By John Ronan Broderick
PRE-20TH CENTURY McALLEN AREA
The present site of the city of McAllen, Texas, had its origins in two Mexican-owned cattle ranches that dated back to Spanish land grants from 1767 and 1797. The earlier of the two grants was porcione (portion) 63 to Antonio Gutierrez and porcione 64 to Juan Antonio Villareal. Gutierrez and his descendants inhabited their portion of the grant until circa 1883, and Villareal’s heirs occupied their part until about 1852.
The second grantee, Jose Manuel Gomez, received his land grant from Spain in 1797 for land upon which he homesteaded and formed a ranch known as the Santa Anita Ranch that same year in what is now northern Hidalgo County; it was a very large grant. The eventual heiress to this ranch was Gomez’s great-granddaughter, Salome Balli, who had been born in Mexico in 1831.
Records indicate that she married a Scottish merchant from Brownsville, John Young, on November 9, 1853, under the name of Salome Balli Dominguez. The Dominguez name harkened back to her great-grandmother Gomez’s maiden name, which is the line of descent through which she received her inheritance. (It took some digging to determine the origin of the Dominguez surname tie-in.) The Youngs continued to add to their holdings at every opportunity.
John had applied for a grant of his own in southern Hidalgo County from the state of Texas in 1852, before his marriage to Salome. That same year he also founded the city that later came to be known as “Old” Edinburgh, named after his place of birth, and he opened a store there. It was near Hidalgo, the original county seat. “Old” Edinburgh no longer exists and should not be confused with the present city of Edinburg (different spelling), which is the present county seat of Hidalgo County. It was in this store that another immigrant, an Irishman by the name of John McAllen, began clerking for Young.
By 1857, Young owned over 5,000 head of cattle and even more sheep. During this period Young’s able, trusted assistant, McAllen, busied himself with the purchase of locally produced commodities, which he shipped via steamboat down the Rio Grande River to Brownsville. He was also busy acquiring more land for Young’s ever-expanding ranch.
When Young died in 1859, he left the ranch to his widow and their son, John J. Young, under the care and management of his assistant, John McAllen. Salome was about 28 at the time of Young’s death and their son a mere child. Two years later McAllen wed Salome Balli Dominguez Young, and their union produced another son, James Balli McAllen, in 1862.
Playing both ends against the middle during the Civil War, John McAllen, who claimed neutrality due to his British citizenship, had contracts to supply both Confederate and Union armies with livestock. Sometime after Salome’s death in 1898, he eventually renamed the ranch the McAllen Ranch, which had grown to 80,000 acres by 1904, and it was within the boundaries of the ranch that the city of McAllen, Texas, was founded that same year.
20TH CENTURY AND BEYOND
Several events occurred in rather quick succession that were to alter the economy of the Rio Grande Valley, changing it from a Mexican-dominated ranching orientation to an Anglo-controlled farming adaptation. The first event was the formation, in March 1903, of the Hidalgo Irrigation Company, which diverted water from the Rio Grande River to convert the Rio Grande Valley into profitable farmland, particularly for citrus fruit that would eventually be introduced as the primary crop of the region.
The second development occurred in 1904, when McAllen donated land for right-of-way to the Hidalgo and San Miguel Extension (now the Sam Fordyce Branch) of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway, so it would pass through his land. Naturally, the coming of the railroad had an immediate and positive impact on the local economy because of its ability to get locally produced agricultural goods, as well as livestock, to markets much faster and more distant.
Next, the McAllen Townsite Company was formed with a capitalization of $40,000 by McAllen, his two sons, and two other men, and the new town was named after him when the railroad built a frame depot there. It was the closest one to the then-county seat of Hidalgo, some eight miles south of the new community. A post office was established there in 1907.
Unfortunately, growth in the fledgling town was slowed down by the establishment in 1907 of a new, competing community two miles east of it, which took on the name of East McAllen. By 1908, the Rio Bravo Irrigation Company was finishing a canal to East McAllen. As a result, by 1911, East McAllen had 5,000 acres under cultivation. This last irrigation initiative sounded the death knell to old Mexican-dominated cattle ranching and the final transition to an Anglo-controlled farming economy. It also resulted in widespread racial tension between the Latinos and Anglos for many years to come. Thank God those days are long past in the more enlightened and tolerant age of the 21st century.
The newer community grew so much faster that, in that same year, the original town, now referred to as West McAllen, had ceased to exist, and East McAllen incorporated itself under the name of McAllen, appropriating the name of its predecessor. At the time the town had a population of approximately 1,000, though the previous year’s official U.S. Census numbered only 150 inhabitants. John McAllen died in 1913 in Brownsville, at the age of 83, surviving his wife Salome by some 15 years.
Fortune smiled on the new town of McAllen when, in 1916, somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 (sources differ) U.S. National Guard troops from New York were stationed there to help quell disturbances along the U.S./Mexican border as a result of the revolution going on in Mexico that was headed up by Pancho Villa. Within a year, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing was given command of all U.S. forces in the area. Between the years 1910 and 1920, according to U.S. Census reports, the population of McAllen had grown from 150 to 5,331, an astronomical gain of 3,454%, as a result of the economic boom caused by the garrisoning of thousands of troops there.
Though decade-by-decade census reports never again came close to the gains reported in that first ten years of the 20th century, they have been nevertheless remarkable. For instance, excluding the first decade, which was an anomaly, the average growth per decade for the next century was an incredible 41.13%, the lowest gain occurring in 2020, at 11.1%, and the highest in 1980, at 76.1%. These gains have made McAllen the 22nd largest city in Texas, the 183rd largest in America, with a population of 144,279.
Since the turn of the 20th century, McAllen has evolved from a primarily rural, agricultural economy to one that, by the 1920s, had diversified into various manufacturing industries including canning factories, a vintner, tortilla and wood-working plants, even some oil exploration. In the mid-1930s, Valley Distillery began operations, producing wines from locally produced citrus juices. By 1940, the city had a population of 11, 877, and it had adopted the appellation, “The City of Palms.” During the 1940s, it had become a petroleum and chermurgic (“The development of new industrial chemical products from organic raw materials, especially from those of agricultural origin,” The Free Dictionary) center.
In 1941, a new suspension bridge replaced the old one from Hidalgo to Reynosa, McAllen’s sister city in Mexico. The city of McAllen bought the toll bridge and named it the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge. This resulted in increased tourism, making McAllen a winter haven and a port of entry to Mexico. By 1954, this bridge had become the number two gateway from Texas into Mexico.
Nor had the discovery of oil in the Reynosa area in 1947 hurt things any since its result was even more tourism and a source of cheap labor for McAllen due to the migration of Mexican workers from the interior of Mexico to Reynosa. By the 1950s and 1960s, McAllen had become a vital hub for international trade with Mexico and Central America.
Though McAllen’s economy took some significant blows in the 1980s—the recession in America, the devaluation of the Mexican peso, a hard freeze in 1983, which decimated much of the Rio Grande Valley’s citrus crop—it managed to bounce back by the mid-1980s. This came about because of: 1) the growth of the maquiladora, the process by which components were shipped to Mexico, assembled there, and shipped back to the U.S.; and 2) the devaluation of the peso, which made it easier to convince American companies to place their manufacturing plants in Mexico while maintaining their support operations in Texas. The introduction of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) on New Year’s Day, 1994, which created a trilateral trading bloc among the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, led to an increase in cross-border trading with Mexico, through strategically placed McAllen.
PRESERVATION OF HISTORIC BUILDINGS
Among those properties in McAllen listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) are the: 1918 Casa de Palmas, a full-service luxury hotel still in business; 1948-1950 M and J Nelson Building; 1937 Sam and Marjorie Miller House; 1947 Cine El Rey Theater; and 1926 Mary S. and Gordon Griffin House. Of these five buildings, the first three also carry the designation of Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks (RTHL).
Though not listed on the NRHP, three other buildings have the distinction of being listed on the RTHL, the: 1935 McAllen Post Office, now known as La Placita and home to the McAllen Heritage Center; 1942 Paris Gum Factory; and 1927 Southern Pacific Depot. Two other structures hold the distinction of State Historical Markers: the 1938 Lamar Junior High School and the 1912 D. Guerra and Sons Store. Moreover, the De Palmas Historic District offers a nice array of hotels and restaurants, even homes, to choose from.
McALLEN VITAL STATISTICS
According to the World Population Review (WPR) website, McAllen has a land area of 65.7 square miles and a population density of 2,196.2 people per square mile. The average household income is $67,611, with a poverty rate of 24.86%. The median rental cost is $767 per month, and the median house value is $123,900. The median age is 32.9 years, and for every 100 females there are 96.4 males. McAllen is considered one of the poorest cities in the U.S., and due to this, its cost of living is 16% less than the national average. (This could be construed as a blessing in disguise.)
From an educational perspective, 24.75% of the population did not graduate from high school: 19.06% are high school graduates; 19.18% attended college without graduating; 6.64% attained an Associate’s degree; 21.01% hold a Bachelors’ degree; and 9.37% achieved Graduate degrees. In terms of languages spoken, 74.33% of the population speak Spanish as their primary language; 23.21% speak only English; 2.46% speak another foreign language.
Based on the U.S. Census 2018 ACS (American Community Survey) 5-year survey, there were 4,076 veterans living in McAllen, of which 3,974 were males and 102 were females. The breakdown by war is as follows:
Vietnam 1,398 39.7%
First Gulf War 865 24.5%
Second Gulf War 740 21.0%
Korea 418 11.9%
World War II 104 2.6%
In terms of places of birth, utilizing the same survey as that used for the veterans, 61.13% of McAllen’s citizens are native Texans; 11.88% were born in some other U.S. state; 26.99% are foreign born, mostly Latin Americans; 16.75% are non-citizens; and 10.24% are naturalized citizens.
Based on the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Annual Crime in Texas report and the FBI’s Crime in the United States report, there were zero (0) murders recorded in McAllen in 2018. The city has been consistently ranked among the safest cities in Texas.
McAllen is the largest city in Hidalgo County. Located at the southern tip of Texas in the lower Rio Grande Valley, adjacent to Mexico, its city limits extend south to the Rio Grande River, opposite its sister city in Mexico, Reynosa. It is located about 70 miles west of the Gulf of Mexico. The city is known for its mild winters, tropical breezes, and brightly colored, migratory birds and butterflies.
In 2009, another major bridge, the Anzalduas International Bridge, was opened just 11 miles southwest of downtown McAllen in nearby Mission, Texas. It serves as the safest, most direct, and efficient route between the Rio Grande Valley and Mexican cities such as Monterrey and Mexico City, reducing the travel time by as much as 45 minutes.
MUST-SEE, MUST-DO BUCKET LIST ITEMS ON ANY VISIT TO McALLEN
Numero Uno: The Veterans War Memorial of Texas. In my research for this article, I was more moved by photos and videos about this new memorial that I, as a Vietnam Era U.S. Army veteran myself, just had to make this the number one thing I would personally want to see in McAllen when I visit that fair city. I hope you will, too. Numerous American flags atop tall flagpoles surround the American Spire of Honor, standing as sentinels–their red, white, and blue fabric whipping and snapping to attention in the tropical breeze.
Located next to the new McAllen Convention Center, it honors those 1.3 million men and women killed or missing in action from all our country’s wars in which Texans have served. I wonder if it pays homage to that 5’5”, 16-year-old kid who lied about his age so he could enlist in the Army during World War II and became one of the most highly decorated soldiers of all time, Lieutenant Audie Murphy?
The majestic black granite American Spire of Honor stands 105 feet tall, and it is reported that no other state in this nation has such a monument. There are several black granite walls with the names inscribed on them of those who served but did not return alive to the country for which they shed their life’s blood. There are beautifully sculpted statues on this 3.5-acre site that will move you to tears, for this is hallowed ground. The focal point statue, entitled “The Warrior,” pays homage to the 3,440 recipients of America’s highest military award for valor, the United States Congressional Medal of Honor.
It seems to me this must be a spiritual spot, where one can go to reflect on some dear one who did not return from some war that our nation had been engaged in, thereby paying our personal respects. Perhaps it was a fallen comrade, or a relative, or an old high school chum. For just about everybody knows some patriot who came back in a body bag or a flag-draped coffin. You will find this person from your past remembered and honored here, so that you too can remember and honor him or her. One should tarry here a while. I know I shall.
Of interest to the history buff will be the McAllen Heritage Center, located in the old post office building, with its exhibits of objects and photos depicting the 100+ year history of McAllen. And the International Museum of Art and Science is another significant attraction, where ancient artifacts from as far back as the 16th century, as well as more contemporary Latin American art produced by local artisans, can be appreciated in its spacious 50,000 square foot facility.
Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center is a 1930s country estate in the heart of McAllen. An historic Spanish Revival adobe hacienda, the 10,000 square-foot mansion is surrounded by 15 acres of lush tropical landscaping and birding habitat. This special environment attracts many of the favorite Rio Grande Valley species found nowhere else in America. Whether you are an amateur ornithologist or one who simply appreciates birds with colorful plumage in their natural habitat, Quinta Mazatlan is another of McAllen’s unique sights not to be missed.
In a similar vein for the nature lover is the McAllen Nature Center. Formerly known as the McAllen Botanical Gardens, it is situated on 33 acres of native Tamaulipan Thornscrub habitat, with 1.5 miles of winding trails and is home to over 220 species of birds and 90 species of butterflies. Its endangered species include the non-venomous Texas Indigo Snake and the Texas Tortoise.
In terms of lodging and dining, there is a plethora of establishments to choose from, whether for the economically minded or those inclined toward luxury. There are at least 95 hotels and inns, as well as innumerable bars and restaurants, running the gamut from (naturally) Mex-Tex to steaks, seafood, barbeque– whatever your heart desires. The shopping alternatives, either in McAllen, or across the border in Reynosa, are limitless.
A PERSONAL NOTE IN CLOSING When I was a boy, my mother’s oldest brother, my Uncle Tim Wagers, lived in McAllen, which was then, in the early 1960s, about a quarter of its size today. Each year Uncle Tim and his wife, my aunt Dorothea, would make their annual pilgrimage to Houston to visit his baby sister and his youngest nephew to spend a few days with us. I always looked forward to their visits because of the tales he would regale me with of his younger days as a rodeo cowboy (as were all four of my mother’s other brothers), but more especially, I think, because he would always bring with him as a gift for us a crate of the juiciest, sweetest-tasting, gigantic grapefruit I ever tasted–produce fresh from his adopted hometown of . . . McAllen, Texas.