BY DAVID BOWLES
The largest city in Hidalgo, center of commerce for the area and perhaps the most widely known Valley community in the outside world, McAllen came into existence as a sort of hostile merger between two different, competing communities in 1911.
Its namesake, John McAllen, could hardly have imagined this eventuality when he married Salomé Ballí de Young, the widow of his former boss, John Young, in 1861. Salomé held considerable property at the time. She had inherited most of it from her great-grandfather José Manuel Gómez, who had established the Santa Anita Ranch in 1797 on 95,000 acres granted him by King Charles IV of Spain. She and her late husband had since acquired and annexed surrounding property, and she continued this practice with her new spouse. They renamed the estate the McAllen Ranch. By 1885, it comprised 160,000 acres.
When the railroads finally reached the ranch in 1904, John McAllen and his son James Balli McAllen donated land so that the tracks would pass through their property, which they had decided to transform into a town.
They set up a company to explore possibilities along with James’s older half-brother John J. Young, Harlingen founder Lon C. Hill and Uriah Lott, president of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway.
The new town of McAllen grew slowly despite being the site of the train depot closest to Edinburg, the county seat. Its sickly infancy was complicated by the establishment of a new community just two miles to the east, work of John Closner, William Briggs and O.E.M. Jones, who arranged for an irrigation canal and used their business connections to quickly attract some three hundred souls to the town. People began to call the settlement East McAllen, and it siphoned businesses and residents away from “West” McAllen until the original community was a ghost town. The 1911 charter of incorporation renamed the second city simply “McAllen.” It had, in effect, completely absorbed its rival sister.
As the city continued to burgeon madly, Mexican Americans found themselves increasingly segregated, despite the multiethnic background of some of the city’s original founders. The McAllen Real Estate Board and Delta Development Company worked diligently to keep Mexican Americans on the south side of the tracks. Elementary schools were completely segregated, though no junior or high school facilities existed for students of Mexican extraction, as it was expected they would leave school by the end of sixth grade.
In fact, once McAllen Municipal Hospital opened in January 1925 and then expanded into the McAllen General Hospital two years later, doctors with Spanish surnames were not even allowed into the main hospital building, instead being relegated to a remote corner of the basement.
When the so-called Bandit Wars exploded in 1915–16, the state of New York sent twelve thousand National Guard soldiers to McAllen to help suppress the feared uprising of Mexican-American rebels. The influx of men sent a jolt through the local economy, and by 1920, the city’s population had ballooned to six thousand.
Appropriately enough for such a tumultuous and often-traumatic birth, McAllen is the site of several different hauntings. The new McAllen City Hall was built in 1995 on the same ground where the segregated McAllen General Hospital once stood. Now, as dark falls, municipal employees are faced with inexplicable occurrence. Drawers open and close by themselves.
The sound of paper ruffling wafts from empty rooms. Strangers in old fashioned garb wander the halls, question people they come across, and then enter a restroom on the second floor — only to evaporate without a trace.
Clearly, something has disturbed the eternal rest of former patients. But their haunting is relatively recent. For the oldest ghost-infected spot in town, one only has to drive a mile or so away, from Houston Avenue to the corner of Tenth and Main Street.
As McAllen’s economy boomed after the departure of the New York National Guard, it become clear the city needed a luxury hotel. A parcel of land across the street from Archer Park (named for the second mayor) was developed, and a sixty-room resort in the Spanish Colonial Revival style was erected in 1918. Named the Casa de Palmas Hotel, the twin-towered building sported red tile and twenty-four-inch-thick walls, enclosed by a palm-fronded outer patio. Every room face outward, allowing cool gulf breezes to delight the guests. With its beautiful salon and private dining rooms, the hotel soon became the center of business, social and civic events in Hidalgo County.
Over the years, important public and private affairs were held at the Casa de Palmas, as when Fidel Castro, freshly bailed out of prison by Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas, had a clandestine meeting with former Cuban president Carlos Prío Socarrás in January 1956 to solicit funds for his guerilla troops.
Other happenings, while not nearly as notorious, have left a deep ethereal mark on the site. Odd sounds can be heard, and the telephones in the hotel ring unexpectedly, with no one on the other end. But the most spine-tingling strangeness is the appearance of ghostly figures in different areas of the hotel. An elderly lady has been sighted in the basement, wandering aimlessly as if search of something she’s lost. Guests leaving their rooms in the middle of the night claim to have seen a veiled woman drifting somberly along the halls, her black garments suggesting mourning cut short by tragedy.
At least one of the poltergeists is known to the staff — the spirit of Miss Roxy, a former employee of the hotel who committed suicide years ago. She can be seen from time to time on the third floor, near where her office was once located, moving about purposefully with vim and verve the way she did when alive.
Normally, the owners or residents of haunted places can hardly turn to the authorities for help, at least not the local law enforcement agencies. But several decades ago, staff mistook an apparition for an actual flesh-and-blood human, and the resulting confusion has been recounted again and again down the years.
The hotel manager returned to Casa de Palmas late one night to finish up some paperwork he had left pending. As he exited his car, he chanced to look up at the moon, which floated majestically just above the north tower.
An unexpected figure was silhouetted in one of the archways – a woman with flowing hair, dressed in a white gown.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the manager groaned. Hurrying inside, he confronted the concierge.
“There is another woman,” he gasped, “in the tower! How did she get in?”
“No idea, sir. Should be locked up tight. You and me are the only ones with keys.”
“Well, damn it, go up and get her.”
The young man swallowed heavily in annoyance and moved to comply.
Before long, however, he came down alone.
“The door is wedged shut,” he said with chagrin. “I keep calling for her to come out, but she won’t answer.”
The manager groaned and clutched his temples. “I’m not in the mood for this. Not again.”
Smashing the buttons of the lobby phone with urgent fingers, he called the McAllen Police Department. A car was dispatched at once.
Two officers arrived about ten minutes later, a man in his twenties and his older female partner. The manager accompanied them to the stairwell that led up to the room atop the tower.
“Stay here, sir,” the female officer indicated. “It’s safer that way.”
They climbed cautiously to the top and tried the door. The knob turned, but the door was jammed shut.
“Ma’am,” called the older cop, “McAllen PD. We’re going to need you to open up at once.”
A faint rasping came from the other side. Nothing more.
“Forget this,” the officer muttered to her partner. “Come on, Gómez. Let’s try to bust it down.”
He nodded and cast his voice loudly. “You need to get away from the door, ma’am. We’re coming in by force.”
The cops looked at each other. Gómez counted down from three on his fingers. Then they slammed their shoulders against the door.
It swung unexpectedly open, throwing the two off balance as they went twisting into the room.
No one was there.
“What the hell, Jones?” Gómez muttered, reaching for the light switch.
“Someone’s messing with us.”
The lights came up. The room was definitely empty.
“Let’s go tell the manager he’s been pranked,” Jones said, shaking her head. “Either that or he’s drinking on the job.”
As they turned to leave, however, the door slammed shut. Gómez growled a curse and yanked on the knob. The door would not budge.
“Listen up, whoever’s on the other side of this. You’re about to be arrested. Things’ll go better for you if you immediately open this door and let us through.”
For the space of a few seconds, there was no response. Then the lights began to flicker and tremble as the temperature dropped.
Without warning, Gómez was lifted bodily into the air and flung against the wall between two arched windows. It was as if an invisible hand were thrusting against his chest, holding him in place.
“Jones …” he managed to gasp.
His partner was hurrying toward him when something yanked on her shoulder and spun her around. She reached for her sidearm, but the clasp popped open by itself and her pistol went flying through the air, smashing through a window and falling with shards of glass onto the palm trees below.
Gómez was released, and he crumpled to the floor, his chest heaving as he caught his breath.
“Oh my God, Jones!” he rasped frantically. “It’s a freaking ghost! What do we do against a ghost?”
Looking at the window and then at her partner, she shrugged noncommittally. “They skipped this stuff at the academy.”
Trying to stay calm for his benefit, Jones walked over to the window and peered out, looking for her weapon. Something caught her eye just below the sill. Strands of fine black hair, snagged on the stucco. She thought she could make out a bit of blood.
“But I’ve read a lot. Horror novels, that sort of thing. Why are places haunted, Gómez?”
Getting to his feet, her partner shrugged, wobbling a bit. “Beats me. Because people die there?”
“Yeah. And they leave a trace. Long as that trace is there, their spirit is trapped or whatever.”
“Okay. So when the trace is gone, so are they?”
Jones turned to him. “Yup. You still a smoker?”
“Can’t seem to get the monkey off my back.”
“Let me have your lighter.”
Gómez fumbled in his pockets for a second till he extracted a cheap plastic Bic. Nodding, he held it out to her.
With a watery sort of shimmer, a woman materialized beside him, her eyes wide with rage. She raked vicious long nails across his bare arm. He dropped the lighter and clutched his aching limb to his chest.
Jones did not hesitate. She darted her hand out the window, seized the hair, and then dove for the lighter. The apparition loosed a ghastly scream, her face twisting and distorting.
The female cop flicked the flame to life and lit the bloody strands.
Just as it hurled itself at her, the poltergeist fizzled away into nothing.
The cops stared at each other silently for a moment. Then Gómez cleared his throat.
“Uh, what do we tell people?”
His partner looked around them, her eyes falling on the broken window.
“We got locked in. I busted a window to call for assistance. That’s it. No ghost, got it?”
Relief flooded the younger cop’s eyes. “Ah, good idea. Who the hell would believe us, anyway?”
FRIGHTENING FRONTERA:GHOSTS AND GHOULS OF THE RGV
Author David Bowles will share the most spine-tingling tales of the Rio Grande Valley.
WHEN 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday
WHERE McAllen Public Library, 4001 N. 23rd St., McAllen
REGISTRATION Visit www.mcallenlibrary.net or call (956) 681-3061