you’re looking for a ghost, it figures you’d go to a ghost town to
But when Terry Cole came to the Dimmit County town of Catarina
from McAllen several
years ago, he sought employment as a construction worker, not an encounter
with the supernatural. Even so, he ended up with both.
One spring night in 1999, Cole and an acquaintance sat watching television
in the second-floor common area of the old Catarina Hotel, built in
1926 during Catarina’s heyday.
Photo courtesy Robert Vahle, June 2011
| “I happened
to look away from the TV and saw a ball of smoke moving down the hall,”
Cole recalls. “I just went back to watching TV. But the guy with me
said, ‘Did you see that? What are you going to do if a ghost comes
in your room?’”
Not being afraid of ghosts, Cole replied: “My room’s got two beds.
The ghost can have the other one.” Other guests have reported seeing
a headless apparition wandering the hotel, but the smoky blob is all
Cole ever saw.
“I’d hear creaking noises at night,” he said, “but it’s an old building.
In the heat of the day it expands and it cools off at night.”
Ghost stories make for interesting folklore, but Catarina
has a much more tangible history, grounded in the development of transportation.
got started, the Camino Real, the old Spanish road from Mexico to
Louisiana, cut through the area.
The fate of one person traveling Texas’ first “interstate” probably
provided the area its name. According to Cole, Catarina — her last
name long since lost to history — was a young Spanish woman killed
by Indians in the vicinity of the future town. A stream not far
from where she died became known as Catarina Creek. As the Handbook
of Texas reports, historians have found the name connected to the
area as far back as 1778.
The name also could have been in honor of Santa Catarina de Siena
-- canonized in 1461 -- the patron saint of everything from fire
prevention to temptation. Or, speculating further, the young woman
killed by Indians could have been named for the popular saint.
No matter how Catarina
got its name, more than 200 years later the Camino Real made a logical
route for the railroad to follow when Asher Richardson bankrolled
a new line connecting Carrizo
Springs with the International and Great Northern Railroad at
Artesia Wells. The proposed route cut through the Taft-Catarina
Ranch, which gave Richardson right of way in exchange for a depot
from which the ranch could ship cattle.
When the railroad began running in 1910, ranch foreman Joseph F.
Green moved the pasture company’s headquarters to a site near the
depot and adjoining cattle pens and a small town soon developed.
When the ranch management expanded into irrigated farming, a development
project called Catarina Farms brought all the modern amenities,
including the Catarina Hotel.
As long as the
water pumped from the nearby artesian wells, Catarina
thrived. But the wells played out and Catarina
began to dry up, literally and figuratively. The Depression didn’t
make things any better. The hotel, a stopping place on U.S. Highway
83, saw its last guests in the early 1950s. By the 1990 census,
only 45 residents.
water never came back, but the hotel did. In 1997, new owners reopened
the long-boarded structure for the first time since the early days
of the Cold War. It has had two owners since then, but the property
has been renovated and does a steady business during the South
Texas dove, quail, deer and turkey seasons.
Just across the highway, to give hunters a place to pick up a gift
for the wives they left behind, a combination antique and gift store
has been in business for several years.
A few blocks past the antique store, partially hidden by mesquite,
is the old Catarina School. The building has fallen to ruin, but
its poured concrete structure assures that the skeleton will survive
for years to come.
Farther down the highway, the town’s once lavish swimming pool —
part of the Catarina Farms development — is debris-filled. The country
club building adjacent to it is long gone.
The Catarina cemetery, located at the end of a winding unpaved road
a couple of miles from town, is overgrown with mesquite, though
some burials occurred there in the 1980s and 1990s. But the location
of the final resting place of the woman who gave the area her name
is as uncertain as the existence of the ghosts who supposedly haunt
the old hotel.
October 6, 2005 column
Texas | Texas Ghost
Towns | Texas Ghosts
Order Books by Mike Cox