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.
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.”
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
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
Isabel and Padre Island.