Marathon, the second-largest town in Brewster County, is located on the Southern Pacific Railroad at the intersection of U.S. highways 90 and 385, twenty-six miles southeast of Alpine in the northern part of the county. The town was founded when the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway built across what was then part of Presidio County. A crew building east from El Paso reached the townsite in March 1882. At that time the area had already attracted a few settlers. Among the first were two brothers from San Antonio, Solomon and Mayer Halff, who established the headquarters of their Circle Dot Ranch near Peña Colorado Springs, four miles southwest of the townsite. In 1879 the Halffs leased part of their land to the federal government for the establishment of Camp Peña Colorado, which became the local center of population before the railroad. Capt. Albion E. Shepard, a former sea captain who had worked as a surveyor for the railroad, bought land in the area on March 10, 1882, and established the Iron Mountain Ranch, north of the site of future Marathon. When he applied for a post office in September 1882, he estimated that the local population was about 130 and "increasing rapidly." A post office was established there on February 13, 1883. Shepard named the site Marathon because its terrain reminded him of the plains of Marathon, Greece.
The railroad turned Marathon into a shipping and supply point for area ranchers. In 1884 the population was estimated at fifty, and local businesses included four livestock breeders, one sheep breeder (Shepard), and one saloon. At that time the principal products shipped from Marathon included livestock, wool, and large game animals, including deer, antelope, and bear. In that year Jim P. Wilson shipped an entire trainload of cattle to Marathon, then hired fourteen Mexicans to drive the herd, on foot, to his ranch in Green Valley, some sixty-five miles to the southwest. On December 1, 1885, Shepard deeded Section 18 of Survey Block 4 to his son, Ben E. Shepard, for five dollars. Ben had it platted and sold the first lot to Otto Peterles on March 25, 1886. In 1887, when Brewster, Buchel, and Foley counties were formed out of Presidio County, Marathon was designated the county seat of Buchel County. In 1897, however, Buchel and Foley counties, which had never been organized, were disestablished, and their territory officially became part of Brewster County, which thus became the largest in Texas.
The first school in Marathon was apparently a private school taught by a Miss Paxton in the 1880s. In 1888 a one-room building was constructed to serve as a school, church, and community meeting hall. Ten years later this building was enlarged and divided by a curtain into two rooms. By 1896 the town's estimated population had more than doubled to 110. The Marathon Baptist Church was organized in February 1898 and met in the schoolhouse until a building was completed in 1910. St. Mary's Catholic Church was founded in 1908 and moved into a new building in January 1909. The Marathon Methodist Church was completed in 1910. A new three-room school was built around 1909, remodeled in 1922, and condemned by the state in 1938. The first Mexican-American school to provide English classes was held in a private home, but in 1910 Hidalgo Ward School for Mexican Americans was built. The Marathon Independent School District was established in 1947, and a new elementary school was built in 1965.
A windmill in the middle of North First Street was Marathon's first jail. Drunks and other petty offenders were chained to one of its legs; serious offenders were taken to the Alpine jail. Later, a one-room adobe house behind French's Store served as a jail but, after several escapes, was replaced by a rock jailhouse. Eventually, used cells from the Alpine jail were installed. The first newspaper in Marathon was apparently called the Eagle; only two issues, from 1908 and 1910, survive. Around 1911 Jack Newsam bought the paper and changed its name to the Hustler. Since Newsam sold out in 1919, no newspaper has been published in Marathon, with the exception of various high school publications.
On September 7, 1904, state comptroller J. W. Stephens announced that all lots in Marathon were delinquent for taxes in 1899, 1900, and 1901 and were therefore forfeited to the state. Fortunately for those who lived there, John Stillwell filed on the section as school land, then sold part to local merchants C. W. and L. L. Hess and Tom Burnam, who patented the land and recognized the quit-claim deeds held by the residents.
Marathon was the principal shipping point for most Brewster County ranchers because its location in the relatively flat Marathon basin was more accessible to cattle than Alpine. It also served the mining operations at Boquillas. In addition, in the early twentieth century, Marathon became the center of the guayule rubber industry. In 1907 a group of San Antonio investors organized the Texas Rubber Company, which opened a factory in Marathon. In 1909 William Stayton bought the factory, which closed shortly thereafter when the local supply of guayule plants proved to be less extensive than hoped. The factory reopened as the Border Rubber Company under Charles T. Wilson, employed around 250 men at its peak, and operated intermittently until 1926. Attempts at oil exploration were less successful. In 1907, after oil was discovered in the yard of the J. M. Chambers Hotel, the railroad drilled a 400-foot well nearby but found only water.
In 1911, with the threat of raids from across the Rio Grande during the Mexican Revolution, Marathon became the local center of military operations. Capt. Douglas MacArthur's company was the first to arrive at Marathon, under a special order that authorized the movement of United States Army troops into Texas to aid the civil authorities in maintaining order. MacArthur's company was replaced by troops under Lt. George S. Patton.
In 1914 the estimated population of Marathon had grown to 600. Among the businesses operating in the town were the Border Rubber Company, the Chambers Hotel, the Hustler, four cattle breeders, three general stores, a bank, a telephone company, and a pool hall. During the 1920s Marathon was plagued by a series of fires of mysterious origin; arson was suspected, but no suspects were ever apprehended. In 1925 the estimated population had fallen to 218, but two years later had climbed to 1,000. In 1928 oil was again discovered; several test wells were drilled near Marathon, but the results were disappointing. Marathon was not destined to become an oil boomtown, and the estimated population varied from 750 to 1,000 for the next two decades.
Other industries met with more success, at least temporarily. At one time in the late 1940s three wax factories were operating in Marathon, but all three were gone by 1954. The first attempt at commercial beekeeping in Marathon was probably the Bourland Apiary, established in 1917. The production of honey grew over the next three decades and peaked in the 1940s. During the 1940s and 1950s "Min-Sol," a soil conditioner and fertilizer found in southern Brewster County, was crushed and shipped in Marathon, but the factory eventually moved to Alpine. By the late 1940s the population of Marathon had dropped to an estimated 600, where it remained until the early 1960s, when it fell to 500. The population climbed to an estimated 996 in the late 1960s but fell to 800 by the early 1970s.
In 1990 the Bailey Fluorspar Company was the only industry operating in Marathon. The town was still a center of the local ranching industry, however, thanks to its location on the Southern Pacific. Marathon is also the principal gateway to Big Bend National Park, thirty-six miles south, for tourists coming from the north on U.S. Highway 385 or from the east on U.S. Highway 90. The population was 800 in 1990. By 2000 the population had dropped to 455.