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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

DONNA

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Donna Hooks Fletcher had that wholesome Gibson girl look, which may explain part of her ability to get what she wanted.

On the other hand, it may have been pure pluckishness on her part. However she pulled it off, what she did that summer of 1904 added to the young divorcee’s reputation as an independent woman who could take care of herself.

Not that she lacked family support. T.J. Hooks, her father, had purchased 23,000 acres in Hidalgo County in 1900. When his 21-year-old daughter’s marriage fell apart, Hooks gave her some land so she could start supporting herself. She stocked her acreage with Jersey cattle and launched a successful butter business.

Hooks’ investment had been a wise one, but a century ago, the Rio Grande Valley still lay largely undeveloped and not easily reached from the rest of Texas. The only commercial transportation available at Brownsville, the principal city in the area, involved a 40-hour stagecoach ride to or from the railroad depot at Alice. A person could take a narrow gauge train from Brownsville to Port Isabel, but from there the next leg of any trip was by steamship to Galveston.

Ms. Fletcher did not mind either route, though the stagecoach trip was hot and tiresome. But when she got word that a close relative had taken seriously ill in Beaumont, the manner of transport suddenly seem far less important than speed.

Even as Ms. Fletcher pondered her options, the Valley’s first rail line drew closer and closer to Brownsville. In fact, the tracks had reached Barredo, just north of Brownsville.

Regular trains had not yet begun running along the line, but a work train made a daily round trip to Robstown, near Corpus Christi. The train shuttled workers back and forth and brought down rail, ties, barrels of spikes and water.

Early one morning, Ms. Fletcher rode out to Barredo to talk with Sam A. Robertson, the subcontractor laying the tracks. Explaining her family emergency, she asked Robertson if she could hitch a ride to Robstown on the next out-bound work train.

Robertson listened sympathetically, but explained that the train had no accommodations for passengers, not so much as a caboose. The young woman persevered, finally convincing the railroad builder to give her ride to Robstown, where she could catch a regular passenger train for Corpus and a through connection to Beaumont.

The work train left at 9 p.m. that day, with Ms. Fletcher riding in a box car with a wire cot, a sack of sandwiches and a bucket of water. Given that the train would be passing through a lot of rough country with some equally rough characters on the prowl, Robertson insisted on locking the young woman in the car. The issue was not keeping her in, but keeping any unwanted company out.

Ms. Fletcher arrived safely in Robstown the next morning. Workers removed the padlock and the Valley woman continued her journey by more traditional means.

Uriah Lott, president of the new Brownsville railroad, must have appreciated the Valley woman’s spunk. In recognition of her distinction of having been the first woman to ride one of his trains, he named a new town after her in 1907. Ms. Fletcher supposedly learned about it at a surprise party.

When mail service began a year later, Donna Fletcher served as the first postmaster of Donna, Texas. She lived in the town named in her honor for the rest of her life, dying there in 1959.

The story of the two Donnas is told at the Donna Hooks Fletcher Memorial Museum at 316 S. Main in Donna.


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" August 26, 2004 column

See Donna, Texas
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