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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Pecos High Bridge
Pecos River Queen

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Almost everyone’s heard of Pecos Bill, the mythical West Texas cowboy, but the “fair young” Pecos River Queen never got the attention she deserves.

Her name, according to a century-old cowboy poem that commemorates her, was Patty Moorehead.

First some background.

In 1892, about a decade after the Southern Pacific laid its tracks through West Texas, the railroad considerably shortened the route by building a huge bridge across the lower Pecos. That river -- Texas' westernmost if you don't count the Rio Grande -- winds like a rattlesnake across West Texas, emptying into Lake Amistad.

An engineering marvel, the Pecos River Viaduct (as it was formally known) spanned 2,180 feet and towered 321 feet above the river. For years, the metal structure ranked as the highest bridge in the United States and the third highest in the world. Postcards of the bridge became a favorite medium for the classic "Having a good time, wish you were here" message.
Pecos River Viaduct or Pecos High Bridge Texas
Pecos River Viaduct or Pecos High Bridge
Postcard courtesy Linda Kirkpatrick
Gutsy local cowboys, confident they had a good horse and perhaps further emboldened by a little whiskey, occasionally rode across the walkway that adjoined the tracks on the bridge. There were no guardrails.

Naturally, any cowpoke who could walk his horse across a bridge taller than a 32-story building earned quite a reputation. Such a fellow would be a suitable partner for the Pecos River Queen, a gal as handy at throwing a loop as she was pretty.

The poem, long in the public domain, begins:
Where the Pecos River winds and turns in its jour­ney to the sea,
From its white walls of sand and rock striving ever to be free,
Near the highest railroad bridge that all these modern times have seen
Dwells fair young Patty Moorhead, the Pecos River Queen.

She's known by all the cowboys on the Pecos River wide;
They know full well that she can shoot, that she can rope and ride;
She goes to every round-up, every cow-work without fail,
Looking out for all her cattle branded ‘walking hog on a rail.’

She made her start in cattle, yes, made it with her rope;
Can tie down e'ry maverick 'fore it can strike a lope;
She can rope and tie and brand it as quick as any man;
She's voted by all cowboys an A-1 top cow-hand.
N. Howard “Jack” Thorp composed the poem in New Mexico in June 1901. Including it in a book of poetry published seven years later, he noted, “Written on Lower Pecos… after Roy Bean had told me of this fact concerning Patty.”

Thorp, a blue-blooded New Yorker who came west at 19 after a decline in his family’s financial health, was referring to the infamous Judge Roy Bean, the Law West of the Pecos. In truth, Bean was just a boozy eccentric who made good newspaper and magazine copy.

Whether Patty was a fictional character dreamed up by Thorp has not been proven or disproved, but there’s some evidence that she was for real. The 1900 Del Rio phone book does show a J.R. Moorehead as a cattle rancher living in Comstock. Patty might have been his daughter. And National Park Service historians found that a Patty Moorehead Wilkins leased out some ranch land near the Pecos High Bridge in the 1920s.

Thorp’s resume, however, is readily available. Born in New York in 1867, he came to New Mexico in 1886. An accomplished polo player and horse trainer, he took to cowboying. He also did some civil engineering, but the infrastructure he preferred was a good saddle.

In 1898, he pushed a herd from the territory to Higgins, in the Texas Panhandle. Along the way, he wrote a poem called “Little Joe, the Wrangler.” It became a cowboy classic, later recorded to music.

Having an Eastern prep school education plus three years at Harvard, Thorp was smart enough to realize the cowboy songs and poems he heard around the campfire needed to be saved for posterity. He wrote them down, added poems and songs of his own (including “The Pecos Queen”) and published them in “Songs of the Cowboys” in 1908. An expanded version of his book, with an introduction by Alice Corbin Henderson, came out in 1921. It had more of his original material.

“‘Jack’ Thorp…is the genuine thing,” Henderson wrote. “He is an old-time cattleman and cowpuncher, and his songs are the fruit of experience.  His gift is instinctive and naive, like that of all real cowboy poets, and its charm is precisely in its fresh and ‘unliterary’ quality.”

The last verse of Thorp’s poem tells the rest of Patty’s story:
Across the Comstock railroad bridge, the highest in the West,
Patty rode her horse one day a lover's heart to test;
For he told her he would gladly risk all dangers for her sake,
But the puncher wouldn't follow, so she's still without a mate.
The old bridge is gone, replaced by a more modern span, but the poem about Patty endures. And, if the Patty in the poem was Patty Moorehead Wilkins, she apparently did finally find a fellow who measured up to her standards.

© Mike Cox - April 30 , 2009 column
"Texas Tales"
Pecos River Bridge
Pecos High Bridge
Courtesy The Scheibal Collection

Related Topics:
Texas Bridges
Texas Rivers |

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