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From Stagecoaches to Spaceports: Van Horn’s Colorful Transportation History

May 25, 2023 Texas, Texas History, Member Spotlight

You could argue that the bucolic town of Van Horn, Texas has been at the crossroads of the transportation history of the United States.

The west Texas town, just about two hours from El Paso, was first settled as a stagecoach stop, grew into existence as a railroad hub, drew passing tourists in the 20th century via the highways, and later Interstate 10, that intersect the area and now plays host to a nearby spaceport.

“Van Horn, long considered a pit stop for weary travelers and hikers, is now being considered a destination on the maps of many, who are eager to witness a new chapter of space travel,” reported the Yourbasin news site.

Van Horn on the Edge of a New Frontier: Space Travel

Van Horn may be the last town in the central time zone, but it’s on the edge of an entirely new frontier as Blue Origin launches its rockets and manned space flights about 25 miles outside of the city limits.

“Billionaire Jeff Bezos' flight to the edge of space with his brother and two other passengers has put this tiny West Texas town in the national spotlight. Van Horn, population about 2000, is the closest town to the launch site,” reported Houston Public Media in 2021.

Bezos celebrated the quaint town, saying "I also want to thank the town of Van Horn. This is a small and amazing little town.

Since then, more flights have taken personalities such as William Shatner and Michael Strahan into space.

Bezos and Blue Origin began buying up land almost 20 years ago in the area with some 300,000 acres acquired.

Then-Mayor of Van Horn, Rebecca Brewster, told Fox News in 2021 that "our biggest driving force is the tourism dollar. We often plug ourselves at the crossroads of the Texas Mountain Trail. [Van Horn] can be your hub for all your adventures in far West Texas."

The town, which has seen its population boom and bust over the years, has less than 2,000 people today, down from more than 3,200 in the 1970s, but Blue Origin is attracting attention again to Van Horn, the seat for Culberson County.

"Van Horn being put on the map, it's exciting for some and there's some that are going to benefit economically from it," said Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carillo.

Van Horn History: Taming the Wild, Wild West

Van Horn has enough of a wild, wild west tradition that its first “Old Settlers’ Reunion” was held in 1899.

The Texas State Historical Association handbook shows the area's history timeline as:

  • The area was first known for the Van Horn Wells, discovered 12 miles south of the future townsite, and home to an army garrison by 1859, commanded by Lt. James Judson Van Horn.

  • Early travelers arrived by stagecoach as the San Antonio-El Paso Mail passed through the area.

  • By 1879 a town was formed and named after Van Horn as the Texas and Pacific Railway built through the area.

  • The first store and post office opened in Van Horn in 1886.

  • The first school was established, with seven students, in 1887 and a schoolhouse was built in 1893.

  • Boom and bust population cycle started early with 450 in the town in 1890, only to have the population dwindle to 30 two years later.

  • By 1905, Van Horn had a dance hall, opera house, community center, pool hall, and saloon.

  • Van Horn became the county seat in 1911 when Culberson County was formed.

  • Three years later, Van Horn had a new courthouse, bank, two newspapers, six cattle breeders, two general stores, a hotel, a telephone company, ice and feed store, drugstore, blacksmith, and meat market.

Van Horn Becomes a Stop on the Tourism Trail

For the last 100 years, Van Horn’s population may not have grown much, but the town has grown in importance as a stop on the tourism trail as it has become a launching point for such destinations as Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, Marfa, and Big Bend.

By the 1930s and 1940s, railroads arranged day trips to tourist destinations from Van Horn, and the town had several hotels and tourist camps.

A ranching community, the area was also known for its hunting thanks to wildlife that included antelope, deer, bear, mountain lion, and quail.

Van Horn was incorporated as a city in 1945.

In the 1970s, the Van Horn Chamber of Commerce foreshadowed its role as a new transportation hub, when it good-naturedly offered the area as a stop for the British Airways supersonic airliner, the Concorde. West Texas, sadly, was bypassed for Washington, D.C. and New York as a landing spot for the SST.

What to See and Do in Van Horn

When in Van Horn, do not forget to visit the Clark Hotel Museum at 108 West Broadway.

Located in a historic building that was the first county courthouse in 1911, the museum now features:

  • Former town saloon
  • Pioneer and Indian relics
  • Pioneer family heirlooms
  • Railroad paraphernalia

Other things items to put on your day trip agenda to Van Horn:

  • Hotel El Capitan: 1930s historic hotel is a sister hotel to the Hotel Paisano in nearby Marfa and designed by famed architect Henry Trost. Fun fact: The hotel became a bank in 1973 after I-10 opened but was bought in 2007 and turned back into a hotel. There are 49 rooms, 12 that open to private balconies or patios that overlook a central courtyard with a fountain surrounded by trees.

  • Van Horn City Park and City Pool: Located at Austin St. and 3rd St., this city park features the town’s original jailhouse, built in 1914, on its grounds. The Van Horn city pool is adjacent and a place for locals to cool off in the summer months.

  • Okey D. Lucas Memorial Park: A quiet, small, and open park with trees and shrubs, is a popular spot for photographs as it provides a dramatic background of Turtleback and Six Mile Mountains. Located at 1804 W. Broadway.

Eat Like a Local in Van Horn

There are some great options to eat like a local in Van Horn including:

  • Van Horn Cattle Company Restaurant: Casual dining with live music. Enjoy your flatiron steak with homemade red wine au jus and choice of two sides.

  • El Capitan Restaurant and Bar: Set in the 1930 historic hotel. Enjoy a cocktail and west Texas sunset in the courtyard. The Gopher Hole Bar is named after the original basement bar! Pistachio fried steak and pecan salmon are just two of the upscale fare offered on the menu.

  • Mom’s Kitchen: Burritos, burgers, menudo, homemade food! This little TexMex eatery mom-and-pop eatery made The Texas Bucket List.

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