RGV History: Hidalgo County historical markers feature protests, murders, and more

Hispanic Heritage Month

HIDALGO COUNTY, Texas (ValleyCentral) — When looking at Hidalgo County, Texas’s eighth-most populous county that acts as an international travel point, it’s easy to focus on the present and future.

Hidalgo County is fast approaching one million residents and with major construction projects and educational advancements taking place throughout the area, many see bright days ahead for the county.

But maybe when you’re stuck in a traffic jam on Interstate 2 around San Juan or cruising through W Business 83 in McAllen you wonder if anything interesting in the past happened around here.

Well, Hidalgo County is home to many historical sites, including over 140 areas listed as historical markers by the Texas Historical Commission (THC).

From the highly active McAllen to the sparsely populated Linn, just about every place in Hidalgo County features markers connecting us to the past.

Alamo Train Wreck (Alamo)

Historical marker at the site of the 1940 Alamo Train Wreck (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

One of Hidalgo County’s most well-known markers is also one of its darkest.

Located just feet from the railroad track near the intersection of Business 83 and Tower Road is a grim reminder of the day 34 people died in a collision between a train and a truck carrying agricultural workers.

The incident happened on March 14, 1940, around 8 a.m. when a truck carrying 40 agricultural workers of Mexican descent when a train struck the vehicle and sent bodies and dismembered limbs across the area.

Thirty-four people, aged from 10 to 48, were killed in the crash, making it the most deadly highway accident in Texas in the 20th Century.

Pharr Riot (Pharr)

Historical marker at the site of the 1971 Pharr Riot (photo: ValleyCentral)

Racial tensions were high in Pharr in the early 1970s, as many residents felt the city’s police department was giving unfair treatment to Hispanics in comparison to how they treated white citizens.

On Feb. 6, 1971, thousands gathered to protest against this in Pharr toward the police station. Firefighters and police officers sprayed the crowd with hoses and threw tear gas at the demonstrators.

In response, some of the protesters threw bottles and bricks at officers. Police then opened fire on the crowd and shot Alfonso Laredo Flores, a bystander who was not involved in the protest but instead at a nearby barbershop. Flores later died from the gunshot.

Several more protesters and officers were injured in the riot.

In the aftermath of the incident, Pharr residents continued to demand reform in the city government and police department. Protesters also demanded charges be brought against deputy sheriff Robert Johnson, who fired the fatal shot at Flores.

Johnson eventually was charged with negligent homicide, however, a jury found him not guilty.

The Pharr Riot led to residents electing the first Mexican American mayor in the city’s history in 1972, with the election of A.C. Jaime.

Today, a marker is located in Pharr near the vacant barbershop that Flores was shot at.

1968 Edcouch-Elsa School Walkout (Edcouch)

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Edcouch-Elsa High School was the site of a 1968 student protest (ValleyCentral Photo)

A few years before the Pharr Riot, a similar event took place in the dual-city school district of Edcouch-Elsa.

In one of the key moments of the 1960s Chicano movement, hundreds of Mexican-American students at Edcouch-Elsa High School walked out of school on Nov. 14, 1968.

The students were protesting teachers, administrators, and school board members who did not listen to demands from Mexican-American students who sought fair treatment that they were not given at their school.

Following the walkout, the students continued to protest for equal treatment and an end to segregation practices followed at Edcouch-Elsa. The demonstration garnered national attention.

School administrators expelled 68 students for participating but a court challenge forced the school to reinstate the students.

The THC has not yet placed a marker here but its historical significance can not be understated.

Eli Jackson Cemetery/Church (south of Pharr)

Eli Jackson Church (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Located south of the border wall just a few thousand feet from the Rio Grande is an homage to the underground railroad that ran through the Rio Grande Valley to Mexico.

Nathaniel Jackson brought his black wife to south Texas in 1857 to escape persecution for his interracial marriage.

At his ranch located south of Military Highway, Jackson grew crops, raised livestock, and hosted a refuge for runaway slaves from Texas and other Southern states.

Escaped slaves looking for freedom in Mexico traveled to Jackson’s ranch and found food, shelter, and safe passage into Mexico.

Jackson’s son, Eli, established a church and cemetery on the ranch in the late 1800s, both of which are still located on Doffing Road in this rural portion of Hidalgo County.

Bazán and Longoria Murders (Linn)

Historical marker about Bazán and Longoria murders
(ValleyCentral photo)

Even in the unincorporated area of Linn, there are portals to Texas history.

In the 1910s, Texas Rangers and other law enforcement inflicted mass amounts of violence on Hispanic residents in south Texas.

One such occurrence took place on Sept. 27, 1915, when Jesus Bazán, a locally-famed rancher, and his son-in-law, Antonio Longoria, a Hidalgo County Commissioner, traveled to the San Manuel-Linn area to report a robbery to the Texas Rangers.

After detailing the incident to the Rangers, one of the law enforcement officials charged toward the men and shot them in the back, killing them instantly.

The shooter, Henry Ransom, told his fellow Rangers to not move the bodies in an effort to promote fear among other Hispanics.

Neither the Texas Rangers nor other law enforcement agencies reported the killing or investigated the matter.

In 1919, following years of many similar violent incidents against Mexican Americans, the Texas Legislature investigated the matter and found that hundreds to thousands of Mexican Americans were killed with no just cause or reason in the decade.

The investigation led to the reorganization of many law enforcement agencies.

This period is now known as La Matanza, or The Massacre.

A marker recognizing this incident and the others during La Matanza sits at the Zamora Family Memorial Park.

Cine El Rey (McAllen)

McAllen’s Cine El Rey (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Cine El Rey opened in 1947 as a theater catered to Spanish-speaking audiences.

The first film screened at the theater was Hay Muertos Que No Hacen Ruido in May 1947.

The three-story concrete building hosted Spanish films for 40 years before it closed in 1988.

In the 1990s, the theater served as a church and community center before being used as a performing arts center in the 21st century, a usage it keeps to this day.

Nowadays, Cine El Rey hosts concerts, wrestling matches, comedy shows, and theater screenings while keeping its place as a local landmark.

Paris Gum Factory (McAllen)

Paris Gum Factory historical marker (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

The “Bubble Gum King” once had his factory in McAllen.

Andrew J. Paris moved to McAllen from Detroit in the 1940s and soon found an entrepreneurial opportunity in bubble gum.

Paris began importing bubble gum from Mexico to sell in the U.S. He gained many business friends in Mexico and soon cornered the gum and latex market.

Bubble gum was not a regular commodity before Paris began mass-producing it. The product flew off the shelves once Paris began shipping it in masses across the country in the late-1940s.

Paris was dubbed “The Bubble Gum King” in a 1947 edition of Time Magazine.

The factory operated in McAllen until 1955. It has since been used as a furniture store, laser tag building, and escape room, a role it serves today.

San Juan Hotel (San Juan)

San Juan Hotel (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

This building opened in 1920 as part of the city’s plans to establish San Juan as a commercial center.

The hotel operated normally for many decades before closing down in the 1990s. Several plans have been made over the years to revitalize the hotel, but none of these projects materialized.

Today, the hotel’s windows are boarded up and its walls are graffitied.

It is one of the RGV’s top locations for ghost hunters, who tell tales of a dead woman haunting the hotel.

Emilia Schunior Rodriguez (Edinburg)

Emilia Schunior Rodriguez marker at UTRGV (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Emilia Schunior Rodriguez was one of the RGV’s most prominent advocates for Hispanic education in the 20th century.

Schunior Rodriguez was born near Mission in 1902. Her family moved to Edinburg because Mission schools began segregating Mexican American children.

She later became a teacher and taught in Roma, Rio Grande City, Edinburg, and La Joya.

Schunior Rodriguez earned a Master’s Degree in education in the early 1950s and based her thesis on undocumented Mexican children attending school in America in an effort to gain more attention to unfair standards they faced in classrooms.

Following her schooling, she worked as a professor of Spanish at Pan American College in Edinburg.

Today, a dormitory building is named in her honor and sits at the site where a historical marker honors her legacy.

Edinburg Junior College Auditorium (Edinburg)

Edinburg Junior College Auditorium (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

One of the schools Schunior attended was the Edinburg Junior College, which opened its doors in 1927.

The school originally was administered by the Edinburg School District and cost $16 to attend for Edinburg students and $36 for non-Edinburg students.

Edinburg Junior College was located on 8th Street and featured a two-story science building, a three-story administration building, and an enduring 1200 seat auditorium built in a gothic revival style.

This auditorium serviced the college as well as the high school in Edinburg.

Edinburg Junior College remained in this area until the 1960s when administrators secured many acres of land just to the west to be used as another campus.

Eventually, more buildings were built and the “west” campus became the main campus of the school, which was now called Pan American College.

The auditorium and adjacent buildings were soon abandoned by the school, that today exists as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, but Edinburg found good use of these old structures.

Today, the school buildings are used as administrative centers for the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, and the auditorium is used for concerts and other community events.

Leo Najo (Mission)

Leo “Najo” Alaniz Baseball Park in Mission
(photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Born about 60 miles south of the RGV in Nuevo Leon, Leo Najo became one of the first Mexican-born professional baseball players in history.

Najo’s family moved to Mission in 1909 from Mexico when he was 10 years old.

In the 1920s, Najo played on several semi-pro teams in south Texas and Mexico, including Mission 30-30s, the Milmo Bank team of Laredo, and the Cuauhtemoc Brewery team of Monterrey.

Najo excelled as a centerfielder and his quick speed made him a high-valued baserunner.

During a game in San Antonio, Najo was scouted by the San Antonio Bears of the Texas League and quickly joined the team.

His first professional game was on April 16, 1924.

Soon after, Najo was drafted by the MLB’s Chicago White Sox in the 1925 draft, making him possibly the first Mexican player ever called up to the major league.

Najo performed well in the White Sox 1926 spring training but was mysteriously cut from the team before the beginning of the regular season.

Some suspect the White Sox sent him back down to the San Antonio Bears due to racism against Mexicans. The team even attempted to pass him off as a Native American to avoid controversy.

Najo continued to play with the Bears and hoped of being called up to the MLB but he was severely injured in a 1926 game that ended his chances.

Leo Najo historical marker (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

The Mission resident continued playing for various teams every year until he was 33 in 1932.0

Even after his retirement, he continued to champion baseball in south Texas and Northern Mexico.

Najo was the first person elected to the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mission honored Najo’s memory by naming Mission High School’s baseball stadium after him.

Tom Landry (Mission)

Tom Landry mural in Mission (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Another sports legend raised in Mission was one of the winningest coaches in NFL history.

Tom Landry was born in Mission in 1911 and shined at Mission High School as a quarterback for the school’s football team.

Landry attended the University of Texas at Austin where he continued to play football. His academics were interrupted when he enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II.

The Mission native served in the Army Air Corps and piloted B-17 planes in England in 1944 and 1945.

Following the war, Landry finished college and was selected by the New York Giants in the 1947 NFL Draft.

Landry played six seasons with the Giants as a punter and defensive back.

In 1954, Landry became defensive coordinator for the Giants and helped the team make it to three NFL Championship games in the last half of the decade.

In 1960, Landry was chosen as the first coach of the Dallas Cowboys.

Under his leadership, the Cowboys went to five Super Bowls, won two, and became one of the league’s most successful franchises. The coach led Dallas to 20 consecutive winning seasons between 1966 and 1985, an NFL record.

Landry served as the Cowboys coach for 29 consecutive years until 1988, an NFL record.

Today, Landry is honored in Mission for his accomplishments with a mural and the naming of the high school football stadium.

William Jennings Bryan House (Mission)

Marker at William Jennings Bryan house (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

A three-time presidential nominee once resided in Mission.

William Jennings Bryan set up a winter residence in Mission in 1909 to escape the cold weather of Nebraska.

Bryan won the Democratic nomination for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908 but lost all three times to William McKinley twice and William Howard Taft, respectively.

During his time in Mission, Bryan gave speeches to local townspeople.

When President Woodrow Wilson appointed Bryan as Secretary of State in 1913, Bryan permanently moved to Washington D.C. and sold his home in Mission.

Today, the house is used as a wedding venue and is draped in vines and surrounded by vegetation.

Camp Mercedes (Mercedes)

Former site of Camp Mercedes (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Thousands of soldiers were housed at Camp Mercedes in the late 1910s prior to the United States’ involvement in World War I.

U.S. Army Major General John Pershing chose Mercedes as the site of a training ground in 1917.

The camp featured 23 barracks buildings for soldiers.

When the United States joined the global conflict, the men in Mercedes were deployed to France.

Camp Mercedes soon went vacant and was closed in 1922.

Old Hidalgo County Courthouse/Jail (Hidalgo)

Hidalgo County Courthouse built in 1886 (photo: Nathaniel Puente

A town once named Edinburgh served as Hidalgo County’s county seat until the city was named Hidalgo and swapped the county seat title with a city that would later be known as Edinburg.

Confusing enough?

Let’s break it all down: In 1852, Hidalgo County was officially created by the Texas Legislature and the city of Edinburgh, located along the Rio Grande, became the county seat.

Edinburgh served as the county seat without incident until 1885 when a flood destroyed most of the town’s buildings.

The city’s location changed just slightly north and was renamed Hidalgo following this incident.

Hidalgo County Jail built in 1886

In 1886, the county built this illustrious courthouse and used it along with the adjacent jail for two decades.

Due to worries of flooding, county leaders switched the county seat location to the newly created community of Chapin in 1908.

When Chapin’s namesake Dennis Chapin was convicted of murder, the town changed the city’s name to Edinburg in 1911. The county seat has remained in Edinburg ever since.

Today, the 1886 courthouse and jail remain in their original form and serve as highlights of the Hidalgo Viejo Historic District.

The Donna News (Donna)

The Donna News building now houses the Donna Hooks Fletcher Historical Museum (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

In the primitive days of communication, many cities had their own newspapers to alert the public about what was going on in the community.

Alamo, Donna, Pharr, and many other cities had their own papers distributed around.

The Donna News is one publication that still has its manufacturing site in place and has earned a historical marker by the THC.

Donna’s newspaper began publication in 1910 and ran until the 1960s under the names Donna News, Donna News-Advocate, and Donna Dispatch.

The city of Donna took over the building and used it to house the town’s museum starting in 1974. A fire damaged the building in 1988 but it was later restored and still serves the community to this day along with the museum.

Weslaco Water Tower (Weslaco)

El Tinaco water tower (ValleyCentral photo)

El Tinaco, the name of this historic steel tower, has come to symbolize Weslaco’s advancement.

The town’s original water reservoir was constructed in 1928 at this site early in the city’s rapid development.

By 1938, it made way for a new steel overhead tank in the same area.

In 1941, construction on El Tinaco was completed and it soon became a city landmark.

80 years later, the tower still stands and its name has been used for the name of the yearly football matchup between Weslaco’s two high schools.

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