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Site Reconnaissance

lookgun.jpg (13185 bytes) Brownsville 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.
The 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.

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There 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. 

Corvette 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 an identification.

First there’s 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.

boatsize.gif (4420 bytes) In Corvette’s 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 hull’s 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.


Credits and Acknowledgements

The Brownsville Steamboat Survey is an effort of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Principal Investigator
J. Barto Arnold III, Institute of Nautical Archaeology, TAMU

Andrew W. Hall, Galveston, Texas

utblogo.jpg (15806 bytes) Special 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 Rio Bravo.


Introduction | Steamboats on the Rio Grande | Two Steamboats | Site Reconnaissance
Corvette or Rio Bravo? | Credits and Acknowledgements

J. Barto Arnold et al. 1998, Brownsville Steamboat Reconnaissance, World Wide Web, URL
http://nautarch.tamu.edu/PROJECTS/riogrand/riogrand.html, Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A&M
University, E-mail: (jarnold@acs.tamu.edu).   Sunday, July 05, 1998 Revision

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