Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Langtry, Texas

The Southern Pacific Railroad:  The True Transcontinental Railroad

The Torres Family:  Founders of Langtry

The Dodd Family:  Pioneer Merchants

Judge Roy Bean:  The Law West of the Pecos

The 1896 World Championship Prizefight

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

The Torres Family owned the land on which Langtry was founded, paid to Bernardo Torres by the State of Texas for building irrigation projects 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 Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway Company (owned by the Southern Pacific), gave the railroad rights to build through the townsite.

The Torres Store and Home still stands.
The Torres Store and Home still stands.

The country was desolate. Perched high on a cliff above the canyon of the Rio Grande, the site of Langtry was chosen because coal and oil burning locomotives required large amounts of water to operate. Torres Spring in Pump Canyon (west of town) provided that water, but it was practically inaccessible until the railroad company brought mechanized pumping equipment to lift the water into the townsite. The SP placed an engine in the canyon, and water was provided to the railroad facilities and to the new town's residents.

The railroad's depot was the busiest place in town. "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," remembered Buela Burdwell Farley. The depot also included a restaurant frequented by railroad men and cattlemen alike.

A Southern Pacific train at the water tank.
The needs of railroad led to the creation of Val Verde County communities including Langtry, Comstock, and Pumpville.

As the rail line was opened, the town of Langtry began to take shape. Construction workers were already leaving the area in 1882, but permanent railroad employees such as telegraph operators and railroad clerks were settling in. 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." As rancher and historian Jack Skiles wrote, "Wooden houses were beginning to replace tents."

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 Roy Bean, 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.

Judge Bean with his posse and courthouse.
Judge Bean (center, with the beard) is shown here with his posse and courthouse.

"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 get him an acquittal.) "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." C.L. Sonnichsen wrote that "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 undercover all the time."

The town did have a few other industries operated by 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. A rock crushing plant west of town, created by and for the railroad, provided crushed limestone ballast for the tracks. Langtry had another railroad-related industry during the 1910s-arms sales during the Mexican Revolution.

The town's position on the desolate U.S.-Mexico border allowed Judge Bean to pull off a highly illegal sporting event in 1896. Boxing, then known as prize-fighting, was illegal in Texas, nearly every other place in the United States, and in Mexico. Boxers Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Mahar trained in the El Paso-Las Cruces area, while promoter Dan Stuart and Roy Bean worked out a plan. The fight was announced in El Paso where spectators and lawmen boarded the train to Langtry, and the fight took place in the Rio Grande Canyon in Mexico beyond the reach of law enforcement. Langtry became internationally known. Nevertheless, after months of hype, Fitzsimmons won the fight in less than two minutes.

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 in the hundreds, now measures fewer than a dozen. The busiest place in town is the Texas Department of Transportation Visitors' Center, ironically sitting on the very site of the old railroad depot.

Langtry has eight Texas Historical Commission historical markers. The "Jersey Lilly" is located on the grounds of the Texas Department of Transportation Visitors' Center. The "Langtry" marker is placed in the center of town at the "Old Hanging Tree." Despite the name, no one was ever executed here. Within a block are "Langtry School," "William H. Dodd," and "Torres Family." "Prizefight, "Eagle's Nest," and Robert Hill" overlook the Rio Grande Canyon at the far end of Torres Street.

Histoical markers in Langtry Texas.
A map of histoical markers in Langtry Texas.

 

Courtesy of the

Val Verde County Historical Commission