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Sunken City

When Lake Falcon’s water level drops, ghost towns emerge from the depths.

By E. Dan Klepper

Editor's Note: we are leaving this story in the archives because it is such an interesting story. However, travel to this area of Mexico either by vehicle or boat is not advised at this time.

Arturo the gatekeeper steps from the shadow of his sandstone dwelling into the light of the early afternoon. His simple abode, a blade-sharp rectangle of rocks, lies along the boulevard of a Mexican city built more than two and a half centuries ago. A coyote skull rests on one of the building’s cornerstones. Arturo’s dog, rousted from her nap by the arrival of visitors, appears at the edge of the Tamaulipan thornscrub, then waits patiently for a friendly sign before approaching. She is shy or cautious, one healthy brown eye avoiding the visitors' gazes, one failing blue eye ticking hard like a ricocheting marble.

The surrounding countryside is radiant with spring flowers and berries. Scores of blackbrush have gone lemon-white with blooms. Their scent permeates the air in a musk more savory than sweet, a smell that attracts and repels all at once. Ruby berries of tasajillo droop from sticky branches like fly-blown orchard fruit. The ground around them is covered with verbena.

Arturo instructs his dog to sit and remain calm. Then the gatekeeper coaxes a young rooster from its cage. The rooster struts across the sand and rests fearlessly in Arturo’s open palm, posing for the visitor’s camera. The gatekeeper begins to juggle the bird like a scarlet-wattled grapefruit. The rooster cooperates by hopping from hand to hand. Arturo holds the rooster aloft by the tail feathers and then lets go. The bird drops lightly to the ground. This is training, Arturo explains as he lifts the rooster in the air once again and then tosses him to and fro, for the cockfighting pit.

A scan of the area reveals a landscape equally at odds with the routine world; an empty parakeet cage and a deer hoof hang together from a nearby branch, javelina skulls tuck into tree forks, snake skins dry in the sun, and tidy assemblages of rubber and tin teeter in cartoon-like pillars. But most surreal are the myriad stone facades lining the boulevard and the intersecting avenues that cross-hatch the horizon. As far as the eye can see, architecture collapses in heaps of square-cut blocks, barrel segments of stone-carved pillars, and remnants of lintels, pediments, keystones and voussoirs. Other structures stand erect and intact, some with rusticated walls beneath peeling stucco, others with prickly pear cactus growing from their cornices. Homes, shops, cemeteries, plazas and a cathedral all sprout from the thick vegetation, Pompeii-like, in a visage of ruin. But it wasn’t a natural disaster that reduced this 250-year-old community in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas to a surrealist’s rubble. It was, instead, the construction of Falcon Dam and a slowly rising tide of water.

Devised and built jointly by the United States and Mexico pursuant to the Water Treaty of 1944, the International Falcon Dam and Reservoir project was put in place to provide flood control, water conservation and hydroelectric power to communities on both sides of the lower Rio Grande. The rolled, earth-fill embankment dam, with its maximum base-width of 1,000 feet and a height of 150 feet above the river bed, was designed to hold back more than 2 million acre-feet of water. But in doing so, almost 115,000 acres of the Texas and Tamaulipas landscape were submerged. Shortly after the completion of the dam, reservoir waters inundated ranches, farms, riparian habitat, rural homes and, in fact, entire towns on both sides of the border. The original Texas communities of Zapata, Falcon and Lopeño went under as well as much of Arturo’s charge — the beautiful Spanish colonial town now called Old Guerrero.

Arturo invites the visitors into his unlit dwelling where the sun shines as mid-day shafts through cracks in the windows’ wooden shutters. Twilight illuminates the rusting works of a kerosene lantern and the shed skin of an indigo snake that hang together on a nail. Pieces of a wooden wagon lay across the floor. The abode is part residence for Arturo and his animal menagerie and part showcase for fading newspaper clippings and graying photocopies that tell the story of Guerrero’s watery decline.

Established in 1750, Guerrero was once a vibrant urban center of trade with more than 25,000 citizens. The town, originally named Villa del Señor San Ygnacio de Loyola de Revilla and built near the Rio Grande at the mouth of the Salado River, was renowned for its Spanish Colonial art, enterprise and architecture. In fact, Guerrero was considered a key link in the compelling history of the entire Lower Rio Grande Valley due to its location, age and considerable beauty.

“Guerrero is a fine looking and well constructed town,” a member of the Somervell Expedition observed in 1842. “The houses are built of a kind of marble or stone, with flat roofs, surrounded by a wall. The streets and public squares (of which there are two) are well laid off, and the whole place presents an appearance of elegance and neatness. There is one cathedral in the place and several large public buildings. The inhabitants have fine gardens and throughout the place there are numerous groves of orange trees, that give it a most luxuriant and smiling appearance.”

Arturo disappears behind a blanket-hung doorway and retrieves a stack of dog-eared papers. He returns and shuffles through the archive of photocopies and articles that document bits of Guerrero’s history and its ultimate demise, pausing occasionally at the visitors’ request. The images of Guerrero’s classic cathedral, Nuestra Señora del Refugio, submerged halfway up her portico arches and relegated to a slow deterioration are painful to view.

“There were Americans with big mustaches fishing inside the church,” Guerrero resident Doña Julia Zamora recalled in a 2001 interview she gave to The Brownsville Herald about the consequences of the Falcon project. Zamora remained in Guerrero after the completion of the dam, living above the water line for several decades after the reservoir inundated most of her community. “They would cast their lines where the priest used to stand.”

But the most compelling image of all is one of a boy, barefoot and shy, pausing for the camera along a bustling Guerrero boulevard in its early 20th century heyday. The photograph highlights just a brief moment in an entire personal history, providing a glimpse into one of thousands of stories now lost, and serves as a reminder that the real cost of progress is often our own past.

The destruction of Guerrero compromised efforts to formulate a complete picture of the southern Rio Grande River heritage. But Guerrero’s demise would end up being just one of many consequences resulting from the Falcon mission to capture and control the waters of the Rio Grande.

Through the eyes of a hydrologist, however, an overview of the region’s topography illustrates why the area made such a good choice for flood control and water conservation. The confluence of Mexico’s Salado River and the Rio Grande lies at the region’s center. In addition, veins of major and incidental drainages lace the countryside on either side of the reservoir site. Flowing into the Rio Grande from both U.S. and Mexico are the many arroyos christened after the region’s attendant flora and fauna: Arroyo Huizache in honor of the saffron-flowered acacia trees that bloom throughout the countryside, Arroyo Coyotes for the proliferate scavengers, and Arroyo del Tigre Chiquito for the little tiger, or jaguarundi, that once hid in the thorny mottes. The arroyos collect the region’s rainfall then channel it into the river, thereby replenishing and refreshing Rio Grande waters. And before the existence of Falcon dam, the network also contributed to massive, devastating floods.

The cycle of inundating floods and crop-killing drought was the bane of farmers, ranchers and the myriad communities along the Lower Rio Grande Valley throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The creation of the International Falcon Dam and Reservoir was, by federal declaration, the solution. Construction was completed just in time, in fact, to arrest the damaging waters of the historic flood of 1954. According to a report published in the San Antonio Express on July 1, 1954:

“Were it not for Falcon Dam, the present flood would have probably rolled into the Rio Grande Valley at a peak rate of 300,000 to 400,000 cubic feet per second, as compared with the 198,000 cubic feet per second rate at which it moved in the all-time record flood of 1932. In 1932, the valley floodway system was overtaxed to such an extent that it broke down. Only a modest stretch of the imagination is necessary to picture what might have happened this year without Falcon Dam.”

Despite the promise of flood protection, the project initially generated considerable local controversy due to the fact that towns, homes, farms and ranches would be destroyed. But much of the controversy subsided along with the 1954 flood waters. New sites had been chosen for community relocations, and construction of new civic buildings, homes and schools had begun. Compensation was negotiated for losses of farmland, ranches and businesses despite bureaucratic clashes with the realities on the ground. And not surprisingly the character of the times perhaps more than any other factor brought resolution to most disputes (as well as the somber fact that everything had disappeared under 100 feet of water). It was, after all, the 1950s. The counties involved were predominantly rural with little influence, the impact to the population directly affected was considered incidental when compared to the needs of the growing urban and agricultural communities downstream, and the project had the imprimatur of the two countries’ most powerful individuals — their presidents. Attending the dedication ceremonies were both Dwight D. Eisenhower and President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines of Mexico, leaving little doubt in the public mind that the building of Falcon Dam and the creation of the reservoir wrought compelling consequences for both the citizens and their nations.

“More than a mute monument to the ingenuity of engineers, the Falcon Dam is a living testimony to the understanding and cooperation binding our two peoples … More meaningful and powerful than all the energy it shall generate is the force for common good which we have found in this cooperation,” Eisenhower proclaimed.

“Electric power will replace muscle power,” President Cortines responded. “The life-giving and indispensable waters, now under control, will make the sown fields fertile.”

In reality, the Falcon project failed to become an energy powerhouse. The average total kilowattage generated per year for the United States serves about 3,800 households. Nor have the fields irrigated by the reservoir waters become any more fertile than those submerged. However, according to the International Boundary and Water Commission — the federal agency charged with applying the terms of boundary and water treaties between the United States and Mexico — the benefits of Falcon flood control exceeded $100 million by 1986.

But the price paid for these benefits included the loss of Guerrero as well as hundreds of historic and prehistoric sites that disappeared under the reservoir’s waters. These sites comprised a wealth of artifacts and information that would have provided important benchmarks in understanding the Rio Grande Valley’s past. Unfortunately, federal regulations requiring archaeological assessments and site preservation did not exist in the 1950s. Thus, a significant chapter of Texas and Tamaulipas history was lost for good. Or so it was thought.

In the mid-1990s severe drought and the drawdown from subsequent water needs downstream reduced Falcon Reservoir depths to unanticipated levels. Suddenly the remains of Guerrero as well as prehistoric burial mounds, lithic scatter, artifact-filled middens, historic ranchitas and old townsites reappeared in the shallows. Historians have since been battling to protect and preserve the contents and the integrity of these exposed sites. Archaeologists and anthropologists have had to contend with theft, funding issues and bureaucratic recalcitrance in their efforts to launch a full-scale protection and assessment program. In addition, variable reservoir levels cause these sites to appear and disappear according to floodgate release, fluctuating river flow and downstream water usage. Most unfortunate of all, these sites have been routinely damaged by the worst possible factor — looting. As a result, Rio Grande Valley history continues to vanish.

Arturo leads the visitors back out into the sunlight then removes a key from his key ring and places it in an outstretched palm. “Para la Catedral,” he says. The church is still a beautiful place to see, Arturo insists, despite the water’s destruction.

The iron gate has been forged during a more contemporary age as have the satin and glitter images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the bundles of plastic flowers that rest upon what was once the altar. But the mammoth sandstone colonnades lining the nave and the enormous hammer-beams that support the roof leave little doubt that Nuestra Señora del Refugio is a survivor from another time. Wooden planks serving as pews line up in rows before the presbytery, suggesting a recent gathering of parishioners and offer testimony to the cathedral’s rebirth. In fact, the tile floor of the entire church has been swept clean. Dried mud and stone debris have been marshaled together with a simple straw broom, then relegated to a shallow sinkhole in the floor. The broken tiles of the sinkhole form a funnel that collapses into the earth as if some giant plug had been pulled and all of the reservoir’s waters that once filled the cathedral and the surrounding town had drained away just here at this spot, in the choir floor.

The ultimate fate of Nuestra Señora del Refugio as well as the future of hundreds of important archaeological sites that appear and vanish in the ebb and flow of Falcon Reservoir waters have yet to be determined. In many ways it is up to Texans and Tamaulipans, to the needs of farmers, ranchers and municipalities both upstream and down, and to the triumph of a belief in preserving the past over focusing only on the future. But perhaps the final decision will be made by the force that first inspired the region’s settlements and the destinies that followed, a force that continues to shape the lives and the land that she rules with power and influence despite our efforts to bring it under our control, a force we once were proud to proclaim as mighty — the Rio Grande.

Directions to Old Guerrero
(Antigua Guerrero Viejo)

Round-trip distance is approximately 60 miles from Falcon State Park into Mexico and back. A high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended.

The ruins are extensive. Hiking boots, water, food, cameras and binoculars are recommended. Watch for venomous snakes. Mountain bikes are welcome. A small fee is required to view the ruins.

Be sure to check on the latest identification requirements for crossing the U.S. border into Mexico and back via automobile. A fee may be required from the Mexican checkpoint for re-entry. U.S. dollars are accepted.

The route is relatively simple whether you are traveling south from Zapata or north from Rio Grande City via Highway 83. Turn onto FM 2098 (a sign for Falcon State Park points the way). Continue on FM 2098 past Park Road 46 (which will take you to Falcon State Park) until you reach Falcon Dam. Bypass the U.S. border checkpoint station and continue driving along the dam, where you will cross the international border between the U.S. and Mexico. Slow down at the Mexican border checkpoint station, where you may or may not be asked to stop. Once through the checkpoint, you will be traveling on Blas De La Garza Falcon. Continue on Blas De La Garza Falcon into the small town of Nueva Ciudad Guerrero (New Guerrero). Continue to the Avenida Miguel Hildago Y Costilla intersection. Turn left onto Avenida Miguel Hidalgo Y Costilla and continue a short distance to Highway 2 (the Nuevo Laredo–Mier Highway). Turn right (west) onto Highway 2 and continue for approximately 21 miles. After crossing Puente Rio Salado (the Salado River Bridge) continue another 3.2 miles and then look for a blue sign indicating the road to Antigua Guerrero Viejo. Turn right. Follow the rough (and often muddy) unpaved ranch road approximately 10 miles. Additional blue signs for Antigua Guerrero Viejo have been posted on the route. You will pass through a number of ranch gates along the way (approximately eight — most with cattle guards). Please leave gates as you find them. Also, be aware that these gates are locked by 6 p.m. The road terminates at Antigua Guerrero Viejo and the shores of Falcon Reservoir.

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