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Rio Grande City Downtown Historic District
Rio Grande City, Starr County, Texas

National Hispanic Heritage Month
September 15-October 15, 2009

Rio Grande City Downtown Historic District
Photo by Terri Myers, courtesy of theTexas State Historic Preservation Office

Rio Grande City is one of the oldest towns in the lower Rio Grande region and the Rio Grande City Downtown Historic District contains the most concentrated and intact collection of buildings in the Rio Grande City, Starr County, Texas. The historic district lies at the heart of the South Texas border town of Rio Grande City and contains the city’s best collection of commercial, domestic and combination commercial/residential properties dating from its earliest period of development, ca. 1840, to the end of the construction of the district, about 1940. It includes 144 properties in the eastern half of adjacent Wimpy, Second, Main, and Mirasoles streets, and their intersecting side streets, an area which comprised the main part of the downtown shopping district throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rio Grande City has a long and colorful history dating from its 18th century origins as a Spanish land grant to its place in the Mexican and American Civil Wars and as a Calvary post through the first half of the 20th century. As isolated as it was during the 19th and much of the 20th century-it had no rail service until 1925-the city boasted a cosmopolitan business populace comprised of Spanish/Mexican, German, French, Swiss, Jewish, and Anglo-American residents.


[graphic] photo
Rio Grande City Downtown Historic District
Photo by Terri Myers, courtesy of theTexas State Historic Preservation Office

The land that encompasses present Rio Grande City was a part of a Spanish land grant given to Jose Antonio de la Garza Falcon in 1767. Land grants on the lower Rio Grande Valley were long, narrow ribbons known as porciones. Porciones spanned the river cross-wise to give each property owner at least a modicum of river frontage. Although their property lay on both sides of the Rio Grande River, nearly all the landowners lived on the south side of the river, in present Mexico, and conducted only modest ranching operations on the north. One of the principle reasons was that there were more established communities or villas with greater numbers of people to guard against American-Indian attacks on the south side of the river. American-Indian attacks on isolated ranching outposts on the north side of the river were relentless throughout the 18th and well into the 19th centuries. The north bank villas has been established by the Spanish colonizer, Jose de Escandon between 1747-49. The porciones containing present Rio Grande City was aligned with the Spanish villa of Camargo, Escandon’s first settlement and presently a town that lies a few miles across the river from Rio Grande City.

Rio Grande City Downtown Historic District
Photo by Terri Myers, courtesy of theTexas State Historic Preservation Office

By the 1830s, the property that would become Rio Grande City has passed to one of de la Garza Falcon’s descendants, Francisco de la Garza Martinez. A very old stone wall with two doorways in the 400 block of E. Main Streets appears to be a contemporary of other early-to-mid-19th century stone structures found in the region, and may have been on Martinez’s property, thus predating the city’s first sustained settlement by Henry Clay Davis and his wife Hilaria de la Garza in the late 1840s. Henry Clay Davis was a young adventurer from Kentucky who came to the region in the 1830s, and according to family sources Davis and his bride were asked to settle on the family ranch at carnestolendas, on the north side of the river. Shortly after he was married Davis built a 2-story house (demolished 1995) and a few other buildings were constructed and the site became known as Davis Landing, Rancho Davis, or simply Davis.


[graphic] photo
Rio Grande City Downtown Historic District
Photo by Terri Myers, courtesy of theTexas State Historic Preservation Office

During the Mexican-American War, Davis leased part of his ranch to the American Army, and after the war sold the land to the Army. Many American men moved to the area and married the daughters of well to do Mexican families. Davis petitioned the newly created Starr County to create the county seat at a new town he was platting at Rancho Davis, next to Fort Ringgold. Davis and his partner, steamboat Captain Forbes Britton, platted the town of Rio Grande City on part of the former Carnestolendas Ranch. In the early years of the town’s development-from about 1848 to about 1870-most of the commercial activity was focused on the waterfront within a few blocks of the steamboat landing at the intersection of Water Street and Britton Avenue. Among the earliest residents were Mexican-Americans such as Lazaro Lopez and Cruz and Dionicia Lopez Tijerina. One of the greatest immigrations to Rio Grande City occurred in 1865 after the Battle of Santa Gertrudis during Mexico’s struggle to overthrow Maximillian. Many Jewish-Mexicans came to the city, among them the La Borde, Bernheim, Block, Mernitz, Lacaze and Lafargue families.

Rio Grande City Downtown Historic District
Photo by Terri Myers, courtesy of theTexas State Historic Preservation Office

Today, Rio Grande City is a bustling border town that stretches out along Highway 83 both east and west. Despite the spate of new construction on the city’s fringes, the core of Rio Grande City retains its historic buildings and traditional setting to a large degree.
Historic buildings and structures include walls, gardens, houses, stores, banks, theaters, and combination domestic and commercial buildings that line Main, Second and Mirasoles streets and infill lots on the side streets. Building materials are largely brick. Decorative features and building types are reminiscent of both Colonial Mexico and New Orleans’ French Quarter architecture and are probably derivatives of the styles early French and Spanish/Mexican settlers admire. The Rio Grande City Downtown Historic District was listed in the national Register of Historic Places on July 8, 2005.
Full documentation on the Rio Grande City Downtown Historic District: text / photos

Hispanic Heritage Month

 

 

 

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