Steamboat Reconnaissance investigators Arnold and Hall traveled
to Brownsville on June 12, 1998. After meeting with local
contacts Antonio Zavaleta of the University of Texas at Brownsville
and Tom Fort, an area authority on steam navigation on the Rio
Grande, the investigators traveled a short distance to the U.S
bank of the Rio Grande near the site of the original Fort Brown. En
route, the party stopped to examine an old U.S. artillery piece
(left) which has been a local landmark for many years. The
gun stands upright on what is now the driving range of the municipal
golf course, but 150 years ago was the interior of the "battle
fort" built across the river from Matamoros. The significance
of the piece and its location have been lost, the gun's trunnions
are marked with the casting
date, 1837, and the letters "WP F" --
presumably meaning West Point Foundry.
steamboat wreck itself lies at the bottom of a steep bank downstream
from present International Bridge. During the reconnaissance
of the site, the team was accompanied by a U.S. Border Patrol
agent. The wreck is badly broken, and shows considerable
deterioration from a photograph of it published about 15 years
ago. The bank is heavily overgrown (right), making it difficult
to determine the entire extent of the remaining hull or take
measurements and photographs.
were, however, several interesting features of the wreck.
At the upstream end of the visible wreckage, the frames were
joined to wood timbers cut into a gentle curve (left). This
may represent the turn of the bilge, where the flat bottom of
the vessel turns upward to form the sides of the hull.
Furthermore, since these curved pieces are not directly in line
but instead staggered slightly, one after the other, this part
of the wreck may be from one of the ends of the vessel, rather
than from the midships section. The wide timber with the
iron bolts through it (upper part of the image) is actually
two 2-inch by 8-inch (5cm x 20cm) timbers placed one atop the
other and bolted to the hull frames.
or Rio Bravo?
So which is it? Corvette?
Rio Bravo? A third, as yet unknown vessel? These questions
will remain unanswered for now. But in the meantime, it might be
useful to look at some of the factors that will go into making such
First theres the question
of size. At 343 registered tons, Rio Bravo was more than
twice the size of Corvette (149 tons). The exact dimensions
of either vessel are unknown, but since tonnage was a measure of
volume and most Western Rivers steamboats had generally similar
hull shapes, it should be possible to roughly estimate the boats
measurements based on the dimensions of boats of like tonnage.
case, a comparison of several other like-sized sidewheelers
suggests a length of about 135 feet, with a beam of around 26
feet. A similar comparison for Rio Bravo suggests that
she was about 40 feet longer and 10 broader in beam (left).
Unfortunately not enough of the wreck is exposed to get an accurate
measure of any of the hulls primary dimensions.
In River of Lost Dreams, historian
Pat Kelley states that the wreck is probably that of Corvette,
which he says was deliberately sunk at that location in February
1852. On the other hand, Frank C. Pierce, who came to Brownsville
aboard Rio Bravo and published a history of the area in 1917,
insists that the wreck at this location is the old Navy gunboat.
That, combined with the relatively robust size of the wreck's timbers
tentatively lean the investigators toward Rio Bravo as
the identity of the wreck.
The Brownsville Steamboat Survey is
an effort of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M
University in College Station.
J. Barto Arnold III,
Institute of Nautical Archaeology, TAMU
Andrew W. Hall, Galveston,
thanks goes to Antonio
Zavaleta, PhD, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the
University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.
Dr. Zavaleta -- a Brownsville native, trained anthropologist,
local historian, civic leader and gracious host -- managed to
employ all of these skills in assisting the investigators in
surveying the steamboat wreck site.
Thanks goes to Mr. Tom Fort of Edinburg,
Texas, a Rio Grande steamboat historian who assisted with the survey
and provided detailed information concerning Corvette and