Early Attempts at Irrigating

Economic Conditions as of 1903

Railroad Comes to Cameron County

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Image: Lateral ditch by a railroad

Photo courtesy of San Benito Historical Society

Early Attempts at Irrigating

With a few exceptions, agriculture in the Valley was principally confined to the ancones, that is, low-lying flats, adjoining the Rio Grande River until the railroad reached Cameron County in 1904. Small patches of corn, beans, cotton, and miscellaneous crops were planted on the moist soil of the ancones with the hope that the periodic rises in the river would not drown out or wash away the crops.

Escandon established colonies in places he believed could be developed with irrigation. At Camargo, established near the confluence of the San Juan and Rio Grande Rivers, the colonists constructed gravity irrigation on systems on a small scale by diverting water from the Juan. However, the river periodically washed the systems away so often that by 1767 the colonists had abandoned the idea of developing the area with irrigation and turned to stock raising. On the north side of the River, they established no irrigation Systems. No tributaries empty into the River in the counties comprising the Valley, and although the land on the north side of the Rio Grande slopes away from the river, the high riverbanks--in some places 14 feet or more--made the diversion of the waters of the Rio Grande to the north impractical.

Although the topography of the Valley discouraged the development of irrigation in the Valley, as the use of steam engines became more prevalent, some individuals envisioned using steam driven pumps to lift the water over the riverbank as revealed by Stephen F. Austin (1793-1836) in a letter to his cousin dated August 27, 1829, discussing the Valley:

".... The soil is rich and fertile, but the seasons are dry and so very irregular as to destroy every thing like certainty in crops. unless where there are facilities for irrigation, and those can only be obtained by means of machinery for raising the water out of the river--an expedient which would be expensive and I think inadequate--tho many have had it in contemplation, as I have been told, to use steam for this purpose--. "

In 1847, a group of Louisiana sugar cane planters proposed a massive gravity irrigation system using windmills powered by the gulf breeze to pump water from the river. The water would be pumped into a series of lakes (that is, reservoirs) placed every five miles, and then distributed by canals and laterals. This system was never constructed.

Beginning January 4, 1867, the local newspaper published a series of articles advocating the development of the area with irrigation and discussing various methods to lift the water over the bank of the Rio Grande. Methods discussed included a hoist with an animal providing the motive power, windmills, and steam driven pumps.

In February, 1870, George Brulay (1839-1905) purchased a 1,000 acre tract of land fronting the Rio Grande nine miles east of Brownsville. Brulay named his property Plantaceon del Rio Grande (that is, the Rio Grande Plantation), but it is more commonly known as the Brulay Plantation. Brulay first grew cotton, and later experimented with sugar cane. In 1876, he built a small sugar mill, and by 1890 was growing 220 acres of cane and annually processing 1,500 barrels of sugar. At first Brulay relied on rains, but in the late 1870's, he constructed a canal into which he dumped water drawn from the river. The method probably used was a barrel sunk in the river and then hoisted to the bank by the aid of a windlass, with oxen furnishing the motive power. The water in the barrel was emptied into a ditch which carried the water to the crop. By this slow process a few acres could be irrigated. At some undetermined time, probably in the 1890's, he constructed a small pumping plant to water his crops.

By 1884, Colonel Julius G. Tucker irrigated 20 acres located near the southwest corner of Cameron County with the use of a mechanical pump. The pump was similar to those used to pump bilge water out of vessels, which he powered with a mule, tended by a Mexican lad.

In 1879, Celestin Jagou purchased the 640 acre La Esperanza Ranch, situated approximately six miles east of Brownsville on the Resaca de La Palma. In 1869, a group of Brownsville businessmen had formed the La Esperanza Agricultural Association to promote the development of commercial agriculture in the area. In that year, the Association purchased 640 acres for use as a demonstration farm. However, the results proved disappointing and within a few years the Association sold the Ranch. Using dry land farming techniques he learned in his native France, Jagou grew grapes, almond trees, cork, field crops, vegetables, and bananas; in 1890, he had 11,000 banana trees from which he sold 4,500 bunches. By 1893, Jagou irrigated a small portion of the ranch. He constructed two large brick tanks, which he filled with a large windmill; underground pipes delivered the water to the crops.

In about 1891, Frank Rabb and Fred Starck, brothers-in-law and owners of the San Tomas Plantation, which was located one mile east of Brulay's plantation, began irrigating approximately 600 acres using a mechanical pump called a Menge Pump. Crops raised included sugar cane, corn, and beans.

In 1892, Lieutenant W. H. Chatfield (18??-1922), a civil engineer assigned to Fort Brown, promoted the construction of an irrigation system which would irrigate over one million acres in Cameron and Hidalgo Counties. Chatfield's plan included damming the Rio Grande near Penitas in Hidalgo County and constructing canals to distribute the water. Critics argued it was not economically feasible to construct such a system until there was a railroad to transport the crops to market. To this, Chatfield responded:

No railroad will enter this country or get farther that twenty miles from this county seat until the people wake up to the fact that capitalists expect a fair return for the good money they invest in any enterprise. If the people of this section want railroads, as well as every other luxury which wealth will bring, let them rub their eyes and arouse themselves to the standing offer which I have made to irrigate their lands. After their lands are provided with irrigation, let them parcel them out to the thousands of buyers who will eagerly purchase them at a fair price.

Chatfield chartered the Chatfield Irrigation Company to construct the system, but failed to generate support financially. Chatfield prophetically penned:

"The construction of a complete system of irrigation in this section would be a grand enterprise. Where there is now only one acre in a hundred under cultivation, every square foot of this vast area of arable land would teem with luxuriant vegetation and the value of land would be increased in nearly the same proportion. Instead of four inhabitants to each square mile there would soon be a hundred; farm-houses would spring up every where, and Ceres would reign benignly over her prosperous and happy subjects."

John Closner (1853-1932), who owned riverfront property in Hidalgo County, built several miles of canals and laterals by 1895. He filled these canals with a centrifugal pump powered by a twenty-five horsepower portable steam engine. He irrigated 200 acres with this system.

By 1897, the Santa Maria Canal Company, formed by Cameron County Sheriff Emilio Forto and the Longoria Brothers, Narciso and Pedro, began construction of an irrigation canal . In that year, they had 150 acres in sugar cane, and by 1905, had 250 acres planted in alfalfa, cotton, sorghum, and melons.

John Castaing acquired a tract on the River near Brownsville in 1848, on which he grew flowers and vegetables. By 1904, Castaing had constructed an odd looking water wheel, powered by a donkey, and which, as it splashingly revolved, filled and spilled a series of five-gallon cans.

In June 1901, William Ratcliffe incorporated the Brownsville Land and Irrigation Company for the purpose of growing rice. In December 1901, the Company completed the purchase of over 28,000 acres of land, and soon began construction of the first irrigation system of any magnitude in the area. When completed, the Company's steam-powered pumping plant could irrigate 15,000 acres. The Company's first crop of 2,000 acres, harvested in 1903, produced an excellent yield. However, to the dismay of the principals of the Company, the 1904 crop yielded about one-half the first year's crop, and the 1905 crop yielded substantially less than the 1904 crop. By 1906, rice growing was abandoned. The intense flooding had brought out alkalies and salts that ruined the land. The Company subdivided its land into farm tracts, and by the end of September 1907, had cleared 8,000 to 9,000 acres of land.

Lon C. Hill (1862-1935), an attorney from Beeville, learned of the unique topography of the area on a business trip to Brownsville in 1900, if not before. Keenly interested in agriculture, on January 5, 1901, Hill purchased land near Brownsville, on which he planted 65 acres of rice. In October 1901, the BROWNSVILLE DAILY HERALD reported that through Hill, a syndicate (the Brownsville Land and Irrigation Company?) had made a deal to purchase 15,000 acres of land near Brownsville. In November 1902, Hill stated that he had purchased for himself and others over 300,000 acres of land in the Valley. For himself, he purchased land in western Cameron and eastern Hidalgo Counties on which he planned to construct an irrigation system and sell farm tracts. In July 1903, Hill permanently moved to Cameron County, and on August 10, 1903, chartered the Lon C. Hill Improvement Company to clear and develop what was to become Harlingen, Texas. Although in 1902 he purchased 600,000 bricks to construct his pumping plant, Hill did not began construction of his irrigation system until January, 1907.

In 1903, Thomas L. Jones purchased about 4,500 acres approximately 3 or 4 miles northeast of what is now Harlingen, Texas. He tried, without success, to irrigate a portion of his tract from wells. A good friend of Lon C. Hill, Jones moved to the area with Hill in July,1903.

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Economic Conditions as of 1903

When construction of the railroad to Brownsville began in the summer of 1903, the economy of Cameron County had been stagnant for over twenty years, primarily due to a loss of its export-import business, fluctuating cattle prices, and the demise of the sheep industry.

Still reeling from the loss of Mexican trade, due to Mexican railroads and Northern railroads from Laredo, Brownsville suffered another economic setback when the cattle market collapsed and the sheep industry declined into non-existence. The period of 1875 to 1885 had been an era of great prosperity for cattle ranchers. But to the ranchers' dismay, cattle that were selling for $35 a head in 1885 were selling for $5 a head in 1887. Prices began to rise by 1895, and were back to about $35 per head by 1898. But beginning in 1900, cattle prices were again on the decline. The sheep industry, which had become a major industry in South Texas after the Civil War, began to decline locally after 1885, and by the time the railroad arrived, had almost vanished. This decline can be attributed principally to two factors. First, the large landowners, primarily cattle raisers, fenced their lands which deprived the sheep raisers of the free range on which they depended. Secondly, overgrazing transformed the once lush South Texas grassland into scrub brush.

Outside the Valley there had been an increasing demand for farmland, both nationally and in the state, since the 1870's. On the national level, most of the land which could be acquired from the government at little or no cost had been taken by 1900. As railroads pushed their rails into Texas beginning in the 1870's, ranchers who owned land along the railroads sold grazing land to farmers at a tremendous profit. Ranch land which originally had cost as little as twenty-five cents an acre was selling from six dollars to a high of twenty dollars an acre.

On January 10, 1901, Anthony F. Lucas (1855-1921) struck oil at Spindletop triggering a great oil boom and profoundly changing the economy of the state by providing an inexpensive and plentiful source of fuel. The daily output of the Spindletop field was greater than the rest of the world combined. This tremendous output made practical and economical the use of oil to heat the boilers of factories, ships, trains, and irrigation pumping plants. When the railroad reached Brownsville in 1904, the locomotives burned Spindletop oil. The strike at Spindletop also coincided with the early production of the internal combustion engine, both gasoline and diesel (the basic design of the modern four cycle gasoline powered engine had been worked out in 1876, and the diesel engine invented in 1892). Engines fueled by petroleum products soon became the engine of choice for irrigation pumping plants.

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Railroad comes to Cameron County

In 1885, the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad (S.A. & A.P.) hired Uriah Lott to construct a railroad from San Antonio to the Aransas Pass area. Lott hired Benjamin F. Yoakum (1859-1929) as his chief clerk. Lott soon promoted him to general manager. Lott never gave up the idea of constructing a railroad to the Valley.

In the summer of 1902, if not before, Lott approached his friend and former employee, Benjamin F. Yoakum, about investing in his railroad from Alice to Brownsville. At that time, through various syndicates, Yoakum controlled more miles of track (approximately 5,000) than any other person.

Construction began on July 28, 1903, when grading of the roadbed began. Sam Robertson won the subcontract for the building of trestles and bridges and laying the track. Robertson's track laying crew reached Brownsville on June 7, 1904. The railroad officially inaugurated passenger service to Corpus Christi on July 4, 1904. Passenger service to Houston began on April 19, 1908.

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