American Society of Civil Engineers

El Paso Texas: 400 Years of Engineering Progress at the Pass of the North

by Ivonne T. Peralta, P.E., (Parkhill, Smith & Cooper, Inc., 810 East Yandell Drive, El Paso, TX 79902 E-mail:
Section: History of Civil Engineering Branches in Texas, pp. 481-487, (doi:

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Document type: Conference Proceeding Paper
Part of: International Engineering History and Heritage: Improving Bridges to ASCE’s 150th Anniversary
Abstract: Human beings have occupied the area now known as the City of El Paso for at least 10,000 years. The first residents have been identified by archaeologists as the "Folsom Man." By the time the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, the Suma, Manso and Piros tribes occupied the area. A Spanish expedition led by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca passed through El Paso in 1536. Several more expeditions passed through El Paso, but most notable was the Oñate Expedition of 1598. Rather than following the course of the Rio Grande from the Rio Conchos, this group traveled north from Santa Barbara, Chihuahua, through the Chihuahua desert. The members of the expedition included 400 soldiers, 130 of whom had brought their families in order to colonize the new land. Nearly starving, and out of water for four days, an advance group reached the banks of the Rio Grande, about 30 miles south of present day downtown El Paso. The remaining members of the expedition caught up a few days later. On April 20, 1598, the party celebrated Thanksgiving with local Indians, feasting on fish, duck and geese. This was the first Thanksgiving on American soil, celebrated almost 23 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. In spite of the many hardships, which included frequent Indian attacks (particularly by the Apache tribe), drought, and flooding, the Spanish continued to colonize the area. El Paso’s location on the banks of a river between Mexico City and Santa Fe made it too valuable to abandon. By the 1800’s it was El Paso’s location on route to California that influenced its’ character as American settlers pushed west of the Mississippi River. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 ended the two-year Mexican War and resulted in El Paso (known at the time of the war as Franklin) becoming part of the United States. By the late 1800’s, El Paso had turned into a genuine "Wild West" town, full of gunslingers, outlaws, saloons and prostitutes. Billy the Kid once came to town to bust a friend out of a small jail in nearby San Elizario. Notorious killer John Wesley Hardin’s criminal exploits came to an abrupt end on August 19, 1895, when he was shot to death by Constable John Selman in the Acme Saloon. The railroad came to El Paso in 1881, diversifying the economy and bringing more "respectable" people to town. As more families moved to town and churches of all faiths were constructed, El Paso’s wild west image evolved into that of a progressive and wealthy turn of the century city. Adobe and wood structures were razed in favor of multi-story concrete and masonry buildings and modern brick homes. The presence of Ft. Bliss made El Paso a hub of activity throughout World Wars I and II, and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Present day El Paso is a city of almost 600,000. Together with Cd. Juarez, Chihuahua, the population reaches two million, making it the largest metroplex along the United States and Mexico border. With such a rich, interesting and diverse history, it is little surprise that El Paso has a number of diverse and interesting civil engineering and public works projects. This paper includes a sample of some of the civil engineering works that will be featured in the El Paso Branch’s entry in the American Society of Civil Engineers 2001 Civil Engineering Conference and Exposition Civil Engineering History Poster Presentation.

ASCE Subject Headings:
Civil engineering