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DORGAN, ALBERT WILLIAM

Albert William Dorgan (1887–1985)—1922 Passport Photo.
Albert W. Dorgan proposed the establishment of a United States-Mexico International Peace Park, including Big Bend, in 1934. Courtesy Jason Abrams.

DORGAN, ALBERT WILLIAM (1887–1985). Albert William Dorgan, naval aviator, real estate developer, inventor, and landscape architect, was born on June 4, 1887, in Byron Center, Michigan. He was the only son of William T. Dorgan and Flora Viela (Lawton) Dorgan. He is best remembered as the first person to propose establishment of a federal U.S.–Mexico International Peace Park on the lower Rio Grande in what today is Big Bend National Park, Texas, and the Mexican state of Coahuila.

Dorgan was raised on a family farm in Lyons Township, Michigan, with his parents and three sisters. In 1910 he worked for the Michigan Board of State Auditors as a dairy and food inspector and attended the Michigan Agricultural College, where he earned a horticulture degree in 1914. Dorgan then moved to Toledo, Ohio, and began working as a landscape architect and wholesale nurseryman. In 1916 he helped form the River Road Realty Company and specialized in residential design. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Dorgan volunteered for the local war recreation board and registered for military service.  

On March 30, 1918, Dorgan enlisted at the United States Navy recruiting station in Cincinnati, Ohio, and reported for training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Throughout 1918 he trained as a naval aviator in Miami and Pensacola, Florida, before receiving his flight certificate and transferring to the strategic Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone. Dorgan served in the United States Navy Reserve Force (USNRF) at Coco Solo until he was honorably discharged on September 30, 1921, when he returned to Michigan. In March 1922 Dorgan married Avis Ann Dewell (1893–1946), and they opened a general landscape gardening nursery named Wayside Gardens in Detroit. He continued to practice as a subdivision architect.

In December 1922 Albert and Avis Dorgan toured the major cities of Europe, and he spent considerable time studying the layout of new ‘model’ communities, including the Welwyn Gardens subdivision in Herefordshire, England. These model communities profoundly influenced Dorgan’s later ideas for landscape architecture and regional planning in Big Bend.  Dorgan assisted in planning several subdivisions outside Detroit throughout the 1920s, including the Franklin Park district and Bloomfield Downs. The stock market crash of 1929 ended construction in Michigan indefinitely.

In 1929 the Escobar Rebellion in Mexico increased the need for USNRF aviators along the Rio Grande. Dorgan relocated to Big Bend, Brewster County, after accepting an offer by Eighth Corps Army at Fort Sam Houston to serve as station chief of the newly-established Johnson’s Ranch Army Air Corps field. Dorgan soon moved sixteen miles upriver to the border community of Castolon (population twenty-five), where he formed a farming partnership with farmer James L. Sublett. Together they founded Grand Canyon Farms and the Grand Canyon Company, both named after the nearby “grand canyon” of Santa Elena. Dorgan and Sublett developed 640 acres of land, including an extensive floodplain cotton field with mechanized irrigation, experimental agriculture, and a small trading post to supply workers in nearby Terlingua. Dorgan designed and constructed a unique adobe home in Castolon for himself and Avis, and the home is considered one of the most unique architectural features in Big Bend National Park.

Dorgan also patented inventions for both the U. S. Navy and Army Air Corps. In 1928 he co-patented a gyroscope to help stabilize biplanes during flight, and in March 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt forwarded his dirigible design to the Secretary of the Navy for consideration. In 1938 Dorgan submitted plans to the navy for devices to assist landing large bombers and clipper ships identical to those arriving at Johnson’s Ranch. He also invented a mechanism in 1941 for raising sunken vessels.

Dorgan’s most significant achievement while in Castolon was pioneering the concept of a U.S.-Mexico International Peace Park on the Rio Grande, including Big Bend and contiguous lands in Mexico. Inspired by the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park established in 1932 along the Montana-Canada border, he began planning the park in 1933. Dorgan drafted plans for developing a hacienda resort in the Chisos Basin and a “Friendly Nations Park” in Castolon. His vision included the establishment of museums and demonstration areas for cultural performances, replicas of frontier towns, artificial lakes, an airfield, and a scenic highway. On October 8, 1934, Dorgan became the first person to contact Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes regarding establishment of a federal park in Big Bend.  

Dorgan’s plan received serious consideration, and in May 1940 Secretary of State Cordell Hull asked Secretary Ickes if it was permissible to present Dorgan’s plan to the Pan American Congress meeting in Washington. Ickes felt that establishment of a national park in Big Bend took precedence over a peace park and denied the request. In July 1942 Dorgan met in Washington with National Park Service Director Newton Drury and was informed that the international park was “a matter for the consideration of Congress.” By the late 1940s Dorgan sold his property in Castolon for incorporation into the new Big Bend National Park, and in 1945 he permanently relocated to Coral Gables in Miami, Florida.  

Avis Dorgan passed away in 1946, and in August 1947 Dorgan married Ruby Morrison Jones (1894–1978). Neither marriage produced children. Dorgan continued to pursue his interest in residential development and invention by drafting subdivision plans for Cape Florida, suggesting layouts for metropolitan Dade County (now Miami-Dade County), and patenting several solar energy devices. As a member of Rotary International in Coral Gables, Dorgan became a Paul Harris Fellow and the first Rotarian to ever have a named scholarship. He passed away in Coral Gables on September 1, 1985.

The ruins of Dorgan’s adobe home are preserved as part of the Castolon Historic District within Big Bend National Park and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Jason Abrams, “Letters to Castolon: Albert W. Dorgan and the Big Bend International Peace Park 1933–1943,” The Journal of Big Bend Studies 27 (2015). Clifford B. Casey, Soldiers, Ranchers and Miners in the Big Bend (Washington: Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1969). John Jameson, The Story of Big Bend National Park (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996). Kenneth Ragsdale, Wings over the Mexican Border: Pioneer Military Aviation in the Big Bend (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984). Michael Welsh, Landscape of Ghosts, River of Dreams: A History of Big Bend National Park (National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2002).

Jason Abrams

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Handbook of Texas Online, Jason Abrams, "Dorgan, Albert William ," accessed November 18, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fdorg.

Uploaded on June 25, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.