Sam Robertson's Irrigation System

Irrigation System


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"One of the large dredges building canal at San Benito, with drain ditch as shown under the dredge." Photo courtesy of San Benito Historical Society

When Robertson's track laying crew reached the site of what is now Harlingen in April 1904, Robertson met Lon C. Hill, who told Robertson of his plans to construct an irrigation system. In addition to constructing railroads, Robertson had also constructed irrigation systems. Either during his visit with Hill or soon afterward, Robertson learned that the Resaca del Rancho Viejo--a resaca is an ancient channel of the Rio Grande--meandered to the northeast from a point approximately one and one-half miles north of the Rio Grande River to a point approximately three miles south of present-day San Benito. At this point, the resaca branched in two directions, one to the north and one to the east. The north branch connected to the Resaca de los Fresnos. The Resaca de los Fresnos meanders northeast through present day San Benito and approximately 18 miles beyond.

He also learned that, similar to the north bank of the Rio Grande, the resaca banks were slightly higher in elevation than the surrounding land. Robertson envisioned a gravity irrigation system with the resacas serving as the main canal. He would dig a canal from the Rio Grande to the Resaca del Rancho Viejo, build two to four foot high levees on each side of the resacas, and construct dams at intervals to let the water down gradually. Canals and laterals would distribute the water to the various farm tracts to be irrigated. For land too high in elevation to be watered by the gravity system, he would construct a "high line" canal to be filled by pumps. Robertson reasoned that the pumps would provide additional protection when the level of the water in the river fell below the intake of the gravity system (it turned out that water had to be pumped most of the time). He would purchase the land and subdivide it into farm tracts. Finally, he envisioned a town at the intersection of the Resaca de los Fresnos and railroad tracks as the hub of his development.

Except for the land on which Robertson proposed to construct the head gates and pumping plant, and a relatively small portion of the right-of-way needed for the canal to the resaca, all the land needed for his system belonged to the heirs of Stephen Powers. Of the Powers' lands, the portion most needed for his system belonged to the Hicks, Combes, and Landrums. Robertson's problem was that he had no money to construct the system, much less pay for the land. Robertson met with all the landowners and told them of his plan. He offered to purchase their land, but told them he would need time to raise the money. Robertson and the landowners agreed on a price, and the landowners agreed to give Robertson the time he requested to raise the money to purchase their land.

Upon securing the purchase agreements, Robertson convinced the railroad to designate a depot, named Bessie in honor of Benjamin F. Yoakum's daughter, just east of the Resaca de Los Fresnos (that is, present-day San Benito). By November 12, 1906, Robertson had formed the Bessie Land and Water Company and had cleared one mile of the resaca. By early March 1907, he had cleared nine miles of the Resaca, but had exhausted his funds and had not yet exercised the purchase agreements. Needing additional capital, Robertson approached Alba Heywood, W. Scott Heywood, and Oro W. Heywood--brothers who had struck it rich at Spindletop--about investing in his project.


The three Heywood brothers had invested in the venture to drill for oil at Spindletop. Soon after the oil started flowing, they rushed to the field. On August 30, 1901, sixty-one men, including 0. W. and Alba Heywood, met and appointed a committee to adopt measures for the protection of life and property from fire and explosion in the Spindletop field. 0. W. Heywood was appointed to the committee. Sam Robertson went to Spindletop to construct earthen oil storage. There he met the Heywood brothers, and they became good friends. Probably through Spindletop, the Heywoods, and possibly Robertson, knew W. H. Stenger, Ed F. Rowson, and attorney R. L. Batts. In 1902, the Heywoods struck oil near Jennings, Louisiana. The Heywoods also owned an oil field near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.

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