Early Days

Railroad Contractor

Before the long-hoped-for-railroad to the Valley was assured through efforts of Uriah Lott, Robertson had built segments of Yoakum's Gulf Coast Lines linking Cleburne and Mexia and constructed a 30-mile logging railway into Orange. Texas. In 1903 he landed the subcontract for track laying, surfacing and bridge construction on the St. L.B.&M. extension from Corpus Christi to Brownsville. With $12000 borrowed capital, two decrepit locomotives, tenders and several flatcars, he began the most challenging job of his life. His materials yard on a siding in Robert Driscoll's 78,000 acre pasture became Robstown.

 

Photo taken from "Rio Grande Heritage"

When construction work started, there was not a town or post office along the 150-mile right-of-way. Using hundreds of mules, small team contractors began the grade and earth work. Following behind as soon as rails had been laid were flatcars with tents that provided living quarters for the tracklaying crews and their families. The Robertsons and families of his chief engineers lived in windowless boxcars. At sundown each day a blast from one of the locomotives signaled quitting time. The swing train returned to the materials yard every night for the next day's supplies.

As the mobile village pushed farther from so called civilization, Robertson sometimes assumed the role of judge, settling disputes and occasionally performing a marriage ceremony. Only 36, a drooping mustache made him appear older. He was respected for always being fair and for his readiness to help any man willing to work. Negroes, hoboes and boys on their own for the first time worked alongside work toughened camp hands who had followed him from job to job.

 

In later years Robertson often praised the women who endured the hardships of railroad camp life. The most gruelling experiences came while track was being laid through the 50-mile desert of shifting sand dunes. Time after time wind ate the sand from beneath the ties, or restless dunes shifted to completely cover the track. (The problem persisted long after the line was in operation, or until the railroad literally sacked the sand to stabilize it.)

As the steel rails approached the Combes siding, labor trouble erupted. The surfacing gang quit because their pay had been cut from $1.50 to $1.25 a day. Workers, who quickly crossed the Rio Grande to fill the gap, refused payment in U.S. currency. They demanded wages "in the money of the country," meaning pesos. For several years, changing U.S. currency into pesos had been a major problem on both sides of the border.

Robertson solved his dilemma characteristically. In lieu of pesos, he handed out Field's checks. The printed cardboard IOU's from Field's Store were familiar to the hombres and were readily accepted. To cope with the widespread shortage of change, Henry E. Field (brother of the founder of Field's of Chicago), issued his own money, redeemable in merchandise or cash. The dog-eared bits of pasteboard in various colors were in denominations from one-half to dos reales (6-1/4 to 25 centavos.) Until Field called recalled them in 1906, his checks were passed on both sides of the Rio Grande as currency at banks, saloons, gambling houses, hotels and post offices.

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