Langtry was originally established in 1882 by the Southern Pacific Railroad as a grading camp called “Eagle Nest.” It was later renamed for George Langtry, an engineer and foreman who supervised the immigrant Chinese work crews building the railroad in the area.
Roy Bean arrived soon after completion of the railroad and set up a tent saloon on company land. He later built a wooden structure for his saloon, which he called “The Jersey Lilly” after the well-known British stage actress Lillie Langtry. She was a native of the island of Jersey. (Born with the surname Le Breton, she was not related to George Langtry.) Bean used the saloon as his headquarters when authorized as a justice of the peace and notary public. He called himself the “Law West of the Pecos.” After a notable career as justice of the peace, Bean died in 1903.
In 1884 the town was authorized a post office. In 1892 it had a general store, a railroad depot, and two saloons. Langtry began to decline after the highway was moved slightly north in the early 1900s for a more direct east-west route. Once bypassed, the town’s businesses lost revenue and jobs. When in the 1920s Southern Pacific moved its facilities away, more jobs were lost and the town population dwindled to 50.
By the 1970s the population dipped as low as 40. Tourism to the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center continues to keep the town alive.
In 1955, Robert Burton Willingham claimed an unidentified flying object (UFO) crashed along the south bank of the Rio Grande, just a few hundred feet into Mexico. The incident came to be known as the Del Rio, Texas UFO Crash. Willingham, a former Air Force Reserve pilot, stated that he was flying a North American F-86 Sabre jet fighter when he observed a UFO streak past him and crash near Langtry. No local residents have been located who could confirm Willingham’s story.