© 2012 Steve Hathcock
A few years back I received a letter from Jim Jennings whose father was Chief Engineer of the crew dredging the Brownsville ship channel in the early thirties. A tremendous hurricane struck the coast in 1933. Old timers tell of a 30-foot tidal surge that inundated South Padre Island. The old lighthouse at Point Isabel, now Port Isabel, was crowded with area residents who watched their homes wash away in the swirling waters. The government crew visited the Island immediately after the floods and discovered the remains of the abandoned army depot at Brazos Santiago, which was located on the southern shore of the present day jetties. Jennings’s father collected a trunk full of artifacts including bullets, army issue brogans, guns, and the remains of the old barracks. The outpost appeared to have been abandoned rather hastily and Jennings could only wonder about the calamity that had occurred so many years before. Later, during dredging operations, the Government crew located the wreck of an old ship full of wine. More importantly, the men who dove on the old wreck found a massive iron bound chest lying on the sandy bottom of the Laguna Madre. They tied a float to the trunk, planning a salvage operation for the following day. As seems to be the case in these kinds of stories, they were unable to locate the float upon their return.
In closing, Jim asked,
“Do you have any ideas about what could have been in that trunk?”
Here is my reply in part;
Yes, I can tell you a little about your Dad’s amazing finds.
During the Civil War, the Union Army maintained a depot at the northern tip of Brazos Island, and as your father described, it was located right about where the stone jetties stand today. Artist, Eddie Valent, portrayed the depot as it appeared in 1865. Several medium sized vessels may be seen lying in wait for their turn to be unloaded. In the background are the government wharves, and of course the depot itself. Farther back one can see where the hospital and barracks were located. The Brazos Beacon and other facilities were located to the south along the beach area.
The original painting hung for years in the office of Bruce Aiken, curator for the Brownsville Museum. Bruce passed away several years ago, but was, without a doubt, one of our area’s foremost experts on early military history of the lower Rio Grande Valley. He recently published a collection of his short stories titled, Bullets, Ballots and Barking Dogs. It was a small press run and sold rather quickly.
This military post was in use up to the time of the great Hurricane of 1867. The storm caught the army by surprise. It also completely destroyed the outpost at Clarksville, and the Mexican city of Bagdad, both of which were located astride the border at the mouth of the Rio Grande River. Luckily, most of the soldiers and residents escaped with their lives.
The wine ship your father found was the remains of the La Reine Des Mers. The five masted schooner struggled for several days trying to outrun a storm that sprang up in the Gulf of Mexico. It did not make it to the shelter of the bay though, and sank in sight of land in late November of 1875.
The merchantman was carrying a full load of fine French wines. Stories of the time, tell how local fishermen braved the storm in order to rescue the crew of the stricken ship. In one story, the ship’s survivors remarked on the hospitality of their new found friends who gave them food and shelter until they were able to fend for themselves. Another story, by Ford Greene, part of the crew who worked with your father, describes the loss and the rediscovery of the old ship.
The trunk your father found and then lost?
In Texas Treasure Coast, author Tom Townsend, lists $100,000.00 in gold bullion as also going down with the ship. There has been no record of the treasure ever being recovered. Who knows? It might still be out there, buried in the silt. Perhaps the line your father tied the float to, is still waving lazily in the warm currents of the Laguna Madre.
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