Del Rio, Texas, the county seat of Val Verde County, has a history that goes back far beyond the establishment of the city.
Thousands of years before Del Rio was established, the area was first settled by prehistoric Indians who lived in caves and rock shelters along the banks of the Rio Grande and Devils River as early as 11,000 years ago. Later, when Spanish explorers came through the area, they described the Native Americans with several descriptions but were probably Jumano bands, who, by the 1700s, had mostly joined with Apache groups. The first Spanish exploration of the area occurred in 1690 when Gaspar Castano de Sosa crossed the Rio Grande near Del Rio on his way to establish settlements in what is New Mexico today.
The first non-Indian residents in the area were the Spanish, who established a small mission complex in 1736 near the site of present-day Ciudad Acuna, Del Rio’s Mexican sister city.
A few of these Spaniards settled on the north side of the Rio Grande in what would later become Texas. However, the mission lasted only briefly. In 1808, another mission was established about three miles downstream on San Felipe Creek. It, too, was short-lived.
Although the region had good water, it would still be years before anyone permanently settled the area. In 1834, a small settlement was established on San Felipe Creek by James Grant and John Charles Beales, but due to Indian attacks and drought, it was soon abandoned.
In February 1849, the Whiting and Smith expedition passed through the area surveying Texas’ new southwestern boundary. Soon afterward, a temporary post called Camp Blake was established along the San Antonio-El Paso Road on the Devils River. This post, along with others, including Camp Hudson, 21 miles north of Comstock, was established to protect area settlers and travelers against Indian attacks.
By 1856-57, San Felipe Springs was situated at the crossroads of the 1,470-mile San Antonio-San Diego mail route and the Chihuahua Road used by wagons hauling silver and gold from Mexico to Indianola, the chief port on the Texas coast.
After settlers came to the Del Rio area in 1864, the “Mother Ditch” and other irrigation canals were dug for irrigating vineyards, orchards, and gardens, and soon they established a small settlement called Las Sapas or El Salto. During this time, the settlement experienced little growth because many of those living in the area were transient, working their way to other more well-established communities.
During the Civil War, the military camps of the area were abandoned, leaving the frontier open to Indian attacks. When the war ended, Fort Clark in Brackettville was re-claimed in 1866, and from 1869 through 1882, Black Seminole Scouts defended the Texas border west of Fort Clark against Indian attacks.
The community of San Felipe del Rio got its start in 1868 when the San Felipe Agricultural, Manufacturing, and Irrigation Company was organized. Purchasing thousands of acres of land around San Felipe Creek and constructing a network of irrigation canals, they promoted settlement by giving land as wages to its employees, as well as selling small tracts of land to newly arriving settlers. By 1871, the company had completed canals to 1,500 acres of land. The irrigation canals also provided water to the developing settlement. By 1875, the number of acres of land under irrigation had doubled. Some of the canals are still in operation today.
Residents in the area referred to the slowly developing townsite as San Felipe del Rio. According to local lore, the name came from early Spanish explorers who offered a Mass at the site of the nearby springs on St. Philip’s Day, 1635.
One of the earliest businesses was John Perry’s Mercantile, which was built in 1870. Said to have been the largest store between San Antonio and El Paso, it serves as part of the Whitehead Memorial Museum today. It is the oldest commercial structure in Del Rio today. More small businesses followed.
James H. Taylor, one of the original founders of the city, moved to the area in about 1870. He and his wife, Paula Losoya Taylor, built a one-story adobe house, which soon became the center of the community. The oldest home in Del Rio, it still stands today on the southwest corner of Pecan and Nicholson Streets. One of the owners of the San Felipe Agricultural, Manufacturing, and Irrigation Company, Taylor was also a merchant, cultivated much of his own acreage for crops, and owned a grist mill.
In 1874 the first school was built, and Judge Kratz was the teacher, starting with just 15 students. He continued to teach through the 1870s.
On September 6, 1876, Camp Del Rio was established on San Felipe Creek, on land provided by the San Felipe Agricultural, Manufacturing, and Irrigation Company. Originally known as Camp San Felipe, it was an outpost of Fort Clark, some 28 miles to the east. It was one of a chain of military fortifications built to defend the isolated settlements on the southwest frontier against Indians and Mexican bandits. The post included Officers’ Quarters, a hospital, a bakery, a storehouse, and a warehouse. Indian raids in the area had ended by 1890, and the troops were moved to other posts. Camp Del Rio was officially abandoned the next year, and the land was returned to its original owners. Today, there is nothing left of the post but a historical marker. It was located near to the northeast corner of Dr. Fermin Calderon Blvd (U.S. 277) and De La Rosa Street. The historic marker is located near the amphitheater.
When Del Rio founder James Taylor died in 1876, he left all his property to his wife, Paula. She later would marry a man named Charles Rivers, but he also died in 1879. She would go on to become a major benefactor for the city, donating the land to be utilized for Camp Del Rio, contributing land for area schools, and helping to build some of the town’s Catholic churches.
By the time that the railroads began to lay their tracks towards Del Rio in 1881, the town was called home to only about 200 people. Both the Southern Pacific Railroad, building west to east, and the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railroad, building east to west, were working to make their way to Del Rio. The Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railroad bridged San Felipe Creek in June 1882 and when the first train arrived in Del Rio, the population began to boom.
The first railroad depot, made of wood, was located at the same location that a newer and much larger brick depot would be built in the 1920s. With the railroad in full operation, the town also began to shift and change. Where previously, most homes and businesses were situated near San Felipe Creek, new homes and businesses began to move north of the railroad.
In 1882, two gristmills were in operation, using the power of San Felipe Creek, and the town had developed with several businesses, including the ever-present saloons. The next year, when the first post office opened, the U.S. Postal Department requested that the name be shortened to Del Rio to avoid confusion with San Felipe de Austin. Also built in 1883, was one of the city’s most famous local enterprises – the “Ice Plant.” Situated on San Felipe Creek, it also served as a gristmill and, later, a power-generating plant.
When Del Rio was first formed, it was totally dependent upon water from San Felipe Creek, hauled in large barrels in wagons into the community. However, in 1883, the railroad built the first piped water system. Water was then pumped from the creek to a large wooden tank located north of the railroad tracks. The water was also made available to residents for $1.00 per month. It also provided fire protection for the community.
1883 was a busy year for progress in Del Rio, including establishing the Val Verde Winery. Founded by Frank Qualia, originally from Milan, Italy, he first settled in San Antonio, but most of the good land had already been settled. When he heard about the fertile land and water in Del Rio, he moved there in 1881. In 1883, he married a woman named Mary Franke, and the two began to plant vineyards to make wine for family and friends in the old country tradition. He received his vintner’s license in 1883 and began commercial operations. During Prohibition, the winery suffered a setback, but the winery held on by producing non-alcoholic drinks and continuing to make wine used for sacramental purposes, which was still legal. Today, it’s Texas’ oldest bonded winery. Still operating, it is run by third-generation vintner Thomas Qualia, with the knowledge and experience that has been handed down for generations. Located at 100 Qualia Drive, the winery is open for visitor tours Monday through Saturday.
Another prominent Italian in early day Del Rio was a man named John Taini. A stonemason, he and his partner, G.B. Cassinelli, worked for the railroad and then for the U.S. Army constructing stone buildings for Fort Clark in Brackettville, Texas. Once the fort was completed, the two moved to Del Rio in the early 1880s. Taini worked to help build several prominent buildings, including the Val Verde County Courthouse in 1887, the 1895 Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the 1904 Methodist Church building, and several others.
In the early 1880s, local benefactor Dona Paula Losoya Taylor Rivers placed a large cross atop the familiar Del Rio landmark called Round Mountain. This steep-sided, cone-shaped hill, located south of the city, has gone by several names, including Sugar Loaf Mound, La Loma de la Cruz, and Hill of the Cross.
This artificial-looking mountain comes with several legends, including a tale of townspeople who fought a group of Mexican bandits. In the battle, a number were killed and buried at the mountain’s base. Dona Paula placed the cross at the top of the mound to recognize it as hallowed ground. Other legends associated with the mound revolve around treasure and spirits, which we will bring you later.
In 1884, realizing that Del Rio’s Mexican Colony had no official cemetery, Dona Paula donated four acres of land on which the Cementerio Loma De La Cruz was established. Buried in this historic graveyard are three former U.S. Army Seminole Indian Scouts and the Reverend Ramon V. Palomares, first pastor of Del Rio’s Mexican American Methodist Church. By 1933, the cemetery was filled, and no more burials took place.
Unfortunately, walking through this historic cemetery is a very sad experience. Beautiful monuments are toppled and lay on the ground, tombstones are cracked and broken, ground-level vaults have been uplifted, and some of them are even partially exposed. At first, I am very angry at the vandalism that has occurred here, until I conclude that the damage has been caused by flooding. Later, I learned from the Val Verde County Historical Commission that the damage done to the historic cemetery is actually the result of both flooding and vandalism.
In the same year that the cemetery was established, Del Rio’s first newspaper, called the Del Rio Dot, was started by Miss Lottie Lyons, with William J. Lyons as its first editor. However, the newspaper was short-lived. It would be several years before the next newspaper, the Del Rio Record, was established in 1887. Others followed, including the Daily Mirror in 1895 and the Del Rio Daily in 1906. Today, the city is served by the Del Rio Herald-News, which has been operating for more than 70 years
By the spring of 1884, a church was built in Del Rio by the Methodist and Episcopal congregations. Before the wood frame building was erected on Pecan Street, parishioners had met in private homes. Unfortunately, shortly after its completion, the building was blown away by a tornado, leaving the town again without a church.
The Val Verde County Courthouse was built in 1887. Originally it was only two stories — a third was added in 1915.
In 1885, Val Verde County was organized from portions of Crockett, Kinney, and Pecos Counties, and Del Rio became its county seat. The limestone courthouse was constructed in 1887. Early development in the county was dependent on the railroad, the military, ranching, agriculture, and retail business.
In 1891-92, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church was built at Mill and Losoya Streets. Before the time the beautiful limestone building was constructed, services were first held in private homes and in a wooden house at the same site. The Gothic Revival structure was enlarged and remodeled in 1929. Today, it continues to serve its parishioners.
By 1901, Del Rio received electric power from the ice plant, which turned electric light plant. Four years later, the city was officially organized in 1905. Doing the business of an organized city, officials were appointed and elected, taxes established, and criminal laws imposed. In these early years, many of the criminal codes were focused on eliminating any “Old West” mentality from the city. Horse racing in the streets, vagrancy, public drunkenness, and swimming nude in San Felipe Creek were prohibited.
In 1903-04, the Methodists and Episcopalians finally built another church on the same site as the first, which had been destroyed years earlier. With Del Rio quickly growing during the early years of the 20th Century, it wouldn’t be long before the congregation would outgrow the stone chapel. A much larger Methodist Church was completed in 1931. The beautiful new church is located on Spring Street. The old stone chapel then served for storage for several years. Today, it stands abandoned and falling into ruins. The Episcopalians also built a new church — the Saint James Episcopal Church, located on Greenwood Street.
Though the city was moving into the future, its frontier mentality was not yet over. During the Mexican Revolution (1910-1916), several border towns were raided, and in response, Camp Michie was established on the outskirts of Del Rio. The semi-permanent military camp was home to soldiers on border patrols out of Fort Clark, who were also tasked with guarding railroad bridges along the border, the High Bridge across the Pecos River, and other strategic points.
By 1914 the city’s population had reached more than 6,000 people and would grow more when Camp Michie, once again, became an important outpost. When World War I began that year, the guarding of the bridges became even more important, as the tracks were a vital link for moving men and equipment between the Pacific Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.
Housing cavalry and infantry troops, the post was primarily a tent camp but did have a few permanent structures. It was officially disbanded in June 1921, and in 1924, the land was sold back to the original owner. Nothing remains of the old post today.
In 1933, in walked a man named Dr. John R. Brinkley, who had lost his medical license to practice in the United States, for performing a controversial operation that transplanted goat glands into men who suffered from impotence.
In 1918, Brinkley opened a clinic in Milford, Kansas, and advertised his services widely. After visiting a Los Angeles, California radio station in 1922, he was sure that this form of marketing was the best format to draw in customers. In 1923, he formed KFKB radio station in Milford, aggressively promoting his medical practice. However, in 1929, he lost his radio license. By this time, though, he had accumulated a fortune and moved to Del Rio, Texas. Across the border in Ciudad Acuna, he established what would become XERA radio, the most powerful radio station at the time. He also bought and enlarged what is known as the Brinkley Mansion in Del Rio today.
In 1939, after the signing of various international treaties with the U.S., and the implementation of what is known as the Brinkley Act, which prohibited broadcasting studios in the US from being connected to transmitters in Mexico via phone line or other means, Mexico closed its high power radio station.
Brinkley then opened a new medical practice in Arkansas but kept his home in Del Rio, traveling back and forth. After more legal troubles, he died penniless in 1942 in San Antonio. A private residence today, the Brinkley Mansion continues to stand in south Del Rio at 512 Qualia Drive. The license for the radio station would remain silent until 1947.
Over the years, the government continued to use the isolated Del Rio area for different types of military training. When World War II started, the army opened a base near the city and was called Laughlin Army Field in 1943 for pilot training and a bombardment school. It was named after Jack T. Laughlin, a B-17 Flying Fortress navigator who became Del Rio’s first WWII casualty when his plane was shot down in the Battle of the Java Sea, Japan, in January 1942. It also became an Army Air Force Auxiliary Field but was closed in October 1945.
However, the base was reactivated in May 1952, becoming the Laughlin Air Force Base. Its initial mission was to train F-84 fighter pilots. By 1957 the base had been assigned to the Strategic Air Command and provided a home for RB-57 and U-2 reconnaissance aircraft.
Today, the base is an important Air Training Command center. Approximately 500 pilots graduate every year. According to base authorities, the base and the City of Del Rio maintain one of the best relationships of any military post in the nation.
While the Air Force base was developing, history continued at old Dr. Brinkley’s radio station building, bringing fame to one of the nation’s most popular broadcasters and ending in bloodshed. In 1959, the station, now XERF, was purchased by a Texas corporation formed by famed announcers Ramon D. Bosquez and Arturo Gonzalez, who, as of this writing in 2011, is Del Rio’s oldest living resident. The new company increased the station’s power far beyond what was legally allowed in the U.S. to a booming 250,000 watts. This power allowed the AM signal to be heard in all 50 states of the U.S., Canada, and Latin America.
Announcer Bob Smith, who with the birth of Rock N’ Roll became Wolfman Jack, joined the powerful radio station from 1962-64. Though Wolfman Jack gained a huge audience and made a name for himself at the radio station, Mexican bandits and corrupt officials resented his success. The same year that Wolfman Jack began broadcasting, Mexican bandits attacked the radio station, and one person was killed. Two years later, the station was attacked again, and two people were killed. The investors and Wolfman Jack then abandoned the station. No one was ever held accountable for the deaths.
In the meantime, Del Rio maintained a steady population, continuing a primary economy of ranching and agriculture. In the 1960s, the city would thrive and change with the development of U.S. Highway 90, north of the original townsite. Though numerous businesses would profit from the new highway, it would devastate Del Rio’s old downtown area.
Del Rio’s growth got another boost when the Amistad Dam and Reservoir was built on the Rio Grande in 1969. Built for flood control, irrigation, power, and recreation, the lake is located 12 miles north of Del Rio. Owned by both the United States and Mexico, it is operated by the International Boundary and Water Commission. It was named for the Spanish word meaning “friendship” for the cooperation and goodwill exhibited by both countries in the project.
With the many snow birders, fishermen, and water enthusiasts flocking to one of the most beautiful blue lakes in Texas, Del Rio’s population increased to almost 31,000 people by 1990. The area continues to thrive with a ranching economy or primarily Angora goats and sheep, supplemented by tourism, trade with Mexico, and the military base.
Today, Del Rio is called home to about 35,000 people and has not forgotten its rich history. Located throughout the city are numerous historic buildings and historic markers. As cross-country travelers, Del Rio also has some of the nicest folks we’ve met anywhere.
Del Rio Chamber of Commerce
1915 Veterans Blvd.
Del Rio, Texas 78840
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated September 2022.
See our Del Rio & Val Verde County Photo Gallery HERE
Del Rio to Sanderson on the Pecos Trail
John R. Brinkley – Goat Gland Doctor
Braudaway, Douglas; Del Rio – Queen City of the Rio Grande; Arcadia Publishing; Chicago, IL; 2002
Handbook of Texas