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Rio Grande City Trolley Tours

Written by Travis M. Whitehead.

Adorning the mannequin at the Robert E. Lee House in Rio Grande City, the strapping blue uniform, complete with gold buttons, shining saber, and feathered hat, echoes the garb the young officer wore here nearly 150 years ago. The future Confederate general made two visits to old Fort Ringgold in Rio Grande City as a U.S. Army colonel before the Civil War; local historians believe he used what is now called the Robert E. Lee House—today a museum and a Texas Historic Landmark—as his headquarters. The building is the oldest structure at this fort and one of many stops on Mauro Villarreal’s Rio Grande City Trolley Car Tour.

Mauro, chairman of the Rio Grande City Historic Preservation Commission, affectionately refers to this border town on the Rio Grande as a “jewel in the rough.” The 53-year-old tour guide, dressed in pressed jeans and a cream-colored, button-down shirt, weaves a colorful tapestry of stories as he takes me and other visitors on an excursion through this seat of Starr County (in the Lower Rio Grande Valley).

Although Henry Clay Davis founded Rio Grande City (originally Carnestolendas) in the late 1840s, the community traces its roots to Spanish colonial times. “José de Escandón, who was sent to colonize the northern part of Mexico in 1748, awarded grants to people who helped him settle Reynosa, Mier, and Camargo,” Mauro explains. “José Antonio de la Garza Falcón was one of the original settlers of Camargo, which is just across the river from us.”

We are captivated by Mauro’s enthusiasm as he explains how Escandón awarded Falcón a tract of land named Rancho Carnestolendas, part of which eventually became Rio Grande City. Mauro tells us that when Henry Clay Davis later married Hilaria de la Garza Falcón, a member of the original Falcón family, he became an important part of local history. “It was a condition of the marriage that Henry Clay Davis would manage the ranching operations on the north bank of the Rio Grande. Henry soon established the Rancho Davis on the property.”

Mauro eagerly gives us the scoop on Fort Ringgold as he rotates the steering wheel of the old trolley car—named the Bessie II for one of the many steamboats that once operated on the Rio Grande. Bessie II, with her wooden contour seats and ornate copper railing, transports us to a time when border raids, river traffic, Spanish colonists, and adventurers bestowed a colorful heritage on this community.

At Fort Ringgold, which was built as Camp Ringgold in 1848 after the Mexican War (1846-48), we pass the parade grounds, armory, barracks, and mortuary, but a stop at the Robert E. Lee House especially intrigues us with its depictions of local history. We find exhibits inside about Lee’s connection to the fort and displays about various periods of Fort Ringgold history. One exhibit includes a picture of a woman laboring over a washtub and scrub board. “I’ve used those,” says 66-year-old Judy Bailey of Mission, pointing to the picture. “You don’t know how hard it is. It’s so nice just to throw it all in an automatic washer or dryer.”

Another exhibit describes Lee’s 730-mile trip by horseback from Camp Cooper in North Texas to Fort Ringgold (now part of the Rio Grande City Consolidated Independent School District) in 1856 to attend a friend’s court martial. Lee also visited in 1860 to deal with Juan Cortina, who was leading raids from Mexico into Texas. A display explains that Cortina was angry about the “loss of land titles, mishandling of his aunt’s estate, mistreatment and murder of Mexican citizens” by Anglos after the Mexican War.

Other stops on the post include the training grounds, where mounted troops once prepared for combat in the South Texas brush country. The last of these mounted infantrymen, stationed here in the 1940s, deployed to Burma (after retiring their horses) and fought the Japanese during World War II. Rio Grande City’s military tradition continues to this day with recently retired Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who was the top U.S. commander in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. Sanchez was born and raised here.

The town’s legacy extends beyond its military roots. Entrepreneurs from distant places enriched the area’s cultural flavor, giving the town its distinct personality. Mauro, proud of his community’s multicultural heritage, talks enthusiastically about Heinrich Portscheller, a German brick mason who designed the Headley-Edgerton Building. British doctor Alexander Headley lived in the fine brick structure and operated a pharmacy there in the late 1800s and early 1900s (see Speaking of Texas, August 2004 print issue).

Several Frenchmen also played pivotal roles in the city’s history, one of them François LaBorde, who built the La Borde House, now a hotel popular for its elegantly furnished rooms. Étienne Cenac, a butcher from France, built a home (today the headquarters for American Legion Post 382) in 1848 on Water Street. Like many homes in Starr County, it also served as a place of business. “Cenac sold cattle hides to people for making leather goods,” Mauro says. “His was probably one of the first homes built here, probably when Rio Grande City was first platted as a city.” Cenac’s home later wore several hats, and the brands and names of once-prominent local ranches on some of the walls inside make it a popular stop on Mauro’s tour.

After the Mexican War ended, Richard King—future founder of the King Ranch—and Mifflin Kenedy (among others) began operating steamboats on the Rio Grande. Depending on the weather and other factors, those steamboats could travel from Brownsville to Rio Grande City—a distance of about 100 miles—in two days. “The vessels were extremely important, because they were the quickest means of bringing dry goods, such as coffee, sugar, and flour, to Rio Grande City. You could carry more by riverboat than by horse or wagon, and it was a lot faster than overland,” Mauro tells us.

Next, Mauro takes us to the site of Davis Landing—now grown up with hackberry trees—where steamboats once loaded and unloaded passengers and supplies. About a block west of the landing stands the Yzaguirre-Longoria House, which was used as an inn for passengers debarking from the riverboats. The owners later used the structure as a private residence and, finally, rented out the rooms as apartments. Today, the building stands silent with its weathered brick and warped shingles. Some locals say the building is haunted, and claim to have witnessed strange sightings, including a woman standing on the former balcony in a billowing white dress—and not a breath of wind!

From the landing, Britton Avenue stretches four blocks north to the Starr County Courthouse. Mauro takes us to the corner of North Britton and Fourth Street, the site of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, built by the Reverend Gustav Gollbach of Germany. Gollbach, who served as pastor of the town’s Immaculate Conception Church from 1924 to 1937, built and dedicated the shrine—a replica of the one in France—in 1928. The pristine setting, across the street from the courthouse, draws locals and tourists alike with its image of Our Lady of Lourdes surrounded by violet periwinkles, blue maguey, and asparagus fern.

Our next stop is the courtyard of the López-Tijerina Complex, which was recently renovated and planted with palm, oak, and orchid trees. Stone buildings line a stone wall that encloses the courtyard. The structures, built more than 100 years ago, have had several owners, including Ana and Gonzalo Tijerina, who operated a soda shop and a shoe store here in the 1940s. Renovations have uncovered bricks with letters stamped into them, revealing traces of the builders.

Mauro holds up one of the old sand-colored bricks with the letters PPG—for Prudencio Pérez González—a brickmaker here many years ago. Mauro isn’t sure what the letters on some of the other bricks stand for. “Some people may have paid to have their initials put on the brick, just because they had the money and it was kind of a status thing,” he says.

We finish our journey spellbound by Mauro’s stories. In less than two hours, we’ve visited the richness of colonial Spain, explored the headquarters of Robert E. Lee, and learned about adventurous souls from Germany, England, and France who helped shape the town. I feel as though we’ve just taken a ride through history, and I can’t wait until my next journey on a time machine called Bessie II.

RIO GRANDE CITY, seat of Starr County, is 34 miles west of McAllen on US 83. THE AREA CODE IS 956.

The RIO GRANDE CITY TROLLEY CAR TOUR is organized by the RIO GRANDE CITY MAIN STREET PROGRAM, 408 E. Main, Rio Grande City 78582. Call 488-0047; www.ci.rio-grande-city.tx.us. TOURS take place at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Mon-Fri by reservation. Cost: $5 per person. Minimum 10 people, maximum 24. The trolley car is not wheelchair accessible, but Mauro is happy to help anyone in a wheelchair get into and out of the vehicle. (Several people in wheelchairs have taken the tour.) Visitors will find literature about Rio Grande City and Starr County at the MAIN STREET PROGRAM OFFICE. To get there, take US 83 west into town, turn south on Washington St., then east on Main St. Go about one block to the Main Street Program office on the right.

Selected Sites

GROTTO OF OUR LADY OF LOURDES, 305 N. Britton; CENAC HOUSE, 310 W. Water, 716-8596; RIO GRANDE CITY MUNICIPAL COURTHOUSE (former MIFFLIN KENEDY WAREHOUSE), 203 W. Water; and the HEADLEY-EDGERTON BUILDING, 705 E. Second St.

FORT RINGGOLD is on US 83, on the left as you drive west through town. The trolley car is the only guided tour through the old post, but the fort is always open (and free) to those wishing to drive in and take pictures of the hospital, mortuary, armory, barracks, officers’ quarters, and other points of interest.

Separate tours of the ROBERT E. LEE HOUSE (wheelchair accessible) are by reservation only; call 716-6962. Explore the LA BORDE HOUSE, 601 E. Main, 487-5101 (see “A Tale of Two Inns,” Feb. 2006 print issue). The hotel features interesting rooms, such as the La Borde Room with its fireplace and double lamps with tulip shades. The parlor has a pump organ, Victorian end tables with marble tops, and a luxurious, upholstered couch. Spend a night in one of these rooms ($69-$80), or explore them Sun-Sat 8 a.m.-9 p.m. (Sep-May) or Mon-Fri 8 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sat-Sun 8-5 (June-Aug).

Events

VAQUERO DAYS, which takes place the last weekend in Feb., is a tribute to the American and Mexican cowboy with a rodeo, parade, food vendors, and arts and crafts. The WILD GAME DINNER, which kicks off the STARR COUNTY YOUTH FAIR, is also the last weekend in Feb. For $10 you can eat all the venison, buffalo, fish, rattlesnake, and elk you want. MARKET DAYS are held every 2nd weekend Nov-May. For more information, call the Rio Grande City Main Street Program, 488-0047.

Dining

CARO’S RESTAURANT, 205 N. Garcia, 487-2255

CHE’S RESTAURANT, 601 E. Main (in the La Borde House), 487-8288

LETTY’S KITCHEN, 507 E. Second, 487-6254

TEXAS CAFÉ, 517 E. Second, 487-3428

From the January 2007 issue.

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