Marfa originated as a water supply and freight shipping station on the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio (GH&SA), branch of the Southern Pacific railroad, when track was laid through the sparsely populated Trans-Pecos region of West Texas in 1881. The GH&SA was the last link in the 470-mile intercontinental railroad connecting San Francisco to New Orleans .40 In by-passing the existing community of Fort Davis, about twenty miles to the south, the railroad company set the stage for a new town in the Big Bend. In 1883, the First Assistant U.S. Postmaster General assigned an official post office to the “[water] tank town” named Marfa, reportedly after a character in Feodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov; Marfa is the Russian equivalent of the English name “Martha.” Marfa’s location mid-way between two major Texas trading centers—Sa Antonio and El Paso&mdahs;on the railroad almost guaranteed its success as a commercial shipping hub for area ranches, which was the basis of the regional economy.
At the close of 1883, the Postmaster General estimated Marfa’s population at 150 residents with another 500 served by the post office. The estimate may have been high as early rancher Robert Ellison later recalled that Marfa in 1883 consisted only of the railroad depot, a section house and two tents; the only residents were the railroad agent/operator, a French man named Joe Buhl, and two section crews, all of them Chinese immigrants. Buhl ran a saloon out of one of the tents and a Chinese cook operated a restaurant in the other one. Though Ellison did not mention any permanent dwellings at the station, John Humphries hired Presidio-based adobero, Saturnino Naborette to build an adobe house for his family that year. The house is still extant at 108 W. San Antonio Street (Site 188). Built of adobe brick and sheathed in white stucco, the house is emblematic of traditional building methods in the Southwest border region that displays minimal stylistic elements of a recognized style: it has a central hall with four rooms on either side and a full-faćade front porch supported by Doric columns. A Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, it is the oldest known dwelling in the historic district.
Though the town’s beginnings were inauspicious, a number of cattlemen soon staked claims to the open range along the railroad track. Land closest to the Marfa station in highest demand for shipping livestock to market by rail. John M. Dean saw greater promise for the water stop as a townsite and in 1884, he bought 640 acres from the State of Texas; a subdivision of Section 244, Block 8; the parcel encompassed the land in and around the station including the land where he platted the townsite of Marfa. Unlike many Texas railroad towns with commercial lots set only along the tracks, Dean laid out the townsite with the apparent intention of developing commercial properties along both the railroad frontage and along a broad central main street running perpendicular to the tracks and terminating at a courthouse square. Thus, he set the stage for two commercial strips in Marfa.
Marfa’s location on the railroad line quickly attracted opportunity-seekers hoping to get in on the ground floor. Among Dean’s first buyers was S. F. Wiles who bought Lots 1-4, Block 21, for $300. The lots occupied the southwest corner of W. El Paso Street and present S. Highland Avenue. Access to the railroad suited Wiles who immediately erected Marfa’s first mercantile store “S. F. Wiles General Merchandise and Ranch Supplies,” on the site. Shortly afterward, in 1886, the Jordan Hotel, later renamed the St. George Hotel, was built across the street, at the southeast corner of E. El Paso Street and S. Highland Avenue. These were premium corner lots with frontage on both El Paso Street, along the railroad, and the broad main street.
Wiles soon sold the store to John “Don Juan” Humphris who renamed it Humphris and Company when he opened his business in the fall of 1884. Under Humphris and his partners Charles Murphy and James Walker, it grew to become the largest and most successful mercantile business in Presidio County, with branch stores throughout the region. Most of the sales were to area ranchers who had had to travel to El Paso or San Antonio for their supplies. Humphris offered ranchers generous credit terms that allowed them to remain on the land when they might otherwise fail; in fact, some historians attribute Presidio County’s early ranching success to Humphris. Humphris also opened a bank, a restaurant, and a post office in his Marfa store. In addition to Humphris and Company, 1885 saw the construction of the Marfa Hotel for traveling salesmen and several saloons where poker players reportedly placed their bets with town lots instead of cash. Other businesses cropped up in the “new and growing town” by 1885. Among them were Charley Bishop’s meat market and the firm of Labatt and Ruoff who were “Hides and Wood Merchants.”
In the year between 1884 and 1885, cattle started arriving in larger numbers which only served to further elevate Marfa’s role in the local economy as a cattle shipping hub. Town leaders oversaw the development of infrastructure needed to support the cattle shipping business. Stock pens were built along the tracks on Marfa’s west side and wells were dug to feed and water cattle awaiting shipment to markets. In 1885, a depot with living quarters upstairs for the station agent.50 Marfa’s prospects for continued growth in the cattle ranching and shipping industry were promising, both for business and townsite development.But John Dean had even greater ambitions for Marfa. As soon as the townsite was platted, he began lobbying efforts to move the Presidio County seat from Ft. Davis to Marfa, thereby ensuring its future growth and development. His exact role in the movement is not clear but Dean reportedly influenced prominent Presidio County residents to call for an election on the case by signing over large tracts of land in and around the townsite to those who supported his cause. Like Dean, these landowners stood to profit from the move. On July 25, 1885, an election was held to settle the issue; the votes went in Dean’s favor by a margin of 391 to 302, making Marfa the new county seat. The court ordered Marfa to build a courthouse and jail.
Competition for the courthouse and jail contracts was keen with nineteen builders bidding on the project. The first contract went to San Antonio architect, Alfred Giles, for the design and construction of the jail. It was to be built on Lot 2, adjoining Lot 1 which was reserved for the courthouse, on the east, for the price of $26,000. Though it was intended to be secondary in size and appearance to the planned courthouse, the jail was the most ambitious project in Marfa to date. The two-story stone and brick jail has been described as an “outstanding example of late nineteenth century public architecture. Its appearance is almost Medieval, with “Venetian/Italianate Massing” and “Gothic cresting-entablature,” and a crenellated cornice “reminiscent of medieval structures.” Of more importance to the county commissioners, it was the only jail in Presidio County capable of housing more than fifty prisoners with one one-man cell; one four-man cell; one maximum security cell and a large dormitory cell. Separate accommodations were provided for female prisoners. Though deemed inappropriate for the detention of juvenile offenders, the jail had federal approval for holding undocumented immigrants. The jail was under construction and may have been completed in 1885.
† Adapted from: Terri Myers, Historian; Maria E. Priebe, Associate Historian; Athena Myers, Survey Associate; with Caitlin Murray, Director, Archives and Programs, Judd Foundation, and Peter Stanley, Director of Planning and Preservation, the Chinati Foundation (with assistance from NR Coordinator Gregory Smith). Central Marfa Historic District, nomination documern, 2021, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.