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 1920’s. With the railroad in full operation, the town also began to shift and change. Where previously, the majority of 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 a number of 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 the establishment of 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 complete, the two moved to Del Rio in the early 1880’s. 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, as well as several others.
In the early 1880’s, 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 a number of legends, including a tale of townspeople who fought a group of Mexican bandits. In the battle a number were killed and buried at the base of the mountain. 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 find out 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 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 a number of 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.