Monday, September 7, 2020

2018-09-11: A New Country, the Twin Towers, and Ghost Towns Along the Rio Grande in South Texas

Hello again and welcome back to another edition of AwayWeGo's Geocaching Adventures. AwayWeGo.US is my geocaching name which I have been using since 2006.

Today's adventure is due to an overnight and early morning rain in the Rio Grande Valley. This made for some muddy conditions at work. And when working outdoors in construction building a wind farm, that means a day off. But makes for a great day to go Geocaching and exploring!

Having never been to Mexico before, this would be the perfect opportunity to grab a geocache across the border to achieve my fifth country. And on this September 11th day, I have the perfect "twin tower" cache in mind.

But let's not get ahead of myself. I started out in the small community where I was staying. Falcon, Texas was moved from an original Falcon at the junction of Medio Creek and the Rio Grande in southeast Zapata County during the flood in August 1953, which was caused by the completion of Falcon Dam in December 1952.

Settlers had been brought to the area by Col. José de Escandón in the 1750's. The Spanish crown set the land aside for the colonists of Revilla, known as Guerrero, after Mexican independence. In the mid-1700's the king of Spain granted 6,123 acres to José Clemente Gutiérrez, who later sold the land to José Clemente Ramírez. In 1780 Ramírez married Margarita de la Garza Falcón, thus uniting two of the area's most distinguished families, and moved to the old site of Falcón. The place was called Ramireño de Abajo. In the early 1900's Ildefonso Ramírez opened a general store there.

In 1915 a post office was established, and the village changed its name to Falcon, in honor of the wife of the founder. This was done because there was already a post office a few miles away called Ramireño, at Ramireño de Arriba, and the post office needed a different name. Old Falcon had 4.01 acres in common riverfront and 12.27 acres in its town tract. The government offered to move the settlement of families to Zapata, the county seat, where good schools, parks, water, sewage disposal, and paved and curbed streets would be available; but the families, whose ancestors had come to the area, settled it and opted to keep their site.

The government closed the dam before paying for the land and improvements, figuring they had several years before the water would rise—there had been six years of drought. The water suddenly rose after four days of rain starting on August 23, 1953, and on August 28 the 450 families of Lopeño and Falcon were hurriedly evacuated in a pouring rain. By the day's end, only the church steeple, a few windmills, and the tops of a few houses showed above the muddy reservoir. Residents of the inundated communities left behind furniture, clothing, toys, even pets. Some walked rather than accept rides from the hated commission that had built the dam and driven them from their 200-year-old settlements. Later, the government refused to pay them the full price for their homes and belongings because they were no longer usable.

The government had also picked out a common site for all of the local cemeteries, but all of the villages affected by Falcon Dam voted to buy their own separate sites. A total of 162 graves was moved from the old Falcon cemetery, only ten of them unidentified. The cemetery today has over 300 permanent residents. There wasn't a geocache here yet, so I hid one myself (GC7XMCW).

Six miles to the north is the new town of Lopeño. It replaced old Lopeño and four other small farming and ranching communities - San Pedro, San José, Santa Fé and El Tigre. Lopeño is named for Antonio López, husband of Doña Ysabel María Sánchez, to whom a 6,366-acre land grant, named Señor San José, was given by the king of Spain on July 16, 1767.

During the early 1800's a parcel of this grant passed to the Ramírez family, founders of Falcon. In 1821 Benito Ramírez constructed a combination home, fort, and chapel, known later as Fort Lopeño, which stood until covered by the waters of Falcon Lake. It was built at the Lopeño crossing of the Rio Grande. There was also a famous shrine in front of his El Tigre Ranch well, where local residents drew water, and worshiped before the Señor San José Church was built in Lopeño. The shrine, dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, was artistically cut from limestone, with beautifully carved hands and feet, delicate features, and a chaplet encircling the crown.

Company K, Fifth United States Infantry regiment, maintained Camp Lopeño there for twelve days ending May 10, 1856, before returning to Ringgold Barracks, Rio Grande City, during the Cortina War. Serafín Benavides established a store at Lopeño in the early 1900's, the only supply point in the area at the time. Andrés Serna carried the mail by horseback from Zapata to Lopeño from 1900 until his death in 1908; he had a keen mind, but could not read. Before starting his route, he would have the names and destinations read to him, and would sort them in order, never making a mistake in his delivery.

When the original Lopeño was about to be moved, the International Boundary and Water Commission wanted all the displaced communities to move their cemeteries to a single location at U.S. 83 and Farm Road 496, but the residents insisted on separate cemeteries. They mapped out their graveyards and identified 1,501 of the 1,753 burial sites; Lopeño had 207 burials, thirty-eight of which remained unidentified. The new community and cemetery are located on a 6,525-acre tract of land first granted in 1767 to María Josepha Guerra. I hid a geocache there also since it didn't have one either (GC7XMFN).

Continuing north on US-83, I arrived in the town of Zapata. Zapata dates to Spanish land grants that go back to 1767. When the first settlers crossed the Rio Grande the town was called Habitacion. Then Carrizo, then Bellville after Governor Peter Bell. Finally the permanent name of Zapata was authorized to honor Col. Antonio Zapata, one of the founders of the Republic of the Rio Grande. In the early 1850's, two military posts, Camp Drum and Camp Harney, were located at Zapata to combat border disturbances and prevent Indian attacks. The population of Zapata increased suddenly when people from Guerrero crossed the river to escape the Mexican Revolution. In 1953, Zapata was another border town that moved to higher ground when Falcon Dam was built.

I found my next geocache at the Mertens Frontier Ranch Store and Museum (GCZRE6). It was an interesting looking gift shop. Couldn't go inside though since it was closed. Maybe next time...

Next was a quick roadside cache in Ramirez (GC20ZBK). Originally it was two miles south of its current site on the banks of the Rio Grande. The property was granted to José Luis Ramírez in 1784 by the king of Spain. It was not assigned in 1767, when most of the Revilla grants were made, because incursions of Comanche Indians made the area uninhabitable. Ramírez and his wife, María Bacilia Martínez, lived with their family in Revilla (Old Guerrero) until 1810, when they built a house of native hand-cut sandstone on their property across the river. The building stood until it was submerged by the Falcon Lake Reservoir in 1953.

The town of San Ygnacio was settled in 1830 - making it the oldest town in Zapata County. The San Ygnacio area was in the 18th century part of a large Spanish colonial land grant, extending on both sides of the Rio Grande. Early ranchos were established on the south bank of the Rio Grande, one of which, called Revilla (and later supplanted by present-day Guerrero), was across the river from the site of San Ygnacio. Jesus Treviño, a wealthy landowner from Revilla, purchased acreage on the north bank of the Rio Grande, and built a single-chamber stone structure in 1830, which is the oldest surviving portion of the rancho. This structure was probably not a permanent habitation, but was likely intended as shelter from the elements and Native American attacks. Treviño's son-in-law, Blas Maria Uribe, added to this structure in building campaigns between 1851 and 1871, which transformed it into the compound seen today. One of its features is a native stone made into a polished sundial and set into the north wall of the fort. It was named for the patron saint of Guerrero, Saint Ignatius Loyola.

There wasn't a geocache yet hidden in this town. So I visited the Blas Maria Uribe Cementerio where he was the second person to be buried here on April 24, 1895. The cache I hid there is GC7XMGN.

Confederate troops fought followers of Juan Cortina here during the Civil War. In 1890 revolutionaries against the regime of Porfirio Díaz led raids into Mexico from San Ygnacio. In June of 1916, troops of President Carranza crossed the border and engaged a U. S. Cavalry unit stationed there. During the early 1900's San Ygnacio had a post office, several stores, a drugstore and remained a commercial center for the region. The population in 1908 was just under 200 persons. It doubled by 1931 but decreased back to 225 by the end of WWII. San Ygnacio was used (like Roma) for scenes in the 1951 movie Viva Zapata with Marlon Brandon in the title role.

Driving down US-83 back towards the dam at Falcon Lake, I stop for 3 more geocaches at the county and state parks (GC1836V, GC3XEHA, GC3XEH5). Now off to the dam and my first cache in Mexico.

I was still a bit nervous about going across the dam over into Mexico. From what I had looked up it seemed like it would be a fairly easy adventure out to the memorial and back. But the fact that I didn't have a passport, just my drivers license, and the fact that it was the most dangerous section of the border with illegal crossings and drug trafficking, kept me hesitant.

Since my anxieties were already high, I skipped the first cache there by the U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration checkpoint. Not being a very busy crossing, I felt as though they'd all be watching me as I'm wandering around looking for some hidden object.

I drove to the gate and was stopped by a green uniformed Border Patrol agent. Explaining that I didn't have a passport, just my Florida drivers license, and that all I wanted to do was go halfway across the dam to take pictures of the memorial and the views... the big question... WOULD THEY LET ME BACK IN! He just kinda grinned and said that "he had no problem with it. But the guys in blue from Immigration on the return side might have some questions."

Officially called the International Falcon Reservoir, it is located on the Rio Grande east of Zapata. The huge lake is bounded by Starr and Zapata counties, Texas, and the county and city of Nuevo Ciudad Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The dam and reservoir provide for water conservation, flood control, hydroelectric energy, and recreation. The project is owned, authorized, and operated by the United States and Mexico through the International Boundary and Water Commission. The project is named for the relocated town of Falcon.

The idea of a dam six miles east of the present site began about 1935, and the lake was approved by treaty at its present location in the late 1940's. Work began in 1951, and deliberate impoundment started on August 25, 1953. The reservoir was dedicated by presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adolfo Ruiz Cortines on October 19, 1953. The five-mile-long rolled earthfill and concrete embankment was completed on April 8, 1954. The first power was generated commercially on October 11, 1954. The dam is 150 feet above the riverbed, with a crest elevation of 323 feet above sea level. Almost two miles of the dam is in the United States, and nearly three miles is in Mexico. The cost of the lake to the United States was $35 million. Flood-control benefits to the United States had totaled $130 million by January 1, 1986.

All lands on the United States side, except for Falcon State Park, are privately owned above 307 feet. The area of the lake varies from 87,000 acres at elevation 301.2 feet to 115,400 acres at the maximum elevation of 314.2 feet. The reservoir has a summer storage capacity of 2,371,220 acre-feet.

Each country has three 14,750-horsepower turbines running three 10,500-kilowatt generators at each plant. Four units are possible if needed. Under terms of the treaty the United States receives 58.6 percent of the conservation storage and Mexico 41.4 percent; financing of the project was based on the same percentages. The drainage area above the dam is 164,482 square miles; 87,760 is in the United States and 76,722 in Mexico. The United States side provides nine public access areas, including the dam itself, along which runs a two-lane highway connecting Farm Road 2098 and Mexican Highway 2.

I found this really cool website with more information about the history of the area, the building of the dam, and the archaeology of the settlements during construction as well as during a drought in the 1990's that had exposed many of the homes and churches that had been underwater for 40 years.

In the photo above, I am near the geocache (GC1N6HD) location in Mexico looking back towards the United States. After spending about 30 minutes out there enjoying the scenery, taking photos, and getting a new country for geocaching, I figured I'd better get back to Texas. But first... WOHOO!! Now I have found geocaches in 5 countries: the United States, Canada, Greece, Germany, and now Mexico!

So I pull back up to the checkpoint on the United States return side. Out steps the man in the blue Immigration and Customs Enforcement uniform, better known as I.C.E. After handing him my drivers license and he begins to ask some questions. I explained that I just wanted to get some photos of the monument and from the dam. I told him that I didn't go nor did I have any interest in going through the Mexican checkpoint. He asked about what brought me here from Florida and I told him I was working on the new wind farm that was beginning construction just up the road. He found that interesting and we talked about that for another few minutes until another vehicle finally pulled up behind me. Said goodbye and returned back to the motherland safely!

That's it for today. Hopefully you didn't get bored with all the rich history I included in the text. If you like that sort of thing, please let me know. Leave your comments below or subscribe to this blog with the button on the right. You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and now Parler. Looking forward to your comments and letting me know you're out there.

See you next time...

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