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Steamboats on the Brazos

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Steamboats on the Brazos

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The book, “Sandbars and Sternwheelers Steam Navigation on the Brazos,” written by Navasotian Pamela Puryear and Nath Winfield, Jr. of Chappell Hill, has become the ‘bible’ of the Brazos River steamer era.

A statement in the book’s introduction claims that it is “the story of a river that was by nature never intended for navigation.” But, navigated it was, for better or worse.

The Mustang side-wheeler was supposedly the first to venture as far up the Brazos to Washington-on-the-Brazos in December 1842.

For the next 30 plus years, steamboats and stern-wheelers plied the Brazos as far up as Port Sullivan about 80 miles below Waco, many having their hulls scattered along the river bottom, their names known only to time.

Puryear and Winfield chaptered the book in eras with the last called “The End of an Era.”

The authors state that “while steamboats were fading from the scene on the lower river, interest had flourished again in Waco, some 80 shoal-crammed miles above the head of navigation at Port Sullivan.” Proponents at Waco, frustrated in not “coaxing a single paddle wheeler upriver past the Falls,” built their own steamer.

Work began in early 1874. A 100-foot hull was launched by year’s end.

The little steamer was claimed to be christened by a local young girl named Katie Ross with its maiden voyage in February 1875, thus, the steamer’s name.

Who was Katie Ross? Katie was said to be the first white child born in Waco in early 1851, one of nine children born to Shapley and Catherine Ross who lived in a log cabin near the Brazos River. Her father operated a ferry across the river. Her older brother was none other than Lawrence Sullivan ‘Sul’ Ross, who would become Governor of Texas from 1887-1891, and then the ‘beloved’ president of Texas A & M.

Since there were no railroads yet in that part of Texas, the Katie Ross operated up and down the Brazos near Waco carrying cotton, flour and animal hides. During this time a federal grant had been issued to improve the Brazos River making it navigable to the Gulf. Construction beginning on several locks along the Brazos to enhance steamboat travel. It would be in the early 1900s before that effort was discarded. Remnants of Lock No. 1 can still be seen just below the ‘rocks’ a short distance north of Washington on the Brazos.

In the meantime, it was hoped the Katie Ross would be among boats to fully navigate the Brazos River. The captain took the little steamer farther south. It bottomed out on the falls just above Calvert to be stuck for 10 days before the river rose enough to allow it to pass. It then got stuck at Calvert. It never became free of that shoal. The Katie Ross was finally broken up and sold for lumber.

Katie, herself, married Tom Padgitt, a successful Waco saddle and harness maker. She became well-known in Waco and a supporter of the African-American population with institutional financial donations. She died in early 1912.

Written by Betty Dunn, Two Rivers Heritage Foundation . Visit for more information or to become a member.