Telfener, Joseph (1836–1898)

By: Henry Hauschild

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: July 1, 1995

Joseph Telfener, Italian financier and Texas railroad builder, was born in Naples, Italy, in 1836. His given name was Giuseppe; he appears to have adopted the name Joseph after his arrival in the United States. On March 15, 1879, Telfener married American Ada Hungerford in Rome and was probably subsequently interested by his father-in-law, Daniel E. Hungerford, in constructing a railroad in Texas. Drawing upon Telfener's prior experience as a railroad financier and contractor in South America, Telfener and Hungerford planned a railroad that would link New York City and Mexico City. The New York, Texas and Mexican Railway Company charter was signed on October 18, 1880, in Paris, France, and was filed in Austin, Texas, on November 17. The company contracted with Telfener to build 350 miles of track from Richmond, Texas, to Brownsville. Work began west of Rosenberg Junction and east of Victoria in September 1881. Towns along the route were named for the financiers Telfener (see TELFERNER, TEXAS), Hungerford, and John W. Mackay; for Telfener's daughters Inez and Edna; and for Mackay's wife, Louise, later known for her entertainments and as the grandmother of Mrs. Irving Berlin. Telfener brought over to America 1,200 Italian workers, hoping they would remain in Texas and settle on land adjacent to the railroad line, known locally as the "Macaroni Line," after its completion. Construction was slow, however, and laborers began to leave for other jobs. On April 22, 1882, the state of Texas repealed all laws granting land to companies for railroad construction, and Telfener abandoned his plans. On July 4, 1882, the track from Rosenberg Junction to Victoria was completed. Expenditures for the line totaled more than $2 million, and only ninety-one miles of the planned 350 had been completed. Telfener operated the short line until July 23, 1884, when the construction contract was annulled. Mackay, Telfener's brother-in-law, acquired the line on January 9, 1885, and sold it to the Southern Pacific lines on September 3 of that year. In 1877 Victor Emmanuel II bestowed the title of count on Telfener to honor him for his achievements in engineering. Telfener, whose motto was Hominem labor honorat ("Work honors man"), was a frequent visitor to Texas. He leased a mansion in Victoria, where he and the countess hosted convivial parties. The couple had four children. Several religious works of art, which the Telfeners arranged to have blessed in Rome and shipped to churches they frequented in Texas, remain on display in Catholic institutions in Victoria. In 1946 Telfener's estate in the center of Rome, the Villa Ada, became the residence of the deposed Italian royal family. Telfener pursued his interests as a financier and sportsman until his death in Rome on January 1, 1898. See also ITALIANS.

The Italian Texans (San Antonio: University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, 1973). John C. Rayburn, "Count Joseph Telfener and the New York, Texas, and Mexican Railway Company," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 68 (July 1964). The Victoria Sesquicentennial "Scrapbook" (Victoria, Texas: Victoria Advocate, 1974).
  • Peoples
  • Italians
  • Business

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Henry Hauschild, “Telfener, Joseph,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 11, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995