Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Langtry

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

Langtry came into existence in 1882 when the Southern Pacific Railroad laid tracks into town during its soon to be completed construction of the southern transcontinental rail line. Langtry was a railroad town in the West Texas ranch country named for George Langtry, a Southern Pacific building engineer.1 (Several West Texas depots and sidings were named for railroad men.)

Perched high on a cliff above the canyon of the Rio Grande, the site of Langtry was determined by the fact that coal and oil burning locomotives required large amounts of water to operate. The country was desolate. “After we passed the Devil’s River we saw no trees.”2 Torres Spring in Pump Canyon (which is named Osman Canyon further away from town) provided that water, but it was practically inaccessible until the railroad company brought mechanized pumping equipment to lift the water into the town. The SP placed an engine in the canyon, and water was provided to the railroad facilities and to the townspeople.3

The Torres Family owned the land on which Langtry was founded, paid to Bernardo Torres for his irrigation construction in the Fort Stockton area and along the Pecos River. Nephew J.P. Torres acquired the land upon his uncle’s death in 1882. A plat and deed signed by Bernardo’s brother Cesario and C.C. Gibbs, Land Commissioner for the Galverston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway Company (the Southern Pacific) gave the railroad rights to build through the townsite.4 The railroad’s depot quickly became one of the most important sites in the town. “Langtry was a big place, and most of the activities of the town centered around the depot,” remembered, Buela Burdwell Farley, a longtime Langtry resident. “There was lots of freight that used to come in to Langtry. Everything came in on the train [and the] depot was a busy place.” The depot also included a restaurant, one that was frequented by railroad men and cattlemen alike.5

As the rail line was opened, the town of Langtry began to take shape. The construction workers were already leaving the area in 1882, but permanent railroad employees were moving in: telegraph operators and railroad clerks. With them came merchants, ranchers, cavalrymen and saloon-keepers including justice-of-the-peace Roy Bean. Judge Bean is the town’s best known resident, the subject of several books and movies. (Few of these can be considered documentary in nature.) However, when the rail line was completed, the town took on the trappings of “civilization.” In other words, “Wooden houses were beginning to replace tents.”6

The railroad town had a distinctly western flavor as ranchers built houses in the area and brought their livestock in to be loaded onto stockcars. Even the men who had other business were ranchers. Even Roy Bean, despite operating a saloon and serving as “the Law West of the Pecos” raised sheep and goats. J.P. Torres, who operated a store and saloon in town, raised livestock as well. The Upshaws and later the Dodds who owned the general store also ranched in the hills and canyons surrounding the town. Other families whose livelihood was strictly built on ranching kept headquarters in the area but often owned huge tracts of land in the Pecos and Big Bend areas. Sheep and goats were the most common livestock, but the ranchers also raised or captured wild donkeys, cows and a few horses as well.7

“Civilization” did not prevent the occasional shooting, nor did it stop the occasional criminal act including murder. Roy Bean’s son Sam Jr. was charged with murder for killing George Upshaw, rancher and store owner. (Sam was freed after Roy managed to gain him an acquittal.)8 “Bean and his henchmen were responsible for a lot of lawlessness. He represented the Law openly, but it only gave him a chance to be the most flagrant violator…. Most people feared to raise their voices against him. They were defeated by his law and helpless to defend themselves. Others of the same calabre [sic] were lurking in his shadow.”9 “In addition to the regular sprees and shootings which kept the town livened up, there were bitter disagreements among the local cattlemen. Rustling and smuggling of livestock went on under cover all the time.”10

Nor did the presence of civilization convince a great many people to settle. The Torres-Southern Pacific plat of Langtry conveniently overlooked the fact that some of the blocks and lots on the map were at the bottom of small canyons that cut through the entire site. Many of the streets on the map were never actually graded.

The town did have a few other industries with a handful of enterprising families able to capitalize on the dry desolation. “Highly educated young men were sent to Langtry by parents living in New York and other large cities in hopes of regaining their health, largely tuberlocas [sic]. Here was fresh air, pure milk and sunshine…. Many recovered. A few were not so lucky but the people of Langtry were concerned and were always ready to do what they could.” Other business opportunities included a certain amount of bootlegging and the sale of resurrection plants, also called siempre vivas.11

Langtry’s other industries were generally related to the railroad and ranching. A rock crushing plant west of town, created by and for railroad, provided crushed limestone ballast for the tracks.12 Langtry had another railroad-related industry during the 1910s. During the Mexican Revolution, military forces in the northern part of that country were divided amongst several major leaders, each operating on his own. The rugged countryside west of Del Rio/Las Vacas and south of Langtry proved to be a good place to hide, rest and plan for future operations. The proximity of Langtry and the Southern Pacific Railroad provided the capability to deliver goods, guns and munitions. Soldiers and officers spent time in Langtry doing business, buying goods or ammunition at Dodd’s Store, staying at the hotel and making business deals in person and using the railroad’s telegraph. Huge amounts of money flowed through the town at times.13

The Langtry marker will be placed on a block which was once maintained as a park. “Weather permitting, many of the Langtry residents gathered at the park in the evenings to play dominoes or croquet, to pitch horseshoes, watch the goldfish in the fountain, or play other games beneath the palm trees. Dances were frequently held on the concrete slab located at one corner of the park, and a large barbecue pit nearby was often covered with cabrito (barbecued goat meat).”14 Two palm trees and the concrete dance floor are still there.

The trains no longer stop, the railroad line was rerouted north of town in the 1920s, and the ranchers use trucks to move livestock. The town’s population, once measured in the hundreds, now measures less than a dozen. The busiest place in town is the Texas Department of Transportation Visitors’ Center, ironically sitting at the location of the old railroad depot.

The Texas Department of Transportation, Travel Division is in the process of developing the block as visitor parking. Their people have agreed to provide space for the Langtry historical marker in the design plan for the development; permission for placement on the site consists of the letter in this packet from Director Doris Howdeshell of the Travel Division. At this time, the Val Verde County Historical Commission is not designating what kind of mounting the Langtry marker will have. The marker will be a large subject marker, but the Commission would like to fit the marker into the Travel Division’s final plan.

 

Bibliography—
Doug Braudaway, Torres Family marker application, 2002.
Vinton Lee James, Frontier and Pioneer Recollections of Early Days in San Antonio and West Texas, San Antonio: privately published, 1938.
L’ada (Upshaw) McDowell, “A Texas Love Story,” unpublished manuscript, pages 15-16, copy in possession of author.
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.

 

Attachments—
In the plastic sleeve:
Top: Photo of Pump Canyon. (The remains of the pumping station are below the cliff near the center of the photo but not visible.)
Bottom: Photograph of marker location site: the old Langtry Town Park, which is now a vacant lot and soon to be converted into a parking lot for the Texas Department of Transportation Langtry Visitor Center.
Postcard image of the Langtry Depot.
Postcard of “Carranzista Camp Across from Langtry, Texas” during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s.

 

Endnotes--
1 This has not been absolutely proven with documentary sources; however, there is no proof that Roy Bean named the town for Lillie Langtry.
2 Vinton Lee James, Frontier and Pioneer Recollections of Early Days in San Antonio and West Texas, San Antonio: privately published, 1938, page 81.
3 Jack Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1996, page 156.
4 See the Torres Family marker application by Doug Braudaway and the Val Verde County Historical Commission. The plat is a standard SP town plat used in a number of places along the line including Comstock. Jack Skiles, personal communication to DLB, November 23, 2002.
5 Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, pages 26, 163.
6 Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, pages 12, 160.
7 Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, pages 131-135, 148-149.
8 Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, pages 21-24.
9 L’ada (Upshaw) McDowell, “A Texas Love Story,” unpublished manuscript, page 47.
10 C.L.Sonnichsen, Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos, New York: Macmillan, 1943, page 136.
11 McDowell, “A Texas Love Story,” pages 15-16; Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, pages 184-185.
12 Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, pages 186-188.
13 Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, pages 182-184.
14 Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, page 189.