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Valley Talk
Samuel Arthur Robertson

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Late in life, Samuel Arthur Robertson sat down to write a letter to the sixth graders of the Highland School District in San Benito.

Born in Missouri in 1867, Robertson went to work for the Santa Fe Railroad in 1887 and learned railroad construction crosstie by crosstie. In 1903, he got the contract to lay the first tracks to the Rio Grande Valley, a rail line connecting Corpus Christi with Brownsville.
Brownsville Texas depot
Aerial view of the depot in Brownsville
Postcard circa 1918 courtesy texasoldphotos.com
Robertson went on to found the city of San Benito and later supervised construction of an irrigation system capable of watering 68,000 acres. He also built a system of rail feeder spurs across the Valley and established the area’s first ice plants to facilitate the shipment of produce from the farms that sprang up because of the irrigation network he helped develop. While he was at it, he served as San Benito’s first postmaster and twice as sheriff of Cameron County.
San Benito TX Samuel Arthur Robertson House
Samuel Arthur Robertson House in San Benito
Vintage photo courtesy Cruse Aviation

Anyone reviewing his record would think Robertson had been proud of his many achievements, and he was – to an extent. But as his letter reveals, age mellowed him considerably.

Robertson built his letter as systematically as he must have laid track. He set down a utilitarian beginning, merely an acknowledgment that he was complying with a letter from the students “asking for something of interest which happened in [the] Highland Community long ago,” but he picked up steam as he went forward.

Even though settlement developed along the lower Rio Grande in Spanish colonial times, when Robertson first saw the Valley, “the longhorn cows, deer, coyotes, Mexican lions, javelinas, wild pigeons, turkeys and chacalacas, which lived happily in the jungle along the Resaca where your school now stands, were not disturbed.”

That soon changed.

“This region got its first real shock in June 1904,” Robertson continued, “when I crossed the Arroyo Colorado with an army of…laborers and some old ‘wheezy’ wood burning locomotives, pile drivers, etc., building the railroad through the jungle to Bessie (now San Benito) and on to Brownsville.”

All the wildlife and “young and old Mexicans were scared to death of these wild Irish, [blacks] and locomotives, and their fear was well founded, for it meant so-called civilization and progress was about to arrive and these people’s happy lives were about to end….The wild animals were killed and ran away, and these real Americans whose ancestors had lived happily in the jungle for a thousand years had to go to work with pick, shovel and hoe or go to bootlegging for an existence.”

The Valley soon experienced even more change. Two prominent land owners, Oliver Hicks and James Landrum, engaged Robertson in a handshake deal to build an irrigation canal and lay out the streets for a new town called San Benito.

By November 1906, Robertson had succeeded in raising enough capital to begin construction on the canal. The project, the first major step in transforming the valley from wilderness to farm land, took seven more years to complete.

Like most “boosters” as these early-day wheeler-dealers were called, Robertson made money and lost money. He built the Valley’s second rail line in 1910-11 and sold it for a profit he quickly lost on the San Benito project.

When American entered World War I in 1917, Robertson joined the Army and left the Valley for service in France “broke but happy.” He rose to the rank of colonel, winning a Distinguished Service Medal for building light rail lines under enemy fire. He returned to the Valley after the war and saw the area finally blossom into a major agricultural region that made farmers, suppliers and shippers good money.

But the transformation of the Valley seemed to haunt him as time went on. Near the end of his letter to the sixth graders, the old engineer said something quite remarkable for a man of his time: “I am not overly proud of my part in helping to bring progress and civilization to this region to help ruin the lives of those who were here before me.”

In fact, that sort of sentiment came close to heresy back then, especially in what had come to be called the Magic Valley – home of sprawling citrus farms and a nascent tourist industry that would take off in the early 1950s with construction of the first causeway between Port Isabel and Padre Island.

First Queen Isabella Causeway opened in 1954

The First Queen Isabella Causeway opened in 1954

Postcard courtesy Cruse Aviation
“It is up to you young folks,” Robertson concluded, “to make the Highland District as happy as it was previous to 1904. By hard work, hard study, wide reading and the substitution of sound thinking for optimism and boosting and trusting to luck, I have confidence that you will do this and win.”

Despite sentiments that today would get him labeled as a tree hugger, Robertson still had booster tendencies even late in life. His last big project was Del Mar at Brazos Santiago, the Valley’s first seaside resort.

A hurricane blew Del Mar away in 1933. Five years later, on Aug. 22, 1938, Robertson died in Brownsville.

© Mike Cox - "Texas Tales"

October 12, 2007 column

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