Harlingen, Texas with its current population of about 70,000 began to take shape about 100 years ago when Anglo settlers came by wagon, rail, and high-wheeled stagecoach to join Hispanic pioneers in a landscape thick with mesquite, coyote, and cactus.
When city founder Lon C. Hill laid out the 543-acre Harlingen town site in 1904, he named the north-south streets for the Presidents, in order: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, etc. The east-west streets were named for his colleagues and Mexican heroes. Shown here is Jackson Street, looking east, in the heart of Harlingen’s downtown historic district.
Hill was a lawyer from Beeville, Texas, who began buying land in the fertile Rio Grande delta in 1902, clearing it, and digging irrigation canals to entice farmers from the Midwest to move to the Rio Grande Valley. Hill’s house built in 1905 is now preserved at the Rio Grande Valley Museum in Harlingen.
Also at the museum is Paso Real Stagecoach Inn, built during the Civil War on the banks of the Arroyo Colorado, on the stagecoach line from Alice to Brownsville. Early residents picked up mail and groceries here prior to the opening of the Harlingen post office in 1904.
Two things were important to the development of Harlingen. First was the railroad. Lon C. Hill selected this site for the city of Harlingen because it was along the Saint Louis, Brownsville, and Mexican rail line, and a spur line was planned, to run west along the border. It is the longest span on the railroad line from Corpus Christi to Brownsville, completed in 1905. (The first span, completed prior to the first passenger train’s passage through Harlingen on July 4, 1904, was a temporary wooden trestle-type bridge.)
At one time, Harlingen was home to division offices of both the Southern Pacific and Missouri Pacific. Missouri Pacific maintained shops and freight terminals in the late 1920s.
It was the railroad that gave rise to two early nicknames for the rugged stop between Corpus Christi and Brownsville. “All out for Rattlesnake Junction” gives you an idea of the rich bounty of wildlife that the Valley has long been famous for. Later on, the Texas Rangers built a headquarters near the tracks and men would gather for target practice. That gave rise to the other nickname, Six Shooter Junction.
The name Harlingen comes from a town called van Harlingen, in the Netherlands, the ancestral home of Uriah Lott, the railroad president with whom Lon C Hill wanted to curry favor. Van Harlingen in the Netherlands also has an elaborate system of canals for irrigation – something that Lon C Hill knew was critical to the success of his new settlement.
Water — and a good irrigation system — was the second thing key to developing the region into an agricultural powerhouse. Water is pumped from the Rio Grande and runs to Harlingen by natural flow, as the town is eight feet lower than the river. City Lake, shown here, has served as the city’s main reservoir since its establishment. Today, a paved path around the lake makes it a popular site for walking and jogging.
As he platted Harlingen, Hill donated several corner lots for church sites. First Baptist organized in 1909, First United Methodist, First Presbyterian, and Sacred Heart of Mary Immaculate formed in 1910. Most of the early structures are gone and present ones date to 1920s and 1940s.
Hill also designated several spaces for parkland and incorporated a plaza from the Spanish tradition into Harlingen’s layout. He marked Plaza Porfirio Diaz on his plat, in honor of the Mexican ruler. The gazebo dates to 1984 and is modeled after public grandstands in Mexico and Spain. The park was renamed Gutierrez Park in 1980, in memory of a solider who died in Vietnam.
Today Harlingen boasts an extensive park system with more than 25 parks enjoyed by residents and visitors, a tribute to Hill’s vision. Shown here is Pendleton Park, home of HEB Tennis Center. The Center is named after Howard E. Butt, founder of HEB groceries, who lived in Harlingen in the 1930s and was an avid tennis player.
The popular Arroyo Hike & Bike Trail, which opened in 1999, connects five city parks and Harlingen Thicket bird sanctuary, shown here. The trail winds back and forth along the Arroyo Colorado.
The city’s first grave was dug in 1909 when the son of a sugar grower slipped and fell into a vat of boiling syrup. No cemetery had been laid out for the new town, so the town marshall wired Lon Hill in St. Louis, where he was on business. A hasty survey was made, a wagon trail cut through the brush and a place cleared for the grave. In 1912 the Harlingen city cemetery was officially established. [For years, salt cedars divided the cemetery into sections for babies, blacks, Hispanics, and Anglos. Though no long segregated, tombstone designs and grave decorations reflect diverse cultural traditions.]
Harlingen’s earliest buildings clustered around the railroad tracks, where the railroad built a two-story hotel with two baths in 1906. Other early buildings included two general stores, hardware and drug stores, including the drug store in this building, now an antique mall. The City incorporated in 1910; a volunteer fire department set up in 1912.
Bandit raids during 1915-17, related to the upheavals of the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa’s border battles, alarmed many of the settlers in South Texas. Hundreds of residents moved from the Valley during this period. The sugar mill on Lon Hill’s plantation on the outskirts of Harlingen was burned during one raid. Texas Rangers advised the family to move into town. Shown here is the home Hill built in 1917 on Harrison Street, the original sendero, or path, that led west from the Arroyo to the railroad line, and still one of the main east-west roads through Harlingen. The home’s foundation is of timbers salvaged from the Hill Sugar Mill. Hill died here in 1935 and the house remains in the Hill family.
By 1919, stability prevailed. The city banned wooden buildings, set a 10 p.m. curfew for children, and enforced a speed limit of 15 miles per hour for cars. Harlingen was ready for its first boom.
The main growth came as a result of Hill and other land developers advertising the Magic Valley of South Texas in northern states. Throughout the 1920s, trainloads of settlers arrived almost daily to farm the irrigated delta. Thousands of small vegetable tracts and citrus groves were sold in and around Harlingen to individuals brought in on excursion trains by the land men. Dozens of old photos show large groups of newly arrived settlers in front of a building owned by W.E. Stewart Land Company. From here, they were driven to view various parcels available for purchase.
By car, Highway 96 (now Business 77) was the main route from Corpus Christi to Brownsville, running parallel to the railroad tracks. Many early businesses were established along this route and it became known as Commerce Street, the name it still bears today.
For example, where this Sinclair station is located on Commerce St. and Madison, originally was a blacksmith shop. In 1920 the first drive-in gasoline station in Harlingen was built on this site. The Sinclair Station was built in 1936. It ceased operations as a gas station in the 1970s but is restored as a prototypical 1930s Sinclair station, one of the few remaining.
Cotton, sugar cane, and vegetables were early reasons for Harlingen’s prosperity. Cold storage facilities built on north Commerce facilitated the processing of crops and sending them to market. Crops headed north all passed through Harlingen and were iced down. Others were processed — The first freeze-dried orange juice concentrate was made in Harlingen.
Several oil mills were built near the railroad line to squeeze oil out of cottonseed. This cottonseed warehouse is now owned by the City and used as a rollerblade rink; several other warehouses continue to be used by VALCO, the one oil mill still in operation.
As more people came to the Valley, so did more amenities. First Street was still unpaved when the Rialto, Harlingen’s first movie theatre opened in 1920. Movies were considered sinful and many local citizens and churches discouraged attendance. The theatre ceased operations in 1993; it has been renovated as a space for meetings, weddings, and dances.
Harlingen’s first hospital opened in 1923; today it is preserved at the Harlingen Arts & Heritage Museum. The Harlingen Municipal Auditorium opened in 1928, with seating for 2300. Many famous musicians, speakers, circuses, and plays have graced the stage over the years, from John Phillips Sousa and Eleanor Roosevelt to the Kingston Trio and Tish Hinojosa. The Auditorium was renovated and expanded in 1993 and now serves as headquarters for the city’s signature events including the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (fall).
Also in 1928, the School Board passed a $400,000 bond issue to acquire land for, build, and maintain three new schools to accommodate the trainloads of settlers arriving to farm the Valley. Vernon Middle School was designed by noted Dallas architect Roscoe DeWitt who also designed the East Wing of the White House.
Bowie Elementary, built at the same time, was done in a much different style, reflecting the diversity in the community. Bowie is nicknamed La Escuela de las Viboras, school of the snakes, because of the snakes sculpted into the colorful cast concrete frieze on the school’s facade. The frieze is a blend of Mexican motifs, such as Aztec heads and Toltec feathered headdresses. In these ancient cultures, snakes symbolized wisdom and knowledge.
Though criminals in the early days were attached to the chaining tree, the city’s first jail was also built on Commerce Street during the 1920s. Today it awaits preservation.
As Harlingen grew from a village of 1,784 in 1920 to a city of 12,124 by 1930, many homes were built and neighborhoods established. These included working class homes, such as these on East Monroe, and these along the boulevard on West Pierce Street, off of F Street.
Larger, more elaborate homes were built along East Taylor Street, where developers Lloyd Hoskins and Miller Harwood turned cotton fields into a prestigious residential neighborhood that came to be known as Harlingen’s Silk Stocking Row.
Homes on East Taylor are a mix of styles, inspired by Italian and Spanish style homes in Florida and California, and brick and frame homes in the Georgian and Southern Colonial styles. The house shown here was built in 1925-26 for Oscar Nathan Joyner, who came to the Valley as an agent for the Texas Company (later Texaco).
This building, now home of Flores Cleaners, was designed and built in 1928 by a Mexican army officer-in-exile who built it for his mother-in-law. Tomasa Villarreal Garza, descendant of a Spanish land grant family, ran El Parian Grocery in the front, Cortez Cleaners in the rear, and a rooming house upstairs before losing the building to creditors during the Depression.
Perhaps most remarkable is the 1927 R.W. Baxter Office Building, which for almost 50 years was the Valley’s tallest skyscraper. It is still the tallest building in Harlingen today. It boasts the city’s first elevator and in the 1930s was the premiere office address for doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. In some ways this building represents Harlingen at the height of optimism, before the Depression and a devastating 1933 hurricane, which brought the “boomtown” era to a screeching halt.
The 1930s were a tough time in Harlingen, as in much of the country. Not many buildings in Harlingen date to the 1930s as a result. By the late ‘30s the economy started to pick up. Several new car dealerships were built in Harlingen.
The city changed forever with the start of World War II and the creation of an aerial gunnery school at Harlingen Army Air Field, which opened in 1941. Harlingen Army Airfield closed in 1946 but was reactivated in 1952 as Harlingen Air Force Base.
The 1940s and 1950s saw a great deal of new growth and development, spurred by HAFB and a wave of post-war prosperity. The Holsum Baking Company, touted as America’s Finest and Most Beautiful Bakery when it opened in 1945 thrived in this location for decades. The Bakery was purchased by Buttercrust in 1975; operations ceased in 1996 and it is now being renovated for stores, restaurants, and offices. Hygeia Milk Products Company began production and delivery of bottled milk in 1927; in 1947 they built and moved into this building on F Street. The old-fashioned Dairy Bar inside still operates.
Harlingen was booming in the 1940s and 50s when a new architectural wave was sweeping the country, and the city became home to a number of inventive architects and the center of their acclaimed works, in the style now known as mid-century Modernism. John G. York, arguably was Harlingen’s greatest architect.
Laurel Park, Harlingen’s first middle class suburban neighborhood, developed at South 77 Sunshine Strip and North Parkwood. It is considered York’s masterpiece and boasts a dozen of his inventive residential designs. Laurel Park was the first Harlingen subdivision to break with the city’s gridded geometry. It merged modern architecture with nature at the edge of town. Though York left Harlingen in 1960 to accept a position at the University of Oklahoma, where he became dean of the architecture school, his legacy has turned Harlingen into a pilgrimage point for aficionados of modern architecture.
As families started to move to the suburbs, plazas such as this one on north 7th and 77 Sunshine Strip, sprung up in proximity to the new residential areas. Also during the 1950s Valley towns competed with each other in the construction of motels that portrayed them as tropical resorts. The Sun Valley Motor Hotel, built in 1956 on 77 Sunshine Strip, was Harlingen’s contribution to this trend. The property included several freestanding buildings and a huge pool designed to give it a resort feeling. The Sun Valley was one of the first highway-oriented hotels in the region, upstaging the old railroad-side downtown hotels. At the time it was built, Highway 77 Sunshine Strip was a bypass around downtown Harlingen. The hotel was demolished.
“Modern” public buildings of note include Harlingen’s City Hall, designed by C. Lyman Ellis and built in 1950. This is a classic mid-century municipal building with aluminum railings, glass block windows, and a terrazzo floor with the city seal imprinted in the lobby. It has served as the center of business and community life in Harlingen since it was built, once housing the Chamber of Commerce and now the location of city offices and Town Hall, where official city meetings are conducted, voting takes place, etc. It is virtually unchanged from its original design.
Harlingen’s status as a healthcare center was strengthened with the completion of the new $2.25 million Valley Baptist Medical Center in 1956. Today, healthcare is the city’s largest industry segment.
Another Harlingen architect known for modern design was Alan Y Taniguchi, a Japanese-American man who was the Valley’s only non-Anglo architect in independent practice in the 1950s. Taniguchi later went on to become dean of the architecture school at the University of Texas. While in the Valley, he designed several buildings with distinctively shaped thin-shell concrete roofs, reflecting the influence of Mexican architecture. Casa del Sol, House of the Sun, is one of these. It was designed as a multipurpose tourist center in downtown Harlingen and was featured on the cover of Texas Architect in January 1964.
In the postwar era, Harlingen’s population doubled, going from 23,000 in 1950 to 41,000 in 1960. Two years later, HAFB closed, devastating the community. Harlingen lost its most important payroll and more than 6,000 people. With 1400 empty houses in the city, community leaders launched an advertising campaign to entice Midwestern retirees to settle in Harlingen. In less than one year, the campaign generated 5800 inquiries, sold 576 houses, and put an estimated 2.6 million back into the economy.
HAFB property was sold and has resulted in three key institutions: MMA, TSTC, VIA. The Marine Military Academy, the only prep school based on Marine Corps traditions, was founded in 1965, and now is home to the original working model of the famous Iwo Jima memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. This stunning outdoor sculpture was created from the Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Joe Rosenthal, which was used for the final War Bond Drive of WWII. The memorial was donated to the school by the sculptor, Dr. Felix W. de Weldon. It depicts the raising of the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima during World War II. The man planting the flag is Harlon Block, who was from Weslaco, in the mid-Valley. He died in the battle and is buried at the base of the monument in Harlingen.
Texas State Technical College (founded in 1967 as James Connally Technical Institute) and Valley International Airport (which opened in 1965), also sit on former HAFB property. VIA still has a few HAFB buildings, such as this hangar.
Downtown Improvement District ( Downtown Harlingen)
In the mid-1970s, Sun Valley Mall opened, and as in cities all over the country, the mall wiped out the downtown business district. A national economic downturn and devaluation of the Mexican peso in the mid-1980s hit the Valley hard and Harlingen’s economy sputtered. Loan sources dried up, home building paused, and commercial construction slowed. Businesses closed throughout Harlingen, particularly in the downtown business district. The opening of Valle Vista Mall in 1982 further ravaged downtown Harlingen.
Sun Valley Mall
In 1989, the city established a Downtown Improvement District to revitalize the city center.
Today Harlingen’s Downtown District is a success story and active participant in the Texas Main Street Program. There is a 90% occupany except for a few empty building for sale or building that are under renovation. There is a waiting list for merchants wanting to rent or purchase downtown property.
Downtown Harlingen is successfully promoted as a destination and site of numerous community celebrations. For years, Jackson Street has seen parades like 1928 mid-winter fair – t 4th of July and Christmas. Market Days the first Saturday of every month, Harlingen Art Night on the last Friday of each month, Annual Classic Car Show, Halloween on Jackson St., Holiday Stroll, Downtown Christmas Lighting, Christmas Parades, Viva Streets Harlingen, 5k Runs and other events.
The revitalization program had extended across to the railroad tracks in 1996, to help improve business in La Placita, traditionally the Mexican-American business district. Unfortunately did not work out and was removed from the Downtown Improvement District. However, plans are underway to add some parts of La Placita back and throughout the downtown to recruit new businesses, assist with remodeling of storefronts, and coordinate advertising and special events.
Beginning in 2000, with the acquisition of a major tile mural, The History of Mexico and Mankind, Harlingen decided to develop a new park along the railroad tracks as a linkage between the two districts and home for this spectacular artwork. This new green space also anticipates the railroad’s eventual relocation out of downtown. Railroad relocation has been a topic for the City’s future plan for the Downtown District.
In 2003, the Harlingen Mural Project was created to develop more artworks on aspects of Harlingen’s history. This one is a tribute to Bill Haley, grandfather of R& R who lived in Harlingen at end of his career. The Golden Age of Hollywood and Mexican Cinema features images of mid-century movie theatres and movie stars and there is a walking tour brochure that was recently created for tourists and locals to enjoy and learn about the many murals Harlingen has to offer.
Currently, the City of the Harlingen adopted the Downtown Revitalization Plan and included Downtown Harlingen in its comprehensive plan as an important asset to Harlingen’s future economic and cultural richness. Downtown Harlingen staff and Board of Directors are working into carrying out these plans to make Downtown a center of economic development while celebrating the city’s cultural, natural, and historic significance for our future generations.