everyone’s heard of Pecos Bill, the mythical West
Texas cowboy, but the “fair young” Pecos River Queen never got the
attention she deserves. |
Her name, according to a century-old cowboy poem
that commemorates her, was Patty Moorehead.
First some background.
1892, about a decade after the Southern Pacific laid its tracks through West
Texas, the railroad considerably shortened the route by building a huge bridge
across the lower Pecos.
That river -- Texas' westernmost if you don't count the Rio Grande -- winds like
a rattlesnake across West Texas, emptying
into Lake Amistad.
An engineering marvel, the Pecos River Viaduct (as
it was formally known) spanned 2,180 feet and towered 321 feet above the river.
For years, the metal structure ranked as the highest bridge in the United States
and the third highest in the world. Postcards of the bridge became a favorite
medium for the classic "Having a good time, wish you were here" message.
|Gutsy local cowboys,
confident they had a good horse and perhaps further emboldened by a little whiskey,
occasionally rode across the walkway that adjoined the tracks on the bridge. There
were no guardrails. |
Naturally, any cowpoke who could walk his horse across
a bridge taller than a 32-story building earned quite a reputation. Such a fellow
would be a suitable partner for the Pecos River Queen, a gal as handy at throwing
a loop as she was pretty.
poem, long in the public domain, begins:
the Pecos River winds and turns in its journey to the sea, |
From its white
walls of sand and rock striving ever to be free,
Near the highest railroad
bridge that all these modern times have seen
Dwells fair young Patty Moorhead,
the Pecos River Queen.
She's known by all the cowboys on the Pecos River
They know full well that she can shoot, that she can rope and ride;
She goes to every round-up, every cow-work without fail,
Looking out for
all her cattle branded ‘walking hog on a rail.’
She made her start in
cattle, yes, made it with her rope;
Can tie down e'ry maverick 'fore it can
strike a lope;
She can rope and tie and brand it as quick as any man;
voted by all cowboys an A-1 top cow-hand.
Howard “Jack” Thorp
composed the poem in New Mexico in June 1901. Including it in a book of poetry
published seven years later, he noted, “Written on Lower Pecos…
Bean had told me of this fact concerning Patty.” |
Thorp, a blue-blooded
New Yorker who came west at 19 after a decline in his family’s financial health,
was referring to the infamous Judge
Roy Bean, the Law West of the Pecos. In truth, Bean
was just a boozy eccentric who made good newspaper and magazine copy.
Patty was a fictional character dreamed up by Thorp has not been proven or disproved,
but there’s some evidence that she was for real. The 1900 Del
Rio phone book does show a J.R. Moorehead as a cattle rancher living
in Comstock. Patty might have
been his daughter. And National Park Service historians found that a Patty
Moorehead Wilkins leased out some ranch land near the Pecos High Bridge in
Thorp’s resume, however, is readily available. Born in New
York in 1867, he came to New Mexico in 1886. An accomplished polo player and horse
trainer, he took to cowboying. He also did some civil engineering, but the infrastructure
he preferred was a good saddle.
In 1898, he pushed a herd from the territory
to Higgins, in the Texas
Panhandle. Along the way, he wrote a poem called “Little Joe, the Wrangler.”
It became a cowboy classic, later recorded to music.
Having an Eastern
prep school education plus three years at Harvard, Thorp was smart enough to realize
the cowboy songs and poems he heard around the campfire needed to be saved for
posterity. He wrote them down, added poems and songs of his own (including “The
Pecos Queen”) and published them in “Songs of the Cowboys” in 1908. An expanded
version of his book, with an introduction by Alice Corbin Henderson, came out
in 1921. It had more of his original material.
“‘Jack’ Thorp…is the genuine
thing,” Henderson wrote. “He is an old-time cattleman and cowpuncher, and his
songs are the fruit of experience. His gift is instinctive and naive, like that
of all real cowboy poets, and its charm is precisely in its fresh and ‘unliterary’
last verse of Thorp’s poem tells the rest of Patty’s story:
the Comstock railroad bridge, the highest in the West, |
Patty rode her horse
one day a lover's heart to test;
For he told her he would gladly risk all
dangers for her sake,
But the puncher wouldn't follow, so she's still without
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