The Rio Grande lured Henry Clay Davis, a soldier of fortune from Kentucky, after his arrival in Texas in 1839. Upon his marriage to Hilaria de la Garza in 1846, an heiress from the south bank city of Camargo whose family held title to the north bank lands, Davis moved quickly to lease land to the U.S. Army for the future Fort Ringgold ( SM30), plat Rio Grande City, ensure its designation as the seat of Starr County, and lure Mexican War veterans to his town development scheme.
Although Roma was its main competitor in the years after 1848, it was Rio Grande City, with its accessible year-round port and ready-made customers at Fort Ringgold that prevailed economically over its neighbor. Entrepreneurs from outside Texas assembled in the town, which became even more cosmopolitan with the arrival of French and German immigrants after the fall of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico in 1867, including master mason Heinrich Portscheller. The result of this outside influence impacted the architecture of Rio Grande City, giving it a more hybrid look than that of Roma, a mere fourteen miles away. Its spacious grid, extended across one hundred blocks, also gives it a less enclosed, more spread out feel than Roma or Laredo.
Over the second half of the nineteenth century, a definite Rio Grande City building type developed, with one-, two-, or three-room configurations of linear or L-shaped plans that were one or two stories in height with segmental-arched openings and low-pitched hipped roofs. Another building type was the one-or two-room gabled cottage with high end parapets. These buildings were always executed in buff-colored brick, locally known as “ ochitos” in reference to their eight-inch length. Despite these individualities, Rio Grande City is still tied to the influence of Mexico by the lack of setbacks, the flat-roofed residential-commercial compounds, and the walls and gateways aligning its streets.
By the time the last steamboat docked in Rio Grande City in 1904, the town was economically asleep, unable to compete with the new downriver communities serviced by the railroad and mechanized irrigation. With the coming of the railroad in 1925, numerous bungalows and one-and two-part commercial buildings were constructed, tying Rio Grande City to a national level of architectural development not seen in Roma, much less San Ygnacio. The majority of the surviving historic fabric, however, reflects the halcyon days of the city's nineteenth-century river trade.
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