Robertson's Dream

The Spiderweb Railroad


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Let us go back to the happenings on June 1, 1904, --the inception of the very remarkable San Benito Water project. As the steel rails of the Brownsville Line penetrated the jungle, Sam A. Robertson, scanning the new dump through the luxuriant wilderness, noticed a peculiar feature of the topography which caused the land to drain from the river instead of toward it --ordinarily valley lands drain toward a stream.


Photo courtesy of San Benito Historical Society

Robertson Dreams of a City by the Resaca

He found traversing much of this territory a resaca or vast river bed that had been created there years ago. Its banks had drifted above the surrounding lands like the bed of the Rio Grande. This resaca, heading about sixteen miles above the present site of San Benito, extended up to within one and one-half miles of the river. Then it was that a gravity irrigation project (practically all of the canals along the river have a lift of from eight to twenty feet) came barn-storming into his head, with dreams of a city there in the brush.

Into this deserted channel, Robertson proposed to pour waters from the river. All that was necessary to utilize the old resaca as a backbone of a gravity system was to cut an artificial channel through the mile and half bank to the river, levee the old channel from two to four feet, build dams at different intervals to let the water down by degrees, and to run laterals or branch canals out from the main canal according to the natural slope of the surrounding country. This resaca/canal with its stupendous dimensions of 250 feet in width and twenty feet in depth, would afford sufficient storage water to irrigate an immense acreage for a considerable period without drawing on the river.

But Robertson had no money with which to buy or develop the land. However, that mattered not at all to him - opportunity needed to knock but once at his door - so he prepared the way for a future start. On June 1,1904, as the track laying crew approached the spot that was later to become San Benito, James Landrum and Oliver Hicks, accompanied by their families, came out to watch the ties and rail go into place and celebrate the coming of the railroad with a picnic lunch under an ash tree on the banks of the resaca. They enjoyed this and it was repeated again next day. While riding with Sam Robertson on the deck of an old flat car, a three-cornered conversation between them was the starting point of the San Benito Land & Water Company, for, after shaking hands, their informal agreement served as a purchase contract of the land comprising the town of San Benito and the surrounding country.

Their agreement covered some 13,000 acres at three dollars per acre, and it eventually blossomed into a 68,000 acres project, the main body of which was bisected by the Brownsville Railroad for a distance of seven miles, and traversed by the old resaca for thirty-seven miles. In the Southwest country, a man's word was his bond, and later when it came time to exercise this verbal option, it proved to be just as binding with all parties concerned as if it had been formally drawn up in writing and duly executed.

Robertson nursed his pet project along until he had completed the grading contract on the Mercedes project in November, and using the money he had made there and at Santa Maria, he was able to open his San Benito proposition, breaking the first dirt in San Benito in December, 1906. A distinctive feature of the project has been aptly stated by someone who said: "God built the San Benito canal and Sam Robertson put the water in it."

"Clearing the townsite"

Photo courtesy of San Benito Historical Society


At first, Robertson's plans contemplated a project of twenty-two miles of main canal and eighty-seven miles of laterals. This was considerably enlarged by extending the length of the main canal for thirty-seven miles, with a system of laterals totaling 125 miles. He put his mules and Mexicans in the brush to clear the old resaca of an undergrowth that had long been undisturbed. On the river bank, he built head gates of huge proportions, and taking due cognizance that irrigation and drainage go hand in hand, he constructed one and one-half miles of drainage ditches for every mile of canal and lateral.It was not easy to raise funds for such an undertaking, but despite his limited finances, he clung grimly on and proceeded with the work. By the following March, he had not only exhausted all his funds, but had reached his borrowing limit as well. Though he had an almost infinite capacity for borrowing money, his project became sick and staggering.

Back in the hectic days of Spindletop, he had met three actor brothers, the Heywoods from Michigan, who had side-stepped ill-luck and made a fortune in that famous field, and it was natural for him to turn to them for financial assistance. The San Benito Land & Water Company was formed March 19,1907, with a capital of $500,000, by Sam A. Robertson, Alba Heywood, 0. W. Heywood and W. Scott Heywood, E. F. Rowson, W. H. Stenger and R.L.Batts.

Negotiations with the Heywoods culminated in late March 1907 with the creation of the San Benito Land & Water Company. The Heywoods, probably joined by Stenger, Rowson, and Batts, invested $500,000 in the project. The corporate charter named Alba Heywood as President, W. H. Stenger as Vice-President, and Ed F. Rowson as Treasurer; the directors were the three Heywood brothers, Rowson, Robertson, Stenger, and Batts. On April 3, 1907, the stockholders of the Bessie Land and Water Company met and agreed that the Bessie Land and Water Company be absorbed by the San Benito Land & Water Company. Immediately after the filing of the charter with the Secretary of State, the San Benito Land & Water Company exercised the purchase agreements which Robertson had obtained in 1904. The Company also had the depot and post office renamed "San Benito." By April 27, 1907, Sam Robertson had published a map of the town site of San Benito, and the San Benito Land & Water Company had contracted for the construction of a brick passenger station, a brick schoolhouse, and two large two-story brick commercial buildings. Alba Heywood moved to San Benito and built a model farm to assist in promoting land sales. In addition to his involvement in the Company, in 1908 he and W. Scott Heywood opened the San Benito Bank and Trust, of which Alba served as President until 1912.

The San Benito Land & Water Company delivered its first water on January 25, 1908. By November 1, 1909, it owned 33,000 acres of land and had entered into contracts to irrigate an additional 15,000 acres. However, the Company needed to raise additional capital to complete the irrigation system and construct a permanent office building in San Benito. In late 1909 and early 1910, the Company raised $1,050,000 by issuing bonds. The bonds were purchased by the St. Louis Union Trust Company. The bonds were to be repaid from the sale of land and water. The assets of the San Benito Land & Water Company were pledged as collateral to secure the payment of the bonds.

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The Spider Web

By late 1909, the San Benito Land & Water Company had sold most of its land near the tracks of the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railway. But due to a lack of all-weather roads, few persons were willing to buy land situated more than a few miles from the tracks. To solve this problem, Robertson decided to construct a feeder railroad nickname "The Spider Web". He envisioned two loops of track, one to the north and one to the south of San Benito, so that no property in the lands owned and served by the Company would be more than two miles from a railroad track. By 1928, the Spider Web had approximately 128 miles of track.


Spiderweb Railroad Historical Marker at the intersection of Sam Houston and Business 77 in San Benito.



From a 1909 San Benito Land and Water Company scrapbook

REPORT 1909: The full story of the enormous crop productions in the Rio Grande Valley is difficult to believe. The more scientific farmers have shown returns which are wonderful. In making the following statements, we have attempted to be conservative in every way, and we believe that they represent the results that any good farmer with reasonable care may expect to secure. It must be remembered that the Rio Grande Valley is in a latitude farther south than Miami, Florida, with a climate tempered by light Gulf breezes. Crops can be planted and successfully grown in practically every month of the entire year. Two crops on the same land in the same year are a frequent occurrence. The incomes are so large that farmers have frequently been able to pay the entire cost of their land in one year and have left a comfortable balance.

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Photo courtesy of San Benito Historical Society

The principal field crops are, in order: sugar cane, cotton, corn, alfalfa, sorghum cane and broom corn. In addition to this, all varieties of early vegetables show wonderful production, and among the most profitable crops of the country are: Bermuda onions, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce and potatoes, which mature and are available for the Northern markets in mid-winter months. The culture of citrus fruits and figs has also been attempted in this valley. It is too early at present to demonstrate their success, but climatic conditions and soil would seem to be favorable.


Sugar cane will be a great staple of the lower Rio Grande Valley. Three large sugar mills are already in operation and others are being built. Soil, climate, irrigation and all conditions here are favorable for this product.

There is a steady and unlimited demand for sugar cane, and mills already in operation in the Valley are ready to take all that is offered, paying the planters ninety cents per ton for every cent per pound that sugar is worth the day the cane is delivered; in other words, if sugar is worth four cents per pound they pay $.60 per ton for cane.

The San Benito Company has set aside forty acres of land, located on the main canal, to be given for a sugar refining site, and intend to make a contract with some refinery company at as early a date as possible.

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Photo courtesy of San Benito Historical Society

There is at present a steady demand for cane for seeding purposes, and this year's crop has all been contracted at $5.50 per ton.



Cotton may be planted in the Valley in February and picked in time to raise a late crop of corn. It will yield an average of about one bale to the acre.

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Cotton picking on the Landrum Plantation

Photo courtesy of San Benito Historical Society


Corn has not been bred to its perfection in this country, the little Mexican maize being usually grown, two crops per annum can be raised, the first yielding from fifty to sixty bushels per acre and the second from thirty to forty bushels per acre, making an average of from eighty to one hundred bushels per acre per annum, and has at present a ready market at home of from seventy-five cents to one dollar per bushel.

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Photo courtesy of San Benito Historical Society


This is a very valuable crop in this country, yielding from seven to eight tons per year and finding a ready local market at present of from fifteen to eighteen dollars per ton.



Sorghum cane is grown at present only as a forage crop and can be cut from three to five times per year, producing on the average of five tons per cutting and selling for ten dollars a ton.



Broom corn is cut twice in each year and yields yearly about one and one-quarter tons per ton. Broom corn sold readily in 1909 at $120 per ton.



Bermuda Onions

A very fine quality of Bermuda onions is raised; the soil seems well adapted to this crop. In 1908, onions showed an average yield of three hundred and fifty bushels per acre, selling seventy-five cents to $1.10 per bushel.



It is very profitable crop in this country, owing to the fact that it can be set out in the fall months and matured for early spring market The average yield for 1908 was ten to twenty tons per acre, and sold at from $35 to $45 per ton.



Both sweet and Irish potatoes do exceedingly well. Productions average 150 bushels for sweet potatoes for one crop, to two hundred and fifty bushels for two crops of Irish potatoes.


Small Vegetables

Small vegetables of almost every variety produce wonderful yields and can be grown for the mid winter market, and indeed during practically all months of the year.



This country seems to be well adapted to the cultivation of citrus and semi-tropical fruits, such as oranges, lemons, bananas, grapes, figs, dates and the pepsin plant.

It is difficult at this time to fairly estimate how profitable fruit culture will be, as most of the plants and trees are young however, those so far set out show a wonderful growth and we are informed by men who have made a study of the soil and climate, and claim to be well versed in the cultivation of fruits, that it will be a very profitable industry in this locality.

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