Rio History: Up in Smoke

Special to the PRESS

The letter read in part:

“Dear Steve,
I just read your story about the various kinds of driftwood to be found on the beaches of Padre Island. You mentioned a redwood table you have in your rare book room. We here in California do not put as much value on redwood as so much of it grows around here. To us, the most beautiful wood comes from the trees that grow around the Rio Grande Valley area.

My father, James F. Jennings, was with the U.S. Civil Engineers…”

I paused in my reading, remembering other letters I have received from Jim Jennings.

Jim had been a youngster back in 1933. In a career that spanned 30 years, the elder Jennings had been involved in the construction of the Brownsville Ship Channel, the stone jetties at the southern and northern part of the Island and just about every other major government project implemented in the lower Rio Grande Valley. In past letters, Jim described the time his father had located an old Army depot that had been buried under the sands since the end of the Civil War. Another time, Jim’s dad had located the wreck, and more importantly, recovered part of the cargo of a French Wine ship that had lost a race with the hurricane of 1875. The engineers had also found a steel chest at the bottom of the bay. It had been too heavy to raise by hand, so the men had marked the spot with a fish float. When they returned with a winch the next day, the float was gone. In his book “Texas Treasure Coast” author Tom Townsend describes such a trunk as having been on the French wine ship and to the best of my knowledge, over $100,000 in gold has never been recovered.

My interest was now piqued and I read on.

“Father was on the Island almost every day. This was before there was a causeway, so not many people visited the Island at that time and this left him the whole coastline to salvage. We had a home on Honeydale Road in Brownsville. We had a big barn and lots of land on either side to store all his treasures. I remember he had a very large pile of beautiful wood from the trees that had floated onto the shores of the Island.”

(Again, I paused, remembering stories of the ebony, teak and other exotic woods that have been found after a good storm) Jim’s’ letter went on to read.

“He also had a lot of really old timbers with very large (half inch square) brass spikes and nails still embedded in them. He had numerous main hulls and the rib timbers from sunken ships that he had located over the years. There were also many piles of beautiful wood from the interiors of the old wrecks.”

This was an oft repeated description of the virtual wasteland of wrecked ships that lie off the coast of Padre Island. There are those who claim there is a treasure ship gone aground or sunk in sight of land for every mile the Island is long, and that’s counting both the gulf side and the bay side.

I sat back in my chair, a thin sheen of sweat beaded up on my forehead and I felt that familiar thrill; I was on the trail of something big. The Union soldiers stationed here during the Civil War had dismantled many of those wrecks, using the wood to build their barracks; and to fuel their cook fires. This letter of Jim Jennings opened my mind to an incredible possibility. That’s when I made the mistake, I turned to “Jack the Dog,” one of my golden retrievers and asked him, “Is it possible this treasure trove of marine artifacts that Jim Jennings  described is still lying, forgotten in an old barn, some 20 or so miles away?  Perhaps buried under 50 years of dust and debris?“

Jack rolled his eyes and turned away from me in disgust. By saying it aloud, his expression implied, I had just jinxed myself. I would be lucky now, just to see a picture of this fantastic collection of old ship timbers!
I turned to the last page of Jim’s’ letter and read on.

“After my father retired, the family home on Honeydale was rented out and he moved to Kerrville. I ended up with most of the artifacts, including Civil War bullets, Indian relics, hand blown bottles including one dated 1860 that reads “Plantation Bitters.”

Visiting Brownsville a few years later my father discovered the old wood, timbers, interiors and all were missing from the barn!

He asked the renter what had happened and the man replied.”

(Sure enough, “Jack the Dog” was right, I had jinxed myself. There were tears in my eyes as I read on).

“I thought it was fire wood so I chopped it up and burned it in the fireplace.”

All the fine wood had gone up in smoke.

I heard a loud snort and turned quickly, my ears reddened, as I espied “Jack the Dog,” paws covering his nose, obviously trying to hold back peals of canine laughter.

I gotta admit, he was right!

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