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The Pecos River rises in the mountains of New Mexico, flows south across that state, then twists through the greasewood country and canyons of West Texas, where it empties into the Rio Grande just east of Langtry. It is a treacherous river. Its sharply cut banks, shifting currents and tenacious quicksands led rancher Charles Goodnight to call it “the graveyard of the cowman’s hopes.”
The river is subject to flash floods, and over the weekend of June 26, 1954, when Hurricane Alice dumped 28 inches of rain into the Pecos drainage, a wall of water 90 feet high swept downriver and destroyed the bridge on U.S. 90 between Langtry and Del Rio. This was the most expensive bridge disaster in Texas history.
That bridge was a 500-foot steel truss double span, built in 1923 for $175,000. The structure, 50 feet above the river’s surface, was the first highway bridge built over the Pecos, although the Santa Fe Railway had built a trestle bridge, then the highest in the United States, slightly up-stream in 1892.
During the 1954 flood, the Pecos River crested at the highway bridge twice, first at 82 feet on June 27 at 7:30 a.m., when it took out both steel spans and washed away a car that was stalled on the bridge. Tragically, the driver had led his family to safety across the flooded bridge and had returned to try to start his vehicle when the bridge fell. His body was never recovered. The second crest of 96 feet came the next day at 1:30 a.m., when it washed out the center pier.
Texas Highway Department engineers A.J. Sharrod and J.A. Shelby drove out from Del Rio on the morning of June 29 to inspect the damage. They found extensive damage on U.S. 90, but when they reached the Pecos, they viewed complete destruction. Sharrod wrote, “The east abutment [for one of the 225-foot steel spans] had collapsed into the river about where it had been erected. The eastern steel span, which was bent and badly twisted, was about 100 yards downstream in the middle of the river. The middle pier for the steel spans had collapsed and was underwater. The west steel span was lying in the edge of the water just off the west abutment.”
The railroad bridge withstood the flood, but some lower bridges to the west washed out, leaving the Santa Fe’s eastbound, 13-car Sunset Limited stranded in Langtry with 264 passengers. The passengers were rescued by helicopters sent from San Marcos, Corpus Christi and San Antonio to Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio. The choppers landed on the highway in Langtry and ferried the stranded travelers to an improvised landing point east of the river, from which buses took them to Laughlin. An eastbound Southern Pacific train, the Argonaut, halted in Sanderson and backed the 70 miles west to Alpine, where it was switched to the Santa Fe tracks and continued on to New Orleans via Fort Worth.
Langtry, a town of 100, saw its population quadruple over the weekend. In addition to the railroad passengers, 200 motorists were marooned there. People slept in cars, in the schoolhouse and on the train. Food from the train’s galley was supplemented by 1,000 pounds of Red Cross rations flown in by helicopter.
During the flood, Jack Skiles of Langtry was at his father’s ranch house just above Eagle Nest Canyon, about a mile outside of town. “It rained 30 inches on June 26 and 27, and on the morning of the 28th, my father and I rode horseback up to the highway, where my father had a store. The man who was leasing the store told us the Pecos River bridge was gone, and we didn’t believe him. But he was right. It was gone.”
The Texas Highway Department worked 24 hours a day for 57 days to build a temporary low-water bridge that was about 7 feet above the normal water level. The replacement bridge, which cost $185,000, washed out about a year later, on July 19, 1955. Then the decision was made to construct the present bridge 273 feet above the river at a cost of $1,168,500.
It is still there.
Lonn Taylor, author and former Smithsonian historian, lives in Fort Davis.