Texas Travel

City Spotlight: Del Rio

By Peter Simek 4.4.19

Throughout the middle part of the 20th century, rock ’n’ roll fanatics tuned in to hear the broadcast of the fabulously popular Wolfman Jack calling out the hits over the AM airwaves. The monster radio signal that covered the entirety of the U.S. emanated from a Mexican radio tower sitting a few miles south of the tiny Texas border town of Del Rio.

Like many border towns, Del Rio owes its history and success to a symbiotic relationship with Mexico, and its role in the history of radio is no exception. Huge radio towers broadcast just south of the Rio Grande, in Mexico, allowed American broadcasters to to circumvent the regulatory oversight of the Federal Communications Commission on signal power, making Del Rio a radio capital — the U.S. address for the legendary Mexican radio stations XERA and XERF located in Del Rio’s Mexican sister city, Ciudad Acuña.

Ronald Castle Photography

River Roots

Settlement along the Rio Grande near the current site of Del Rio dates back to the 18th century. Spanish explorers passed through the area and established a town on what is now the Mexican side of the border. In 1862, the first hacienda north of the river was built, but the town of Del Rio didn’t really take root until after the Civil War. Del Rio’s San Felipe Springs fed a newly constructed canal system that helped transform the arid land north of the river into a burgeoning settlement. The pioneer history of 19th-century Del Rio is preserved today at the Whitehead Memorial Museum.

Ronald Castle Photography

Piloting the Air Force

Just a few years before the establishment of the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army opened an air base near Del Rio which would become a center for training military pilots. After World War II, the remoteness of Laughlin Air Force Base made it an ideal location for training for secret missions. The U-2 spy planes that took photos of the Cuban missile silos that figured so large in the Cuban Missile Crisis were based at Laughlin. Today the Air Force, along with border patrol, is the largest employer in the area.

Ronald Castle Photography

Gateway to Amistad

These days, most people who visit Del Rio are en route to some of the recreational spots located near the town. Lake Amistad, a dammed reservoir along the Rio Grande, is a popular spot for boaters and anglers, hosting major fishing tournaments every year. A little farther up the river is Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site, which preserves ancient cave paintings created by some of the area’s earliest inhabitants.

Explore more of the Texas border in Terlingua or backpacking Big Bend National Park.

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