Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Eagle’s Nest

Doug Braudaway
Southwest Texas Junior College
207 Wildcat, Del Rio, Texas 78840

The country around the lower Pecos is some of the most remote in Texas. C.L. Sonnichsen described the landscape in dramatic but accurate terms.

“Rolling hills of rock rubble and thin soil, lonely and naked as they were the day after Creation. Monstrous canyons gouged out by the Pecos and the Rio Grande hundreds of feet straight down through the primeval rock. Smaller canyons and arroyos crisscrossing the rugged slopes, their bleached and rocky beds dry as bones most of the year but raging like Niagara after a rain. Over all a mournful wind continually blowing—moving gently on the level places; racing and shrieking down the canyons like an army charging out of hell.”

Those winds, gentle and fierce, were the home of a pair of golden eagles who owned the air above the canyon of the Rio Grande, and owned a spot of cliffside, not a cave exactly, but a sheltered area under an overhang where they built their nest. Downstream from the nest, a short canyon emptied into the Rio Grande. Gravel poured out of the canyon during floods leaving an area of shallow water in the river’s bed. The canyon has long been known as Eagle’s Nest Canyon; the ford is Eagle’s Nest Crossing.

Pictographs in caves in Eagle’s Nest Canyon suggest that prehistoric Indians used the crossing, and various Indian bands in historic times are known to have used Eagle’s Nest Crossing to cross into Mexico or back again to the U.S. “To the west, on the Rio Bravo itself, was Eagle Nest Crossing, where in a steep defile a creek bearing the same name runs down to the river and makes possible a horseback crossing. It was here at Eagle’s Nest that part of Wildcat’s Seminole tribe crossed into Mexico on their home-seeking trek down from the reservation in the 1840s.”

The U.S. Army learned of the Crossing as soldiers pursued hostile Indians through the Pecos Country. Lt. John Bullis and his Seminole Scouts from Fort Clark in Kinney County “often trailed Indians to the crossing on the Rio Grande a few hundred yards below the eagle nest, and these military men undoubtedly camped near the crossing.” During one particular pursuit, the Medal of Honor fight where three soldiers won the award for saving their commanding officer occurred as the soldiers were following a trail to the Crossing. “On April 25, while on a routine scout in the lower Pecos country, Bullis, Sergeant John Ward, Trumpeter Isaac Payne, and Private Pompey Factor struck a fresh trail of some seventy-five horses leading from the white settlements towards the Eagle’s Nest crossing.”

Railroad surveyors also learned of the Crossing and its users in 1881 as the Southern Pacific Railroad began building its southern route across Texas. “From [McKenzie’s Crossing] we did not see any more Indians until we came to Eagle’s Nest, on the Rio Grande. We were camped some 350 feet above the level of the river bed, and were cutting out a trail wide enough for a burro to pass with a cask…to transport water from the river. We had stopped for the noon hour when we noticed nine Indians.” The Indians later fled, not having the opportunity to cross the river.

Ranchers in the Pecos Country also used Eagle’s Nest Crossing to move livestock. Many of the ranchers owned or leased land in Mexico. These men would move cattle to and from their Mexican holdings over the Crossing. Bootleggers also used the Crossing, and customs officials sometimes staked out the area to arrest them.

When the construction camp of Vinegarroon closed, saloon-keeper Roy Bean moved to Eagle’s Nest, where he thought he could stay in the West and stay in business. “A card from Roy, from Beanville [in southwest San Antonio,] ‘On the Banks of the Rio Grande, Eagle’s Nest Springs, Pecos Co., H’d Quarters Depot Saloon, Munroe’s Camp No. 6, July 25, 1882.’” During 1882 others beside Bean were concluding that Eagle’s Nest might survive the completion of railroad construction. A San Antonio newspaperman reported from “Eaglenest” later in the year that most of the construction camps were closing—but: “The ‘Eagle Nest City’ has grown small owing to the many camps being removed. The possibilities for the future point to it as a site of a railroad depot and a town of some importance.”

The early town was described with a little more detail in another newspaper report. “Eagle Nest [sic] is one of the most peculiar places in the state. It lies in a valley and yet is considerably above the Rio Grande. It is now quite a city of tents, upwards of 300 being scattered around; some of them being 50 by 100 ft. The only wood building being the store of Max Meyer, who has a good stock and does a good business. There are, at the lowest estimates 20 saloons and gambling tents, two tents of ill fame, and a dance hall, which is on full run every Sunday and two or three times a week.”

The Eagle’s Nest camp was also a temporary home for a company of Texas Rangers. Rangers had been stationed there to maintain the peace (as best as it could be maintained) and enforce the law. The camp was also home to soldiers of the cavalry who made their home at Camp Langtry; although, soldiers were a common sight all along the rail line during construction.

Rangers returned to Eagle’s Nest Crossing in 1896. Roy Bean had arranged for a prizefight, which was illegal in Texas and most other states. Advertising was required to get the spectators on the train from El Paso, but it also allowed the lawmen to board the train. Everyone got off at Langtry and followed the saloon-keeper down the cliffs into the Rio Grande canyon east of town. There at the Crossing, a boxing ring had been set up. Since the ring was on the south side of the international boundary, the Rangers sat on the cliffs and watched the fight.

The town once called Eagle’s Nest (and later called Langtry) sits at the top of a cliff across the canyon from the nest itself. As one of a series of railroad construction camps, the town would have easily disappeared as so many camps did once the railroad was completed and operational. But the Torres Family, the owners of the townsite, had chosen their land wisely with a good, large spring nearby. Bernardo believed correctly that the railroad would require the water for its steam-driven locomotives. Hence, this town survived--but under another name: Langtry. (Langtry is the subject of a separate marker application.)

No town ever existed on the Mexican side of the border here, but the site proved to be a worthwhile campground. “[D]uring the Mexican Revolution, between two and three hundred Carranzistas (followers of Venustiano Carranza) were camped there for a few months on the big flat above the eagle nest.”

Even after the town had become Langtry, the old nest had not been forgotten. The last part of Texas to remain unmapped and unexplored was the Rio Grande country between Langtry and Presidio. That unexplored status ended in 1899 when Robert T. Hill, an officer of the United States Geological Survey and the “father of Texas geology” floated downstream, lead by Del Rio beaver trapper Jim MacMahon. After great trials and dangers, they approached the area of Langtry. “They watched for a landmark that would tell them they had finished their journey. It was a sign known for decades to the few first travelers of the region—‘a huge pile of sticks skillfully [sic] entwined into what is perhaps the largest bird’s nest in America,’ which clung to the edge of a small cave in the yellow river bluff on the Mexican side. It was the home of a pair of eagles which every year produced their young in it. The travelers finally saw it and knew they were done. They landed on a little beach opposite the nest.”

The last piece of Texas had been explored. And while the eagles’ nest was still in the canyon, Eagle’s Nest was gone, having grown and settled into the town of Langtry. The frontier town of Eagle’s Nest lasted for just a few years between exploration and settlement of the lower Pecos Country. However, the Val Verde County Historical Commission believes that the nest and the town built across the river from it are worthy of remembrance with a state historical marker.

 

Bibliography--
Nancy Alexander, “Running the Rio Grande Canyons: Robert T. Hill in the Big Bend,” Southwest Review, Spring 1975, pages 128-142.
Doug Braudaway, Torres Family historical marker application, 2002.
Paul Horgan, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, Texas Monthly Press, 1984.
Kevin Mulroy, Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahuila, and Texas, Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1993.
Jack Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1996.
C.L.Sonnichsen, Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos, New York: Macmillan, 1943.
Roy L. Swift and Leavitt Corning, Jr., Three Roads to Chihuahua: The Great Wagon Roads That Opened the Southwest, 1823-1883, Austin: Eakin Press, 1988.

 

Location photos--
The top photo shows the cliffs under which the Eagle’s Nest is found, but it is difficult unless the viewer knows exactly where it is.
The second photo shows Jack Skiles, Langtry native, rancher and historian, pointing to the exact position of the nest (hidden in shadow beyond the tip of his finger) while standing on the site planned for the marker. The marker site is next to a county maintained gravel road just outside Langtry. The VVCHC also intends to place pipe guide-sights so visitors can spot the Nest on the far side of the Rio Grande.

 

Endnotes--
1 C.L.Sonnichsen, Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos, New York: Macmillan, 1943, page 71.
2 Roy L. Swift and Leavitt Corning, Jr., Three Roads to Chihuahua: The Great Wagon Roads That Opened the Southwest, 1823-1883, Austin: Eakin Press, 1988, page 288.
3 Jack Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1996, page 153.
4 Kevin Mulroy, Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahuila, and Texas, Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1993, page 124. A historical marker application for the Medal of Honor fight will be submitted by the V.V.C.H.C. in the near future.
5 Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, page 62.
6 Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, pages 135, 185.
7 Sonnichsen, Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos, page 76.
8 San Antonio Daily Express, October 11, 1882, quoted in Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, pages 77-78.
9 San Antonio Evening Light , September 2, 1882, quoted in Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, page 154.
10 Sonnichsen, Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos, pages 77-80.
11 Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, pages 161-162.
12 Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, pages 32-36.
13 See the Torres Family historical marker application for the details.
14 Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, page 182.
15 Nancy Alexander, “Running the Rio Grande Canyons: Robert T. Hill in the Big Bend,” Southwest Review, Spring 1975, pages 128-142; Paul Horgan, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, Texas Monthly Press, 1984 (softcover edition),.pages 894-903.
16 Horgan, Great River, Texas Monthly Press, 1984 (softcover edition), pages 903-904.