One hundred years ago, Col. Sam Robertson stood on the same Boca Chica Beach that Elon Musk owns today and dreamed a different dream. Instead of Musk’s spaceport, Robertson dreamed of seaports and an oceanside highway.
Robertson owned 800 acres at Boca Chica, and it was likely some of the same 1,000 acres now managed by Musk’s companies. Back then Robertson built the railroad that connected the Rio Grande Valley to the wider world. He had founded the town of San Benito, serving as sheriff and helping to run the Ku Klux Klan out of the region.
He had repurposed the old resacas to irrigate the lower Valley. In 1926 he gathered RGV leaders in Brownsville’s El Jardin Hotel to make his pitch for an oceanside highway that would run from Boca Chica to Corpus Christi and become, in his words, “the most beautiful 150 miles of highway in the world.”
Robertson laid out his vision before the Rio Grande Valley Commercial Club. “I have traveled somewhat extensively in this world,” he said, “and have never seen any scenery wilder or more beautiful than this stretch of beach.”
Robertson was not only an entrepreneur; he was a decorated soldier and noted engineer. In 1916 he served as a scout for Gen. Jack Pershing in the pursuit of Pancho Villa in Mexico. During World War I, he served in Europe as a commander of the 22nd Engineers, building railroads and bridges for Allied troops in France. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for bravery under fire.
The business leaders of the Valley trusted his vision because they believed his claims. He wasn’t pitching a black-top road.
“The beach is as smooth as a billiard table,” Robertson said. “No road can be constructed by man as good for autoing as the beach, and the Gulf of Mexico maintains it.” All you would need is maintenance crews to move driftwood out of the way, he said, telling those assembled that he had explored the beach from Corpus Christi to the mouth of the Rio Grande River and that a highway was quite possible and would bring in enormous numbers of tourists.
Robertson advocated the laying in of water lines for irrigation because then the beachscapes could be enhanced with “bermuda grass, live oak trees, palms and other beautiful trees along the sand hills of the beaches.”
Such a development would be good for the Rio Grande Valley, too, he argued. With good roads to Boca Chica Beach, Valleyites could have a Sunday lunch at home, then drive to the beach for a Sunday afternoon swim at the beach and still be home by 10 p.m.
Robertson’s oceanside highway was never developed. But looking at South Padre and North Padre today, with their causeway bridges, carefully maintained beaches, opulent hotels and verdant landscaping, you can see that his dream for the island has been partially realized.
Robertson opened his Del Mar Resort on Boca Chica Beach in 1931, but the resort was virtually wiped out by a hurricane in 1933. He rebuilt within six months and constructed an asphalt road from Brownsville to Boca Chica Beach because his personal mantra was “Civilization follows transportation.”
Musk would like that, too.
W.F. Strong is a professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and first wrote this story for Texas Standard.