BROWNSVILLE, Texas — It is called the riverboat period of South Texas. Romance on the river that conjures up visions in our minds of Huckleberry Fin and Tom Sawyer. Think about the river boats that went up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. These river boats would have been a fascinating subject for a photographer to capture but we only have a handful of them.
The first boats that came on Rio Grande river were back in 1540 during the Spanish conquest period by the explorer Coronado. After that, the first real registered movement on the river was a very interesting story. It was by the man of the named Henry Austin and if the name sounds familiar it is Stephen F. Austin’s cousin. Austin came up the mouth of the river in 1829 and was advised by his cousin to formulate the east Texas colonies.
The real heyday for river boat traffic started in 1846. Gen. Zachary Taylor came in with his expedition in order to find a hard border for the United States and Texas which was in the union at that time. The U.S. Government, once the Mexican-American War started, set out a requisition for 30 steamboats in order to carry the troops, do all of the logistics and get up the river to Camargo. Because there were no roads going up the river and he wanted to go into the interior Mexico.
When the war was over in 1848 the government had no more need for the riverboats. A financier named Charles Stillman and his two partners Mifflin Kennedy and Richard King, both captains, did find a use. At the end of the Mexican-American War and up to the U.S. Civil War there was immense amount of traffic on the river because you had a lot of development of the western expansion. The steamboats were the lifeline carrying commerce and back and forth along the river for the ranchers who began their establishments up the river.
Riverboat traffic lasted about 60 years on the river which is a lengthy period for any river in the United States. However, traffic came to a screeching halt in 1906. A steamboat named “Bessie” that was captained by William Kelly made its last stop in the Roma/Rio Grande City area; why was that Three reasons. The first was the river was silting in. The farmers up the river had cultivated the land and all of that wash was coming in the river and it was building it up. Secondly the irrigation was taking the water away. Thirdly, you had the coming in of the railroad in 1904, so there was no reason to go up a lengthy river.
The river made a lot of money for a lot of people, particularly for Mifflin Kennedy and Richard King. Once they left their riverboat business they went off, started their ranches and the rest is history.