By Amber Bauer and Elizabeth Garate
All aboard!” At this call, a young Virginian climbed in a stage coach in early February 1881 on the last leg of a journey to El Paso that had taken four months and had covered 6,000 miles, by way of Los Angeles and the Southern Pacific Railroad.
He would alight from the stage in El Paso with $15,000 sewed in his vest. All he could see was a group of mud houses and two dusty streets, but he considered El Paso “a good venture” since three railroads would meet there later that year. Zach T. White would become a farmer and land developer, millionaire and philanthropist, a perfect example of the pioneering instinct that built this country.
Image caption: "Father" of the Upper Valley, Zach T. White. Photo courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society.
“Zachariah Taliaferro White was born on March 23, 1850, in Amherst County in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the youngest of 21 children born to Willis and Jane (Drummond) White. He spent his childhood in Lynchburg where he learned agriculture by working on the family farm. As a boy, his goal was to learn to plow a straight row.
In 1875, armed with only a few years of formal education, White joined an older brother, Charles W., in Austin, Texas, and helped build the city’s first waterworks. White later furnished pipe fittings for a water system in Dallas and constructed a water system for Waco.
Always pushing West, White decided to head for El Paso with a sizable nest egg, but it was not a simple trip. He began the journey in October 1880 and traveled to Denver, planning a trip straight down from Santa Fe by train. However, hearing about Indian attacks on settlers and railroad workers, he was diverted to Cheyenne and further west to Los Angeles. He set out for El Paso again, taking the train to within 22 miles of the dusty village and completing the trip by stage.
Once in El Paso, White thought about opening a gambling hall but decided on a grocery store instead, a business that would serve as a stepping stone to the many ventures that would claim his time, money and energy. When William Davis of Missouri built a frame store building, White rented half of it and opened a hardware store and tin shop. His principal profit from the hardware line was selling guns and ammunition to the populace, most of whom carried weapons.
While he was in the hardware business, he realized the need for brick and baked the first kiln of brick. White built the brickyard on property in the Upper Valley, which he had begun to buy upon his arrival in town. White sold and delivered all of the 5,000,000 bricks the kiln produced annually.
With money White received from the sale of his share in the grocery and hardware stores, he invested in the development of utilities in El Paso. With W. J. Fewel and others, White organized the El Paso Gas, Coal and Coke Company in February 1884, which provided the first natural gas for El Paso. The gas company became prosperous, and on September 6, 1886, the City Council issued a franchise and the company changed the name to the El Paso Gas Light and Heating Company.
White organized, with help from Saint Louis parties, an electric light plant, and after many years he owned both the gas and electric companies and was in active charge of them. The electric and gas plant was located on Third and Chihuahua Streets. The electric power plant was the final key in lighting up the city. The year 1884 marked the beginning of the use of incandescent lamps in El Paso stores and homes.
Originally owning large tracts of land in Ciudad Juárez as well as El Paso, White donated the land that became Juárez Avenue in order to acquire the right to construct the first Santa Fe Street Bridge. In addition, he organized the Santa Fe Street Railway, the trolley car line from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez. The cars were first drawn by mule.
White built many facilities and businesses in El Paso, but one of his most prized accomplishments was the construction of the Paso Del Norte Hotel. Recognizing the need for modern lodging, he and George Look conceived and built the million-dollar hotel. Designed by Trost and Trost architects,White’s dream hotel, located at El Paso and San Antonio Streets, was earthquake proof, with nine stories and 300 rooms. The hotel opened on Thanksgiving Day, 1912.
The Paso del Norte featured a Tiffany glass dome measuring 25 feet in diameter. On December 19, 1970, T. K. G. Investment Company bought the Paso del Norte Hotel from White’s daughters. In 1986, the restoration of the Hotel was completed with a new 17-story tower. The glass dome is still one of the spectacular features of the hotel, now the Camino Real. In April 2001, the hotel became part of the Hilton chain.
Although White became a powerful businessman, he never lost his love of the land. He introduced alfalfa and cotton to the Upper Valley and loved his two huge farms, River Bend and Maryland. “There’s plenty of land and plenty of jobs for every man that’s willing to work, and I’m willing,” White once told a reporter. He became known as the “Father” of the Upper Valley.
White owned a total of 8,000 acres in the valley, stretching from above the ASARCO smelter to a point 10 miles from the original town of El Paso. White cleared his own land, built the streets, laid the water mains, erected the water works and built the homes for the people who developed the Upper Valley. “It was all mesquite, cactus and brush. I cleaned it up myself. It was some job, taking about 15 years,” White recalled in 1931.
In later life, sometimes White would hop in an airplane to get an aerial view of his land. White is quoted as saying, “[This is] the prettiest land in the world. Mississippi river bottoms have nothing on this.” Most of that land is now developed in the Upper Valley. Only a few acres still grow cotton and other crops.
White also tackled the Rio Grande, which with its many twists and turns threatened to claim some of his farmland. He dug a new channel for the river, near Frontera and River Bend, claiming 175 acres of land and lowering the riverbed by five feet, lessening the possibility of flooding. White became known as an expert in boundary matters and also helped plan the Elephant Butte Dam Project.
In 1920, White donated land in the Upper Valley to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. He also established a 60-acre bird sanctuary located between present-day Sunland Park Drive and Country Club Road, sheltering quail and pheasants from hunters.
Zach White donated 126 acres of his land for the construction of the El Paso Country Club to make the Upper Valley attractive to investors and to increase land value. An adobe house, later used as a storehouse, served as headquarters while the $100,000 main clubhouse was built. The club opened on January 7, 1922, and featured a swimming pool, double tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course and horse stables. The clubhouse included a ballroom, solarium, ladies card room, lounge room, open private dining rooms, offices, screened-in porch overlooking the pool and a terrace overlooking the golf course.
When he retired because of illness, White sold all of his business interests except his real estate. “It breaks my heart to stop working; I’m crazy about it. Crazy about it.” White turned his philanthropic interests to schools.
White approached the El Paso County school system and volunteered to provide land for a school if it would be built in the Upper Valley. Zach White school came into being on April 5, 1930. The original Zach White Elementary School was located on Doniphan between Sunset and Country Club Roads and is now part of Kohlberg School. The present Zach White Elementary School is located on Roxbury in the Upper Valley off River Bend.
White also offered $3,000 per year for three years to the Radford private school for girls because it would keep it from closing down during the Depression that followed the market crash in 1929.
With all of his accomplishments, White said he was proudest of his wife and children. White’s first wife, Maggie Mathias, died in 1890, leaving one daughter. Maude Bounds became White’s wife in 1892, and the couple had two daughters.
Zach White, pioneer builder of the southwest, died at the family residence on January 31, 1932 at age 81. His hard work and business sense allowed El Pasoans to enjoy a city with modern utilities, luxury hotels, rich farmlands, schools and other organizations. He once said, “I always finished every job I ever undertook. I’m proud of everything I ever did. I worked. I was trained to work, and it was a wonderful education.”.