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HomeNL-2011-10 Book Review

Book Review: "Sandbars and Sternwheelers"
John Rich

This book doesn't specifically deal with canoeing or kayaking, but I'm going to do a book review on it here anyway.  It does have to do with boats that paddle by mechanical means via steam engines, but mostly, it's relevance is as a rich source of facts and lore about travel and trade by water in the Houston area during the pioneer days of Texas.

The dust jacket begins with the following excellent introduction:
"Nature never intended the Brazos River for navigation, but before the coming of the railroads Brazos steamboats were a necessary, if always erratic, form of transport.  And there were men to meet the challenge.  One captain, heedless of shallows, shoals, snags and falls, boasted that he could tap a keg and run a boat four miles on the suds.  Based on rich archival sources, this authoritative and entertaining book tells of the men and boats that braved the river from the earliest days to the late 1890's..."

What piqued my interest in Brazos River steamboats were these photos taken by Natalie Wiest and Joe Coker, on a day trip they took on the Brazos from San Felipe to Interstate-10.  Notice that the twin tubes on the left look a lot like the pair of smokestacks on the steamship on the book cover.  And the 2nd photo seems to show some kind of articulated joint and other mechanical gear, which have a resemblance to engine parts.  So, had they found the remains of an 1800's steamship?

Well, locals in the area, as well as a Texas State marine archaeologist, identify the debris as part of an old railroad bridge that spanned the river in the 1880's.  The iron tubes could be support pilings, and the articulated joint could be from a drawbridge or swing bridge which would have opened up to allow steamboats to pass through.  Even so, an 1880's railroad bridge is still an exciting find.

With this enticing carrot on a stick, Natalie Wiest and I went looking for more information, which led me to the book "Sandbars and Sternwheelers, Steam Navigation on the Brazos".  Steamboats began plying our local rivers almost as soon as the area was settled in the 1820's, and continued all the way up to about 1910, by which time railroads had replaced steamboats as the means of transporting people and goods. 

The steamboats were paddlewheelers that were usually about 100-feet long, 20-feet wide, 200 tons in weight, drawing only two to three feet of water, and powered by engines of about 40 horsepower.  The sides were very low, making it easy to load cargo, but which also made them susceptable to swamping in large waves when they ran the coastline to get from the mouth of rivers in the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston, where their goods were unloaded for further transport.  A typical steamboat could carry 300 bales of cotton, and charged $1.00 to $3.00 per bale for transport.  This was cheaper than both the railroad, or hordes of ox-carts traveling long distances over muddy roads.

Local waterways traveled by the steamboats included the Trinity, Buffalo Bayou, Galveston Bay, the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico, and the Brazos.  They delivered goods from Galveston into the countryside, and on return trips brought back cotton, sugar, pecans, molasses, hides and lumber from Texas plantations.  These goods were loaded onto larger ships at Galveston for transport to their final destination.

Of all the local rivers, the Brazos was the most hazardous.  The water was often too shallow and deeper water highly intermittent, there were shoals upon which the boats would run aground, and the main hazard was "snags" - tree stumps hidden in the muddy water which would rip open a hull.  Most fearsome of all were boiler explosions which often took the lives of crewmen.  And a man could fall on a slippery deck and be smashed to death by the flailing paddle wheel.  Because of the river hazards, most boat captains confined themselves to the lower Brazos, from the mouth at the Gulf, to Columbia.  Braver captains would enter the middle Brazos, from Columbia up to San Felipe and Washington-on-Brazos, and often paid a heavy price for seeking out more business further into the frontier.  It was a rare occassion when a boat could get further upstream than Washington, but a few enterprising captains managed now and then to make it as high as Waco on flood waters. 

 Hidalgo Falls today

The main obstacle to further up-river navigation was the shoal at Hidalgo Falls, which is now popular with kayakers for the fun rapids which exist there.  That shoal was a solid barrier to steamboat traffic, and it could only be traversed during periods of high water.  Furthermore, if a boat captain didn't make his return trip before the water subsided, he was stuck upstream, with nothing to do and bills to pay.  At one point about 1910 a dam and lock was built at Hidalgo Falls to facilitate lifting boats above the shoals.  How many of you paddlers who have played at Hidalgo Falls knew that fact?  Other efforts were made using men with crowbars to pry loose rock and create a channel in the shoal. 
 Brazos wrecks

There were twelve steamship wrecks alone, just on the Brazos.  Two more were lost on the sandbar where the mouth of the Brazos enters the Gulf, and many more boats got hung up there temporarily.  Dozens more were lost along the coast, in Buffalo Bayou and on the Trinity.  These steamboats were worked hard with a goal towards profit, and maintenance was secondary - their lifespan was often only 10 years or less.

Notice that the wreckage of the William Penn on the map (left) corresponds to where Natalie and Joe found the wreckage shown in the photos at the beginning of this story.  That's food for thought...  I have personally paddled about 100 miles of the Brazos, from Navasota down to Sugarland, and have never seen signs of any steamboat wreckage.  I'm convinced that they've either been flushed away during repeated floodings, or have sunken deep into the soft muddy silt on the bottom.

Now for a few entertaining stories.

• Thomas McKinney, a busy Galveston businessman, was once stranded up-river on the Brazos waiting for a boat that never appeared.  So, being an impatient man, he borrowed a pig trough from a farmer and used it as a canoe to paddle himself back downriver to Quintana, at the mouth of the Brazos, where he could catch another boat.

 The Yellow Stone

• The Yellow Stone is the most famous Brazos steamboat.  On April 2, 1836 it was docked at Groce's landing near Hempstead, which just happened to correspond to the arrival of General Sam Houston's Texian army, on it's way to San Jacinto to fight the Mexicans.  The river was swollen, and the army had no way to cross.  The Yellow Stone ferried the troops across the river, where they continued on to their fateful battle which made Texas a free nation.  The Yellow Stone, knowing that part of the Mexican Army was downstream at the Brazos River at Richmond, then piled their load of cotton high along the deck  creating a protective wall, from which the term "cotton clad armor" was dubbed.  The Yellow Stone steamed past the Mexicans at full speed, the cotton bales protecting them from Mexican musket fire.  Several Mexican cavalry soldiers tried to lasso the smokestacks as she passed by, but failed.  The Yellow Stone successfully ran the gauntlet and arrived safely back downstream, with all cargo and crew intact.  Shortly thereafter, the ship carried Texas President Burnett and the cabinet to the San Jacinto battlefield scene, and upon returning to Galveston, carried the prisoner General Santa Anna.  A year later the Yellow Stone sank on Buffalo Bayou.

Capt. and Mayor

• The Lafitte was captained by James Haviland, who was known far and wide as a prankster.  One of his regular passengers and a good friend was a very overweight man.  Haviland weakened the gang plank by sawing cuts on the underside, and when his portly friend arrived and walked the gangplank to board the ship, the plank broke and sent him tumbling into the mud below.  Captain Haviland later went on to become Mayor of Galveston.

• Captain Basil Hatfield did an excellent job of ramming his ship aground on a sandbar, and while waiting for a rainstorm to raise the river to set him free, he and his crew entertained themselves by planting 40-acres of corn.

• During the Civil War, commercial steamboat traffic all but ceased.  The Confederacy commandeered all the steamboats and used them as cotton-clad blockade runners, warships outfitted with cannon, or for ferrying troops and supplies.
• The Kate was up the Trinity River when the hurricane of 1875 hit, swelling the river with rain.  The 32-horsepower engine was overwhelmed by the swift currents, and with the river over its banks, there was no way to know where the actual river was.  As the flood subsided, the Kate found itself high and dry, 400-yards away from the river.

• The Velasco World once had as part of it's cargo, a bear, chained to the deck, and destined as a birthday gift to a railroad manager.  While the World was underway, the bear somehow slipped free from its chains, sending the crew and passengers scurrying belowdeck to safety to avoid the rampaging bruin.

 The Hiawatha

• The Hiawatha was the grandest of all the paddlewheel steamboats in the area, and proudly captained by R. B. Talfor.  One day a lowly oyster boat pulled alongside, and proceeded to outrun the massive Hiawatha.  Talfor, not to be outdone by a tiny oysterman, ordered his crew to break upon boxes of bacon in the cargo and throw them in the boiler furnaces.  The burning bacon fat produced a burst of speed that propelled the mighty Hiawatha ahead of the oyster boat, to retain its dignity.

"Sandbars and Sternwheelers" is only 114 pages long, but it's jam-packed with local history of the people, places and lifestyles of early Texas as they relate to Houston area waterways.  If you enjoy reading about rivermen, and appreciate Texas history, this is a good read, and knowledge of such events will enhance one's appreciation of those waterways.  As you plod along on these rivers in your own small personal paddlecraft, contemplate the history, and you can almost hear the chugging of the steamboats, piled high with cotton bales, coming around the next bend!

There are not many copies of this book in the Harris County Library system, but if your local library branch doesn't have one, you can request it through inter-library loan: a branch that does have it will loan it to your local branch, to where it will be delivered free of charge, and you can then pick it up at your local branch.  You can even make this request online through the Harris County Public Library system web site:

The reviewer,
John Rich