Rio History: Racer’s Storm

By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS

In his book, “Hurricane Almanac,” writer Michael J. Ellis talks of a cyclone called Racers Storm that formed up in the Yucatan in 1837. The storm was named for the British Sloop of War, “Racer”. The ship ran ahead of the storm for some time before the storm’s eye made landfall south of present day Brownsville. The hurricane blew back out into the Gulf and proceeded up the coast laying waste to Corpus Christi and Galveston before again making landfall somewhere in Louisiana. Moving overland, the storm maintained its strength and reappeared on the Atlantic Coast where it caused considerable damage and loss of life.

When the Americans started moving into this area in the mid-1840s, they ignored the warnings of the native Mexican people, building homes and businesses in areas that historically had been considered hurricane susceptible.

Writing for the “Latigo de Tejas”, a Matamoras newspaper, Andres Pineda reported on one bad storm that struck near the mouth of the Rio Grande in 1844.

“I arrived at the Burrita with two objects in view,” Pineda wrote. (Burrita was located on the south or left side of the river and a few miles upstream from Bagdad).

“The first was to inform myself of the condition of its inhabitants and the second was to ascertain whether those saved from the mouth of the river were congregating there. It was to my great surprise, I found all the inhabitants of the rancho collected on the side of the hill mentioned, naked and bruised. One child was dead and nothing to be heard but lamentations. As soon as I had informed myself of their situation, I embarked immediately for the Tarayes, took horse and proceeded to the hill of the Tomates. I have no words to picture to you the state in which I found them-naked as well as maimed.”

Horrified by his discovery of so many dead, Pineda sent the captain of his launch to obtain food and clothing for the survivors of the rancho while he and a rescue party continued to the settlements at the mouth of the river. “There the storm had barely left a vestige of its having been inhabited,” Pineda noted. “The principal part of the population had utterly disappeared! Those who remained I found in the greatest misery. The same afternoon, accompanied by the second commandante, Nicanor Zapata, I proceeded by water to Fronton (modern day Port Isabel) where I found a few of the persons saved from the depot at Brazos de Santiago. They were in the greatest distress; much maimed and had lost all.”

“On the following morning, I went to reconnoiter Brazos de Santiago and Boca Chica. In neither of them were there any sign of their ever having been inhabited,” Pineda recorded.

So impressed by the total destruction done by the storm, Pineda wrote:

“I am of the opinion that neither of them should be allowed to be inhabited again. At the Fronton, the only house remaining standing was the one owned by Hipolita Gonzalez. As this is the highest point, it is the most eligible spot to establish the maritime custom house.”

Of the dead, Pineda wrote: “Annexed is a list of the names of those lives lost, of them only about twenty were buried. Of the others, the bodies were in such terrible condition and, mostly in pieces; they were buried in a common grave.”

The storm killed seventy-three people and forced Juan and Dolores Bali to abandon the ranch of his uncle, Padre Bali, located about twenty-five miles up from the southern end of the Padre’s Island.
Upon reading Pineda’s report, the Governor of the State of Tamaulipas, passed a law prohibiting his constituents from rebuilding along the river.

It was this kind of storm that blew up so unexpectedly on October 8, 1867. There was little warning and in the ensuing deluge, both Bagdad, and Clarksville situated at the mouth of the Rio Grande River, were completely wiped out. Many people lost their lives and stories still remain of the treasures that were hastily thrown into privies and cisterns. The theory was these structures would surely survive any storm. When the people returned, their cities had been utterly destroyed and there was no way to locate the site of their impromptu stone treasure chests.

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