On the Trail 5-25-09
Centuries before Marty Robbins met a girl name Felina “out in the West Texas town of El Paso” travelers were in the area. Certainly Indians used the travel corridor that became known as El Paso Del Rio Del Norte ” The Pass of the North.
The first Europeans came through the Pass in 1581, but it was Juan de Onate who gave it the name when he crossed the Rio Grande in 1598. His expedition pushed north and east across Texas and into the Great Plains, the first Spanish incursion into the lands that are now a part of the United States.
When the Pueblo Indians of present New Mexico revolted in 1680, they forced Spanish settlers to relocate south of the Rio Grande, but the area near the Pass of the North became a popular settlement, with many of the Spanish people remaining south of the river.
Over the next few centuries Spanish settlements flourished along the river with missions founded at Ysleta, Socorro and San Elizario. The people had an economy based on agriculture, mining and transportation, particularly travel and trade along the Camino Real, The Royal Road linking El Paso with Santa Fe and extending south into Mexico.
Texas became a Republic in the 1830s following battles with the Mexicans at places like San Jacinto and the Alamo in present San Antonio, but it joined the United States in 1845. During the Mexican-American War of 1846 the region around El Paso was hotly contested, but following that conflict the settlements north of the Rio Grande were to become a permanent part of the United States.
Just three years later, in 1849, the Americans established their first military post, Fort Bliss, constructed and garrisoned to protect southern trails to gold fields located farther west. There were several locations for this military post over the years, including the first beside the Rio Grande at the Pass of the North where Onate crossed the first time. Fort Bliss remains an active military post and is a major training and missile defense center.
El Paso, originally known as Franklin, became an incorporated community in 1873 and encompassed other small communities along the river including Magoffinsville, Concordia, and Hart’s Mill.
Today the city is big and vibrant, a cultural mix that includes soldiers, European descendants of early settlers, and Mexicans who live on both sides of the border. Many make their homes in Cuidad Juarez but daily cross the bridge to work at jobs in El Paso.
For my recent visit to El Paso, I had the chance to stay at the Camino Real, truly one of the great old hotels in the West. Originally built in 1912 and listed on the National Historical Register, the showpiece of the hotel is its Dome Bar featuring an 80-year old Tiffany glass dome. Although the dome was once in the hotel’s lobby, it is now centered over the round bar. Many important people have spent time in this hotel including Pancho Villa, President Howard Taft, and General “Blackjack” Pershing (not all at the same time, I’m certain).
I’d been here once before, back in the 1990s for a Western Writers of America Convention, but had forgotten just how beautiful the Tiffany dome is. I had the good fortune on my recent trip to El Paso to spend time with one of my favorite writers, Dale L. Walker, a historian and former director of Texas Western Press at the University of Texas, El Paso. We had breakfast twice at two iconic El Paso eateries: Village Inn and Ihop.
After our visit and meal, he took me to the park near Hart’s Mill where Onate crossed the Rio Grande ” the beginning of the Camino Real, Royal Road.
And with a grin he said, “I’ll show you another icon of El Paso.” So we drove along a road beside the Rio Grande to Rosa’s Cantina, the place made famous by the Marty Robbins’ song. I must admit this small adobe structure is not what I had pictured all these years. Dale told me up until recently it was open for business and served very good food. But alas, on my opportunity to see it, the door was locked.
With other friends I later found a different cantina and most definitely enjoyed the Tex-Mex chimichanga and more so the margarita (the tequila down there is just so much better than what you find up north). Now I’m ready to return to El Paso any time to visit the Dome Bar, the historic sites of Onate, or even Rosa’s Cantina, not to mention take an opportunity to follow the Mission Trail.
As for crossing the bridge into Juarez, that was off limits on this recent trip due to the drug wars ongoing in Mexico, and I’m not certain I need that level of excitement if I should return to the Pass of the North anytime soon.
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