Captain Albion Shephard, a former ship’s captain turned railroad surveyor, bought land in 1882 at a water stop along the brand-new Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio line 26 miles southeast of Alpine. He thought the rolling grasslands and volcanic hills resembled Marathon, Greece, and so when he platted the townsite, he named it Marathon. At the time there was already a smattering of settlers around the Pena Colorado Springs, including the Halff brothers, enterprising cattlemen who established their Circle Dot brand near what would soon become a thriving little town. They would later lease the land around the springs to the U.S. government to establish Fort Pena Colorado, a remote outpost along the Comanche Trail, in an effort to stem Native raids into Mexico.
Marathon sits just north of what used to be Fort Pena Colorado, now a county park. Springs and surface water in Maravillas Creek provided a life-giving oasis to the nomadic peoples of the Big Bend region for millennia, and later to the cattle industry and soldiers that displaced them. When the railroad came through Marathon was deemed an excellent water stop, and settlers soon came to supplement the sparse population of ranchers, soldiers and adventurers.
The train breathed life into a previously empty desert. When Captain Shepard first applied to the Postmaster General for a post office in Marathon in September of 1882, he enthusiastically exaggerated the population as ‘around 130 and increasing rapidly.’ By the 1920s, the town boasted 1,000 residents and several industries: the railroad, commerce from the mines at Boquillas and Terlingua, the guayule rubber factory (the only source of natural rubber outside the Amazon rain forest at the time) and a booming ranching industry. As steam engines were replaced with diesel, Marathon absorbed the smaller towns around it, including Tesnus to the east and Altuda to the west. In spite of its former size and importance to the region the town has never been incorporated, and today the population holds steady around only 400 souls.
As the west evolved and automobiles overtook the trains, Marathon might have gone the way of so many railroad towns into obscurity; but the inception of Big Bend National Park in 1944 meant that just as one chapter was closing in the life of a tiny frontier town, another was being written. As the northern gateway to the National Park, Marathon became a major stopover for tourists to the region, and so it remains today, with a vibrant community that is both inwardly focused and welcoming to visitors.