest. One of the robbers went after him and tapping him on the shoulder said to him, "Ven para aqui, amigo." ("Come over here, friend.") The fireman recognized the robber's voice and groaned, "Hay que ingrato, mi compadre Mosqueda." ("Oh, what an ungrateful comrade.") Mrs. Frank Thielen, Jr., had not been blindfolded and consequently she saw all that the robbers did. She saw one of the men climb up the telegraph pole and cut the wire. Since the wind was blowing rather strongly by this time, the mask fell off the robber and she recognized him as a man she had seen that very morning in the store of Mrs. Dreyfus, a Brownsville merchant. While doing some shopping there, she noticed this man standing at the door and looking in a suspicious manner toward the Rio Grande Railroad office.
The robbers now put all the passengers into a box car and locked them up. The passengers stayed there about two hours. After that time, hearing no sound and tiring of their cramped position, they took off their handkerchiefs and peeked out of the cracks. They saw a lonely man way out on the hills. Although they knew not whether he was a friend or foe, they called to him. The man turned out to be Pomposo, a youth from Point Isabel. He took one of the rails and knocked in the door. The passengers came out, and Mr. Martin Kingsbury, who knew telegraphy, telegraphed to Point Isabel for a rescue train. But while he was thus engaged, one of the crew, who was still very much excited, began crawling on all-fours through the tall prairie grass. The poor man crawled on until five miles from the scene of the wreck he met the hand car that was coming to the rescue. The hand car took the passengers to Point Isabel. The robbers had made off not only with the passengers' valuables, but had relieved the train of $60,000 in Mexican silver, which was destined for New Orleans.
Large rewards were offered by the Morgan Steamship Line, the Wells Fargo Express Company, and the Rio Grande Railroad Company for information concerning their whereabouts. Mr. Brito, who was at that time sheriff, found the blacksmith, who had made the iron bar with which the robbers had unscrewed the bolts from the rails. It seems the bandits had thrown the iron bar away, and a shepherd boy who was tending sheep on the prairies found it and gave it to
Mr. Brito. Mr. Brito also found the man who had furnished the robbers with horses, saddles and ammunition. The robbers were Blas Loya, Severiano Loya, Reyes Loya, Fabian Garcia, Jose Olivares, Jose Maria Mosqueda, and Pancho Jaramillo. Only Garcia and Mosqueda, the leaders, were brought to justice; the rest had fled to Mexico. Garcia's parents were well to do and employed good lawyers for his defense. He escaped with a ten-year sentence, but Mosqueda went in for life and died in prison. All but $20,000 of the money was recovered. The remainder still is believed to be buried out on the prairies. This money belonged to several people, among whom were the Cross Brothers, prominent citizens of Matamoros. They sued the Rio Grande Railroad for the recovery of $9,110 of their money taken by the bandits. James B. Wells, who has now passed away, but whose memory will live in the hearts of old Valley residents for years to come, was the lawyer for the Cross Brothers.
Before this time the Rio Grande Railroad had been fighting against human odds, but in the year 1906, nature took the matter in her own hands and in the form of a terrible storm filled up the harbor at Point Isabel. This dealt the Rio Grande Railroad its death blow. Now the Rio Grande Railroad promoters admitted defeat. The storm of 1906 was one of the most fearful Gulf storms in the history of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Since that time almost to the present the ancient little train with its two dilapidated coaches made a daily round trip to Point Isabel. It functioned only to take a few curious sightseers to Point Isabel and to transport fish and oysters from the fish houses at Point Isabel to Brownsville.
The motor car was substituted six years ago for the last of the old type engines, an 1877 model, because it burned from five to six cords of wood per day and wood now sold at $6 a cord. The new Cadillac motor used only twelve or thirteen gallons of gasoline. Perhaps another reason which brought about the substition of the motor car was a humorous incident which happened in 1916.
A Brownsville photographer went to Point Isabel for the purpose of doing some photographic work there. The train stopped at a small midway station. The photographer, after waiting for a long time, began to grow impatient and got down to see what the trouble was. What he saw was a situation which struck him as exceedingly funny. A gang plank had been stretched from the tank to the engine. Across this plank a number of Mexicans were carrying pails of water to the engine. He took a picture of the scene and found a ready sale for it in the Valley, when it was broadcasted later in the form of postcards. The management of the Rio Grande Railroad, however, failed to see the humor of the situation.
Now, in the words of the comic strip, "them days are gone forever." A second Joseph Kleiber has appeared in the person of W. T. Eldridge, of Sugarland, who financed the rebuilding of the road to standard gauge. Prospects pointing to the eminent and brilliant resurrection of Point Isabel as a seaport with the prosperity it will bring to the Valley, are exceedingly bright. Joseph Kleiber's dreams have at last come true.
Ayala, Juan, oral report, Brownsville, Texas.
Kingsbury, Mr. B., oral report, Havana, Cuba.
Petz, Andrew, oral report, Brownsville, Texas.
Thielen, John, oral report, Brownsville, Texas.
Pierce, Frank C., Brief History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Brownsville Herald, November, 1906.
Rummel, Helen, Paper.
Chatfield, Lieutenant W. H., Twin Cities.