Rio History: The Storm of 1875

By Steve Hathcock

Special to the Press 


Although the war had ended, the terror had not. A period of lawlessness existed along the Texas border. Because the Rio Grande River was a major artery of ancient trade routes, South Texas suffered the most. The area from the banks of the Nueces River near Corpus Christi two hundred miles south to the mouth of the Rio Grande River was now known as the Outlaw Strip. Deserters from both sides of the recent conflict rubbed shoulders with displaced revolutionaries who were intent on driving the French Imperialists from Mexican soil. Throw in the carpet baggers from the north and you could pretty much find a specimen of every kind of human scum that has ever walked the face of the earth.

“Residents in Clarksville were in constant danger of outlaw raids.” “Mother slept with a pistol under her pillow and used it too!” Recalled Teresa (Clark) Clearwater.

But the outlaw problems paled with the arrival of the storm of 1867. The February, 1868 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, carried the following account of the great storm:

“October 9, 1867, a violent hurricane swept the banks of the Rio Grande, killing twenty-six persons at Matamoros, ten at Brownsville and twelve at Brazos. At Bagdad not a house was left standing; at Clarksville only two. About ninety citizens of Bagdad escaped by going aboard a vessel and riding out the storm; all the others perished. At Brownsville entire squares were laid in ruins; the strongest edifices—the court-house, jail, custom-house, and even an iron building—were destroyed. In Matamoros 100 houses and huts were blown down.”

Banked-up sand around the stilts, saved the Clark home at Clarksville, but sixteen other homes owned by Captain Clark were swept away by the storm surge.

Normalcy continued to elude the little settlement at the mouth of the Rio Grande. Bandit raids increased and the customs officers were frequent targets with three of them being assassinated in a single night in 1868. One of them was killed in the dining room of the Clark home.

It was during this time that a railroad was built from Brownsville to Point Isabel resulting in Richard King’s and Mifflin Kenedy’s river boat operations ceasing in the Laguna Madre. Deep sea vessels still anchored off Clarksville though and the little community benefited from the river boats that tied up at its landings. There were light draft side-wheelers that carried passengers from the mouth of the river to Roma. Iron sternwheelers carried the freight, taking it off the deep sea-going ships and steaming it up the river to Brownsville. From there it was loaded into huge wagons and carried along the ancient trade routes that lying to the west into Old Mexico and north a thousand miles along the banks of the Rio Grande. There was even a stage line from Clarksville to Brownsville, a distance of only 30 miles by land but over 100 miles by river. Nine miles to the north on Brazos Island, was the government depot. It boasted a lighthouse, government barracks, post office and a pilot station, which doubled as a place of quarantine and stores that were reputed to be larger than those in Clarksville. The steamships of the Morgan Line made regular stops carrying passengers and freight between New Orleans and Brazos depot.

The Clarks continued their operation at the riverboat landing, but purchased a home in Brownsville where daughter Teresa studied for her teaching certificate, which she received in 1872. Teresa Clark’s teaching career spanned sixty two years and included a two year stint in a private school in Point Isabel and 60 years at Brownsville.

In 1875, an unnamed hurricane roared ashore at the mouth of the Rio Grande River. A storm surge of over twenty feet inundated much of the shore from the mouth of the river north, thus finalizing the destruction of any edifice that managed to withstand the gale force winds

Those who remembered the hurricane of 1867 heeded the warnings signals and fled. Teresa (Clark) Clearwater who rode out the hurricane in Point Isabel, was teaching in a private school when the second storm came ashore near her childhood home. Her father, a sister and her child, who were in Clarksville at the time, were saved.

When survivors emerged they were shocked to discover Bagdad, Clarksville and Brazos de Santiago had seemingly vanished into the sand itself. The shipyards, the iron vessels, everything was gone, not a vestige of their former life remained upon the clean-swept beach.

Later, the Clarks heard that much of their furniture had been found along the shores of Padre Island while other goods were being found many miles inland. Unfortunately, the Clarks were unable to recover much more than shreds of their former possessions and their home on the river was swallowed by the sands of time.

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