Del Rio to Sanderson on the Pecos Trail

Pecos River Bridge

Highway Bridge over the Pecos River, Kathy Weiser, February, 2011

Historian, J. Evetts Haley, and folklorist, J. Frank Dobie, who called it “a strange river,” and a “barricade,” are among many who have immortalized the Pecos River in writing. Zane Grey wrote, “rising clear and cold in the mountains of northern New Mexico, its pure waters cut through rough country that changed its flood to turbid red.”

More tales of lost mines and buried treasure abound along the length of the waterway, especially in the area around Castle Gap, which includes stories of outlaw gold, Mexican gold, hidden money from Butterfield Stagecoach robberies and riches from Maximilian’s short-lived “Empire of Mexico,” just to name a few.

Another local legend tells of cowboys headed up the cattle trail through Castle Gap. The cattle drive was organized by several different ranches, and during the trek, two drovers claimed to own a big white longhorn cow. Like other disputes of the Old West days, it erupted into a gunfight and one of the drovers was killed. Those cowboys from the opposing ranch were so upset at the shooting, that they wrote the word “MURDER” on the cow’s side with a running iron. Afterwards, neither side would take her and she was released into the wilderness. Sightings of the longhorn were reported for many years, but, legend has it that even other cattle wouldn’t tolerate her presence. These and many other tales added to the mystique of the Pecos River.

High Canyon walls dominate the last sixty miles of the Pecos River before it enters the Rio Grande near Del Rio. The Galveston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio Railroad built the first high bridge across the river in 1891. The first highway bridge to span the river was built about one mile down river from the present bridge in 1928. Just 50 feet above water, the 1928 bridge was destroyed by floodwaters in 1954 and two temporary low water bridges were built in 1954 and 1955. These were also later destroyed by floodwaters. A new 1,310 feet long bridge was completed here in 1957. At 273 feet above the river, it is the highest highway bridge in Texas.

Near here, a Medal of Honor Fight took place in 1875. In the 1870’s the U.S. Army relied on the Black Seminole Scouts in campaigns against raiding tribes along the Mexican border. In April 1875, Lieutenant John L. Bullis and three scouts — Sergeant John Ward, Private Pompey Factor and Trumpeter Isaac Payne, left Fort Clark to scout for raiders in the area. After four days they found a fresh trail and on April 25th, within a mile of the present bridge, they engaged a party of about 30 Comanche Indians with dozens of horses. Outgunned and outnumbered, the scouts withdrew; but, Bullis’ horse bolted, stranding him. Factor and Payne provided cover fire and Ward rescued his lieutenant. The three Seminole Scouts later received medals of honor for their bravery.

Pecos River Railroad Bridge and Vinegarroon:

Original Pecos River Railroad Bridge.

Original Pecos River Railroad Bridge.

A few miles beyond the Pecos River Highway Bridge is a lookout which designates the old townsite of Vinegarroon, and where the Pecos River Railroad bridge can be seen in the distance.

A major tributary of the Rio Grande River, the Pecos River was long a barrier to transportation, particularly across the deep gorge that once marked its joining with the Rio Grande. Construction of the first railroad bridge over the Pecos River took place in 1882 when the Galveston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio Railroad built its tracks through the area. Part of the transcontinental route of the Southern Pacific Railroad across the lower portion of the United States, it was the last major obstacle the railroads faced in completing the route linking New Orleans and San Francisco, California.

As “Tunnel No. 2” was excavated on the west side of the canyon in 1881, a camp for the railroad workers was established near the site. It was named Vinegarroon for a whip scorpion, common in the surrounding area, that emits a vinegar-like odor when it is alarmed. The camp served as a temporary home for thousands of railroad workers, most of whom were Chinese. Roy Bean had a saloon here and served as Justice of the Peace in the settlement.

During construction of the bridge, a structure collapsed and ten workers fell. Justice of the Peace, Judge Roy Bean was called to the site to hold an inquest. Riding on a mule to the accident, he pronounced all ten men dead; however, only seven of them had actually been killed. When questioned on this point, the judge reasoned that the others would soon die and that he did not want to make the trip twice. Fortunately, for the three men, he was wrong, and they survived to tell the tale.

Access to the first bridge, which was then deep in the canyon, was by means of a circuitous route and two tunnels. In 1892 the Texas and New Orleans Railroad Company, then operators of the Galveston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio Railroad, rebuilt the Pecos Loop tracks and constructed the Pecos High Bridge.

Pecos River Railroad Bridge

The “new” Pecos River Railroad Bridge, built in 1944, can be seen in the distance from the lookout off of I-90. Kathy Weiser, February, 2011.

Work began in late 1891 and was completed within three months at a cost of more than $250,000. An engineering marvel, the bridge, known as the Pecos River Viaduct at the time, spanned 2,180 feet and towered 321 feet above the river. Supported by 24 towers, the bridge was the highest in North America and the third highest in the world at the time of its completion. Passenger trains slowed to six miles per hour before crossing it and stopped while on the bridge to afford travelers a view. Another legend tells those gutsy local cowboys, perhaps emboldened by a little whiskey, occasionally rode across the walkway that adjoined the tracks on the high bridge, which, of course, had no guardrails.

Later, Vinegarroon was abandoned and most of its residents moved to nearby Langtry. Nothing remains of old Vinegarroon today.

During the Mexican Revolution and World Wars I and II, the bridge was guarded by military units to protect the important transcontinental rail link. During World War II, the Pecos High Bridge became essential to the transportation of war materials. In response to heavier trains and the war demand, a new bridge was built in 1944, with special permission from the War Production Board to use “critical materials” in its construction. The old bridge was dismantled and sold as salvage in 1949.

The 1944 Pecos High Railroad Bridge remains in use, although the gorge is not so deep as it once was, due to the rising of the river with the construction of Amistad Reservoir.

There is no access to the bridge nor to the old town site of Vinegarroon, as the site is on private property. Continue the journey just a few more miles to the northwest where the old town site of Shumla once stood.

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