Before Booms and Busts, There Were Trains and Onions

Once a self-proclaimed “Wild West” town, Cotulla, Texas, has always been populated by workers living off the land.

The area that would eventually become Cotulla was staked off by a Polish-immigrant-turned-Texas-rancher — called Joseph Cotulla — in the 1870s. In 1881, he donated 120 acres of the land to the International-Great Northern Railroad and incorporated the next year in the hopes of building a community around the would-be railroad hub.

Today the tracks remain, and every day trains roll through the center of town, where Patsy Leigh works at the Cotulla Main Street Project, a historical preservation group in Eagle Ford Shale’s southern frontier. The train gets so loud, she says, sometimes you can’t hear yourself think.

“If it hadn’t been for the railroad,” she says. “I’m not sure that Cotulla would exist today.”

Across the street from her office, there were once onion sheds outside the railroad depot on Front Street, and farmers and ranchers throughout La Salle County would come and ship off their wares.

“So, that was the big moneymaking thing at that time. Of course now, over the years, it’s evolved,” Leigh says. “We don’t have onions anymore.”

Click here for more about Cotulla's history from Patsy Leigh.

Patsy Leigh of the Cotulla Main Street Project knows the town’s history well. She works right in the center of town, next to the train tracks that have been there since Cotulla’s early days as a railroad hub.

Though its historical marker still bears the “Wild West” moniker, the town shed that image long ago and went from a ranching town to a farming town to, most recently, an oil and gas hub.

But the boom-bust cycle in the Eagle Ford Shale hasn’t been kind to Cotulla. The town bet big on the oil boom, but as production declined and oil prices tanked, it saw a decrease in activity.

“Walking down the streets of Cotulla in days past, you’d see a line of 18-wheelers stretching out for several miles at one of the few red lights in town,” says Texas A&M graduate researcher Trey Murphy, who’s studying the business climate in the Eagle Ford Shale. “Nowadays, it may be significantly reduced. You may only have a couple of 18-wheelers there at the red light.”

Hear more about Trey Murphy's research on the oil and gas business.

Trey Murphy of Texas A&M is researching the oil and gas business in Eagle Ford Shale. He spoke with KUT host Jennifer Stayton about how the industry’s boom and bust cycles have affected towns like Cotulla.

The problem now is those who came to Cotulla looking for work never set down roots. Evidence of this is the abundance of motels in the town — 26 in total, he says.