THE END OF AN ERA
The year 1861 brought to an end an era in the history of the channel of Aransas Pass. For more than thirty years men of many nations had been using the inlet in its natural state. Reckless men of every type, pioneering in commerce, legitimate and illegitimate. Men who lived life to its full with little regard for consequences. Toward the end of this era, this type of men was being replaced with men of different character. Individuals who dared dream of building a railroad from the Pass to the west coast of Mexico; and those who were willing to risk their private capital in constructing a navigable channel between Aransas and Corpus Christi Bays. But these latter activities came to an abrupt end at the outbreak of hostilities of the Civil War.
THE CIVIL WAR
In February, 1862, the Federal bark "AFTON" landed a force of soldiers at the Pass and drove off the defending Confederates. They burned several houses and confiscated beef and mutton.
And on April 21, 1862, a Federal bark, under the command of Lieutenant Commander J. W. Kittredge appeared off the Pass with instructions to blockade it. This determination to blockade the Pass was due to the fact that the Confederate States had been obtaining many necessary supplies from abroad by vessels of shallow draft, using the Pass and landing the goods at Corpus Christi.
Kittredge determined to raid Aransas Bay, so he launched two boats from his ship, the "ARTHUR", in the Gulf and found a passage into the bay through Cedar Bayou where he was surprised to find several Confederate vessels used as blockade runners. He seized them, and loading his men and prisoners in two of them tried to run through the Pass. But Major W. O. Yager, Confederate commander of a military camp at Aransas, loaded two sloops with soldiers and bore down on Kittredge in the bay. The latter took to his small boats and tried to escape by rowing into Blind Bayou where he found no passage to the Gulf; so he and his men took to their heels and raced along the beach of St. Joseph Isand to a point opposite the "ARTHUR" in the Gulf where he was rescued. This was the beginning of a number of engagements on St. Joseph and Mustang Islands which lasted off and on during the war.
Kittredge was reinforced with men and ships and established an effective blockade on the bays and ports served by the Pass. He moved into Corpus Christi Bay and on August 16, 1862, ineffectively bombarded the town of that name and again bombarded it on August 18, 1862, but with little effect.
R. L. Mercer, previously quoted in this sketch, states that in 1863 several Federal gunboats anchored off the bar at Aransas Pass and sent three cutters through the Pass to the anchorage inside. The soldiers aboard then proceeded to go ashore and kill sheep and load them onto the boats. They then returned to the flotilla outside. The next day they came again with 12 cutters and took all of Mercer's grandfather's sheep and cattle and burned his home and its contents. The entire family was visiting near the present site of Portland at the time of this incident.
THE DECADE FOLLOWING THE CLOSE OF THE CIVIL WAR
At the close of the Civil War, traffic seems to have been resumed through Aransas Pass. On December 23, 1869, a citizens committee of Corpus Christi was able to report: "... first, that Aransas bar had seven feet, six inches at ordinary tide; second, that since January 1, 1869, the exports of Corpus Christi have been: 1,726,507 lbs. of wool; 1,108,254 lbs. of dry hides and skins; 1,183,298 lbs. of wet salted hides; 33,000 lbs. of bones; 158,254 lbs. of lead."
A steamship company ran the following advertisement in the Texas Almanac for 1869: "Morgan Lines, U. S. mail steamers. New Orleans to Galveston, Indianola, Lavacca, Corpus Christi and Brazos Santiago, Texas." These boats however, merely delivered goods to lighters in the Pass for transport to Corpus Christi.
Around 1870 small packing plants were springing up about the shores of Aransas Bay, and the Morgan Line boats were entering that Bay on regular schedules, the water in the channel there being much deeper than in Corpus Christi Channel. Following are excerpts from the report of Thos. Kearney, Collector of Customs for the District of Corpus Christi, for the year ending Aug. 31, 1872, the District including the ports of Corpus Christi, Rockport, and Aransas: "38 side-wheel steamers, 73 schooners, and one sloop cleared the Pass." And the principal items of export were: "wool, dry hides, wet salted hides, skins, horned cattle, beef, horses, tallow, bones, and lead."
BEGINNING OF THE MODERN ERA
The year 1874 marked the beginning of the modern era in the history of Aransas Pass. It has been previously noted that the Pass had been used in its natural state since its discovery in 1519 until the Civil War period. Only one attempt had been made to dredge a channel to Corpus Christi, and its operation was halted before its completion by the war.
There has always been a shallow, narrow channel connecting the Pass with Corpus Christi. General Zachary Taylor moved his army to Corpus Christi from the Pass in light draft boats through this channel which leads off from the Rockport channel in Aransas Bay westward near the light house, thus passing three sides of Harbor Island, the east side of Hog Island, and continues along the east side of Stedman Island into the upper reaches of Corpus Christi Bay. The present causeway crosses this channel at Stedman Island, and a drawbridge is operated there. Later this narrow channel was deepened by private parties as indicated in the following paragraph from a Government Report: "A narrow irregular channel ran through this shallow stretch but was in places badly obstructed by shoals. It was deepened by private parties about 1874 and has since been known as Morris & Cummins Cut."
But Aransas Pass, itself, was in no condition to handle deep sea boats. In fact the channel was constantly shifting southward as indicated by an engineer's Government Report dated Dec. 30, 1878: "The head of Mustang Island is constantly receding toward the southwest and Aransas Pass follows with it. A comparison of coast survey charts of 1858 and 1868 with each other and with Lieutenant Woodruff's report of 1871, and the last survey of 1878, shows an annual rate of wear of 210 to 260 feet."
FIRST ATTEMPT BY U. S. GOVERNMENT TO DEEPEN CHANNEL
The original project for improvement at Aransas Pass was adopted by the United States Congress on March 3, 1879, and provided for the construction of two jetties, several groins and revetment work along the north shore of Mustang Island. Work under this authorization continued until 1885. Several of the groins were completed and a portion of the revetment along the north shore of Mustang Island was placed, and a portion of the south jetty was constructed. This jetty was designed by Colonel Mansfield and bears his name. It consisted of brush weighted with stone. (The present south jetty, built several years later of a stone core and big cap rocks, is located a little distance south of the old Mansfield jetty.)
While this work was going on, and shortly prior thereto. Corpus Christi had regular lines of shallow draft boats operating through Morris & Cummings Cut. The latter, however, was so difficult of operation that as soon as the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Ry. built into Corpus Christi in 1884 this water traffic ceased.
Also about this time the Boston Beef Packing Co. established a packing plant at Fulton, four miles north of Rockport, and in 1879-80 they exported through Aransas Pass by Morgan Line paddle wheel steamers, a total of beef products of 5,981,807 lbs. and 41,000 horns. It is said that salt created by evaporation along the shores of Laguna Madre was brought up in shallow draft boats and used in this packing plant. In the Report of the Commissioner of Insurance, Statistics and History, to Governor Roberts on December 1, 1882, the following statement in regard to Aransas Pass is made:
"The United States Government, recognizing the advantage of a good harbor at this point on the Gulf, is endeavoring to deepen the channel at Aransas Pass, with every prospect of ultimate success. The Pass lies between St. Joseph and Mustang Islands and constitutes the entrance to the two spacious land-locked harbors of Aransas and Corpus Christi Bays. The natural channel across the bar at present varies from 7 to 8 feet, and it is proposed to increase this to 12 feet at mean low tide. It is estimated that the work will cost $760,000.00 for deepening the Pass, and $440,000 for dredging out the bay channel to Rockport and Corpus Christi. About $150,000 has been expended, and larger appropriations by Congress may safely be counted on, as the beneficial effects of the system adopted are manifest. There is already a sufficient depth of water to permit the Morgan Line of Gulf steamships to come up to the wharfs at Rockport and Fulton, towns of Aransas Bay. The former is the county seat; contains a population of 700 and does an annual business of about $1,500,000, chiefly in the shipment of beeves to eastern markets. Fulton, a few miles further up the bay, is noted for its beef packeries, its bone mill, where bones are ground into fertilizers, and its ice factory, counting up an aggregate trade of $500,000 annually."
With the establishment of these industries and the expansion of cattle raising in the southwest Texas coast country, the demand for a deep water port became urgent to serve the area, and resulted in the initial appropriation by Congress for that purpose. This urgency is pointed up by a further quotation from the letter of Fulton to Mansfield written in 1880:
"... there is scarcely an acre of public land within an area of 200 miles from this point (Aransas Pass) as a center, and the country is rapidly settling beyond toward the upper Rio Grande which, from its mouth in lat. 26 deg. to a point due west from here in lat. 28 deg., does not vary 20 miles from the quadrant of a circle of 200 miles radius. Beyond that point the Rio Grande stretches toward the northwest and the Gulf coast to the southeast, whereby Aransas Pass remains the focal point of the vast region to El Paso and beyond. Aransas is the central point of the great cattle producing country of west Texas. Between 1868, at which time the writer returned to Texas, and the closing of the bar in 1878, at least a half million cattle, either alive or slaughtered, passed over the bar; also great numbers of horses, sheep and hogs, as well as the large wool clip of west Texas; and the hides, wool, lead etc. from Mexico and return cargoes for the market. Also a large lumber trade and general supplies for the surrounding country for a hundred miles north and west of the Rio Grande."
In this letter Fulton makes the prediction that the large pastures of the area would be cut up into farms as the soil was rich and adapted to producing most any crops.
In the letter just quoted Fulton refers to "the closing of the bar in 1878." Immediately prior to this event occurred what was probably the last wreck on the bar before the Government made it safe for traffic.
THE LAST WRECK ON THE BAR
In January of 1876 Mrs. S. G. Miller, of Nueces County, with her father, returned from a visit to Louisiana on board the steamer "MARY" bound for
choppy, the cargo was heavy, and the vessel was so old that it was unfit for for further use.
Mrs. Miller describes the events that followed the arrival of "MARY" off Aransas Pass in a graphic manner:
"... the night we reached the bar a terrific freezing norther swept out from the land and struck the vessel. The boat rocked, plunged and dipped from side to side with such violence that it was difficult for me to stay in my berth . . . The next morning at daybreak I noticed water in my room. Next, the room began to crash and pull apart, and I heard terrific noises all over the boat ... In less than five minutes (the chambermaid) came running and cried out: 'Get up quickly, the boat is sinking, and the freight is washing out already.' Dr. East (her brother) ran in and told me to run for my life to the pilot house. He caught my hand, and together we waded through water that was pouring through the ship like a mighty river. When we reached the pilot house we found everybody huddled there awaiting his doom. As a last resort we were to try the life-boats, a dangerous undertaking indeed in such a sea as was running that morning. Crested with great banks of foam, the waves dashed over the sides of the ship as though they were great monsters, angered at the delay in engulfing our frail boat and unhappy crew.
"The captain came in shortly and said that he had signaled the pilot on Padre (?) Island to come in and pilot the 'MARY' across the bar. When the pilot did not answer the signals, the captain, himself, decided to pilot the boat across, as he had done many times before. It was impossible to anchor in the high seas, so immediate action of some kind was necessary. In attempting the crossing, the boat ran a buoy in her side, and ripped it open, and then began sinking. He (the captain) told us further that he felt sure that it would go to pieces before the pilot could get to us. Signal guns were fired every few seconds and the flag of distress was hoisted. We soon saw the pilot coming, and we began to feel our hopes rise again at the prospect of rescuing us in his small boat.
"... Finally, about 7 o'clock in the morning, the pilot reached us, only to be confronted with the task of getting near enough to the 'MARY to throw a rope to us in order to tie the two boats together. Trial after trial was made to get us, but each time the great waves carried our rescuers beyond our reach . . . At last after about three or four hours of hard work the rope was caught by one of our men, and the small boat was lashed to the 'MARY' by her gangplank. In order to reach this gangplank we waded through water waist deep on deck . . . As I started across the gangplank after two sailors had lifted me onto it, the 'MARY' broke away from the pilot boat and down I went into the sea . . . as I went down the heel of my shoe caught on one of the slats. This broke my fall and enabled me to catch hold of the two sides of the plank with my hands. Scrambling to a sitting position on the gangplank, I bobbed up and down as each big wave struck it. It seemed to me an eternity before the sailors caught hold of it again and I was helped into the rescue boat . . . The rescued party filled the hold of the boat to capacity, and the outgoing tide and the terrific gale made sailing very difficult. We managed to get across the bar at last while waves that seemed mountain high were rolling and lashing the unfortunate 'MARY'. Before we could reach the pilot's house on the Island, we had to walk the entire length of a 300 foot wharf, which was made of two twelve inch planks. We suffered an agony of cold as the blizzard from the north whipped about us in our wet clothing. Upon our arrival, we found our good hostess awaiting us with a roaring fire in the old-fashioned fire place, and there we sat and dried our clothes. Soon afterward she served us a hot meal, and after this we went out on the beach to watch for a ship. On our return we found that the pilot had rescued the captain and his crew. All the next day we watched and waited for a boat, and at last evening brought us a glimpse of one coming our way. After taking us aboard, it headed for Rockport, arriving there about nine o'clock that night."