West Texas Wonders:
Did German Prisoners Of War Build Marfa’s Sewage System?

By Carlos Morales

You might associate Marfa for a lot of things, the mysterious lights in the desert, the concrete, minimal art.  But you might not hear a lot about Marfa’s military history.

In the early 1900s, Camp Marfa was set up as a cavalry post during the Mexican Revolution. Decades later, it would become Fort DA Russell, which would be home to hundreds of American troops By World War II.

Then, in 1943 about 200 German prisoners of war arrived. The years they were held in West Texas is what led one listener to submit a question to our West Texas Wonders series.

Around Marfa, it doesn’t take long to find someone who knows something about the German POWs and their time in the West Texas desert.

“You know that place where Dairy Queen is, that was fenced in, they had their barracks there,” recalled Maggie Marquez.

“They would march from there to this other place,” said Marfa native Frances Rojas. “I don’t know what work they did there, or whatever. But it was all day.”

Some, like David Marwiz, had questions. “Did they want to stay here after the war was over, or did they want to go back to Germany? I think I would’ve stayed here,” he said laughing.

For West Texas Wonders, Ian Lewis asked, “is it true that German POWs from World War II built Marfa’s sewage system?” (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

It’s a great question, but the one we’re exploring for West Texas Wonders comes from Marfa Public Radio’s Ian Lewis. He wonders if it’s true “that the German POWs, from World War 2, built our city’s sewer system.”

The German POWs Ian is asking about were sent to Texas because the Geneva Conventions actually required prisoners of war to be held in climates similar to the one they were captured in. 

It also allowed them to work, but did they work on the sewer system?

“I don’t know how this question got into my head,” said Lewis. “Either I heard a rumor or I had a weird dream and forgot that’s how it happened.”

Well, if you want to learn the ins and outs of Marfa sewage, there’s one person you call: Robert Silva. 

In the 1980s, Robert Silva managed the city’s sewage system. He took our question asker Ian Lewis on a tour of the city’s treatment plant to try and answer his question. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

Silva has been with the city since 1985. At that time he managed Marfa’s sewage plant, but he would eventually become the city’s public works director. He agreed to drive around with our question asker Ian Lewis and me.

Our first stop: The bones of Fort DA Russell. As we follow old sewer lines, Silva points out the dividing line between the city and the old fort: Madrid street.

“Marfa was here,” said Silva, pointing North toward the rows of houses that are now in front of the Border Patrol’s Marfa offices. “Military was there.”

“So the base had water and sewage both before the city?” asked Lewis.

“Oh way before,” replied Silva, adding that the Fort’s sewage system goes back to 1911 when it was Camp Marfa, a cavalry post set up during the Mexican Revolution.

Today, Marfa’s sewage system sits on a handful of acres of private land. You’ll find it across from the old fort, which —now owned by the Chinati Foundation— is home to minimalist art. As for the city’s treatment plant, it took a while to be fully developed, says Silva. It recently went through a $4 million overhaul and now features two large detention ponds, which have a system to air out those noxious smells.

Robert Silva tells Ian Lewis about the old treatment systems both Fort DA Russell and Marfa used: Imhoff and Dortmund tanks. The German technology could provide Ian Lewis’ answer. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)


“They got these things that are constantly putting air into the sewage,” said Robert. “If those things were to stop with a power outage, within 24 hours you’d smell some shit — it’d be some bad stuff.”

Before the update, the city was running on dated technology, including something called Imhoff sewage tanks.

“That’s German technology,” said Robert, as he stood outside Marfa’s newly renovated system.

And when it was active, the Fort used a similar treatment system, called a Dortmund tank.

“It wasn’t made out of fiberglass. It wasn’t plastic. It was concrete. It was reinforced steel.” In short, it was German engineering.

These German-made tanks may be our biggest clue as to why Ian Lewis might have heard German POWs built Marfa’s sewage system.

So is it true? 

“My immediate reaction, if someone asked me that question, would be to say, ‘what makes you think that?'” said Big Bend Historian Lonn Taylor.

I tell Taylor about the old sewage tanks and their German origins. 

He said the German POWs housed at Fort DA Russell did work in Marfa. But the work they were doing was mainly maintenance work and done on the Fort grounds.

Because of the proximity of the fort to the Mexican border, unlike at other POW camps, it’s my understanding they were not permitted to work outside the Fort,” said Taylor.

As for the German-named sewage tanks, they didn’t have anything to do with the POWs. The Imhoff and the Dortmund tanks were patented long before any German POW ever set foot in the West Texas desert, and Marfa’s first sewage tank was actually installed in 1929.

The years just don’t line up.

But Taylor says all of this is still pretty illuminating.

“That’s how folklore gets started,” said Taylor.”People making associations between names and events.”

The foreign prisoners of war, the Dortmund and Imhoff tanks, the bubbling innovation at Fort DA Russell. All the ingredients are there for a pretty remarkable story, but in this case, it didn’t happen.  

 

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West Texas Wonders is a storytelling initiative from Marfa Public Radio that invites you to take part in the stories we cover. Visit marfapublicradio.org/curious for more information.