Victoria, centrally located in Victoria County at the convergence of U.S. highways 59, 77, and 87, is the county seat, the largest city in the central coastal region, and the commercial focus of the surrounding counties. It is also one of the state's old, historic cities. The town was named Guadalupe Victoria for the first president of the republic of Mexico and established in 1824 by Martín De León on the Guadalupe River at a site known earlier as Cypress Grove (see DE LEÓN'S COLONY). Guadalupe Victoria was platted by José M. J. Carbajal and developed an early importance as a stop on the La Bahía Road, as a stock-raising center, and as a shipping point for the port of Linnville. By 1834 about 300 people were living in the municipality, which was governed by a Council of Ten Friends from 1824 to 1828 and by four alcaldes from 1828 to 1836; the four were Martín and Silvestre De León, Plácido Benavides (elected twice), and John J. Linn. Though primarily a Mexican settlement, Guadalupe Victoria contributed volunteers, supplies, and arms to the Texas cause against Antonio López de Santa Anna. Its superior defensive position on the banks of the Guadalupe induced Sam Houston to order James W. Fannin to retreat there from Goliad in 1836. After Fannin was defeated at the battle of Coleto, however, Guadalupe Victoria was occupied by the Mexican army under José de Urrea until the Texas victory at San Jacinto. Soon thereafter, the Mexican residents were ostracized; they fled, and their town, resettled by Anglos, became known as Victoria. Victoria was incorporated under the Republic of Texas in 1839. The first mayor was John J. Linn, who, together with five aldermen, set down various ordinances and concentrated on leasing ferry operations across the Guadalupe River and making the river navigable for trade. The mayor and board of aldermen, who exercised authority over both county and city, first assessed property taxes in 1843.
In August 1840 several citizens were killed in the great Comanche raid that destroyed Linnville (see LINNVILLE RAID OF 1840). In 1846, the year the Victoria post office was established, the town suffered a terrible cholera epidemic. Victims died so rapidly that proper burials were impossible, though valiant efforts were conducted by German immigrant Dillman Mantz and his son and by a legendary Black man called Black Peter. Nevertheless, Victoria continued to grow as a trade center, especially as Indianola became an important port of entry for both goods and the thousands of immigrants who settled in the area. By 1850 Victoria had three public houses, a variety of stores, a weekly newspaper, and a courthouse. The population was 806, including 649 Whites and 157 slaves, in a county inhabited by 2,019 people, of which 623 were slaves.
By 1860 there were 1,986 residents in Victoria, including 521 slaves and one free Black man, and the town had become a major junction between Lavaca Bay ports, San Antonio, Austin, and northern Mexico. A variety of settlers-Americans, Germans, Bohemians, Italians, Jews from several countries, and Mexicans-had transformed the essential character of the town by the 1880s. The German element was particularly large. From that decade onward, technological, economic, and social forces combined in a foundation for growth that rapidly accelerated after World War II. The decade of 1910 to 1920 is the most critical time in Victoria's development. During those years the county's population increased 21.9 percent to 18,271, while the city's population rose by 62.2 percent to 5,957. Though the county shift in population from rural to urban was not recorded until the census of 1950, the momentum of the 1910–20 decade was a culmination of events that began during the 1880s, when immigration, devastating hurricanes (which drove Lavaca Bay residents inland), improved transportation facilities, and social amenities attracted a population base for subsequent growth.
The San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railroad reached Victoria in 1861, was destroyed during the Civil War in 1863, and was rebuilt by the federal occupying force in 1866. The line became part of the Gulf, Western Texas and Pacific Railway in 1871. The New York, Texas and Mexican Railway reached the city during the 1880s. John W. Mackay and Daniel E. Hungerford collaborated with Italian count Joseph Telfener to prove that a line from Rosenberg to Victoria was a profitable venture. Italian laborers immigrated to Texas and, on July 4, 1882, completed the road. In 1888 L. D. Heaton, Jim Brown, and others established a mule-drawn streetcar system that operated until 1894. The four cars were named for popular ladies of the city.
A score of plans failed to fulfill the dream that Texas would have an extensive inland waterway by 1900. Steamers had churned the waters of the Guadalupe River up to Victoria, but the last of the vessels, the Fritz Berner, discontinued its schedule by the mid-1880s. In 1905 C. S. E. Holland of the Victoria Business Men's Association called a meeting of the Interstate Inland Waterway League, and a year later John J. Welder, James A. McFaddin, and Harry E. Rathbone organized the Guadalupe River Navigation Company, which operated barges and dredges in concert with the federal government.
Telegraph service reached Victoria in the 1870s, but not until the next decade did Western Union establish a local station. Shortly after the arrival of Western Union, local telephone service was established. Noah Whips and William Schmidt supervised Victoria's first system (Citizens' Telephone Company) from 1889 to 1894, when Southwestern Bell acquired the property.
County Judge J. L. Dupree sponsored the community's first highway in 1889. It ran about three miles, from the Guadalupe River bridge to Goldman (or Canaan) Hill, southwest of Victoria, where the Refugio, Goliad, and Mission Valley traffic merged. In 1917 a $100,000 bond issue inaugurated the era of "hard-top" streets, and Uvalde Rock Asphalt Company received a contract to improve fifty-three blocks of downtown Victoria.
Some of Victoria's commercial ventures are unique in both state and national business annals. A safe and vault company was the only institution of its kind south of Cincinnati, and the Texas Continental Meat Company, established in 1883, was a harbinger of new techniques. Combining prairie grass, cattle, railroads, and business acumen, Continental pioneered in the slaughtering and packing of swine, sheep, and poultry, as well as beef. With a branch in Fort Worth-which ultimately inherited Victoria's equipment-the company utilized the first refrigerator cars and manufactured from animal fats the first oleomargarine and gelatin. The second Kraft-Phoenix Cheese Corporation plant to be built in Texas, established in the city in 1934, took advantage of local dairy farming.
Ranching was the area's first major enterprise and the one that ensured Victoria's early success. According to the United States Census, the county had 42,993 beef cattle by 1880 and 75,495 by 1900. One of the first meat-packing plants was established there in 1869; in 1870 it paid $10,000 in wages to fifty-three workers, who produced $101,400 worth of packaged meats. During the 1880s changes occurred that reflected a general transition in the state from pioneer ranching and traildriving to market production. Many ranchers shifted their interests to financial institutions and commerce, which in turn supported a transformation of the cattle industry. By 1884 the trails north were closed, and new breeds were replacing the longhorn cattle. Tobias D. Wood introduced Sussex cattle from Tennessee in 1898, and Al M. McFaddin brought Brahmans to Victoria in 1904. Thomas M. O'Connor brought more Brahmans two years later.
By 1900 three banks served the area-the Henry and Abraham Levi mercantile and banking establishment, the Farmers' and Merchants' Bank, and the First National Bank. The Levi enterprise dated to the 1860s; it became Levi Bank and Trust in 1910 and Victoria Bank and Trust in 1923. The Farmers' and Merchants' Bank was chartered in 1894. The First National Bank was organized in 1899 and merged immediately with the John M. Brownson and Eugene Sibley banking interests, a business dating to 1882. The First National Bank became the First Victoria National Bank shortly before it took over the Farmers' and Merchants' Bank in 1914.
The Victoria Advocate, the state's second oldest existing newspaper, first appeared in 1846 and by 1897 was publishing a daily edition. Editors of the Advocate were advance agents in adjacent counties and states. Many of the paper's early owners or editors took seriously the masthead motto advocating new business, city services, fair associations, and other innovations. John Stilwell Munn, editor in the 1880s, coined the city's first and still cherished epithet-City of Roses-to express civic pride in the town's gardens.
In the 1880s local governmental agencies were housed on Municipal Square, a block just east of De Leon Plaza, or Constitution Square. Municipal Square accommodated a new courthouse built in 1892, a jail built in 1884, a small city hall, and a fire station. A lengthy controversy between city and county ended in 1910 when the Texas Supreme Court divided Municipal Square property between the two branches of local government.
Victoria's boundaries were officially outlined in 1877 by North, South, East, and West streets and by other designations that largely abandoned previous Spanish terminology. Aldermen divided the town into wards in 1889 and four years later began to codify city ordinances. The change from riverwater to wells began with a Victoria landmark, the standpipe, constructed in 1884 and located on De Leon Plaza. This 105-foot tower leaned enough to encourage wagers on its destiny. The $89,000 bond issue that financed the standpipe also provided for a pumping station to push untreated riverwater into the reservoir tower. In 1907–08 an additional bond commitment converted the water system to artesian wells. Provisions for pure water were followed by other health measures. After 1891 physicians reported communicable diseases, and the city kept a record of them. Smallpox vaccination was mandatory for schoolchildren, a pesthouse served to isolate disease victims, and the city fathers appointed a community health officer. In 1901 a portion of city revenue was devoted to Dr. Hugh W. Crouse's Valley View Hospital, precursor to the several hospitals now operating.
With wood as a primary building material, Victoria suffered from frequent, costly fires. During its early years the volunteer fire department earned the respect of the community. The organization owed its vitality to Vincent S. Fritz, chief for thirty-six years. In 1914 the city abandoned its handsome, spirited teams of fire horses in favor of an American-La France pumper and hose truck. Two years later the department moved into new quarters at Central Fire Station.
The city's first lighting network consisted of oil lamps attended by A. Musselman, who continued after the advent of electricity to superintend the new "chained lightning." In 1890 the Victoria Light, Power, and Ice Company contracted with the city fathers for forty bulbs of thirty-two candlepower. The Texas Southern Electric Company succeeded Victoria Manufacturing Company, and after 1925 Central Power and Light supplied the city's electrical energy.
Architectural style became an obvious indication of change, as stone and brick replaced cypress lumber in the 1880s. This facet of the turn-of-the-century transition has been largely obliterated by later structures, but examples do remain, such as those designed by Jules Carl Leffland. Older buildings, such as the homes of William L. Callender and Alexander H. Phillips (still extant) and the first courthouse, of 1849 (demolished in 1892), represent the earlier era.
Victoria has long enjoyed a cultural amalgam that has produced distinguished performers and appreciative patrons. The Casino Hall was the center of cultural events after 1854, and in 1893 the city welcomed the opening of G. H. Hauschild's Opera House. This landmark drew large audiences for nearly four decades, during which local and nationally renowned musicians, politicians, and orators graced the stage. Motion pictures offered no competition to the Opera House until 1912, when Victoria's first movie house opened in the Welder Building on Forest Street.
Before 1936, when the Texas Centennial prompted a long list of historical markers, Victoria displayed Pompeo Coppini's statue Last Stand (1912). The White Way-bronze plates on twelve lampposts around De Leon Plaza and four more on Market Square, dedicated to Victoria's pioneers-had also taken shape. In later years flowers were added below the light fixtures in imitation of a practice in Victoria, British Columbia. An old bandstand, built on Constitution Street about 1899, was moved to the center of the square in 1923 in place of the standpipe. The plaza, changed little since these alterations were made, still gives downtown Victoria a flavor of the past.
The old Lavaca Bay settlements to the southeast had declined by 1900, and such river towns as Kemper's Bluff to the south and Clinton to the north had vanished. Surrounding rural communities like Mission Valley, Salem, Raisin, and Coletoville became more dependent on the new commercial and employment opportunities in Victoria. The revival of the 1970s and 1980s in several of these sites emphasized the attraction of the county's central city, for the capital that supported the revival was derived largely from occupational trends in Victoria.
During the post-World War II era Victoria became one of the fastest-growing cities in Texas. Its historic industries have contributed to an increased prosperity. The city hosted Foster Army Air Field until 1957; afterward the facility became Victoria Regional Airport. The population grew from 16,126 in 1950 to 33,047 in 1960 and to 41,439 ten years later. By 1980 it had reached 55,076. In 1986 the city had a symphony orchestra, a fine arts association, a nationally recognized Bach Festival, numerous historic homes, museums, and libraries, a branch of the University of Houston that complemented Victoria College, and the Texas Zoo, the only zoo in the world that featured native Texas wildlife exclusively. Victoria also served as the medical center for a seven-county area.
As a result of increased population revealed in the 1980 United States census, in 1981 Victoria became a standard metropolitan statistical area, the newest of the twenty-six Texas population centers so classified by the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Statistical Policy and Standards of the United States Department of Commerce. According to guidelines adopted by the federal government on June 30, 1983, the county was then redefined as Victoria Metropolitan Statistical Area (see METROPOLITAN STATISTICAL AREAS). Because Victoria County constitutes the Victoria MSA, statistical data since 1981 for the county and the MSA are identical. The population of 68,807 in 1980 reflected a 28 percent increase over 1970. The census determined that of the residents 42,815 (62.2 percent) were White, 20,944 (30.4 percent) were Hispanic (of these 19,970 were classified as Mexican-American), 4,619 (6.7 percent) were Black, and 429 were other races. By 1982 the population of the Victoria MSA had reached 72,900. In 1990 the population was 74,361.
Accessible by three U.S. highways, rail, and commercial air, Victoria MSA is also located on a barge canal connected to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Business income is derived from oil, manufacturing, agribusinesses, petrochemicals, tourism, and recreation, especially hunting, fishing, and boating. In 1982 the area had sixty-two plants employing 3,600 people, who earned $85.1 million and manufactured such products as oilfield and foundry equipment, aluminum, petrochemicals, and steel, valued at $644.2 million. Retail sales for the area amounted to $492.9 million, and wholesale sales were $1.05 billion. An estimated 504 service industries, which employed 3,348 people earning $49.4 million, recorded $144.9 million in receipts. The average annual farm income from sorghums, rice, corn, beef cattle, hogs, and poultry was $33.5 million. A wealthy area relative to its size and population, the Victoria MSA recorded a tax value in 1984 of 3.2 billion. Victoria, the core city and county seat, serves as the commercial focus for the counties surrounding the Victoria MSA. In 1990 it had a population of 55,076, and Bloomington, the other principal city, had 1,888 residents. The MSA had a population of 74,361. Victoria's population reached 60,603 in 2000, and the MSA had a population of 84,088.