Landmarks of the Steamboat Age
By Tom and Karen Fort
Today, where white-winged sailboats skim across the Laguna Madre and canoes glide past the banks of the Rio Grande, steamboats once huffed and chuffed, bringing goods and settlers to this southern most Texas frontier. The smoke-spewing stacks are long gone, and the jubilant bells are silent, but travelers can retrace the voyages of the multidecked steamers from the mouth of the Rio Grande to Roma, visiting landmarks of another era.
South Padre Island
At Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island, an unobstructed view of Brazos Santiago Pass recalls a time when steamers left the open waters of the Gulf, crossed the bar, and entered the calm waters of the Laguna Madre.
Port IsabelPoint (now Port) Isabel, on the mainland, lies directly across the Laguna Madre from South Padre Island.Originally a Mexican garrison and customs house for the Port of Matamoros, the village served as a U.S. Army supply depot between 1846 and 1850. A post office opened in 1849, and the town began to grow.
BrownsvilleBrownsville, the next port of call, lies directly across the river from Matamoros. In December 1848, Charles Stillman and several partners formed the Brownsville Town Company, and began selling lots near Fort Brown, the fort established on the river by U.S. General Zachary Taylor as a defensive position.
Rio Grande City
Also in 1848, about 100 miles upstream from Brownsville, Kentuckian Henry Clay Davis established the town of Davis Landing (later renamed Rio Grande City). Davis, a rancher, and his partner Forbes Britton laid out the city on a straight line from the steamboat landing at the foot of Britton Street northward to the top of a hill, where they built the permanent courthouse, intentionally replicating Congress Avenue in Austin.
The landing below the bluff sat Roma, about 14 miles upstream from Rio Grande City, became the nominal head of navigation. The city of Roma once flourished with riverboat business. Christine Donald, who runs the World Birding Center and the Roma Bluffs Interpretive Overlook here, says, “At Roma, we have the best of both worlds.
From the July 2008 issue.
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