“The county seat, Edinburg, is at the junction of U.S. highways 107 and 281. The center point of the county is at 26°23′ north latitude and 98°10′ west longitude. Other communities of note in Hidalgo County are McAllen, Weslaco, Mission, Peñitas, and San Juan. Hidalgo County comprises 1,596 square miles of the Rio Grande delta. Its elevations range from forty to 200 feet.”
“In 1747 Miguel de la Garza Falcón reconnoitered the northern bank of the river in search of suitable land to establish a settlement. He found the land unsuitable even for stock raising and condemned it as uninhabitable. Despite his judgment, the area again drew the attention of the Spanish crown, and in 1749 José de Escandón was assigned the task of colonizing the area.”
“He established four towns on the southern banks of the Rio Grande including Reynosa (1749), which was originally located across the river from the site of present-day Peñitas. He founded Camargo, Mier, and Revilla (now Guerrero) in 1749, 1750, and 1752 respectively. Settlers from these colonies later crossed the Rio Grande and settled the northern banks of the river.”
“By 1836 area farmers had a thriving economic base that allowed them to export their cattle and cattle by-products into Mexico. Goods were moved by wagon and mule trains, whose owners were so organized that they kept boats off the Rio Grande until after 1840. With the outbreak of the Texas Revolution the area became disputed territory, Mexico considered it part of Tamaulipas, and Texas claimed it as part of its southern border. During the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor laid out the Old Military Road to supply his men in northern Mexico.”
“Hidalgo County was part of the disputed territory during the Mexican War. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 the area became part of San Patricio County. In the same year the region was further subdivided and became part of Cameron County.”
“Hidalgo County was formed in 1852 and named for Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, who gave the “cry for Mexican independence” from Spanish rule. By 1852 the county had between forty and forty-five ranches. As land was parceled out from one generation to the next the ranches located along the river developed into villages. In this way, ranches gave rise to the communities of La Habitación, Relampago, and Peñitas.”
“Hidalgo County had become a haven for outlaws from both sides of the river by the middle of the nineteenth century. Politically it had become a battleground, as various groups vied for dominance of county politics. Party affiliations, especially with the Reds and Blues, were firmly entrenched by 1869.”
“Not until 1882, when John Closner was elected deputy sheriff, was control over cattle rustlers achieved. Closner became sheriff in 1890 and shortly afterward, under the protection of James B. Wells, became the county’s political boss. During his rule he brought peace to the county and was seen as such an effective leader that he was nicknamed the “father” of Hidalgo County. In the process, however, he made many enemies. During the 1890s his rivals tried to have him assassinated twice and brought a ranger investigation against him.”
“In 1886 Edinburgh was washed away by a severe flood, after which it was moved to another flood-prone site about two miles north of the river. The county population was estimated at 6,837 in 1900. The Hidalgo Advance, the county’s first newspaper, went into publication in March 1903. It was published for the sole purpose of advertising the county and attracting a railroad.”
“The first attempt at growing cane on a large scale was made in 1883 by John Closner, who established a plantation and mill near the site of present-day Pharr. Attempts to irrigate rice were unsuccessful, but citrus fruits and vegetables were produced on a commercial basis starting around 1907, when W. A. Fitch planted a commercial-scale grapefruit orchard near Mercedes. Chapin, a community established in 1908, was soon made county seat and renamed Edinburg. The old county seat, Edinburgh, was moved away from the river and renamed Hidalgo.”
“In 1914 the Good Government League was established after Judge James H. Edwards was ousted by the Closner regime. The league was made up exclusively of Anglo farmers, businessmen, and professionals who supported Edwards and promised to “clean up” Hidalgo County politics. Because the league’s intentions included disfranchising Hispanics, the campaign to change the system took on strong racial overtones.”
“The Closner regime was perceived as pandering to Hispanics, although fewer than one-fourth of government positions were held by them. Racial and social tensions increased between old-timers, mainly ranchers, and newcomers, mainly farmers. Closner’s reign ended in 1918, when an audit revealed that as county treasurer he had misappropriated $150,000 from the county, drainage districts, and the school district.”
“In 1924 a regional Texas Agricultural Experiment Station was established in Weslaco. Thriving towns sprang up across the southern part of the county east to west along U.S. Highway 83, which by 1930 was described as the “longest main street in the world.”"
“Because all the new towns were fully segregated it was impossible for Hispanic children to get an equal education. Inexperienced teachers were assigned to teach at the Mexican schools, which were usually overcrowded and ill equipped. There were no Mexican high schools because Hispanics were not expected to advance beyond elementary school. This deprivation led to self-perpetuating poverty as uneducated (and therefore poor) parents removed their children from school so that they could help support the family. In 1930 the county’s population was estimated at 77,004, of which 41,522 individuals were identified as “Mexican.”"
“Despite the Great Depression, the county’s population increased to 106,059 in 1940. The number of residents always fluctuated, however, during any given year because migrant farmworkers and winter Texans or “snowbirds” came and went. The first producing oil well in the county was brought in on September 18, 1934, by Otto C. Woods. The oil and gas industry soon became important in the county.”
“By 1970 the population of Hidalgo County had reached 181,533. The civil-rights movement that had swept the country during the 1960s brought increased participation of Hispanics in Hidalgo County politics, though problems related to race were not over, as the “Pharr Police Riot” of 1971 illustrates. In Donna, migrant farmworkers’ children were sent to a separate school until the late 1970s.”
“In 1980 the population was estimated at 283,229, including 15,868 retired workers. The industries with the most workers were agribusiness, tourism, oil and gas field servicing, construction, frozen food processing and canning, meat packing, and soft drink bottling, industries which earned an aggregate of $1,575,879,000. In 1982 Hidalgo County had 171 manufacturers with 7,100 employees and products valued at $211.9 million. In 1982 Hidalgo County was ranked sixty-fourth among all United States counties in the highest birth rate and twelfth in highest percent of Hispanic-origin residents. The county has never experienced a decrease in population.”
- Handbook of Texas Online, Alicia A. Garza, “Hidalgo County“
I was the guest of Edinburg, Hidalgo, and Hidalgo County on August 12, 2014.
Hidalgo County Courthouse – 1886
(Photo Courtesy: THC)
This courthouse was designed by S.W. Brooks, and presumably constructed by a Juan Rios. It was built from handmade, Mexican brick fashioned across the river in Reynosa.
In 1908, the county seat moved from Edinburgh (which they renamed Hidalgo) to Edinburg (notice no ‘h’), twenty miles north of the Rio Grande. So that meant that the courthouse went out of use. Luckily, they decided not to demolish it, but nature had other plans. Two years later, in 1910, a fire consumed the building. Interestingly enough, because it started on the second floor, they were able to put it out and salvage the first floor.
Today, the building still stands. It’s just a floor and cupola less than it was in 1886. Above the first floor, they built a tin, trapezoidal roof. It’s in a densely shaded area in old town Hidalgo, and if you’re not careful, you’ll miss it. I didn’t.
What remains of the 1886 courthouse today
The historical marker says that this building was used as a customs and immigration facility for some years. Interesting.
Apparently the THC plans on restoring this building to its 1886 look. That’s good to hear!
Two windows into the past, side by side
Hidalgo County Courthouse – 1909
(Photo Courtesy: THC)
With the county seat relocated to what had once been Chaplin (which they named Edinburg), Hidalgo County set about building their next courthouse.
Henry T. Phelps, who was an obvious proponent of the Mission-Style, teamed up with other popular South Texas architect Atlee B. Ayres to design this dominating courthouse. It was constructed by Waterston & Schoenfeld.
For reasons unimaginable to me, Hidalgo County razed it in the 50s to make way for a large, modern behemoth that was completed in 1954.
The 1909 cornerstone is on display at the current building.
Notice the listing for sheriff and tax collector (John Closner). It’s interesting to see the county offices that he held, as he was a major political boss in the Hidalgo County region. You can read more about him in the county history at the top of the page.
Hidalgo County Courthouse – 1954
(Photo Courtesy: THC)
The architect was R. Newell Waters.
The Texas Historical Commissions lists this building by the following description: “Modern construction of steel, marble, and glass”. What more is there to say?
The entrances are as void of characteristic as the courthouse.
Hidalgo, Edinburg, & Hidalgo County
A surveillance aerostat was at work scanning the Rio Grande as I passed it on Highway 83 from Rio Grande City.
The Rio Grande and Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico lie just beyond that fence.
The very large Museum of South Texas History is near the modern courthouse, at McIntyre and Highway 281.
Previous Courthouse: Starr County
Next Courthouse: Brooks County