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HomeNL-2011-10 Steamboat or Bridge 2?

Brazos River Debris: Steamboat or Bridge?
September 2nd, 2011
John Rich
My curiosity about Brazos River steamboats was aroused by the two photos on the left, below, which were taken by Natalie Wiest and Joe Coker on a Brazos River day trip between San Felipe and Interstate-10.  Notice that the twin tubes on the left look a lot like the pair of smokestacks on the steamship on the book cover, in the photo on the right.  And the second photo seems to show some kind of articulated joint and other mechanical gear, which have a resemblance to engine parts.  The book "Sandbars and Sternwheelers" indicates that a steamship called the William Penn sunk in the Brazos near San Felipe.  So, had they found the remains of this 1800's steamship?  While it does have some resemblance to steamship parts, there are also opinions that the debris is from an old railroad bridge.
    Engine parts?
    Book cover

On September 2nd, I set out on a paddle trip to examine the debris for myself, and see if I could determine the true identification of this debris to my own personal satisfaction.

 Brazos River road map

  Paddling map 
The usual technique for paddling this stretch of river is to put-in at San Felipe, and paddle downstream to a take-out at Interstate-10.  But since I was paddling alone this day, I did both my put-in and take-out at I-10, and started out paddling upstream against the current.

I will break this story up into two parts.  I'll begin by describing the general river canoe experience, and then I'll get down to business on the identification of the unknown river debris.

The put-in was typical for the Brazos River - at the bottom of a steep dirt bank.  The photo below shows underneath the Interstate-10 bridge, with the parallel 1906 railroad bridge in the background.  Under the bridge was some mysterious rock art, very similar to that found in ancient Indian caves along the Pecos River in west Texas, with stylistic images painted by unknown artists, whose message is indecipherable.  The gravel bars at the bends of the river are good spots to stretch your legs by going for a walk, hunting for pretty rocks and chunks of petrified wood, and if you're really lucky, fossilized dinosaur bones!

 The put-in
  Rock art
  Petrified wood

The Brazos is known for being relatively flat and unexciting, but this particular stretch is an exception to that rule - there are four, count 'em, four rapids in the 5-mile stretch.  Two of them I would classify as Class I, and the other two would be Class II.  Nothing dangerous, but fun excitement, with a few rocks to avoid and some swirling eddies.  One rapid is a narrow channel between two rock ledges, with a choice of entry points, and a right turn at the bottom.  Another is a long straight chute with wave trains at the bottom big enough to splash over your gunwales.  Yeehaw!  The photos below don't do them justice.

Rapid 1
  Rapid 2
  Rapid 3

There wasn't any hairy wildlife to be seen, except for cows from the adjacent ranch land.  But if you look on the sand bars, you can find tracks from deer, wild pigs and sometimes bobcats.  Mostly you just enjoy the birds, which include whitish egrets, blackish buzzards, blueish herons, pinkish roseate spoonbills, black and white kingfishers, and even a magnificent bald eagle!  If you paddle along the edge of the weed beds, you can spook schools of mullet which go scattering in all directions, leaving V-shaped wakes as they go.  And with the water so low, and some of the fish so big, they're often dragging their bellies on the bottom, with a dorsal fin sticking up out of the water like "Jaws".  There are plenty of gar too, but they usually remain elusive and you're lucky to get just fleeting glimpses.  The toothy gar are probably why the mullet hide in the weedbeds.  If I was a fish, I would.

Spoonbills   Mullet

The rock sticking up out of the river is limestone, from a former epoch when this part of Texas was underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, and the rock is often in unusual patterns, like a moonscape.   Moon men have occupied  the moonscape, spending their time fishing and drinking beer just like earthlings.  And unfortunately, the moonmen are pigs, leaving behind their trash for someone else to pick up, like me, the earthling.  They may come in peace, but they don't pack out their trash.

One other sight-seeing feature at the first sand bar north of I-10, is a working oil rig, which is just above the lip of the riverbank, and not surrounded by any fence - you can walk right up to it and watch how it works.

 Moonscape     Moontrash

Oil rig

Okay, that's enough about the river in general.  Now let's get down to the business of examining the debris sticking up out of the river.

The parallel steel pipes, seen below, are one of the most obvious features sticking up out of the water.  With a cursory glance, they can appear to be steamship smokestacks from a boat that is laying over on its side under the water.  But when you examine them closely, you can see that they're made up of very thick curved steel plates, riveted together.  The steel is much too thick and heavy to serve well as smokestacks.  And the inside of the pipes is filled with concrete, which argues for bridge pilings rather than smokestacks.

Smokestacks?   Steel plates
  Filled with concrete

 Under the 1906
railroad bridge

There are an identical set of steel pipes, with the same diameter and distance apart, downstream underneath the current railroad bridge across the Brazos, next to the I-10 road bridge.  That railroad bridge was built in 1906, and replaced an earlier bridge for a rail line that ran from Houston to Sealy.  As you can see in the photo, those pipes are still upright, and embedded in a concrete footing, where they served as bridge pilings.  I suspect that the ones further upstream were also upright in a concrete footing like this originally, and have simply fallen over as the water washed out the footing.

Near the pipes are other steel structures, below, which could be construed as being part of a steamboat.  But instead, I think these are steel girders which supported the roadbed for the rail line which ran across the river on the bridge pilings.  I believe they are upside-down in the river, where the flat part would have faced up as the surface of the railbed, and the arched part is bracing which ran underneath the girder.

Steel section
  Up close
  Another one

The next mystery in this debris is what I'll call the "hinge joint", as seen in the left photo, below.  It looks sort of like like piston rods on a crankshaft .  But they're all mounted on the same plane, instead of on a bent crankshaft to accommodate the up and down motion of different pistons.  Could it be something to do with the rotating paddle-wheel?  Because of the way they're mounted on the girder, they don't have the free range of motion to rotate 360-degrees.  For an explanation, I looked at the 1906 railroad bridge over the Brazos, and found this joint (middle photo below), with several support braces radiating outward fan-like from a single pin connection point, in a very similar manner.  And even the modern steel and concrete Interstate-10 roadway uses hinged joints to connect the horizontal steel girders to the vertical concrete pillars (right photo below).  So, my determination for the hinge joints are that these are superstructure connection points, rather than steam engine or paddle-wheel machinery.

1882 hinge joint
  1906 hinge joint
  Modern I-10 hinge joint

Topo map
As a final piece of evidence, I present the U.S. Geological Service topographical map of the area, which shows an "old railroad grade" approaching the river at the exact spot where the debris is located.  This is more than just coincidence.  This was the Texas Western narrow gauge rail line that ran from Houston going westward and ending in Sealy.  So, the location of the debris matches with the location of the old rail crossing.

When I add up all the different bit and pieces of evidence and information, I arrive at the conclusion that this debris is definitely from the 1882 railroad bridge, and not from a steamboat.  As cool as it would be to find a 150-year-old steamboat, I think that those which have been sunk in the Brazos River have long since been flushed away from periodic flooding, have sunk deep into the muddy river bottom, or have rotted and rusted away.

It sure was fun to research and investigate this, and being able to use my canoe in the process was a bonus!

The investigator,
John Rich