Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Vinegarroon, Texas

Subject Marker Application Text
By
Douglas Lee Braudaway
Val Verde County Historical Commission

In the year 1881 a great thing came to Val Verde County. The Southern Pacific Railroad Company had committed to build America’s second transcontinental railroad and the country’s first year-round, all-weather route. That route was surveyed through a part of Texas now in Val Verde County. Construction began in 1881, and the line was completed and open for traffic in 1883. The railroad’s construction required a series of workcamps and “towns” across Val Verde County. Pumpville, Shumla, Flanders Station and a dozen others sprang into existence nearly overnight—only to disappear when the project was completed.

Vinegarroon was the largest and longest-lasting camp because the camp workers were working on the biggest project on the west side of the Pecos: Tunnel Number Two. Vinegarroon was also “one of the wickedest tent villages the West had ever known.”1

The railroad camp of Vinegarroon was named after a large arthropod found in West Texas, the Vinegarroon or whip-tailed scorpion. Vinegarroons are nocturnal and emit a strong, vinegar-like odor when disturbed. “Although generally not harmful to most people, the fluid may cause blistering on a person sensitive to it. The fluid is effective in repelling most predators, especially if it should get into the eyes. The vinegarroon is an effective predator itself, and consumes other arthropods, which it seizes and dismembers with the stout, claw-like first appendages. In staged contests between a vinegarroon and a tarantula, the vinegarroon always won.”2 In other words, this creature packed a reputation—generally cranky and disliked but mostly harmless—much like the town.

Railroad construction brought railroad workers. It was rough work, and oftentimes only recent immigrants would do the jobs.3 When the railroad arrived from the east, it brought Freedmen, Germans, Irish, Italians, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to the area. Railroad construction was a large endeavor as well’ there may have been as many as three-thousand crewmen, a population fifteen times the population of Del Rio.4

Vinegarroon is alos known for being one of the first Asian communities in Texas because of Chinese railroad laborers. Chinese workers were common on the construction crews of the western railroads, sometimes outnumbering the American workers. The Central Pacific Railroad hired them to build the first transcontinental railroad. The CP’s successor company, the Southern Pacific, continued to hire them. In Texas the Chinese numbered some 6,000 of the 7,000 workers 5 While the Chinese lived in the railroad camps, they lived apart from the rest of the workers. American and European laborers “hated the Chinese for their willingness to work for low wages, their saving ways, their speaking gibberish, and their love of peace.”6 Furthermore, the Chinese were restricted, by railroad policy, from the more specialized—and better paying—jobs such as surveying, machinery operations and supervision (other than as intermediary between the foreman and the Chinese work crews). The work crews consisted of twelve to thirty men. They ate Chinese food the SP had to find and import. One man on the crew kept a thirty-five gallon whiskey barrel full of tea made from boiled water. Consequently, the Chinese were less likely to fall ill to cholera and other water and food transmitted disease. They did not drink alcohol; they did smoke opium sparingly on their day off. The men worked six days a week from sunup to sundown.7

When not working, the Chinese kept to their own camps. These have been identified by the unusual items found on the sites, including double hearths with one side used to cook rice and the other for vegetables. Daily rations were provided by the railroad: one pound of rice, one pound of meat (beef, fish or pork), a quarter-pound of vegetables, a half-ounce of tea and some cooking oil or lard. Lodging was provided and so was medical care (when available), but the men had to find their own bedding. The work crew was led by a “head man” who acted as a liaison between the American foreman and the Chinese. One of the head man’s main jobs was to settle the payroll. He collected the pay for the men and then deducted the cost of any provisions bought on their behalf. Pay was between thirty and thirty-five dollars per week minus the expenditures.

The Chinese, like the other rail workers, followed the rails to the end of the line which proved to be in Val Verde County at Vinegarroon.8 Little has been written about these workers; although, one U.S. Army office did record his observations that included an account of the funeral of one of these Chinese workers.9 When the construction was completed most of the workers moved back west to build branch lines, and they left almost without a trace.

A San Antonio news journalist described this phenomena in an on-site report.

Vinegaroon: This place is not down on the maps, and probably never will be. A month ago the spot where it now stands was a rocky hill, covered with a dark growth of sotallos, prickly pears, cat’s claws, Spanish daggers and Lechegier. Then the nimble jack rabbit, the aesthetic centipede, the industrious tarantula and the pestiferous little beast in whose honor Vinegarroon is named were the sole inhabitants. Now it is [a] thriving community of perhaps two thousand persons, boasts of two stores, two barber shops, a bakery, five restaurants, a hotel, twenty-three saloons and a dance hall, besides a justice of the peace and a company of rangers. Six months hence the aboriginal inhabitants will creep back, the thorny vegetation which characterizes the Rio Grande country will spring up again in rank luxuriance, even hiding the little mounds in the graveyard, which institution, by the way, is an indispensable and well patronized adjunct to a thriving frontier town. Fifteen years ago, towns like Vinegaroon were unknown in Texas, and were, from the very nature of things, an impossibility. They came with the railroad boom, which began in 1875, and the state is now full of them. They are the growth of a day; they flourish during their brief existence like a green bay tree, and disappear with the same comet—like abruptness which marked their advent.10
The reason Vinegarroon started so early and lasted so long (compared with other Southern Pacific construction towns) can be found in the terrain in this part of Texas. In 1882 the Pecos River canyon was the greatest obstacle for railroad engineering and construction. A series of detours and special construction projects were needed accomplish the task of crossing the Pecos River chasm. As the tracks approached the Pecos, they turned sharply towards the canyon of the Rio Grande, and then went over the cliff-wall into the canyon itself. A long grade had to be blasted off of the cliff wall to ease the tracks to the floor of the canyon. The 502 foot Tunnel No. 1 was excavated east of the Pecos River, and Tunnel No. 2, at 1,425 feet in length, was excavated on the west side. Each tunnel had to be blasted out of solid rock and were the only tunnels in the SP’s eastern system. The change in elevation from the top of the cliffs to the bottom was 907.27 feet, a significant height when considering the weight of a train being pulled out of the canyon.11

The building of the second transcontinental railroad also built one of the state’s largest legends. At the time of construction, Roy Bean was trying to leave San Antonio. After gathering enough money Bean moved west to sell goods, mostly liquor, to railroad workers.12 Bean had left the big city and found Vinegarroon. Apparently these were Bean’s kind of folk. He opened a saloon, one of at least twenty in and around the workers’ camps. He must have been one of the toughest of the tough guys because he was appointed justice-of-the-peace on August 2, 1882, “at the request of the Texas Rangers.” Railroad officials concurred with the need for some semblance of law and order in and around the railroad camps. Since he was west of the Pecos River, he and Vinegarroon lay within Pecos County. The county seat, Fort Stockton, was more than three-hundred miles away by horseback, six-hundred for a round trip, twelve days on foot to convey prisoners, and a long way from any kind of regular law enforcement support. He was then elected to a full, regular term of office in November 1884 for Pecos County and re-elected in May 1885 in the newly formed Val Verde County.13

When Vinegarroon folded, Bean moved to Sanderson and then to Eagle's Nest, the future Langtry. Despite the move and his private entrepreneurship, Bean continued his career in law adjudication. The sign on his saloon announced that within operated the “Law West of the Pecos.”14

The Southern Pacific railroad line was completed on January 12, 1883 near a canyon some 247 miles from San Antonio and three miles west of the Pecos River Canyon—not far from the Vinegarroon tent city. The completion was celebrated by driving special solid silver spikes into the last wooden crosstie. “Roy [Bean] used to tell how he made a dash after that silver spike as soon as the coast was clear, but a bigger operator than he had got there first. [A railroad officer] had taken the spike away as a souvenir. Even the redwood tie was cut up into small pieces and distributed among the official guests.”15 Telegraph communications were opened that same day. However, the first trains did not use the track for a few more days. The first westbound train ran on January 25, while the first passenger trains departed New Orleans and San Francisco on February 5, 1883.16

Ultimately, the good times ended, and the town was nearly forgotten. Just a few years later this aptly titled article, “Famous City of Vinegaroon No Longer Exists,” served as the town’s eulogy:

The work to the west of the Pecos is of about the same character as that on the east, except that within three miles there are six iron bridges and one wooden, one of the which is the longest span in Texas, being over 300 feet. They are all deck bridges, except that at the Pecos. Our train stopped on the big dry canyon bridge, where the men were killed, and here we got off and walked to the west end carrying our baggage. Here we found Leary, of the Southern Pacific, just finishing up his work, and he told us that a train would soon be down to carry them to their camp on top of the hill. While waiting I climbed to the top of the bluff and viewed the ruins of the famous city of Vinegaroon. Not a house or a living being was left, where alcade Roy Bean, had stayed till all but him had gone, and now also had left broken hearted.17
Vinegarroon, destined for obscurity, was replaced by the town of Langtry, a new railroad town a few miles to the west.

 

Endnotes--
1 Rosemary Williams, “Once Upon a Time in the Old West,” Texas Highways, October 1991, page 37; Jack Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1996, pages 68-70.
2 Pecos County Historical Commission, Pecos County History, Canyon, Texas: Staked Plains Press, 1984, page 39.
3 The jobs were not all work. Like others before and since, some railroad workers fished in the nearby rivers; although, they did so with tools other fishermen did not have: dynamite. Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, page 75.
4United States National Park Service, Amistad National Recreation Area: Cultural Study, 1994, pages 10-17.
5San Antonio Daily Express, October 10, 1882.
6The hostilities along the Southern Pacific line in Texas were not new; they went back to the first transcontinental railroad construction in the 1860s. “The real quarrel…was that [the construction company] had employed ‘cheap Chinese labor’ to build the Central Pacific”’ anti-Chines protestors “disregarded the fact that [a railroad boss] had imported thousands of Chinese only because no Caucasians, not even Mexican peons in Sonora, could be found to swing picks on the Sierra grades.” The railroads often would not pay what Americans thought was a fair wage, so Americans often blamed the Chinese for working for less. “As the tracklayers neared Promontory, bitter enmity sprang up between the Central Pacific’s Chinese crews…and the Union Pacific’s Irishmen…who went after the ‘heathen’ Chinese as though they were Protestants in Ulster.” Oliver Jenson, The American Heritage History of Railroads in American, New York: Bonanza Books, 1975, page 97; Richard O’Connor, Iron Wheels and Broken Men: The Railroad Barons and the Plunder of the West, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973, page 237.
7 NPS, Amistad National Recreation Area, page 9-17; C.L. Sonnichsen, Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos, New York: McMillan, 1943, page 119; Stephen E. Ambrose, Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000, pages 149-165, passim.
8 NPS, Amistad National Recreation Area, pages 9-17 and 10-17.
9 The Vinton Trust, The Diary of Francis Henry French, entry for January 21, 1883, pages 23-24.
10 San Antonio Weekly Express, December 28, 1882.
11 Roy L. Swift, Three Roads to Chihuahua: The Great Wagon Roads That Opened the Southwest, 1823-1883, Austin: Eakin Press, 1988, pages 304-305; NPS, Amistad National Recreation Area, page 12-17; Claude Elliott, The Building of the Southern Pacific Railroad Through Texas, University of Texas (Austin), Masters Thesis, 1928, page 139; John R. Signor, “SP’s West Texas Mountain Division: A Survey of Operations El Paso to Del Rio,” Trainline, No. 47, (Spring 1996), pages 12-13.
12 Sonnichsen, Roy Bean, pages 66-68.
13 “Saga of Roy Bean Powerful Magnet for Tourists,” Del Rio News-Herald, October 22, 1976, page 2B; Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, page 14; Sonnichsen, Roy Bean, pages 80-81; Williams, “Once Upon a Time in the Old West,” page 37.
14 Jack Skiles, “Judge Roy Bean: The Law West of the Pecos,” Texas Highways, August 1982, page 3; Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, page 12; Sonnichsen, Roy Bean, pages 98-103; Williams, “Once Upon a Time in the Old West,” page 39; Clayton W. Williams, Texas’ Last Frontier: Fort Stockton and the Trans-Pecos, 1861-1895, College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982, page 289.
15 Sonnichsen, Roy Bean, page 96.
16 S.G. Reed, A History of the Texas Railroads, New York: Arno Press, 1981, page 198; Swift, Three Roads to Chihuahua, page 305; Elliott, The Building of the Southern Pacific Railroad Through Texas, pages 135, 137; Signor, “SP’s West Texas Mountain Division,” page 14.
17 San Antonio Weekly Express, February 1, 1883.

 

Bibliography—
Stephen E. Ambrose, Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Claude Elliott, The Building of the Southern Pacific Railroad Through Texas, University of Texas (Austin), Masters Thesis, 1928.
Oliver Jenson, The American Heritage History of Railroads in American, New York: Bonanza Books, 1975.
Richard O’Connor, Iron Wheels and Broken Men: The Railroad Barons and the Plunder of the West, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973.
Pecos County Historical Commission, Pecos County History, Canyon, Texas: Staked Plains Press, 1984.
S.G. Reed, A History of the Texas Railroads, New York: Arno Press, 1981.
“Saga of Roy Bean Powerful Magnet for Tourists,” Del Rio News-Herald, October 22, 1976.
San Antonio Weekly Express, October 10, 1882.
San Antonio Weekly Express, December 28, 1882.
San Antonio Weekly Express, February 1, 1883.
John R. Signor, “SP’s West Texas Mountain Division: A Survey of Operations El Paso to Del Rio,” Trainline, No. 47, (Spring 1996).
Jack Skiles, “Judge Roy Bean: The Law West of the Pecos,” Texas Highways, August 1982.
Jack Skiles, Judge Roy Bean Country, Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1996.
C.L. Sonnichsen, Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos, New York: McMillan, 1943.
Roy L. Swift, Three Roads to Chihuahua: The Great Wagon Roads That Opened the Southwest, 1823-1883, Austin: Eakin Press, 1988.
United States National Park Service, Amistad National Recreation Area: Cultural Resources Study, 1994.
The Vinton Trust, The Diary of Francis Henry French, entry for January 21, 1883.
Clayton W. Williams, Texas’ Last Frontier: Fort Stockton and the Trans-Pecos, 1861-1895, College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982.
Rosemary Williams, “Once Upon a Time in the Old West,” Texas Highways, October 1991.