The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 76, July 1972 - April, 1973

Internal Improvements in Texas in the Early 1850's
EARL F. WOODWARD*
I N DECEMBER, 1849, WHEN PETER HANSBOROUGH BELL, AN Ex-VIR-
ginian and veteran of the Battle of San Jacinto and the Mexican
War, was inaugurated as governor of Texas,' the state needed internal
improvements-particularly railroads-to expedite the transportation of
livestock, timber, cotton, and other agricultural produce of the fertile
inland river valleys to seagoing steamships moored for loading at the
Gulf Coast ports on Matagorda and Galveston bays. The main rivers
of commercial activity-the Colorado, Brazos, and Trinity-were
clogged with obstructions that rendered their navigation dangerous
even by shallow-draft steamers; on land the crude plank and earthen
roads persistently threatened to fail under wear and wet weather and
to bog down their burden of ox- and horse-drawn wagons. With faith
born of desperation, perhaps, Governor Bell no less than other Texans
believed that a high-capacity railroad system eventually would sup-
plement, if not supplant, the river steamer and the road wagon to
solve the state's transport deficiencies and enhance its economic growth.
In the early 1850's the Colorado, Brazos, and Trinity rivers acted as
underdeveloped arteries in Texas's economic body. To flow freely the
Colorado would require, at least, the removal of a seven-mile-long
"raft"-a massive island of entangled tree limbs and debris-located
below Wharton; the others needed to be cleared of dangerous snags
which were capable of gutting a steamer's hull on impact. Only the
lower Brazos currently was in good condition for navigation. In the
late 1840's, Yard M. Harris Butler, a Galvestonian, had placed the
Pittsburgh-built steamers Brazos and Washington in service from Vel-
asco on the Gulf up to Washington-on-the-Brazos. The Galveston and
the Elite at that time handled most of the trade between Galveston
and the landings on the Brazos below Richmond. In February, 1850,
these four main steamers on the Brazos reportedly ran "constantly and
generally carry full freights" because the "price of cotton is so high
that the planters are endeavoring to hurry their crops to market." On
March so misfortune struck the Brazos, temporarily halting her work
"Earl F. Woodward teaches history at Richland College, Dallas.
'James T. DeShields, They Sat in High Places (San Antonio, 194o), 9o-19-2; Paul Bol-
ton, Governors of Texas (San Angelo, 1947), n.p.

Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 76, July 1972 - April, 1973. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101202/. Accessed April 18, 2014.