to imagine Bastrop as an inland port,
but during the 1840s and continuing through the Civil War, Central Texans saw
the Colorado River not so much as a source of drinking water or place to fish
as a transportation artery connecting them with the Gulf of Mexico.
never happened in a big way, but for a couple of decades people and commodities
did travel downstream from Bastrop
to Matagorda, the coastal
town at the mouth of the river.
Years after the last vessel carried freight
on the Colorado, a German immigrant named Cayton Erhard wrote a letter to the
Bastrop Advertiser recalling his experiences in a rafting enterprise that once
Cotton reigned as the
primary commodity shipped by river from Bastrop.
But while Bastrop had its beginning
in the 1830s, Erhard said settlers in the county didn’t start growing cotton
in any quantity until 1841. Once area landowners finally got serious about that
crop, by the fall of 1842, they had produced enough fiber to keep three gins busy.
The other commodity particular to Bastrop
was loblolly pine, a fast-growing evergreen that could reach 90 feet. The only
such tall timber found in the central part of the state, lumber from Bastrop
built many a house or commercial establishment.
The problem was getting
the cotton and timber to market. Roads amounted
to nothing more than wagon ruts and travel was both slow and dangerous. On the
other hand, except during extreme dry spells, the Colorado flowed from the new
capital city of Austin all the way to
the Gulf – nearly 300 winding miles.
At some point, an innovative thinker
whose name has been lost to history came up with a very good idea: Use Bastrop’s
timber to get its cotton to the buyer. As Erhard
explained in his letter, by 1843, planters had begun sending their crop to Matagorda
on large rafts made of pine logs tied together. When these rafts made it downstream
to Matagorda, growers
or their representatives exchanged the cotton
for sugar processed from sugarcane common in the area. And once the cotton
had been off-loaded, the timber used for the rafts got bartered for other goods.
wrote from experience.
“In the summer of 1843,” he said in his letter,
“I was employed in one of those raft-cotton exportation enterprises. That is,
I drove the horses belonging to the men managing the raft, so that they could
return after arriving at Matagorda.”
Since Republic of Texas money had little value, his compensation would be sugar,
literally a sweet deal.
“I went certain distances, as far as the manager
thought the raft would reach by river,” Erhard explained. “There I had to camp,
cook my supplies and feed or stake out the men’s horses on the grass overnight,
and next morning start on again.”
Erhard made it about 20 miles below La
Grange before learning from the manager that the raft had become grounded
in too-shallow water and that they would have to wait for a rise in the river
before proceeding. Before that happened, he ended up getting sick and had to return
to Bastrop. That concluded his short
venture into river commerce, even though he had been on the dry side of the business.
In addition to the pine log rafts, some shallow-draft steamboats did navigate
the river. However, flatboats and rafts were more common. One vessel, the Kate
Ward, even made it as far upstream as Austin,
but that city fell far short of St. Louis or New Orleans when it came to riverboat
the biggest impediment to navigation of the Colorado was another form of raft
– one built by nature, not man. A mass of submerged and floating timber, washed
downstream over the decades, had choked off the river for up to 25 miles upstream.
When cotton rafts or other vessels reached
the beginning of the huge raft, cargoes had to be loaded onto wagons for the rest
of the trip to Matagorda.
Republic of Texas government chartered two companies to break up the giant barrier
on the river, and later, the state government sought to have a new channel dug
around the bottleneck. None of these efforts proved successful, however.
the massive logjam, commerce from Bastrop
and other towns along the Colorado continued through the Civil War. By then it
had become obvious that rail transportation trumped the river in reliability.
As for Erhard, also noted in Texas history for the two years he spent
in a Mexican prison after his capture during the ill-fated 1841
Santa Fe Expedition, he moved from Bastrop
to San Marcos
in 1847. There, in addition to playing a role in organizing Hays County, he opened
a drug and notions store considered the first such business in Texas.
Moving back to Bastrop in 1865, he
reopened the drug store there and it remained in operation well into the 20th
century. Erhard died on July 21, 1884 a few days short of his 62nd birthday and
lies buried in Bastrop’s Fairview Cemetery.
Cox - April 25, 2013 column
| Matagorda | Cotton
| Texas Rivers
Topics: Columns | People
| Texas Town List | Texas