Railroad Bridges Over the Pecos

(Including the Highest Bridge in United States)

Subject Marker Application Texas
by
Doug Braudaway
Val Verde County Historical Commission
Southwest Texas Junior College

The bridging of the Pecos must be considered one of the more significant events of Texas history. In the mythology of the Old West, the Pecos is “the wildest and longest river in the United States.”1 “The Pecos River is 926 miles in length, and seldom more than a few yards in width, except in floods. Its depth, except in reservoirs and the lower canyons is usually less than one foot. The basin width changes along the river’s length, as does the drainage are, with the greatest width just north of Roswell.”2 The Pecos makes a five-hundred mile cut across Texas and Val Verde County before emptying into the Rio Grande.

The river now known as the Pecos has been known by many names, and the origin of the name “Pecos” is obscure. “The name “Pecos” might be “an Indian word meaning… ‘poison,’ ‘watering place,’ or ‘crooked,’ or a corruption of Pe’-a-ku, the Keresan name of a pueblo [now gone] on the upper reaches of the river in New Mexico.” Or it may be the “Latin ‘pecus’ associated with flock.” “Explorers of the nineteenth century such as March and French sometimes used terms as ‘River of Violent Extremes’ and ‘crookedest river in the world.’” “A few cowboys contended that the name meant crooked as it certainly was that. The word has found its way into the language through the influence of writers such as Erna Fergusson, Cabeza Fabiola DeBaca, and especially J. Frank Dobie who frequently used ‘pecosed’ as a term for a drowned person, ‘pecosin’ as throwing someone or something away, and ‘Pecosenos’ for inhabitants of the valley.”3

The quantity of water in the Pecos River is often low, and so is its quality. “For decades already, the river’s water quality had been in question. Occasionally, travelers had found it palatable, but more often than not, they have agreed with Zenas Bliss, who in 1886 had termed it ‘the worst of any stream I have ever seen.’…Highly impregnated with minerals and ten times saltier than the sea, the Pecos carried the ‘world’s worst’ water….” “Many inhabitants describe the water as potent and potable, but seldom palatable.” Dobie’s description of the Pecos is most apt, and most discouraging. Ultimately, Dobie wrote, “The lower reaches of the Pecos canyon have been cut through solid rock and are deep and impassible.”4

The early travelers cared less for its name than for how to get across the river alive.5 Now bridges are up and the water is down, but in 1882, 1892 and 1944, the Southern Pacific’s bridges across the Pecos were magnificent achievements.

The first bridge across the Pecos River was completed in 1882, and this second transcontinental line was completed in January 1883. The first bridge actually sat inside the canyon of the Rio Grande crossing the Pecos at the confluence of the two rivers. The track had to follow a tortuous route to get from the plateau to the bridge. The track looped, twisted and finally dropped over the edge of the Rio Grande canyon following a grade that had been blasted out of the rock. At two points, one on each side of the Pecos, the track entered tunnels, the only means to continue the descent to the bridge. (These tunnels, the first two in the state of Texas are the subject of another, soon to be submitted, historical marker application. The west tunnel and the nearby railroad construction workers’ camps have National Register of Historic Places status, but no marker exists for them.6) The track was not straight, but the line’s completion opened the route for business. (Photographs of the first bridge are included following this text.)

In 1890 the Southern Pacific began investigating the possibility of constructing a new bridge over the Pecos. Jim Converse surveyed the terrain and announced that the Pecos could be bridged with a “high-line viaduct.” This viaduct would allow the railroad to cut 10.73 miles of the line. The curves in the track were reduced form a maximum of ten degrees to a maximum of five degrees; in other words, the track would be straightened. The easier track was paid for by the 2,180 foot bridge 325 feet above the water of the Pecos. It cost a quarter-million dollars, an extravagant sum.7 (A map showing the original line and the new, shorter line with the High Bridge is included on Page 4 of the illustrations.)

The bridge was an engineering marvel, but it was a serious technical challenge. Only fifty-five men could work at any one time on the bridge project because a greater number of men would have crowded each other off of the mid-air construction site.8 Piers for the bridge were constructed of concrete and native limestone, but some of the footings were cut pink granite from the Granite Mountain Quarry in Burnet County in central Texas. “Work began in March, 1891 under the direction of W.F. Mahl (who took photographs during the construction, three of which are included in this application). First, a traveler was built to set spans in place between piers. It had an overhang of 124.6 feet and a wheel base of 57 feet which was counterbalanced and clamped to completed sections. As work progressed, the traveler was moved forward and subsequent sections lowered into place…. The bridge was made up of two cantilever arms eighty-five feet each, two tower spans thirty-five feet each, two lever arms fifty-two and one-half feet each, one suspended lattice span eighty feet, eight lattice spans of sixty-five feet, one plate girder span of forty-five feet and thirty-four plate girder spans thirty-five feet each…. The total weight of materials was 3,228,277 pounds. Daily, an average of 67 men worked on the bridge. The time elapsed from start to finish was 103 days, 87 of them working days. After the bridge was completed, the Sunset laid the floor, track and metal handrailing. In March, 1892 the viaduct was ready for operation. It had cost $250,108 to build.”9

Pecos Viaduct construction

When completed, it was the highest in North America and the third highest in the world. It was completed in about three months and opened in 1892.10 “There was the bridge, airy as a cobweb and high, almost, as the moon…over which trains were to advance like performers on a tight wire.” The whole bridge was made of metal to prevent fire; even the wood that was used, such as the ties, were encapsulated in galvanized iron. There was so much metal used in the bridge that a nine man painting crew needed three months to cover all of the exposed surfaces. The painters started at the top and worked downward for the first 125 feet on scaffolding. To paint the remaining steel, each man used a swing to let himself up and down from the bridge. A special train with railroad dignitaries on board crossed the viaduct on March 31, 1892 to officially open the new bridge.11

The opening of the Pecos High Bridge resulted in an added cost to Southern Pacific customers. Passengers were charged an extra fifty cents to cross the bridge in addition to the regular railroad fare. Railroad ticket agents were instructed to collect the extra fee. And passengers were given tickets marked “Pecos River Bridge toll.” However, the extra fee was quickly withdrawn when the newly created Texas Railroad Commission began an inquiry into the practice.12

More traffic and heavier trains prompted Southern Pacific to reinforce the bridge in 1910. Nevertheless, trains were required to stop on the approaches to the bridge and then cross at a speed of six miles per hour. The reinforcement had added another 2,268,786 pounds of metal. The bridge was further reinforced in 1929.13

The extraordinary height of the Pecos High Bridge has prompted some unusual events. One person is known to have committed suicide by jumping from the bridge. The woman’s train had stopped on the Bridge, as all the trains did, to allow the passengers an opportunity to see the sight. It was said that she was “disappointed in love,” and while the crowd was mingling on that day on 1907, she went over the side. On the other hand, the Bridge is noted to have had two marriages performed on it. The first wedding ceremony occurred in that same year performed by Justice-of-the-Peace W.H. Dodd, Bean’s successor in Langtry, the second by County Judge C.K. McDowell. (Photos of the original High Bridge appear in the illustrations, including a photo from the wedding.) In 1910 a motion picture was filmed with a scene that incorporated the Bridge. In an early attempt to film the most fantastic, phenomenal stunt, an automobile was “chased” across the Bridge by a locomotive. The engine bellowed dense, black smoke, the auto began its run down the track. The film was running. And then the heroine of the film stopped the car; she had disregarded advice not to look down. She looked, and then she fainted.14

The Pecos High Bridge became especially important during the Second World War. As one of the few transcontinental rail links, it was vital to the transportation of war materials. On December 7th, 1941, one train crew “left here [Del Rio] at six or seven o’clock in the evening. Got out to High Bridge at eight o’clock or eight-thirty, and there were already soldiers there. There was a contingent of guards at the High Bridge that first day, the day of Pearl Harbor.” Reinforcements continued to arrive; “I remember the day after Pearl Harbor; there was a whole train that went through here. Of course, it stopped here, but it was going to the Pecos High Bridge…. Well, they moved out a whole bunch of men, M.P.s, and all this equipment and everything and they took over that bridge at Pecos Bridge to guard it because, well, if they had crippled that bridge and trains couldn’t get across, well they’d just be in bad shape because it took longer to build things then. I guess it took, after they replaced that bridge after the war, I guess it took two or three years. Well, you can’t wait like that in the war. Got to have it. And those men stayed there all through the war, out there with all that equipment and everything that they would need for guarding that bridge. It was a terrible job; they hated it. Bur, it had to be done.15

The 1940s also brought new developments with the trains themselves. The early train engines on the Sunset Route (and elsewhere) were steam locomotives, powered by burning coal in a boiler which heated water into steam which drove the engine. (Wood burning engines were not used on this route.) The beginning of the end for these engines came in December 1948 with the first of the diesels. The diesels were larger, more powerful, more reliable and more modern, and they “took the romance out of railroading.” While the diesels had more power, they were slower to get moving, and the difference was that between “a team of spirited horses verses a team of oxen.” The biggest engines, even in tandem, rarely pulled more than sixty or seventy cars; the diesels sometimes pulled up to two-hundred cars.16

The original High Bridge was replaced by a new structure in 1944. The new High Bridge was built in response to the larger trains and much greater demands place on the railroads during World War II. With the greater traffic the bridge and its restrictions concerning speed and weight prompted the War Production Board to approve the use of “critical materials” to build a new one. Work commenced on August 17, 1943 and was completed and placed into service December 21, 1944.17 The mobilization of men and transportation of materials required great numbers of trains in constant operation. “We handled it, [but] I don’t know how.”18

The old bridge remained, unused but in place, until 1949 when it was dismantled. (The pair of bridges was used for the cover of a recent book by the author and is reproduced in the illustrations.) The bridge was so well-engineered that it, or rather the spans, are still being used as a bridge in Indiana.19 (Both of the High Bridges have been the subject of picture postcards during the last century. The High Bridge, one or the other, was often included in Texas postcard folders as one of the landmarks of the state. Examples from the author’s collection are included in the illustrations.)

Railroads of Western Texas cover

The new High Bridge is advanced enough that it needs practically no maintenance, although for many years a guard was stationed there. The guard had lived under the High Bridge, twenty-four hours a day and was there to patrol the bridge at night.20

The High Bridge over the Pecos is visible from a scenic overlook on U.S. Highway 90 in the western part of Val Verde County. The overlook (and rest stop) is large, capable of parking many vehicles. It offers a picnic table and a gazebo, something unusual at Texas highway stops. The gazebo allows travelers a good view of the High Bridge (and, if one turns around, of the original railroad grade) but offers no information about this wonder of engineering. To correct this deficiency, the Val Verde County Historical Commission has voted to approve and pay for a state subject marker and to pay for install with a marker a plaque with illustrations of the two High Bridges to show the depth of the Pecos Canyon and the length of the spans.

 

Illustrations—
Page 1: page 39 from Doug Braudaway, Railroads of Western Texas: San Antonio to El Paso, Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.
Pages 2-3: pages 28-29 from Doug Braudaway, Val Verde County, Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 1999.
Page 4: map from Solveig A Turpin, 41VV540: A Railroad Era Industrial Site in Seminole Canyon State Historical Park, Val Verde County, Texas, Austin: Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, 1995.
Pages 5-7: photographs by J.T. Mahl at the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
Pages 8-9: pages 44-45 from Braudaway, Railroads of Western Texas.
Page 10: cover from Braudaway, Railroads of Western Texas.
Pages 11-13: postcards of the High Bridges.
Page 14: This page includes two photos shot in November 2000. The top photo shows Val Verde County Historical Commission Treasurer Willie Braudaway at the rest stop on U.S. Highway 90 @4.6 miles of the Pecos River highway bridge. The rest stop has a state marker for the Silver Spike Ceremony. At the center-left, near the horizon, the Pecos River High Bridge for the railroad can be seen. The middle picture shows Ms. Braudaway standing on the stops on the gazebo at that same rest stop and pointing to the location of the marker. The marker would best be cemented into the stonework to prevent theft. The bottom picture focuses more specifically on the installation site.

 

Bibliography—
Adams, Francis, Interview by Doug Braudaway, October 19, 1996.
Barnes, Grace and Beth Gault, So This Is Langtry, Boerne, Texas: Toepperwein Publishing Company, 1946.
Cox, Mike, "The Pecos: A Wild and Ornery Stream," Texas Highways, August 1995, pages 4-8.
Dearen, Patrick, Crossing Rio Pecos, Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1996.
Dobie, J. Frank, A Vaquero of the Brush Country, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1929.
Gold, Russell, "Feds hope hearing will put brakes on string of Union Pacific accidents,"San Antonio Express-News, December 27,1997, pages lA, 6A.
Hayter, Delmar J., "The Crookedest River in the World: Social and Economic Development of the Pecos River Valley, 1878-1950," Doctoral Dissertation, Texas Tech University, 1988.
Kelley, Effie G., A Collected History of the Old West, Del Rio: Inter-American Printing Co., 1942.
Perkins, George 0., "The Early History of Val Verde County," Masters Thesis, Sul Ross State University, January 1954.
Reed, S.G., A History of the Texas Railroads, New York: Arno Press, 1981 (reprint).
Signor, John R., "SP's West Texas Mountain Division: A Survey of Operations--El Paso to Del Rio," Trainline, No. 47, Spring 1996, pages 12-27.
Texas Historical Commission, A Catalog of Texas Properties in the National Register of Historic Places, Austin: THC, 1984.
Torres, Frank E., Interview by Doug Braudaway, October 19, 1996.
Turpin, Solveig A. with Wilson E. Dolman, 41VV540: A Railroad Era Industrial Site in Seminole Canyon State Historical Park, Val Verde County, Texas, (Report 95-1), Austin: Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, 1995.
United States National Park Service, Amistad National Recreation Area: Cultural Study, October 1994.
Vineyard, Bonnie, Interview by Doug Braudaway, September 17, 1996.
Wilson, Neill C. and Frank J. Taylor, Southern Pacific, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1952.

 

Endnotes--
1 Mike Cox, “The Pecos: A Wild and Ornery Stream,” Texas Highways, August 1995, page 4.
2 Delmar J Hayter, “The Crookedest River in the World: Social and Economic Development of the Pecos River Valley, 1878-1950,” Doctoral Dissertation, Texas Tech University, 1988, page 11.
3 Hayter, The Crookedest River, pages 16-17. “To ‘pecos’ a man one shot him and rolled his body into the river.” J. Frank Dobie, A Vaquero of the Brush Country, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1929, page 275.
4 Patrick Dearen, Crossing Rio Pecos, Worth Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1996, page 121; Dobie, A Vaquero, page 273; Hayter, The Crookedest River, page 22.
5 Cox, The Pecos, page 5.
6 Texas Historical Commission, A Catalog of Texas Properties in the National Register of Historic Places, Austin: THC, 1984, page 175.
7 United States National Park Service, Amistad National Recreation Area, October 1994, page 12-17; Neill C. Wilson and Frank J. Taylor, Southern Pacific, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. 1952, page 78.
8 George Perkins, “The Early History of Val Verde County,” Masters Thesis, Sul Ross State University, January 1954, page 26. Perkins also wrote that the workers were paid as little as $1.75 per day.
9 Solveig A. Turpin with Wilson E. Dolman, 41VV540: A Railroad Era Industrial Site in Seminole Canyon State Historical Park, Val Verde County, Texas, (Report 95-1), Austin: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 1995, page 52.
10 France had claim to the highest at 401.8; Bolivia had claim to the second at 326.6 feet. S.G. Reed, A History of the Texas Railroads, New York: Arno Press, 1981 (reprint), page 199.
11 Wilson and Taylor, Southern Pacific, page 78; National Park Service, Amistad National Recreation Area, pages 13-17 and 14-17; Bonnie Vineyard, Interview, September 17, 1996. I asked Mr. Vineyard if the painting work, which he was on the crew in 1921, was dangerous. “Oh, yea. Course we were young enough; we didn’t have sense enough to know it.”
12 Reed, A History of the Texas Railroads, page 201; Turpin with Dolman, 41VV540, page 52.
13 National Park Service, Amistad National Recreation Area, pages 12-17 and 13-17; Turpin with Dolman, 41VV540, page 58; John R. Signor, “SP’s West Texas Mountain Division,” Trainline, Spring 1996, page 15.
14 Grace Barnes and Beth Gault, So This Is Langtry, Boerne, Texas: Toepperwein Publishing Company, 1946, page 30.
15 Bonnie Vineyard; Francis Adams, Interview, October 19, 1996.
16 Bonnie Vineyard; Russell Gold, “Feds hope hearing will put brakes on string of Union Pacific accidents,” San Antonio Express-News, December 27, 1997, pages 1A, 6A. “[T]he old steam engines…used to have at the most thirty, forty cars. Now these diesel engines have over two-hundred cars. Now they have long cars;…those trains are at least two miles long. This is progress; let me tell you. When I went to work, those steam engines, they had one engine, of course, sometimes they had two engines—they’d put a little more cars. One engine couldn’t hold more than thirty or forty cars at the most. See the problem between San Antonio and, Del Rio actually, and, say, Valentine is uphill. But now these damn diesels, they have six engines pulling two-hundred cars.” Frank E. Torres, Interview, October 19, 1996.
17 Wilson and Taylor, Southern Pacific, page 79; Signor , “SP’s West Texas Mountain Division,” page 22.
18 Bonnie Vineyard.
19 Several sources state that the bridge was taken and assembled in Guatemala, but Jack Skiles, life-long Langtry rancher, historical and volunteer archeological steward for the Office of the State Archeologist for the Texas Historical Commission is certain that Indiana was the destination. Wilson and Taylor, Southern Pacific, page 79; Bonnie Vineyard; Signor, “SP’s West Texas Mountain Division,” page 22.
20 Effie G. Kelley, A Collected History of the Old West, Del Rio: Inter-American Printing Co., 1942 (or 1951), pages 5-6.