6 Days in the Valley
The Rio Grande Valley has a rich sense of its own place in history and visitors are often surprised at how this part of Texas has been vital to everything from ancient mineral mining to the last battle of the Civil War to the emergence of an entire musical subculture.
These historic sites we visited are just of the few places where history comes alive in the Valley.
Port Isabel Lighthouse | Quinta Mazatlan | La Lomita | Harlingen Arts & Heritage Museum | Palo Alto Battlefield | La Sal del Rey
Imagine 19th century sailors straining to spot land after a long journey, searching through the darkness in a time before widespread illumination. Built in 1852 on a bluff overlooking the seaport, the 72-foot-tall Port Isabel Lighthouse helped guide ship captains for 53 years, but closed in 1905. The Texas State Parks Board (precursor to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department) funded its restoration in 1947; it reopened as a historic landmark in 1952. More repairs in 2000 returned it to its 1880s appearance. The visitors center is a replica of the original lighthouse keeper’s cottage. Today the site is operated by the City of Port Isabel, while TPWD provides architectural consultation and preservation assistance. The lighthouse has been closed for repairs but should reopen this month. LB
The centerpiece of this urban World Birding Center site in McAllen is an 80-year-old Spanish adobe mansion, a luxurious 10,000-square-foot private residence purchased by the city in 1998 and reopened in 2006. Not only does Quinta Mazatlan provide a picturesque wedding/party venue, it’s also a top birding site — more than 230 species of birds have been spotted in the 15 acres of surrounding gardens in the past decade. LB
The red-brick ruin casts an imposing shadow from atop the hill that gives the area its Spanish name: La Lomita. These three-story walls once housed Catholic novitiates, but now loom eerie and silent following a 2009 fire. It’s not open to visitors.
Behind this burnt-out shell and below the levee road, a white-plastered building, topped with a bell tower and cross, sits in stark contrast. This mission chapel is on the historic registries as a relic, but once inside it’s clear that it remains a revered space.
Personal notes and prayers are written in guest books, and fresh cushions adorn the ancient kneeler; in the corner, a woman sweeps away dust that has gathered under the altar.
This iteration of the chapel dates from 1899, but earlier buildings served the Oblate missionaries who provided spiritual services to early Valley churches. When the city it served was founded in 1908, it was christened Mission in honor of the chapel that was central to the lives of the early settlers of the area. TA
There’s always something fascinating at the Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum, but December brings a lovely display of Christmas trees and wreaths, all decorated and donated by local individuals, families and organizations. The big Christmas Tree Extravaganza happens on Thursday, Dec. 7, starting at 6 p.m., with caroling and holiday treats, but the exhibit remains through the month. The historical homes and businesses out back are decorated for the season as well. LB
Walking along the pathways of the Palo Alto Battlefield in Brownsville in the early morning light, it’s not hard to go back in time to 1846 and find yourself standing in the boots of U.S. soldiers during the first battle of the Mexican War. The vast coastal prairie sprawls out before us, and we can almost see the Mexican soldiers advancing; interpretive panels along the trail help you imagine the cannonballs flying in a rain of terror from the siege cannons. The stillness of the morning is broken only by a couple passing through on bicycles and the soft clank of the flagpole hardware in the breeze, as if it were a bell tolling for the dead. Inside the National Park Service visitor center, you’ll find interactive exhibits and military uniforms to enhance your experience. LB
Just east of tiny Linn, a faded brown sign marks the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, with a mile-long hike to Texas’ own 530-acre great salt lake. La Sal del Rey’s history spans centuries. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the lake has the ability to quickly replenish the salt mined out, earning it the name “the King’s salt.” The lake and the salt dome it sits on still hold more than 4 million tons of salt. TA