Socorro, located on the Southern Pacific Railroad and State Highway 20 about ten miles southeast of downtown El Paso, began in 1680, when Governor Antonio de Otermín and Father Francisco de Ayeta led Spanish and Piro Indian refugees fleeing the New Mexican Pueblo Indian Revolt to the El Paso area. In 1682 the Spanish established Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción del Socorro Mission.
The first permanent mission, built in 1691, was swept away by flood in 1744, and a second church was built. It was washed away in 1829, when the Rio Grande cut a new channel south of the old one, thus placing Socorro, Ysleta, and San Elizario on La Isla. The main part of the present Socorro mission was completed in 1843. By that time the town of Socorro had developed around the mission and had a population of 1,100. The town was a part of Mexico from 1821 to 1848, when it became a part of the Texas.
For the rest of the nineteenth century Socorro remained a small farming community. Locally constructed acequias supplied water for agricultural crops, which included vineyards, fruit trees, and cereal grains. The town, together with other Rio Grande communities, played an active role in county politics until 1881, when the railroads arrived and shifted the political power structure to El Paso.
The construction of Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande in 1916 resulted in an agricultural revolution that transformed a family-based system into one featuring large-scale cotton production on plantation-sized estates. Small farms, manual labor, and vineyard culture gave way to large landholdings where farm machinery was used in the cultivation of cotton and alfalfa.
By 1920 cotton was beginning to rival copper as the Socorro area’s principal industry. The population of the community was 2,123 in the mid-1930s, but fell to 350 by 1941 and remained static for several decades thereafter. During the 1960s and 1970s the number of residents increased at a rapid rate. Developers built residential subdivisions-colonias in effect-that lacked paved streets, water, and sewer lines. Colonia residents put tremendous pressure on existing wells, as the town’s population grew from 10,000 in the middle 1970s to 18,000 in the late 1980s and 22,995 in 1990. Only recently has the Lower Valley Water District Authority received the necessary assistance to begin construction of new water and sewage systems for the area.
Socorro has disincorporated and reincorporated several times. In 1985 the town blocked El Paso’s plan to annex the town and voted by a margin of 263 votes to remain a separate corporation. Since then, Socorro has adopted ordinances and codes to halt uncontrolled growth and has instituted a historic landmark commission to encourage historic preservation.