happened to the Kate Ward is far from the most daunting mystery in Texas history,
but thanks to the Internet the last chapter in her story can now be written. |
the time a five-member commission appointed by President Mirabeau B. Lamar selected
Austin as the new capital of the Republic of Texas, the general assumption had
been that riverboats eventually would connect the seat of government to the Gulf
of Mexico via the Colorado River.
By 1844, it looked like the dream would
come true. That June, a La Grange newspaper announced that local businessman Samuel
Ward planned to build a steamboat that would ply the Colorado. Of course, even
back then, few things happened as rapidly as first expected. The vessel did not
slip down the ways into the river until June 21, 1845.
Ward named the boat
after his sister, Kate. A hundred feet long and 24 feet wide, the boat could carry
600 bales of cotton. Designed to draw three feet of water when fully loaded, she
drew much less water when launched.
On March 8, 1846, the boat made it
from La Grange to Austin. Practically the whole town turned out to see the steamboat
tied up at the foot of Congress Avenue.
Three days later, the boat went
even farther upstream, carrying a delegation of business leaders, lawmakers and
U.S. Army officers several miles upstream to a point called Mormon Falls.
Soon, reality set in. Austin could only be reached by a big boat when the river
ran, which generally only happened in the spring and sometimes with the autumn
rains. But for the next two years, the Kate Ward operated between La Grange and
the Colorado River raft, a driftwood logjam about 20 miles above the mouth of
the river. From that point, freight went by wagon to Matagorda and steamships
operating in the Gulf.
When a flood cut a channel through the raft in 1848,
the Kate Ward made it out of the river and into the open Gulf for the first time.
From then until 1850, she operated on the Guadalupe River between Victoria and
Pass Cavallo on Matagorda Bay, making the trip in two days.
By 1852, the
Kate Ward was back on the Colorado, being used as a snag boat to keep the lower
part of the river navigable. In the summer of 1853, the federal government bought
the boat and had her overhauled. By that fall, the Army Corps of Engineers had
her in use cutting a channel around the perennially problematic raft.
“What later became of the steamer is unknown,” the Handbook of Texas entry on
the Kate Ward says.
The answer, which turned up unexpectedly in an Internet
search for information on early Texas hurricanes, amounts to a maritime obituary.
On Sept. 17, 1854, a hurricane churned into the middle Texas coast. “The
flat country as high up as Victoria is flooded … rendering communication with
the Gulf almost impossible,” the Texas State Sentinel reported in a brief page-one
article reprinted from the Seguin Mercury. The newspaper had heard that “the dredge
boat at Lavaca is lost and the wharves at that place and Indianola were destroyed
by the fury of the tempest.”
A longer story inside the October 7 issue
of the Capital City newspaper had more details. Matagorda, the then-prosperous
town near the mouth of the Colorado, had been flattened, with only two houses
The hurricane had caught the shallow-draft Kate Ward in
Matagorda Bay, smashing her with towering waves and sending her to the bottom
of the muddy water. “Captain Wm. J. Ward, his two brothers and nine of the crew
drowned,” the newspaper continued.
The newspaper, preoccupied with the
larger story of the devastating storm, did not offer further details or delve
into the steamboat’s history. But the vessel that Austinites once thought marked
the beginning of the capital city as a river port was no more.
the fate of the Kate Ward is now known, exactly where in Matagorda Bay she went
down remains a mystery.
© Mike Cox
22 , 2004 Column