Rio History: Following the Tracks

By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS

The trip onto the flat area proved to be short lived. Bill circled around and headed towards the edge of a line of dunes. Now, I could see what had attracted his attention. There, half buried in the muck, lay an ancient weathered beam. The butt end of it showed a most intricate pattern created where the soft wood — during the tree’s life cycle — had decayed, leaving the hard wood behind. Its blackened, sun-bleached surface spoke of antiquity. At some time, in the distant past, a perfectly round hole had been bored into the beam.

That last fact had set up an almost unbearable tickling sensation in my mind. You know the kind. When you find something, but you are not quite sure what it is that caught your eye. But instinctually, you know that it’s gotta be something great.

My mind raced with possibilities as Bill slowed the little quad wheeler.

I have read how 16th century shipwrights laid down the keel, or the backbone, known as a “quilla,” of a Spanish galleon first. Then the stem and sternpost were joined using wooden pegs carved from the roots of trees whose timber would comprise the balance of the wood used in building the craft.

After the ribs were laid down, the planks would be attached with hand forged brass nails. Smaller brass tacks served a variety of purposes. Bigger brass spikes of various sizes were hammered deep into the beams, providing solid support for decking and permanent fixtures. Would brass that ancient, glint under the sun of the distant future as brightly as it had on the day the old ship was launched?

Nope.

Bill, who was first off the little vehicle, reached down and grabbed the exposed end of the timber. He easily snatched the piece of wood loose from the sand. “It looks like an old railroad tie,” Bill said as he handed the find to me.

The spike in it was vintage alright and more than likely, it came from the post-Civil War era narrow gauge rail that carried the train from Brownsville. The tracks, laid down around 1867, followed the river east a ways before curving past Whites Ranch, scene of the last battle of the Civil War. From there, the grade of the tracks would have been slight. The little train could have coasted the few remaining miles across the vast mudflats and thorny things that thrive quite nicely on brackish water and scorching sun.

In my mind’s eye, I imagined myself standing atop the trestle looking back towards Brazos when it was an Island separated from the mainland by a wide shallow body of water known as Boca Chica, which in Spanish means “small mouth.” The depth of the water, which ranged from several inches to three or four feet, was directly affected by the rhythm of the tide.

On May 28th, 1860, Lt. Alvan Gillem wrote, “Brazos is an island, separated from the mainland by a strait about 4 miles wide at the eastern extremity and decreasing in width to the western extremity and decreasing in width to the island where it is called ‘Boca Chica’ and is from 100 to 150 yards wide varying with the tide and prevailing direction of the wind.”

In October 1868, a dam was built across the narrow part where it was only about 150-200 yards wide depending on the tide and direction of the prevailing wind. The idea was to redirect the flow of water from Boca Chica to Brazos Pass. Hopefully, the stronger flow through the pass would scour the bottom and deepen the channel.

The plan worked. In a letter dated October 14, 1868 and addressed to The Quarter Master Generals Office in Washington D.C., an agent of the Morgan Lines wrote the following: “A week ago there was scarcely five feet depth of water on the bar, entirely preventing the passage of our steamers. The first norther of the season came in and in 48 hours the stormy entrance currents created by the same have increased the depth to ten feet which is quite 2 feet more than our steamers have found in number of years.”

In fact, the only other time the water reached such a depth was during the Civil War when the Union troops built such a dam, which was also used as a bridge for the soldiers to cross the Boca Chica. Eventually, they destroyed it to prevent the Confederates from using it in an attack.

Three years later, Phil Sheridan built his railroad along the same route.

Finding this ancient artifact gave us a general idea of where we were in relation to the location of those U.S. Army encampments I had once seen on a 135-year-old map. Overhead, a gull laughed; so did we. Maybe we were on the right side of the tracks after all!

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