Rio History: The Brazos Depot

By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS

Sue Canny emailed me a while back to ask about some bricks she and her friend found while beachcombing at Barracuda Cove, which is located directly across the channel from the southern tip of Padre Island.

“It was low tide and the muddy bottom was covered with big, white bricks that looked handmade,” she wrote. “Do you have any idea how they got there?”

I know the area Sue is talking about. I first heard about the brick pile from noted beachcomber, Mikey Waller of McAllen, when he and his sister Nicole found the bricks in the summer of 2005. The two recovered several for their personal collections and were also gracious enough to donate one to our Beachcomber’s Museum of Local and Natural History on South Padre Island.

In the mid-1830s, the Mexican government established a coastal battery at the northern end of Brazos Island overlooking the pass. The gun emplacement was a simple affair. It was comprised of a raised wooden platform upon which several cannon were mounted and a magazine of palmetto logs packed with clay and covered by several feet of sand. Much of the island was inundated in the hurricane of 1844 and the governor of Tamaulipas ordered the citizens to relocate to the nearby village of Fronton, or Port Isabel as we call it today.

Soon after his arrival in early March 1846, Zachary Taylor established a supply depot at Brazos Island, now called Boca Chica Beach. Because of the dangerous sandbars located along the Texas coast, large ships would lie at anchor about a mile offshore. Cargo was off-loaded onto shallow-draft boats, called lighters, and then carried into the wharves located at Brazos Depot. From there it was sent inland by cart or up the Rio Grande by steamboat.

In 1850, Major Thomas Eastland quartermaster for the United States Army, wrote the following concerning his tour of duty at Brazos Depot during the Mexican-American War of 1846:

“This depot was the great channel through which passed the troops and supplies for the Army operating on the upper line and from which was embarked the returning Army, munitions of war, etc. The accumulation of property at the depot was immense and its protection a matter of serious and anxious consideration. My predecessor Captain J.M. Still, had commenced erecting suitable warehouses and I considered it my duty to continue until all the stores subject to injury by exposure, were safely sheltered.”

Houses, barracks and workshops were also built to shelter the men, as was a long line of piers and docks.

“It became necessary to construct wharves,” Eastland’s report continued. “This was done in a very cheap manner, by using old vessels, no longer fit for service.”

In other words, decrepit old sailing ships, no longer fit for sea were purposely scuttled with their hulks being converted to docks and wharves.

In May of 1850, Major Chapman declared his only wharf boat had, “gone to pieces during the recent severe northers.”

He proposed to, “Scuttle the hulk of the Colonel Stevens as a new wharf or pier head….the position in which I place her to greatly protect the depot from action of the water during northers.”

An 1854 map of the area shows over 50 structures on Brazos Island. There were also six on Clark Island, which is now buried under the spoil banks created when the Brownsville Ship Channel was dredged back in the 1930s and three on Padre Island itself. Two wharves are also shown at the northwest corner of Brazos Island in such a position to connect Clark and Brazos Island. Some historians argue this may be where Major Chapman scuttled the Colonel Stevens.

The Hurricane of 1867 inundated Brazos Island, washing away most of the government wharves and surrounding buildings. Today only scattered piles of debris remain to remind us of times past.

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