This past weekend my wife Bobbie Jean and I had to go to Malakoff to see if we could find an old-style dish pan for a project she is working on at Pioneer Village. I could not help but notice how low the water was in the Trinity River as we passed over the bridge spanning the stream. Since I was driving, I had to take a very quick glimpse of the channel. If any readers of this article happen to cross the Trinity at any location, take a very quick look at how low the water is currently. But make sure you only briefly take a look — I would not want to be the cause for someone driving off of the structure!

If someone wanted to put a boat in the river, first of all it might prove extremely difficult to find a site suitable for launching any boat and secondly, the size of the boat would be a very important factor with the water down so low. A canoe or a small flat-bottom boat would probably be best at this time. I noticed snags protruding from the water in both directions at Trinidad but these would not present a problem for a very small vessel.

The archeologists with Southern Methodist University compiled a list of 105 boats known to have ventured up and down the Trinity River. Some of these boats went upstream only as far as a few of the lower Trinity basin communities and landings. Others at certain times went as far north as Pine Bluff (Troy) in Freestone County or Magnolia in Anderson County. There are several documents stating river boat traffic farther upstream passing these two settlements was very limited due to the variable water table. In fact, it goes on to say in an average year, only three months early in the spring were navigable to the north.

The list of 105 boats is not separated into the specific classification for each vessel. Some are noted as being steamers while others are mentioned as sloops or schooners or flatboats. Each listed boat however is not spelled out as to the type. I also am aware the list is incomplete since last week, I was reading the history of Telico and Trinity City, two towns in Ellis County, and there was an article about R.D. ApRice who was of Welch descent. When he first came up river, he settled at Magnolia near Palestine. In 1857, he built a steam-powered boat at Magnolia and touted it as being designed especially for the Trinity River. The boat known as the Welshman was slightly over 130 feet in length and 22 feet wide. Approximately 8 feet deep in the water made it one of the deeper riding boats on the Trinity. The Telico book went on to say when the Civil War started, commerce on the river ceased so Mr. ApRice parked his boat at the docks at Trinity City and moved to a farm northwest of Italy. He still was very active during the war making numerous trips to buy munitions and supplies for the men from Ellis County fighting for the Confederacy. Mr. ApRice also entered into a contract with the Ellis County commissioners to build the third courthouse for Ellis County. This contract spelled out that the limestone blocks would be quarried from an area in Ellis County.

Sloops and schooners in those earlier times were powered only by sails. This greatly limited exactly how far upriver one of these boats was able to maneuver. In the archeological book entitled “A Reconnaissance Survey of the Trinity River Basin,” the archeologists stated a number of sloops and schooners were able to make the round trip almost continuously from Liberty to Galveston but very few ever ventured farther upstream. One sloop is mentioned as being all the way up river at Dallas, but it was towed by a paddle-wheeler similar to a barge being towed by a tugboat today. The steamers were of two varieties, stern paddle-wheelers and side-wheelers. Both were steam-powered, fueled with fire wood and water. The report doesn’t say where the wood was acquired but there must have been many localities along the river willing to sell one or more cords of firewood to a boat. I feel sure the river itself furnished the water but the quality of water must have varied from fairly clean to full of silt and debris. From my own experience dealing with boilers heating water during the winter months, the quality of water is critical in determining how long a boiler will function without having to be cleaned and repaired. The archeological book does not say if there was ever an incident of a boiler bursting in one of the boats plying the Trinity but I feel sure it happened once or twice.

Most of us have seen photographs or movies of the paddle-wheelers on the Mighty Mississippi River. These boats weighed in around 2,000 tons and were capable of carrying huge loads of cotton bales and goods back and forth on the river. The paddle-wheelers plying the Trinity River were much smaller ranging from as small as 60 tons to 500 tons. Several of the larger ones were multi-story with as many four decks. The upper decks were used to transport passengers while the lower and main deck carried goods. The boats going down river typically were transporting bales of cotton, cattle, sheep or hogs. I sincerely doubt a trip down to Galveston on a steamer loaded with pigs was considered an enchanted trip. Since the Trinity is lined on each side with a major forest, wind getting into the channel was of short supply and the aroma of pigs on a boat for several months had to be overwhelming. I would think at least part of the crew was busy during daylight hours trying to keep the main deck washed.

The stern paddle-wheelers were better suited to navigate the Trinity than the side-wheelers simply because the stern-driven boats did not take up as much width of the stream as the side-wheelers. A second factor dealing with stern versus side is the presence of snags protruding just under the surface of the river. With a stern-wheeler, the entire boat passes over any snag before the propelling paddles which just about eliminates the chance of one of the paddles striking a snag while the side-wheeler was more open to destruction by a submerged snag. However, all boats were subjected to the chance of a hidden snag punching a devastating hole below the water line.

Next week: Wrecks on the Trinity River

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Bill Young is a Daily Sun columnist. His column appears Sundays.

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