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RIO GRANDE RAILROAD. The Rio Grande Railroad was organized by Simón Celaya of Brownsville in 1870 and opened a 22.5-mile narrow-gauge line connecting Point Isabel and Brownsville on July 4, 1872. The railroad also operated steam and sail lighters from its quarter-mile-long wharf at Point Isabel to the Brazos Santiago harbor, a distance of three miles. Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy had received a charter for a Rio Grande Railway Company on October 1, 1866, but the road was never built. King and Kenedy then opposed the building of Celaya's line into Brownsville and went to the courts for aid but failed to prevent its construction. The Rio Grande Railroad initially carried much of the commerce destined for northern Mexico. However, the completion of railroads to Laredo diverted much of this traffic, and for many years the Rio Grande operated a daily mixed train between the two cities to carry freight, passengers, mail, and express shipments. On January 19, 1891, the train from Brownsville was deliberately wrecked about twelve miles south of town by bandits who escaped with $60,000 in Mexican silver from the express shipment. In 1892 the Rio Grande reported passenger earnings of $3,000 and freight earnings of $73,000; the railroad owned three locomotives and fifty-six cars. The Rio Grande was the only railroad in Texas and one of the few in the United States to be built to a track gauge of forty-two inches. Its route was relatively direct from Brownsville to the coast but required fifteen bridges, including a 15,550-foot trestle across the Badilla Grande. The track through the low coastal marshland made the Rio Grande vulnerable to hurricanes and floods, from which the railroad suffered considerable damage on several occasions.

The company defaulted on its bonds and in 1910 was reorganized as the Rio Grande Railway Company. It came under the control of the St. Louis and San Francisco but was returned to local ownership in 1914. It acquired two gasoline rail motors for freight and passenger service in 1918, and gasoline motors provided all of the service on the railroad from that time until the line was converted to standard gauge. The narrow-gauge steam locomotives of the Rio Grande burned mesquiteqv as fuel, and the railroad also used mesquite for cross ties. In 1921 the railroad moved its track from about eight miles south of Brownsville to Point Isabel. The new line was built on higher ground east of the original route and increased the mileage between the two terminals to 26.3 miles. In 1925 the company converted to standard gauge. However, the railroad was unable to pay the conversion costs, and it was reorganized in 1928 as the Port Isabel and Rio Grande Valley Railway, under the control of the Port Isabel Company.

James Lewellyn Allhands, Gringo Builders (Joplin, Missouri, Dallas, Texas, 1931). Henry N. Ferguson, The Port of Brownsville: A Maritime History of the Rio Grande Valley (Brownsville: Springman-King, 1976). Frank Cushman Pierce, Texas' Last Frontier: A Brief History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley (Menasha, Wisconsin: Banta, 1917; rpt., Brownsville: Rio Grande Valley Historical Society, 1962).
George C. Werner

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Handbook of Texas Online, George C. Werner, "Rio Grande Railroad," accessed November 24, 2017,

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.