For nearly 200 miles, the Texas Tropical Trail shares a border with the country of Mexico, from Brownsville in Cameron County to Laredo in Webb County, along the winding banks of the Rio Grande River.
For some time in the mid 1840s, on the heels of the declaration of statehood for Texas, this area of the Tropical Trail fell squarely into contention as Mexico recognized the Nueces River as the rightful border between the two countries. The new state of Texas was assisted by General Zachary Taylor who was sent to facilitate the matter, ultimately driving the Mexican Army all the way to Mexico City in 1847. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848, declaring the border to be the Rio Grande or Rio Bravo River.
The Border Byway is rich with shared experiences of a day gone by when the boundaries were permeable. History and culture mixed and created new and unique culinary, architectural and even distinctive linguistic characteristics. It is said that Tex-Mex is the only regionally created culinary type that is recognized globally.
Part of the singular experience that is the border is the fact that it is the home to the last hand drawn international ferry in Texas and there are abundant wildlife viewing opportunities with a wide variety of rarely sighted species. The Border Byway is also sprinkled with many produce, citrus and curios stands, the Tropical Trail’s only zoo (Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville), bootmakers, and the Rio Grande Valley Premium Outlets in Mercedes. Museums featuring railroad history, ranching and agriculture history, Iwo Jima, art and science, historic houses, conjunto music history and even Smitty’s Jukebox Museum help tell the story of the Border Byway.
An agressive outreach to the midwestern states in the 1920s encouraged travel south for the winter and a tradition was born. Winter Texans today still make their way to the pleasant winter weather of deep south Texas. Their sojurn has further influenced the culture and experience of the Border Byway.
BLUETOWN (Cameron County)
In 1913, a rail line connecting Fernando and Santa Maria was built by the San Benito and Rio Grande Valley Railway. Nearly 30 years later, the Bluetown community was established to serve the agriculture trade.
Near Bluetown, the Longoria Cemetery holds the remains of an estimated 371 family members and is today maintained by Longoria descendants.
BROWNSVILLE (Cameron County)
The first settlers came to Brownsville at the end of the 18th century. In 1848 the Brownsville Town Company was formed, in 1849, Brownsville was made the county seat of the newly formed Cameron County. By 1850, a population of 519 was recovering after the loss of nearly half their inhabitants to cholera. A narrow gauge railroad connecting Brownsville and Port Isabel in 1872 helped a post Civil War Brownsville to grow and prosper. In 1904 the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexican Railway arrived and in 1910 a railway bridge connected Brownsville and Matamoros.
The Gladys Porter Zoo, a 26 acre adventure, includes over 1300 animals and 3 generations of gorillas.
The Historic Brownsville Museum is located in the 1928 Southern Pacific Depot, and features this restored Rio Grande Railroad Company Engine No. 1.
641 East Madison Street
DONNA (Hidalgo County)
Founded as a station on the St. Louis Brownsville and Mexico Railroad in 1906, Donna was spurred by the arrival of the railroad on a site between McAllen and Weslaco. Mr. T. J. Hooks put all of his resources and energies towards making the little town self-sufficient and his efforts were not lost on the town folks. It was decided to show their appreciation and a party was arranged in honor of T. J. Hooks. His daughter Donna, living in Beaumont, was invited to attend. Mr. Hooks arrived at the railroad station to pick up his daughter and saw a sign inscription, “Welcome to the town of Donna!” And the name became official.
The first American Legion Hall built in the United States was constructed and dedicated in 1920 by Border Post No. 107. It was designated a historical landmark in 1964.
318 S. Main Street
The Donna Hooks Fletcher Museum features memorabilia, photos, and artifacts from the town’s founding such as this 1940s image (above)showing the first Olympic-sized swimming pool in the Rio Grande Valley constructed at Val Verde RV Park. The pool has since been filled in. Vintage furniture, hand tools, farm and household articles and thee restored bar from Blue Goose Saloon are also on display.
129 S. 8th Street
EBINBURG (Hidalgo County)
In 1908 a small town, known as Chapin, named after County Judge Dennis B. Chapin, was selected as the new county seat. Official records made the journey from Hidalgo to Chapin by oxcart. Edinburg, renamed in 1911, is filled with rich historical reminders of the past. Many of the streets in the city were named after Executives of the Southern Pacific Railroad in hopes that they would build a line to the Rio Grande Valley.
The Hidalgo County Historical Museum is housed in the restored 1910 jail house and the city’s visitor center is located in the renovated 1927 train depot. Edinburg is home of the University of Texas – Pan America. Edinburg has been awarded the All-America City honor 3 times, once in 1968, 1995 and again in 2000. Edinburg slogan is “As good as it gets.”
The Historic Southern Pacific Railroad Depot (currently home to the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center) is located at 602 W. University Drive. Tour the “Espee” (SP for Southern Pacific) exhibit featuring SP memorabilia such as a conductor’s cap, playing cards, lamps, lanterns and the original “golden spike” driven on January 11, 1927.
Museum of South Texas History contains the largest collection of exhibits and artifacts covering south Texas’ fantastic-but-true history. MSTH exhibits give a broad overview of the region, from prehistoric tribes through Spanish exploration and colonization, the Mexican War, Rio Grande steamboat era, Civil War, early ranching and farming, border wars and more. Partially housed in the 1910 County Jail, MSTH includes a hangman’s trap used for a public execution in 1913.
121 E. McIntyre Street
HARLINGEN (Cameron County)
Harlingen, named after a city in Holland, was founded by Lon C. Hill after he lured a Missouri Pacific Railroad extension to the Valley. Then known as Six-Shooter Junction, and complete with a house, barn and corrals, Harlingen became headquarters to Company A of the Texas Rangers. Harlingen marked their official founding on April 15, 1910.
The Harlingen Arts & Heritage Museum includes Harlingen’s first hospital built in 1923 and used by the community until 1927. The historic hospital building is a part of the Museum’s “backyard exhibits”.
2425 Boxwood Street
The Iwo Jima Monument and the Iwo Jima Museum are located on the grounds of the Marine Military Academy. Felix DeWeldon created this full sized model from which Washington D.C.’s bronze monument was cast. DeWeldon donated it to the Marine Military Academy in 1980.
HIDALGO (Hidalgo County)
Hidalgo is located on lands settled by Spanish colonizer Jose de Escandon in 1749, as an adjunct to the new settlement of Reynosa. In 1848, Scottish-born merchant John Young founded a town site on Spanish land grants as a trading post and ferry landing opposite Reynosa. Originally named Edinburgh, the town’s name was changed to Hidalgo in 1876 in honor of the Mexican patriot, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. Hidalgo is home to notable examples of border-style brick architecture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The statue of the world’s largest “killer bee” (Africanized honey bee) was built in 1992 after the first colony of killer bees in the United States was discovered in Hidalgo on October 15, 1990.
The Old Pumphouse in Hidalgo along the Rio Grande was originally installed in 1909 to set up irrigation for 40,000 acres of land. Steam pumps are fueled by mesquite wood gathered as land was cleared. In 1983 the Pumphouse was abandoned for a new all electric plant 1/2 mile downstream. The old pumphouse was one of the original irrigation pumping plants which converted the desert south Texas into an abundant agricultural area.
LAREDO (Webb County)
Laredo traces its beginning back through 250 years under the Six Flag of Texas (Spain, France, Mexico, Republic of Texas United States of America, Confederate States of America) and the Flag of the Republic of the Rio Grande. Founded in 1755, Laredo was capital of the Republic of the Rio Grande (January – November 1840). Laredo is the Webb County seat.
The San Agustin Historical District features the San Agustin Cathedral and Rectory, San Agustin Plaza, the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum, and the Washington’s Birthday Celebration Museum. The St. Peter’s Historical District features many restored LISD Victorian Homes, to include the De La Chica and Etta Russell houses. Visitors can also take a Trolley Tour of the local artist’s houses and visit Street Peter’s Church and Plaza.
The patriotic Improved Order of the Red Men, Yaqui Tribe #59, selected George Washington’s Birthday as a traditionally American holiday which has been celebrated annually since February 22, 1898. Laredo received their state charter in 1923. George Washington’s Birthday Museum features the elaborate costumes used in the festivities.
LOS EBANOS (Hidalgo County)
The city is the home of the last hand-operated ferry on the Rio Grande. The first recorded Spanish visit into the area was in the 1740s, when an ancient ford south of the area was crossed by explorers and colonists led by José de Escandón. It was then used as a salt trail leading to El Sal del Rey 40 miles to the northeast. The ford was used by Mexican War troops in 1846. Texas Rangers chased cattle rustlers across the spot in 1847, and smugglers made use of the crossing for decades, especially during Prohibition. The ferry and inspection station were established in 1950.
For over 50 years Los Ebanos, Texas and Diaz Ordaz, Tamaulipas, Mexico, have been connected by this hand drawn ferry. Now the last hand drawn ferry on the 1800-mile length of the Rio Grande River. Pedestrians, cyclists, bikers and vehicles can use this unique form of water transport from dawn to dusk, excepting lunch time when the ferry stops adding to an already singular memory. The current ferry has been operating since 1979. 1975 State Historical Marker.
LOS FRESNOS (Cameron County)
As early as the 1770s a ranch by the name of Los Fresnos was established in the area where open range grazing took place until sometime after the Mexican War. During the early 1900s, the arrival of the railroad also attracted developers and the establishment of Los Fresnos, named for abundant ash trees.
Los Fresnos PRCA Rodeo is held annually the first Saturday in February.
McALLEN (Hidalgo County)
McAllen was founded in 1909 and incorporated February 21, 1911. James McAllen came to the Valley in the early 1850’s from Edinburgh, Scotland. He owned 65,000 acres of land in the area. In 1909, William Briggs and other investors purchased 1,200 acres of land at $3.50/acre from him.
The Museum of South Texas History exhibits give a broad overview of the region, from prehistoric tribes through Spanish exploration and colonization, the Mexican War, Rio Grande steamboat era, Civil War, early ranching and farming, border wars and more.
The McAllen Heritage Center
301 S. Main Street
The International Museum of Art & Science is a Smithsonian Affiliate and fully accredited by the American Association of Museums. IMAS is the premier art and science museum of South Texas and contains over 50,000 square feet of exhibit space.
1900 Nolana Avenue
MERCEDES (Hidalgo County)
The city of Mercedes was founded September 15, 1907 by the American Rio Grande Land & Irrigation Company, and was incorporated March 8, 1909. The city was located in Capisallo Pasture, part of Capisallo Ranch owned by Jim Welles. This location was known as the Pear Orchard owing to the vast numbers of prickly pear cactus growing there at that time. The original name given to the city was Diaz in honor of Porfirio Diaz, then president of Mexico. Later it was renamed Mercedes Diaz in honor of the president’s wife and from that, Mercedes became the Queen City.
Bootmaking in Mercedes has deep roots with Rios of Mercedes, handmade since 1853.
MISSION (Hidalgo County)
Mission is known as the “tourist mecca of south Texas”. Written records demonstrate that the site known as La Lomita was granted to Captain Cantu of Reynosa by a Spanish grant in 1767. The land was eventually sold to Rene Guyard, who in 1871 left the land to the Missionary Oblates of Mary. In 1906, the Oblate Fathers sold the land to John J. Conway and J.W. Hoit. Between 1906 and 1908, most of the area’s activities centered around the La Lomita area. In 1908, the Missouri Pacific Railroad established a railway station near the center of the new development four miles north of the mission. That same year the City of Mission, Texas was founded.
Mission Historical Museum
900 Doherty Avenue
The historic La Lomita (little hill) Chapel on FM 494 near the banks of the Rio Grande River, was built in 1865, by Rene Guyard, a French merchant of Reynosa who had purchased the land in 1845.
Guyard left this site to the Oblate priests in 1871 and it became a rendezvous spot of the “Padres on Horseback” as they traveled from Roma to Brownsville visiting widely separated Catholic churches. When the City of Mission was founded in 1908, the City was named “Mission” in honor of La Lomita Chapel.
PHARR (Hidalgo County)
Founded by the Pharr brothers of Louisiana in the early 1900s, the community was built around the growing sugar cane industry. There are numerous wildlife preserves nearby, including Bentsen State Park and the new Edinburg Scenic Wetland Trails & Birds Park. And, the 2,000-acre Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge is just minutes from Pharr.
Smitty’s Jukebox Museum contains an extraordinary collection from the Edison-era to modern times.
116 W. State Street
RIO GRANDE CITY (Starr County)
Rio Grande City, the county seat of Starr County and one of the oldest settlements in South Texas, is on the Rio Grande 100 miles from both Brownsville and Laredo in the extreme south central part of the county. It is an international port of entry connected by bridge to Camargo, Tamaulipas. Rio Grande City has several historic structures, including Fort Ringgold, La Borde House, and a replica of the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes.
La Borde House, Rio Grande City. Originally the Ringgold Hotel, the La Borde House was constructed in 1898-1899. It is located one block from the Rio Grande River, a strategic location for the turn of the century traveler arriving to take the riverboat by wagons or cattle barons selling their cattle into California. The full service hotel is meticulously decorated with period pieces. 601 E. Main Street, Rio Grande City. National Register 1980.
ROMA (Starr County)
Located on the Rio Grande, Roma dates back to 1765, and was built on an even older Spanish mission. Much of the original town site still survives in the Roma national Historic Landmark District, and includes 38 buildings dating between the years 1848 and 1928. Located on the U.S.-Mexico border, Roma was once an important shipping point for steamboats along the Rio Grande. The site was first settled in 1760 and was named Roma in 1848 in honor of the Italian city. Because of its proximity to the river, Roma prospered during the years between the Mexican War and Reconstruction.
Roma National Historic Landmark District and Plaza celebrates the historic character of the heart of Roma. National Preservation Honor Award, 2008.
SAN BENITO (Cameron County)
In 1904 the San Benito Land and Water Company was formed and the town was called Bessie. Just three years later the town, then called San Benito, was subdivided and sales began. San Benito is known as the Resaca City, thanks to the picturesque 400-foot wide waterway which meanders through this rich historic community. The resaca is fed by the Rio Grande and serves as the primary irrigation, residential and commercial water system for the city.
San Benito is also the home of Conjunto (accordion-style, Latin-based) music and has a rich heritage with legends including Narciso Martinez (the father of conjunto music) and Grammy award-winner Freddy Fender. Visit the San Benito History Museum, Freddy Fender Museum, Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
210 E. Heywood Street
SAN JUAN (Hidalgo County)
John Closner, San Juan was organized by John Closner in 1909 and incorporated in 1917. In 1945 San Juan had the largest plant in south Texas for the manufacture of concrete irrigation pipe. San Juan was known as the “Bougainvillea Trail of Texas”.
Our Lady of San Juan del Valle averages over 1,000,000 visitors a year as one of the most popular shrines in the U.S. Rev. Alfonso Jalbert, O.M.I. built a small wooden chapel in San Juan in 1920. The new shrine was dedicated in 1980.
SAN YGNACIO (Zapata County)
Site of the 1952 filming of Viva Zapata and one of the few White-Collard Seedeater viewing areas in the U.S., San Ygnacio was founded in 1830. Sandstone buildings and residences are characteristic in the town and Historic District consisting of several streets north and south of Plaza Uribe.
Los Corralitos Ranch, located five miles north of San Ygnacio, features a restored ranch house and the workers’ cabanas. Evidence suggests this may be the earliest standing ranch structure in Texas.
Jesus Trevino Fort, the fortified Trevino-Uribe Rancho, is on the U.S. Register of Historic Places and U.S. National Historic Landmark. Jesus Treviño, founder of San Ygnacio, built this home in 1830, as protection during frequent Indian raids. In 1851, sundial was set into the north wall of the fort.
WESLACO (Hidalgo County)
W. E. Stewart Land Company, for which the town is named, bought 30,000 acres at $90 an acre in 1917. Weslaco became known as the “Neon City” as downtown businesses lit store fronts using neon. Investors were attracted from all over the Midwest to the tropical climate and citrus orchards of the mid Valley. Weslaco is also home to Harlon Block, one of the WWII servicemen who raised the American flag at Iwo Jima.
Frontera Audubon Society offers 15 acres of thorn forest, trails, wetlands, butterfly gardens, a citrus orchard and historic home.
1101 South Texas Blvd.
The Weslaco Museum features Mid-Valley history.
500 Texas Blvd.
ZAPATA (Zapata County)
Town was named in honor of Antonio Zapata, Mexican army officer and fierce fighter. When the historic old town on banks of Rio Grande was flooded by Falcon Reservoir, new Zapata was built on U.S. 83. Zapata is the site of ranching, oil and natural gas production. Zapata is also the home of Falcon Lake, considered the second largest fresh water lake in Texas with 87,300 acres along the Rio Grande River. The lake has been named the number one bass fishing spot in Texas.
To learn all about the colorful history of Zapata, visit the new state-of-the-art Zapata County Museum of History.
850 Main Street, Highway 83