LOS EBANOS — Thirteen miles west of Mission in the small, quiet border town of Los Ebanos, a scene right out of the history books takes place nearly 100 times a day: Pedestrians and motorists float across the Rio Grande River on a ferry powered solely by five men pulling on a rope.
The Los Ebanos Ferry, or El Chalan as it is known south of the border, is the only hand-drawn ferry still in operation along the U.S./Mexico border. The ferry and inspection station was established in 1950 and it connects the town of Los Ebanos on the U.S. side to the town of Diaz Ordaz, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The two towns are separated by a river less than 70 yards wide and an international border.
In June 2010, tropical storm Alex’s excessive rainfall inundated the Rio Grande and resulted in large releases to the water storage system. The resulting flood forced a shut down of the ferry’s service from early July through December 2010.
Ferry service was not the only casualty of the 2010 flood at the Los Ebanos International Ferry crossing, said Phillip Barrera, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) supervisor and Public Affairs Liaison for the Department of Homeland Security Office of Field Operations Hidalgo-Pharr-Anzalduas, Texas Port of Entry.
“The CBP inspection station at Los Ebanos was so severely damaged by the 2010 flood that the building had to be demolished,” said Barrera. “A new CBP facility is currently under construction and is scheduled to be completed March of 2013.”
Barrera explained the new facility will have the same capabilities that facilities currently in use at other international crossings along the border have. That means that it will include radiation detection devices and all the new technology currently in use at other ports of entry.
Aside from having newer technology, the new facility will be different from the former one in other ways.
“The new facility will be substantially larger than the previous one,” said Barrera. “It will include northbound and southbound vehicle lanes and it will have an indoor area for use by northbound pedestrian traffic.”
The facility will also be designed to withstand hurricane type weather.
“From what I understand, it is also being built at a higher elevation to prevent it from incurring high-water damage such as the previous facility incurred in 2010,” he said.
Until the new facility is completed, CBP at the Los Ebanos International Ferry Crossing is operating out of temporary buildings. The ferry continues operating on the same schedule in order to serve the needs of those that depend on it as their preferred method of traveling across the border.
Sitting in her car waiting to board the ferry on the Mexican side of the river, Sullivan City resident Rita Arellano shared what having the ferry at Los Ebanos means to her.
“I use the ferry about once a week when I come to visit family,” said Arellano. “I also like to shop in Diaz Ordaz. If the ferry wasn’t here I would have to cross the border at Rio Grande City. This ferry is much closer for me.”
To many the Los Ebanos Ferry is a convenience. To some it is a tourist attraction. To others, however, the ferry provides a source of income. Among them are the five men that pull the rope that powers the ferry across the width of the river and toll operator 70 year-old Alejo Baldemar Flores.
“Fourteen years ago I came to Diaz Ordaz to accompany a friend,” said Flores in Spanish. “I was only planning on staying 15 days but I’ve been working here ever since. I work from 8 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon seven days of the week.”
Flores recalled the 2010 flood and its effects.
“The ferry had to be shut down for six months when the hurricane hit because the river flooded. The water went so high that it reached the town of Diaz Ordaz a kilometer and a half away and it was as high as that light,” said Flores as he pointed to a streetlight on the Mexican side of the river.
Another Diaz Ordaz resident that was affected by the 2010 flood is Miguel Mendoza. With the help of his granddaughters, Anna and Veronica, Mendoza has been operating a small snow cone and snacks stand between the ferry and the Mexican customs checkpoint for four years.
“It was hard,” said Mendoza in Spanish. “The ferry was shut down for six months so I didn’t have any business. The people had to drive to Anzalduas to cross the bridge there. It’s further, more expensive and more dangerous to have to drive that far to cross the border.”
Even before the flood, Mendoza noticed a drop in tourism from the American side.
“The winter tourists don’t come into Diaz Ordaz like they used to,” said Mendoza. “They would come on bicycles and ride into town but most of them just look at us from the American side now. They’re afraid of the violence so business is pretty dead now. But there’s nothing else to do so here I am.”
The Los Ebanos Ferry operates from 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. seven days a week. To drive there from the Mission area, take Expressway 83 west to Sullivan City. Turn south on FM 886 and drive approximately two miles to the town of Los Ebanos. Follow the signs to the ferry’s historical marker. There is free parking available on the U.S. side for anybody wanting to board the ferry on foot.
Sightseers can drive to within a few hundred feet of the ferry, park their cars and walk down to the river to see and photograph it free of charge. However there is a fee of $1 per pedestrian or $3 per vehicle each way for boarding the ferry and taking it across the river. A valid U.S. passport will be required for any U.S. citizens that are returning to the U.S. after having taken the ferry into Mexico.
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The Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.