A City Of Destiny
El Paso arose out of the Chihuahuan Desert at a crossroad of empires and at a point where the Rio Grande, streaming south from New Mexico, rounded a bend and started flowing east. Here was a natural ford in the river, a gathering place for Indians, a crossing point for Spanish explorers and later, a logical point where Mexicans, pioneers, cowboys, gunslingers, goldrushers, gamblers, ladies of the night, entrepreneurs, politicians and artists converged, collided and assimilated throughout the centuries to create a rich melting pot of culture.
In 1598, accompanied by 600 adventurous pilgrims, colonist Juan de Oñate headed north from Mexico on the Camino Real to settle that country’s northernmost outpost at Santa Fe. They crossed the Rio Grande on May 4, designating that crossing El Paso del Rio del Norte. Although El Paso had not yet been created, it had a name. Two hundred years later, a Spaniard named Juan Maria Ponce de Leon built a small shack north of the river where El Paso and Paisano streets presently intersect. In 1830, the river washed the structure away and Ponce subsequently rebuilt a substantial adobe hacienda where the remnants of the Plaza Theater are now. Ponce’s Rancho was the original site of what is now called El Paso.
For a while, depending upon who was collecting taxes, this area belonged either to Chihuahua or New Mexico. In 1848, Mexico and the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in which the Rio Grande was established as the international boundary, and the north bank of the Rio Grande passed forever out of the hands of Mexico and into the arms of the United States. Ponce’s Rancho was allocated to New Mexico for jurisdictional purposes, however, Texas laid claim to the region and built roads west from San Antionio and Austin. In 1850 the people of the town voted to give up New Mexico and join Texas. Had they not made that decision, the village might have stayed in New Mexico, where it would be the largest city and thus dominate state politics.
With the discovery of gold in California, goldrushers in covered wagons started crawling west roughly on the same route as I-10. The Butterfield Overland Stage left Tipton, Missouri, rumbling toward California and Ponce’s Rancho became a convenient stopover at the halfway point.
Benjamin Franklin Coons stepped off a stage, leased the old Ponce Rancho and called the struggling village Franklin after himself; the surrounding Franklin Mountains assumed the same name. In 1859, Indiana-born Anson Mills alighted from the stage and agreed to survey a street plat. Because he had trouble getting residents to relinquish property, the original downtown streets he laid out had numerous dead ends and triangles. He renamed the town El Paso and marked off the main plaza or Public Square.
The Public Square was moved from the north end of El Paso Street to its present location in 1859 and has been known since 1902 as San Jacinto Plaza. Toothy alligators arrived in the plaza in 1883 and did not leave until the 1960s. People around the world still think of San Jacinto Plaza as Alligator Park. During the frontier period, residents were uncertian if alligators could survive El Paso’s often chilly winters, so on particularly cold nights, several men would snatch up the reptiles, wrap them in coffee sacks, haul them over to the saloon and place them behind the potbellied stoves. Early the next morning, they’d return the alligators to the plaza, break the ice with their boot heels, untie and unwrap the ’gators, and pitch them back into the water. The alligators are lovingly commemorated in a sculpture by Luis Jimenez.
Over the years, both famous and infamous characters have passed through El Paso. Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp paused in El Paso, amazingly without causing mischief. John Wesley Hardin and John Selman died violently here and both are buried in Concordia Cemetery. Pat Garrett, the tall slayer of Billy the Kid, spent five years in El Paso during the turn of the century, working as a United States Collector of Customs. Traveling troupes often spent several days in the Sun City. Jenny Lind performed here, as did Buffalo Bill.
The 1880s brought the railroads, providing El Paso not only an economic boost but also an influx of businessmen, preachers, politicians, developers, gunfighters and shady ladies.
In 1911, the Mexican Revolution thundered into town. Refugees streamed out of Mexico by the thousands into El Paso. When the fighting died down, some went home, but most remained to build the character and heritage of El Paso. Thus, the great Mexican exodus began not with the early conquistadors but with the fire and blood of Pancho Villa. The Mexican Revolution had established El Paso. Through press coverage and the convergence of the railroads, El Paso became one of the world’s best known cities. It would never again be just a bordertown.
During prohibition, El Paso became a popular train stopover for transcontinental travel. Large hotels arose, some of the best in Texas. The nation’s finest entertainment troups, anticipating a layover in El Paso, booked shows and concerts in advance and El Paso became a city of theaters.
World War II accelerated the town’s transformation with downtown El Paso a sea of military uniforms and soldiers. Then came an international airport, Interstate 10, shopping centers, renewed tourism, industry and thousands of people deciding to live in an inviting city with a near-perfect climate. Today, El Paso is a thriving community, as well as the main port of entry into and out of Mexico. As a crossroads, and the largest town on the American side of the international border, there are no limits to El Paso’s growth. Its history proves that.