Steamboats on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers are not hard to envision, but on the Brazos River? Yes - they were there, with captains valiantly forcing their way from the Gulf of Mexico to the bustling port of Washington-on-the-Brazos. Incredibly, some even made it past Hidalgo Falls and on to Port Sullivan, just shy of Waco.
Beginning in the 1820s, steamboats carried tons of supplies up river to docks at Washington and beyond, while returning with loads of cotton bales slated for market. In the process, the steamboat trade made Washington a major business and social center. Alas, however, upon turning down offers to become part of the route for the railroad, Washington evidenced a precipitous decline.
In an effort to keep the Brazos River navigable, in the early 1990s, the U. S. Government's Army Corps of Engineers built several locks up river from Washington. Remnants of these locks exist today.
In 1981, The American Canal Society Guide reported that in 1905, the Corps of Engineers engaged an effort to make the Brazos navigable to Waco, 450 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Eight concrete locks and dams were planned between Waco and Hidalgo Falls, a distance of 176 miles. Severe flooding, in 1913 and 1921, and the suspension of work during World War I, led to the abandonment of the project in 1922, with only 3 locks begun.
When the Society issued the 1981 report, the locks were still in good condition, but without the gates and some of the metalwork salvaged during World War II. A shift in the river during the 1921 flood left lock 8 below Waco in the middle of a field. The report suggested that a sternwheeler be made available for excursions up river 4 miles from Washington to Lock 1. This would be just below the rocks where, in 2001, a 13-acre private Texas Rivers Protection Association park was by then established.
Kayakers and canoeists now glide by Lock 1's concrete remnants that this columnist recently visited and photographed near Navasota.
A great study of the remarkable era of steam boating on the Brazos is Pamela A. Puryear and Narth Winfield Jr.'s book, Sandbars and Sternwheelers: Navigation of the Brazos, by Texas A&M Press.
Betty Dunn may be reached at email@example.com .