RGV History: Cameron County historical markers showcase battlefields, local heritage

Hispanic Heritage Month

A canon sits on the south side of the battlefield where the Mexican battalion was stationed (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

CAMERON COUNTY, Texas (ValleyCentral) — You drive past them on your daily commute, on that trip to the beach, or just cruising backroads of the Rio Grande Valley, but how often do you take notice of historical markers?

The RGV is home to hundreds of historical markers that connect us to the past. These locations add a greater meaning to the area around us.

“For some, [the markers] may be a place of reverence or perhaps heritage. For others, it may represent significant events or places within a city of the county,” said Wilson Bourgeois, Cameron County Historical Commission Chairman.

Cameron County hosts more than 120 locations considered historical markers by the Texas Historical Commission (THC).

Bourgeois says the applications for areas to become historical markers are typically done by people that own the property, but sometimes the THC will choose a location they find historically significant enough to dedicate with a marker.

Cameron County has played an important role in local, state, and national history. Locations from Brownsville to Rio Hondo marked by the THC ensure that everyone has the chance to know about how the county has contributed to it all.

Fort Brown buildings (Brownsville)

Scattered throughout the Texas Southmost Campus (TSC) are remnants of Fort Brown, a U.S. Army military base that operated from 1846 to 1946.

The base, originally known as Fort Texas, was built during the Mexican-American War under an order from General Zachary Taylor, who was later elected as the 12th President of the United States.

Taylor changed the name to Fort Brown in 1847 to honor Major Jacob Brown, who was killed at the site during the Siege of Fort Texas and for whom Brownsville is named after.

During the Civil War, Union and Confederate forces traded possession of Fort Brown as Brownsville served as a major trading port with Mexico.

Following these major conflicts, Fort Brown served as a permanent military base for the remainder of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

Today, a few buildings remain from the historic military base, including a post-hospital, old morgue, and barracks.

Post Hospital / Post Hospital Annex

Post Hospital Annex at Fort Brown (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Completed in 1871, Fort Brown’s hospital served the base for decades.

Dr. William C. Gorgas was sent to the hospital in the 1880s during an outbreak of yellow fever in the area, a disease he later found a source for and introduced methods in restricting it.

When the base closed in the 1940s, the hospital was overtaken by TSC and now serves as an administrative building.

The Post Hospital Annex served as a medical lab for those who worked at the hospital.

Fort Brown post hospital historical marker (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Old Morgue

The old morgue at Fort Brown, built in 1870 (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

The site’s old morgue is not recognized as a historical marker by the THC but does remain at the site and is marked by the Brownsville Historical Commission (BHC). This location is reputed to be haunted by paranormal explorers.

Commissary-Guardhouse

Fort Brown Commissary-Guardhouse (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

This building was constructed in 1904 as a replacement for the original guardhouse. In 1913, Mexican soldiers were housed here to avoid incidents with American soldiers, who were dealing with conflicts in Matamoros concerning the Mexican Revolution.

African American Troops at Fort Brown

Historical marker detailing African American troops stationed at Fort Brown
(photo: Nathaniel Puente

Standing at an old regiment building is a plaque commemorating African American troops stationed at the fort.

Some of the first African American troops at Fort Brown fought at the last battle of the Civil War at nearby Palmito Ranch in 1865.

In the early 20th century, African American soldiers at Fort Brown were involved in an incident known as the Brownsville Affair.

In 1906, Brownsville residents accused the soldiers of killing a bartender and wounding a police lieutenant despite commanders denying these claims.

Still, the residents, along with Brownsville’s mayor, persisted in blaming the soldiers and an investigation was launched into the matter.

No confessions or charges were brought against the soldiers, but President Theodore Roosevelt still dishonorably discharged the 167 African American soldiers under the recommendation of the Army’s Inspector General for their “conspiracy of silence.”

A 1972 investigation found the soldiers had no evidence of wrongdoing and they were posthumously pardoned and awarded honorable discharges.

Post Chapel

This building served many purposes at Fort Brown (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

This building, originally built in 1882, has quite the résumé. The chapel has swapped locations and has served many purposes over the years.

Records show the tiny building served as a school, chapel, post office, and guest quarters, among others.

In 1992, the building was torn down from its original location near the Rio Grande and reconstructed at TSC where it remains today. Like the old morgue, the site is not marked by the THC but is recognized by the BHC.

Battle of Palo Alto (Brownsville)

A canon sits on the south side of the battlefield where the Mexican battalion was stationed (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Another prominent wartime artifact residing in Cameron County is the five-mile wide Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park.

This sea of vegetation and wildlife commemorates the Battle of Palo Alto, the first major conflict of the Mexican-American War.

At this site, thousands of American and Mexican troops faced off in a battle that left hundreds dead and the Mexican side retreating further south.

Today, the area is maintained by the National Park Service, which provides educational services about the battle and wildlife that surround the area.

A stone marker with brush all around it sits off the side of State Highway 4 commemorating this battle
(photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Last Battle of the Civil War (Brownsville)

The aforementioned last battle of the Civil War took place at Palmito Ranch near Brownsville off of Boca Chica Blvd.

The confrontation took place on May 12 and 13, more than a month after Confederate leaders surrendered to Union leaders in Virginia.

Historians debate over what caused the battle, but some theories include Confederate leaders looking for glory and attempts to protect cotton shipments.

The skirmish involved roughly 500 Union troops and 300 Confederate troops, with 111 casualties on the U.S. side and only a few on the Confederate side.

Pan American Airways Blind Flying School (Brownsville)

The Pan American Airways Building was built in 1931 (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Aviation innovation flourished in Brownsville in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The Pan Am Blind Flying School and surrounding terminal served as an important port of trade between Mexico City and the United States as well as a school that trained pilots how to navigate the skies in the still primitive days of air travel.

Plaque at the site commemorating the complex
(photo: Nathaniel Puente)

‘Blind flying’ is a term used to describe pilots needing to rely on the instruments in the aircraft alone when visibility is restricted due to clouds or misty conditions. Pioneers who developed this technique worked at the Brownsville site.

On March 9, 1929, famed pilot Charles Lindbergh solidified the area’s historical significance when he landed in Brownsville from Mexico City establishing the first International Airmail service to a large crowd that included Amelia Earhart.

Today, the original building of the school remains and is located just north of the Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport.

Cameron County Courthouse 1883-1914 (Brownsville)

The old Cameron County courthouse is now used by Rio Grande Lodge No. 81, A.F.&A.M. (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

More than 30 years after the establishment of Cameron County, the first courthouse was finally built to serve officials of the area.

This three-story second empire architectural building served the county for three decades before being vacated for a newer courthouse.

When the county ceased operations at the building in 1914, it was leased as a Masonic lodge.

In 1933, the building’s clock tower and gabled roof were destroyed in a hurricane.

Iwo Jima Memorial (Harlingen)

The 32-foot tall sculpture features the six Marines holding a 78-foot tall flagpole (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

A snapshot of one of America’s most patriotic moments is captured in the form of a 78-foot tall statue in Harlingen.

The Iwo Jima Memorial sculpture was dedicated to Harlingen’s Marine Military Academy in 1981.

A closeup of the statue (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

The monument emulates the moment six American Marines raised the U.S. flag on the island of Iwo Jima as American forces captured the island from the Japanese in February 1945 during World War II.

A larger sculpture was created by Dr. Felix W. de Weldon that is placed in Washington D.C., but he donated his original working model to the Harlingen academy in 1981.

Today, the sculpture is surrounded by a museum and other monuments dedicated to U.S. Marines, including the resting place of Cpl. Harlon H. Block of Weslaco.

The gravesite of Harlon H. Block, a Weslaco resident who is one of the six Marines in the statue (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Howard E. and Mary Butt House (Harlingen)

Howard E. and Mary Butt’s home in the 1930s (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

One of Texas’s most beloved institutions, H.E.B., once had its headquarters located in Harlingen.

Howard E. Butt and his wife Mary moved to Harlingen in 1930 and lived at this house located on E Tyler Street.

In Harlingen, Butt set up the Harlingen Cannery which packaged Texas-manufactured produce.

The entrepreneur eventually had 28 stores in the RGV under the name H. E. Butt Grocery Company.

Butt helped establish Valley Baptist Hospital, the Harlingen Public Library, boy scouting, and donated the original building housing the Harlingen Museum.

In 1940, the headquarters were moved to Corpus Christi but the home has remained intact for nearly a century.

Santos Lozano Building (Harlingen)

The Santos Lozano plaza (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Burned in a 2004 fire, Harlingen’s oldest brick building once stood at the corner of Jackson Avenue and A Street.

The Santos Lozano Building was erected in 1915 and served as a general store, dance hall, department store, and even a somewhat community building during its lifespan.

Although a fire destroyed the structure, the surrounding plaza is now known as the Santos Lozano Plaza and the vacant spot where it once stood is used for community events.

Point Isabel Lighthouse (Port Isabel)

Point Isabel Lighthouse (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

This 82-foot cylindrical structure was built in 1852 and served as a lighthouse to guide ships through the Brazos Santiago Pass to Port Isabel.

Lamps, reflectors, and fresnel lenses were used to help people navigate safely toward the coast.

During the Civil War, Union and Confederate troops operated the site and used it as a lookout post.

The lighthouse remained in operation until 1905 when a lack of shipping activity led to its retirement.

Today, the lighthouse serves as a tourist destination and is mostly in the same form it was when it was first constructed nearly 170 years ago.

Freddy Fender House (San Benito)

Freddy Fender’s childhood home (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Tejano music legend Freddy Fender’s birthplace is marked by the THC.

Fender was born Baldamar Garza Huerta in 1937 and gained recognition by the age of 10 when he performed on Harlingen radio station KGBT.

Following a short military stint, Fender began recording Spanish versions of Elvis and Hank Williams songs before also writing his own music.

In the 1970s, Fender achieved several number-one hits with recordings of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” and “Secret Love,” among others.

Fender soon became admired by pop, country, and Tejano fans for his ability to perform in different genres.

The San Benito native was honored in 2005 with his likeness painted on one of the city’s water towers.

One of San Benito’s water towers commemorates Freddy Fender (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Rio Hondo lift bridge (Rio Hondo)

Rio Hondo lift bridge (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

If you venture out to the two-thousand people town of Rio Hondo, one thing is sure to catch your attention: the bright yellow lift bridge that carries visitors across the Arroyo Colorado River.

This bridge was built in 1953 as a way to give travelers access to Rio Hondo.

The 25-feet high structure lifts open to ships whenever they pass through the Arroyo Colorado.

Rio Hondo’s bridge is the only lift bridge built between 1945 and 1960 in Texas that still operates today.

These are just some of the fascinating historical markers located in Cameron County. If you’re interested in seeing the hundreds of other markers in the area, the THC has an atlas with every marker present.

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