Rio Grande City (population 24,500), the county seat of Starr County and one of the oldest settlements in South Texas, is an international port of entry on the Rio Grande River connected by bridge to Camargo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The site was part of the Carnestolendas Ranch, established in 1762 in the Spanish colony of José de Escandón. The ranch later belonged to Henry Clay Davis, an adventurous Kentuckian, who designed the port on the model of the capital city, Austin. The establishment of Fort Ringgold in 1848, immediately adjacent to the town, assured its growth and permanence.
Though the town was isolated and lacked of transportation facilities for most of its history, Rio Grande City had an active passenger and cargo ship trade with New Orleans during the 19th century and flourished as a cattle center. Frequent encroachments from Mexico, most notably those of Juan Cortina in 1859, forced the community to rely often on the Texas Rangers and the United States Army for protection. During the Mexican-American War, Rio Grande City was the site of many battles.
Rio Grande City prospered from the cotton trade during the post-Civil War era and sustained this economic prosperity during the 1880s and 1890s, mainly due to the steamboat business. The Great Depression had a strong impact in Rio Grande City. The 1925 population of 3,000 had declined by nearly a third by 1931. Residents had voted for incorporation in 1926, but the city went into so much debt that they voted to unincorporate in 1933 to avoid repayment of the sizable debt accrued for improvements to the town. An oil and gas boom in the 1930s broadened the town’s limited economic base, which includes exports to Mexico, brick making, food production, and tourism. The city only voted to reincorporate in 1993.
Local historic attractions include Fort Ringgold and the La Borde House. Fort Ringgold is one of Texas’ best-preserved old military posts, established after the Mexican War for protection against Indians and to assure the Rio Grande River as the national boundary. La Borde House was completed in 1899 as home and border store by a French merchant-riverboat trader; it was later converted to a hotel that combines European, Creole, and Texas border styles with shady verandas, a courtyard, and a patio. Today nine rooms and a parlor are restored and furnished in turn-of-century decor.
A partnership between the Rio Grande City Main Street program and the city’s Economic Development Corporation recently restored the Tijerina Complex and Courtyard, now rented for social events. Located in the downtown historic district, this project became a training school in preservation skills for local workers and yielded important information about turn-of-the-century construction techniques. Plans include a visitors’ center, the city’s first museum, and offices.
Each year, Rio Grande City celebrates the contributions of the Mexican and American cowboy/vaquero with “Vaquero Days.” This event pays tribute to the men and women who shaped the South Texas way of ranching. Rio Grande City is part of “Los Caminos del Rio” a heritage corridor stretching for 200 miles between the cities of Laredo and Brownsville, encompassing farms and ranches, cities and small towns whose history and architecture reflect a rich blend of Hispanic, Latino, and Anglo cultures. It is also part of the Texas Tropical Trail Region program to promote heritage tourism.
Designated a Preserve America Community in June 2007.