It was just at Texas twilight; a perfect time of day. A waning red sunset was falling from sight, and the water rushed below. As I crossed the old Colorado River Bridge near Altair, the bright stars were popping out above. The Aquila constellation cast its light onto the sandy river waters. It was not surprising that “Aquila” (Latin) meant “Eagle,” since it was so close to Eagle Lake. But, in fact, the constellation name was used as early as 1730, well before Eagle Lake was named.
On a clear Texas night, as we study the stars in the big sky above the winding Colorado River, it can be seen that one star stands out from all the rest. Its name is “Altair.” Its meaning is “the brightest star.” From this star, Altair, Texas got its name.
During the days in the late 1800s, Robert E. and John Stafford were in the cattle business, and had a large ranching operation near the present Altair. The area was a crossroads for cattle driving and later shipping. It was located in south central Colorado County. The large Stafford Ranch House was a county icon for generations, located between Altair and Columbus.
The Altair town and post office were originally named Stafford. By 1887, it had 100 people, and a schoolhouse. However, the town name was changed between 1888 and 1890 to Altair, or “the brightest star,” when it was learned that there was already a town and post office near Houston, named Stafford, in Ft. Bend County.
In 1890, a town site was laid out, and a branch of the Texas & New Orleans Railroad arrived. An Altair train station was built, along with a telegraph office. Passengers came and went, and multiple cattle cars carried livestock to market. Cottonseed was shipped, and goods were brought in to the growing little community.
The Colorado River Western Railroad was chartered in 1955, to build out from Altair and the older Texas & New Orleans Railroad to a strip mine for gravel, about nine miles away, to its headquarters near Alleyton. It was later abandoned.
The cattle business remained strong, and the small Altair community had 200 people at its peak, in 1960, along with two stores; a cotton gin; a blacksmith shop; a lumberyard; and a hotel. It built a water tower, and the first telephone line was run between Columbus and Altair. Population fell to 70 in the 1970s, and continued to drop into the 1990s, with only about 30 people now.
Altair is at a crossroads where highways from Eagle Lake; El Campo; Garwood; Sheridan; Rock Island; and Columbus converge. Altair became a gravel production area, and was home to the Skull Creek Ranch; a motel and popular bowling alley; Marvin’s famous Blue Goose Restaurant and Hunting Club; and the large Kallina Rice Dryer.
Altair was the starting point for the annual Texas Trail Ride of 130 miles to promote the San Antonio Livestock Exposition and Rodeo, introduced in 1954 by Altair’s Ed Johnson, and a group of ranching friends. They created the trail ride from Altair along the “Old Spanish Trail” to San Antonio.
Altair has had a colorful history with cattle drives, railroad beds, businesses, ranching, farming, oil, and the gravel industry. It remains at the crossroads of the old cattle trails, and now school bus trails, as the primary location of the Rice Consolidated Independent School District.
While Altair still shines as the brightest star in the Aquila constellation, who knows, at its location at this busy Texas crossroads, it may yet rise again as the brightest star on the Colorado County horizon.