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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Catarina

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
If you’re looking for a ghost, it figures you’d go to a ghost town to find one.

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.
Catarina TX -  Catarina  Hotel Courtyard
Catarina Hotel Courtyard
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.
Catarina  Texas - Catarina Winter Garden Farms 1929 old photo
A Tour for Prospective Landbuyers for Catarina Farms, Nov. 9, 1926
Photo Courtesy Jason Penney
Click here for Photo close-up

Long before Catarina 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, Catarina had only 45 residents.

The 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.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" October 6, 2005 column
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