By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS
One of the main reasons cited for building a railroad that ran from Brownsville to Point Isabel, was to break the monopoly on freight and passenger hauling held by Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy. The two partners owned a fleet of twenty six steamboats that had operated on the Rio Grande since the end of the Mexican War. Many of the so called 49’rs made their way to the gold fields of California by landing at Brazos Santiago followed by a river boat ride up the Rio Grande as far as the boats would travel. From there it still was almost 900 miles to the gold fields.
The partners amassed a fortune during the 1850s by hauling passengers and cargo from the wharves at Brazos Island to Brownsville where it would be offloaded onto horse drawn carts and wagons. Many businessmen resented the high rates set by the two and decided to form their own railroad. The original stockholders included Simon Celaya, H.E. Woodhouse, Charles McManus and John S Ford, otherwise known as “Rip Ford.”
The first two engines of the newly formed, “Rio Grande Railroad,” used so much water that their tanks had to be refilled at a resaca east of Brownsville. Unfortunately, this was not a reliable source of water and the locomotives were replaced with four better ones. Merchants now had a choice over who would haul their fright and what the price would be. The modern world had finally reached the Valley.
But progress brings its own hazards.
One day in late January 1891, the train to Point Isabel was held up by bandits. The rails had been loosened near Loma Trosada, about twelve miles west of Point Isabel. As the train hove into site, outlaws pulled the rails apart causing the engine to derail. Eight, heavily armed masked men, sprang out of the brush and ordered the engineer and passengers to “reach for the sky!” Robert Kingsbury, the conductor, tried to pull his pistol but one of the outlaws stuck his gun into Kingsbury’s stomach and growled, “Drop it.”
As the passengers were being blindfolded one of the gang hurriedly climbed a telegraph pole. Mrs. Frank Thielen Jr., was looking up at the bandit as he reached out to cut the wire. A sudden gust of wind blew the edge of his mask up and she instantly recognized him as a man she had seen in a Brownsville store earlier in the day. One of the passengers, a traveling Presbyterian minister, threw his wallet containing about $500 in cash into some high grass and recovered it later after the thieves had left. After robbing them, the bandits locked the passengers inside a box car. A passing boy heard their cries and freed them by breaking the lock off with a length of rail.
The bandits escaped with over $80,000 in silver coin. Large rewards were posted and two of the men were quickly captured. They had been traced by an iron wrecking bar made for them by a local blacksmith and from tips offered by various citizens. The rest of the gang escaped into Mexico.
Most of the money was recovered but some of it is believed to still be buried somewhere on the prairie between Brownsville and Point Isabel.
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