Along with several other old towns in the region, Langtry got its start when the Galveston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio Railroad was built through the area in 1881. Beginning as a grading camp for the railroad workers, it was first called Eagle Nest, for the nearby creek.
Eagle Nest Creek was named for a landmark noted by travelers and settlers for over two centuries. High atop Eagle Nest Canyon is an inaccessible, but highly visible, limestone cavern, just east of where Langtry sits today. For years, a pair of golden eagles built a nest here, from which the canyon, creek, and the railroad camp took their names.
Down in the canyon was an old crossing that had been used for years by Indian tribes, ranchers, soldiers and Texas Rangers. Here, the railroad built another high bridge, but, not nearly so high as the one over the Pecos River to the south.
The town grew due to efforts of the Torres family, who owned the land where the town was laid out and also provided water for the steam locomotives. Its name was changed in honor of George Langtry, an engineer and foreman who had supervised a Chinese work crew building the railroad.
On July 5, 1882, Texas Ranger Captain T. L. Oglesby penned a note to his commanding officer General King describing the area:
Eagle Nest, Pecos County, Texas
July 5, 1882
“Upon my arrival here on June 29th, I proceeded to visit all the railroad camps and scout the country thoroughly. There is the worst lot of roughs, gamblers, robbers, and pick-pocketed, collected here I ever saw, and without the immediate presence of the state troops this class would prove a great detriment towards the completion of the road. There is nothing for Rangers to do but hold this rough element in subjection and control them. The majority of the railroad camps are in Pecos County. This immediate section being 200 miles from Fort Stockton, the nearest jurisdiction Court of Justice and the consequent minor offences go unpunished; but, I hope to remedy that in a few days by having a Magistrate appointed for the precinct.”
When it became known that a Justice of the Peace was wanted for the area, Roy Bean was quick to volunteer and on August 2, 1882, he became the “legal authority” in the area. He first operated his “justice” out of his tent saloon in Vinegarroon, another railroad camp to the south.
There, he quickly set up another tent saloon on railroad land, to the chagrin of Cezario Torres who owned most of the land beside the railroad right-of-way.
By 1883, he had built a wooden structure for his saloon, which he called the “Jersey Lilly,” after the well-known British stage actress Lillie Langtry. Her real last name was actually Emilie Le Breton and she was not related to George Langtry. Bean used the saloon as his headquarters courtroom, calling himself the “Law West of the Pecos.”
Cezario Torres, one of the original commissioners of what was then Pecos County, tried unsuccessfully to keep Bean out, which began a long-running rivalry between Bean and Torres’s son Jesús. Despite the Torres family objections, Bean’s establishment was an immediate success and though his actions as a judge were often eccentric, they were generally sound for the frontier town.
Because Langtry had no jail, all cases were settled by fines, most of which just happened to be the amount the accused had on his person. Of the fines collected, Bean was never known to have sent any of the money to the state, but, rather pocketed the cash.
Though later portrayed in Western films and books as a “hanging judge,” Bean only sentenced two men to hang, one of which escaped. And, in fact, when it came to horse thieves, who were often sentenced to hang, they would be let go under Judge Roy Bean if they returned the horses, and of course, paid a fine. The so called “hanging tree” was generally used as a post to which the prisoners were shackled. Bean also made money from granting divorces, which he didn’t have the jurisdiction to do, and married numerous couples, always ending the wedding ceremonies with the words, “and may God have mercy on your souls.”
After the east and west sections of the railroad joined in January, 1883, the depot kept business brisk by supplying a constant flow of customers to local saloons and by furnishing a shipping point for agricultural products and supplies. In 1884 the town gained a post office and it soon began to grow; however, most of the population was still living in tents.
By 1892 the town supported a general store operated by W.H. Dodd, another saloon operated by the Torres family, and a population of about 150 people.
Judge Roy Bean was defeated in the election of 1886, but, the very next year a new precinct was created after Langtry had become part of Val Verde County and he was appointed once again as the new justice of the peace.
He continued to be elected until 1896, when he was finally defeated. However, in typical “Bean” fashion, he refused to surrender his seal and law book and continued to try all cases north of the railroad tracks.