Rio History: Colonel Sam’s Dream

Special to the PRESS

Colonel Sam Robertson was a man unafraid to dream. Born in DeWitt, Missouri, on July 10, 1867, Sam left home at 15 to work on the railroad. A quick learner, young Sam moved up the ladder and by the time he first arrived in the Rio Grande Valley in 1903, he was under contract to lay rails along the Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi to Brownsville.

Recognizing the agricultural potential of the rich fertile delta soil, Sam quickly acquired 10,000 acres along the Los Fresnos Resaca where he organized the San Benito Town Site Company and the San Benito Land and Irrigation Company.

During those early years, Sam was a driving force in the Valley, developing irrigation districts and building canals and drainage systems. To provide access to the more remote areas, Robertson built a network of feeder spurs to connect with  Brownsville Street and Interurban Railroad Company. Eventually, the rail system, known as “the Spider Web” or “Sam Robertson’s Backdoor Railroad” connected 11 communities.

Over the next few years Sam served as San Benito’s first postmaster and two terms as Cameron County Sheriff and was already a local legend when he signed on as a scout for Black Jack Pershing’s punitive expedition into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa. One day while on a scouting mission, Sam was captured, dragged behind a horse, beaten, and left for dead. The ride finished in Columbus, New Mexico — four and a half days and 60 trail miles later. A lesser man would have returned home, never to venture forth again.

Not, Sam.

After recovering, he joined the United States Army where he organized and commanded the Sixteenth Engineers, one of the first regiments to go to France during WWI.

During that war, Sam’s unit won the admiration of the Allied commanders for building rail lines to the front while under constant bombardment from enemy artillery. Sam himself was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and promoted to the rank of full colonel. (Sam remained in Europe for a year or so after the war to rebuild Germany’s railway system.)

Returning to San Benito in 1922, Sam was again elected sheriff of Cameron County, mostly on the strength of his opposition to an upsurge of Ku Klux Klan activity. But political office would not prove to be Sam’s calling. It was the Roaring Twenties and the country was full of optimism. As more Americans bought automobiles the demand for better roads grew. Not only did these new drivers want good roads, they wanted them to lead to better destinations. Colonel Sam was about to embark on a brand new adventure, one that would test his mettle and ultimately cost him his fortune.

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