Bridges of the Lower Rio Grande Valley; The first Valley bridge construction was 165 years ago

By NORMAN ROZEFF, Special to the Star

Generally we take local bridges for granted, except, in this day and age, they have become part of national news. They weren’t always as controversial as this article will attest to.

The very first bridge ever constructed in the LRGV was a railroad bridge. It was constructed by Union military forces of the Civil War. They had invaded the area in November 1863 and then established a depot at the north end of Brazos Island.

It was on April 1, 1864, that Major General John A. McClernand after receiving an inspection report of Brazos Island reported that a rail line from the port of Brazos Santiago to White’s Ranch about four miles upstream from the mouth of the Rio Grande was feasible. The next month army engineers began laying track from the wharf at Brazos Santiago toward the river. This then became the first railroad construction ever started in the LRGV, however its operation would take another year. The work was done by Black soldiers of the 25th U. S. Colored Infantry.

The railroad bridge across the Boca Chica Inlet was commenced in August 1864 under the direction of Captain Aimee. The pilings of palmetto and later cypress trees were rot-resistant and existed into the 20th Century as attested to by the nearby 1936 Texas Historical Commission marker that reads: These palmetto pilings are the remains of the Boca Chica crossing of the railroad from Boca Chica inlet to White’s Ranch on the Rio Grande. Begun in 1864 and completed in 1865 by General Philip H. Sheridan for the transportation of military supplies.

The cypress pilings 4,000 feet north are what remains of a floating bridge across Boca Chica inlet constructed by General Zachary Taylor as part of the road from Brazos Santiago to the White Ranch landing and Clarksville on the Rio Grande for transportation of military supplies.

The second Valley bridge was also one for a railroad. This was for the 1872 Rio Grande Railroad Company that built a line from Brownsville to Point Isabel. In choosing to build the shortest line possible it had to cross the lagoons of the Bahia Grande. Lumber and piling material to cross the ponded areas were brought from Mobile, Alabama.

The choice of this route was brought into question when the hurricane of September 1874 wiped out large sections of the existing route, namely 22 miles of infrastructure. Portions of sections carried away in two storms cost the company about $100,000 combined to repair. In fact the line required fifteen bridges, including a 15,500 foot trestle across the Badilla (Bahia) Grande. Finally, in 1922, the railroad company relocated the route to higher ground although this added about four more miles to the route. With the coming to the Valley, in 1904, of a new railroad the Rio Grande Railroad Company ceased its business.

The new entity coming from Robstown and bringing the Valley its first connection with the rest of Texas was the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway. It too would construct bridges out of necessity. Later it would become part of a number of railroad companies, finally becoming part of the Missouri Pacific which in turn later was integrated into the Union Pacific, as was the Southern Pacific.

Likely the first were trestle type bridges such as what would be necessitated at a watery low place near what would become Sebastian. At what would become Harlingen, the railroad engineers were confronted with a major challenge. This was crossing the Arroyo Colorado. Initially this was handled by a low-clearance trestle-type wooden bridge while a high-clearance steel one was being constructed. The wooden bridge required cutting the banks of the arroyo, for the railroad equipment was largely unable to handle steep grades (over 2%) due to lack of traction.

Because the wooden trestle was to be temporary, it is unlikely that it resembled the often monumental wooden structures to be found crossing the numerous canyons of the west.

The present steel bridge currently owned and maintained by the Union Pacific System is the longest span on the railroad line running from Corpus Christi to Brownsville. Its construction was completed in late September 1905. The bridge has a design characteristic of its construction period. It is simple, strong, unadorned, and utilitarian. It is of simple truss design and rests on two cast concrete piers straddling the stream within the banks of the arroyo. At ground level each pier measures 31’ 8” wide and 9’2” deep. The piers taper to about 21’ at their top platforms. The steel pier to pier portion of the bridge is approximately 228’ with an additional steel span of 40’ on its north end.

A wooden trestle of about 224’ completes the traverse on the south side. The total length spanned is then about 492’. The bridge is fifteen feet wide with an inside clearance of eleven feet. The height above the stream to the bottom of the bridge is about 38’ and to its top about 81’.

The construction was not without its challenges. As Sam Robertson would relate, “On the 16th of September, 1904 while laying track near Havana, just east of Sam Fordyce, “Old Man River” rose twelve feet in two hours, and I knew we were in for it. I got a handcart and six big (men) and started for Harlingen Junction where we had just finished a bridge across the Arroyo Colorado.

“I had driven piles for sub-foundations and knew pilings furnished by the Railroad Company were forty feet too short to stand a major flood because they did not penetrate the quicksand. I had built false work to erect the steel superstructure and knew the drift would accumulate above the false work and carry the bridge out and cause my friends, the Johnston Brothers, a big loss.

“So, I rushed with my hand cart and (men) and picked up some more men in Harlingen and sawed the false work down and let it drop into the Arroyo Colorado. The flood started down the Arroyo within the hour after I had destroyed the false work obstruction. But the channel span was too narrow and the steel span and concrete abutments were swept out quickly. We lost eighteen miles of track and roadbed between Harlingen and Havana and about twelve miles between Harlingen and Raymondville.

“This flood showed us that we would need flood protection as well as irrigation. So, in preparing my data to aid in promotion, I traced out high water marks all over the entire delta and during the flood we had engineers take approximate heights of the Rio Grande at Sam Fordyce through the Arroyo Colorado, through the Rio Tigres on the Mexican side and a gauging station at Las Rucias near the San Benito pump.”

The original wooden bridge gave way in part on September 21, 1904 as continued high arroyo flows worked to undermine it. This then disrupted service to Brownsville for 28 days until repairs could be made.

The coming of the railroad to the Valley from the outside world brought with it the establishment of the new communities of Harlingen and San Benito and then a series of new towns along the spur that reached form Harlingen to Sam Fordyce, just beyond Mission. At San Benito the line encountered the Resaca de los Fresnos which was used in part to convey water for irrigation. It was crossed by erecting four contiguous steel bridge segments resting on concrete piers set into the resaca.