Bridges of the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Part II: The first international bridge of the Valley

By NORMAN ROZEFF, Special to the Star

The next bridge of note was again a railroad bridge and more. This would be an international and very important one, for it would serve vehicles and pedestrians as well. Presently named the B&M Bridge, it is presently jointly owned by the Federal Government of Mexico and the Union Pacific Railroad Company.

Congressman John Nance Garner (1868-1967), later Vice President of the United States, introduced a bill into Congress in 1908 providing for the construction of a bridge spanning the river and connecting the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway with the Mexican National Railway Line. At the time, only small ferryboats and a pontoon bridge connected the sister cities of Brownsville and Matamoros.

As the Brownsville and Matamoros (B&M) Bridge Company history relates “ Benjamin F. Yoakum, magnate of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway, signed an agreement in 1909 with representatives of the Mexican National Railway, which made the railroads equal partners in the Brownsville & Matamoros Bridge Company. The new company assumed responsibility for operating the bridge.

Construction got underway in April 1909 with the Foundation Company of New York building the bridge’s concrete foundations. The Wisconsin Bridge Company erected the steel spans that were riveted into place. This new bridge, the first permanent bridge built across the Rio Grande, was 227 feet long and cost approximately $225,000.”

What few realize is that the bridge is designed to be a swing one. In short it was capable of opening to allow the passage of steamboats with their tall stacks. The fact of the matter was that by July 1910 river steamboat traffic had ceased. The bridge was opened one time, and one time only in July 1910. Famed Valley photographer Robert Runyon recorded the event for posterity.

The combination bridge would see considerable history in over a century of its existence. The bridge company relates that when the bridge was opened to the public in December 1910 “pedestrians, horses, wagons and carriages were invited to pay a toll and use the narrow eighteen-foot wide bridge to cross the Rio Grande. The toll for a foot passenger, with or without baggage, was five cents, although children under seven accompanied by adults crossed free.

A horse and rider paid a ten cents toll, the same paid by empty carts and wagons with one draft animal and a driver. Wagons with yokes of oxen paid twenty-five cents each; mules and cattle cost five cents; and sheep and goats were charged two and one-half cents each. The toll on merchandise such as vegetables, cotton bales and pots and pans was six cents per hundred pounds. Automobiles paid twenty-five cents each plus five cents per passenger.”

Lastly we learn from the bridge company “In 1953 the B&M Bridge was widened three feet to accommodate trucks. As Brownsville and Matamoros grew, the volume of traffic increased as well, requiring further renovation in 1992. In 1997 a four-lane concrete bridge was constructed next to the original steel bridge. Ninety years after the bridge first opened, the concrete addition is used exclusively for cars while the original structure crosses only trains.”

The Union Pacific Railroad through many consolidations came to become the dominant railroad system in 23 states west of Chicago and New Orleans. The freight hauling railroad operates 8,500 locomotives over 32,100 route-miles. In 1950 to help facilitate its traffic through the B&M Bridge it constructed a 192.9 ft. stringer bridge over Mexico Blvd., Brownsville with its longest span being 53.2 ft.

After more than a century serving the railroad industry, the B&M Bridge saw its last consist from the U. S. to Mexico on August 8, 2015. In order to reduce the congestion and other factors in Brownsville the railroad traffic was re-routed eight miles to a new bridge constructed solely for trains bringing to fruition plans that had been laid in 2000 with a completion forecast for 2012. Seven miles of tracks that once ran to Brownsville were removed to offer multiple use for this old right of way.

The total project costs exceeded $100 million with about $60 million coming from Mexico. The bridge location is near the River Bend Resort. The lengthy delay in completing the bridge and connections was due to the need to move gas transmission lines followed by security issues. When completed the bridge became the first international bridge to be erected in 106 years. Its completion required numerous collaborators.

As the sister towns of Harlingen and San Benito grew in size the connection between them needed year-round availability. The descent into the Arroyo Colorado and back up the other side was not reliable as frequent rises of the stream bed would make passages hazardous. Harlingen became incorporated in April 1910 and San Benito in June 1911. In April 1911 the former would appropriate $17,000 for the erection of a one lane steel bridge across the Arroyo Colorado at the south end of Mexico Street (later renamed F Street). On June 11, 1911 Contractor Alsbury and Son of Houston commen- ced work on the steel bridge.

This narrow 16 feet wide 200 feet long bridge would soon be outgrown in its use and necessitate a larger bridge that Harlingen was to construct in 1925. On 2/13/25 a contract for $57,435 is awarded to Dodds and Wedegartner of San Benito for a new Arroyo Colorado vehicle bridge. It is to be built to the east of the 1911 one now deemed unsafe. The new structure will have two 150’ spans on concrete piers and an overall length of 350’. Judge Dancy is to later explain that 2/3 of the costs will come from the state and the remainder from the county.

The old bridge was dismantled and trucked to the Arroyo Colorado across from Rio Hondo where it was re-erected in 1927 at the cost of $14,175. It would replace the ferry system that had served the town for a number of years, however an old photograph in the Rio Hondo Museum shows a group of fashionably dressed Rio Hondo woman in front of a narrow, timbered bridge with steel girders atop it. It is labeled the military convoy bridge, but remains a mystery as to its construction and use by the military or others.

It was in the year 1926 that two new bridges were erected to span the Rio Grande. One was a major one and one relatively minor. The former was the Hidalgo to Reynosa suspension bridge while the latter was the suspension bridge that would connect the south Mercedes area known as Thayer to the com- munity of Rio Rico, an man-made abnormally created by canal builders.

The Austin Bridge Company (later Austin Industries) of Dallas constructed the 450 foot span Hidalgo to Reynosa vehicular suspension bridge. This entity was to sustain considerable damage in 1933 necessitating its rebuilding the following year. In 1939 some of its cables failed resulting in a second rebuilding. In the 1960s the old span was demolished and in its place are two, four lane wide spans built upon concrete casements. The city of McAllen funded a share of its construction costs and therefore has equity in the bridge.

The background to the Rio Rico suspension bridge is famous in Valley history. When, in 1906, the American Rio Grande Land and Irrigation Company found that a banco change might cut off the water supply to its newly erected huge pumping plant on the river, it dredged an artificial cutoff to ensure the river water would reach its pumping plant. This in turn created a water-isolated area of the Harcon Ranch, later to be known as Rio Rico.

Over time, and especially with the advent of Prohibition, Rio Rico became the play land of the mid-Valley, leading to the subsequent erection of a one lane suspen- sion bridge to the town. In 1970 200 residents of Rio Rico brought suit in U. S. courts and won a judgment to recognize them as American citizens. Subsequently the town became a ghost town.

The 260 foot suspension bridge was swept away in 1941 flooding. During WWII with the scarcity of materials, a hand pulled ferry served as the crossing method until 1946 when a pontoon bridge took its place for some years. This was largely unsatisfactory and in and, in 1951, with Mexico’s concurrence, construction of the first steel bridge was begun on higher ground south of Progreso. Even into the 1930s as Prohibition continued the bridge traffic was heavy enough to suffice the existence of a manned border entry station.