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West Texas

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At the 100th meridian, roughly in line with San Angelo, Junction, and Eagle Pass, the yearly average rainfall is 24 inches. At the 106th meridian near El Paso, it is only around 9 inches. The area in between, 400 miles and half the width of Texas, has been shaped for millennia by a punishing lack of moisture.

Spanish explorers in the late sixteenth century called the area north of the Mexican highlands el despoblado (the uninhabited). Even today, after more than a century of settlement facilitated by modern transportation and technology, the region of West Texas (as used for this volume) is relatively lightly populated compared to the rest of the state. West Texas’s desert climate has focused the attention of nomads, travelers, and settlers on springs, rivers, tanks, wells, and other sources of water and on the routes between them.

The earliest evidence of human habitation in Texas stretches back more than 12,000 years, when much of North America was covered in glacial ice and West Texas was an oak forest, home to mammoths and bison, and even ancient camels. As millennia passed and the region became drier, later nomadic inhabitants of the region left behind artifacts and remarkable rock paintings at several sites (EL19, SS33). The Trans-Pecos (west of the Pecos River) is where the oldest continuously cultivated farming tracts in the present United States are located, dating to 1500 BCE. Jumano Indians, prominent over a large area of West Texas before the Spanish arrived, were later absorbed into advancing warlike Apache bands. The Comanche in turn pushed the Apache west toward New Mexico Territory by the nineteenth century. Spanish settlement of West Texas began in the late seventeenth century, including Corpus Christi de los Tiguas de Isleta (EP60.1) and Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción de los Piros de Socorro (EP60.2). These missions, some with associated presidios (forts), were intended to help populate the area, as well as to assimilate the indigenous population (relatively peaceful peoples seeking protection from Apache and Comanche raids) into a version of Spanish civil society.

The northernmost Spanish mission in West Texas was Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission (see SS38) founded in 1757 as part of a plan to counteract French encroachment from Louisiana, but abandoned in 1758, after Comanche and Wichita raiders sacked the mission and killed the priests. Following this event, the government of New Spain ceded West Texas to the highly mobile Apache and Comanche peoples, who had already displaced Jumano and Coahuiltecan agrarian groups. The Spanish settlements, never inhabited by more than a few people, were well situated for agriculture and provided a base for later settlement along the Rio Grande. Of particular interest are the acequias, or irrigation canals. An acequia begun by the Spanish still runs from downtown El Paso to the farming community of Fabens, some twenty miles southeast, and another small eighteenth-century acequia (see SS35) was later partially subsumed into Menard’s nineteenth-century irrigation system. The adobe and timber mission churches and presidios were crudely built. Although reconstructed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along with the acequia systems, they reveal the site planning practices that the friars and military men brought with them.

The most significant travel route through the region was the Comanche Trail, a web of braided paths from Kansas, running south to the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila, passing along the Pecos River connecting springs and other watering places. Another important trail, most active after the United States gained control of the area in 1848, ran roughly west–east and was used to transport millions of pounds of silver from vast mines in northern Mexico to eastern U.S. markets. Because of the need for water for men and for the oxen that pulled the enormous wagons, this Chihuahua Trail passed through what is now Presidio, Fort Davis (FV32), Fort Stockton (FV5), Del Rio, and Brackettville. Several outposts of the Chihuahua Trail remain accessible and largely intact: Fort Leaton (FV18) and Milton Faver’s houses, Fortín del Cíbolo (FV19). These fortified ranches were built by farmers who sold provisions to Chihuahua Trail haulers and later to the U.S. Army.

The third era of settlement in West Texas came with the federal government’s frontier forts (see Federal Fort Planning in Texas: History, p. 418–19), built after Texas joined the Union in 1845. Forts were located at strategic water sources to protect roads linking the populated eastern half of Texas with Santa Fe and, after 1848, to gold rush California. Later frontier forts were built to protect the westward movement of ranching, agriculture, and urbanization. Fourteen forts were built in all, the earliest Fort Bliss (EP49) and the last Camp Marfa (1911), which became Fort D. A. Russell (FV25). Beyond frontier forts, there was almost no Anglo-American settlement anywhere in West Texas prior to the Civil War and the construction of the railroads in the 1880s. Later the forts formed urban nuclei, even providing raw building materials throughout the region.

Completion of the government’s primary aim of ridding the region of Indians was interrupted by the Civil War. When the eradication campaign resumed in the late 1860s and early 1870s, the railroads finally made sizable immigration and settlement possible. By the late 1870s, railroad lines had extended west past the old frontier, a line from Fort Worth to San Antonio. Two railroad companies sought to establish a southern transcontinental route between the Atlantic and California. The Southern Pacific came east from California, and its affiliated line, the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway, built west from New Orleans. The Texas and Pacific Railway (subsequently the Missouri Pacific) worked southwest from St. Louis through Texarkana and Fort Worth. These lines joined in December 1881 at Sierra Blanca, with transcontinental traffic commencing the next day. The railroads brought a ready-made economic structure for land development and immigration, often fueled by speculation in government land grants.

Railroad engineers laid out dozens of towns throughout the region, creating urban centers oriented to serving and benefiting from the trains while opening up the land between them for agricultural production to make the railroads themselves profitable through their cargo. The railroads actively, though inaccurately, promoted West Texas as a garden spot to attract settlers. But thousands of farm and home sites went unsold or were abandoned following droughts or other natural disasters. Without the expected cash flow and capitalization, the railroads were often driven into receivership.

As the U.S. Army and railroads moved west, they encountered not only native peoples but also millions of wild bison. In Texas, it took fewer than five years to effectively exterminate a herd that had once stretched from Oklahoma south to the edge of the Edwards Plateau at present-day San Antonio, wiping out the basis of the Plains Indians’ sustenance and material culture and, at the same time, creating revenue for the railroads by providing hides and bones to be shipped to Eastern markets. Bison bones were gathered and ground up to make fertilizer or converted into charcoal for refining sugar. Homesteaders throughout the West used income from collecting and selling bison bones to get them through drought years in the 1880s and 1890s.

The final wave of building in West Texas came with a succession of oil booms that began in 1923 with Santa Rita No. 1 Well in Reagan County, opening the Permian Basin of West Texas as an oil production center. The oil- and natural gas–producing basin extends from south of Lubbock to north of San Antonio, covering 75,000 square miles, much of it from land deeded to the state by the railroads. The royalties created the multibillion-dollar endowment of the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems.

Midland, Odessa, San Angelo, and other towns near enough to profit from oil production grew during boom times and clung to life in between, when gluts brought oil prices low. Profits supported the erection of office towers, hotels, museums, churches, and elite houses. Other towns started and either remained little more than oil-field bedroom communities or were shortlived, becoming ghost towns. The Permian Basin was considered depleted by 2000, but hydraulic-fracturing technology brought the area back to life starting around 2006.

Today the landscape of West Texas has been transformed by more than a century of fluctuating habitation, yet in some ways it remains the same as when the Spanish found it. The population of many West Texas counties has fallen since 1990. What there is to see is a newly mechanized, even robotic landscape, where people remain scarce. On I-10, east of Fort Stockton, there are hundreds of 300-foot-tall wind turbines along the mesas, supplying electricity to customers throughout Texas and as far as Florida. In turn, Permian Basin pump jacks in the thousands are internationally recognized symbols of Texas.

The boom in town building that the railroads stimulated brought the first professional architects to West Texas, including Cleveland-born Oscar Ruffini, who moved to San Angelo in 1884. Many of Ruffini’s numerous projects have been destroyed. The most successful of the early West Texas architects was Henry C. Trost of Trost and Trost. His skills were perfect for the explosive growth of El Paso as it emerged as a transcontinental railway nexus and an administrative center for American investment in northern Mexico. Trost and his partners, his twin brothers Gustavus Adolphus Trost and Adolphus Gustavus Trost and nephew George Ernst Trost, designed major buildings in Arizona, New Mexico, Chihuahua, and Texas, including numerous buildings in El Paso.

Twentieth-century oil booms sustained architectural firms in San Angelo, Midland, and El Paso. Of these, the most significant were those of Anton F. Korn and Frank D. Welch, who practiced in Midland in the 1960s and 1970s before moving to Dallas. Associates trained by Welch, including Rhotenberry Wellen Architects of Midland, have since established their own practices.

Writing Credits

Gerald Moorhead et al.

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