History

Steamboats in Texas History from Austin’s Colony to Today

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Long before the railroads crossed Texas, river travel was king. Steamboats prevailed for a very short time during the early days of Texas, but, sadly, much of that history has been lost just as the steamboats of that era have passed on.

Stephen F.  Austin’s Plan

Stephen F Austin hoped to bring steamboats to Texas

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Stephen F. Austin planned to use riverboats from the start. He hoped to use the same ship the Texan colonists sailed to Texas on from New Orleans on the Colorado River, but this plan failed, when the ship, the Lively, missed the Colorado’s mouth and went to the mouth of the Brazos. Austin believed the Lively and its passengers had sunk, and this tale eventually circulated throughout the region, though the Lively passengers were safe. After failing to establish a colony upstream on the Brazos, they left Texas.

The First Boat on Texas Rivers

the William Gibbons in 1833 is likely similar to early steamboats in Texas

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Though Austin knew the importance of river navigation, he failed to put the first transportation boat on a Texas river. That honor goes to Stephen F. Austin’s cousin Henry Austin with his steamboat the Ariel. After operating on the Rio Grande from June 1829 through to August 1830, it moved to navigate the Brazos. Though it ran until December 1830, the ship failed to reach New Orleans and ended up rotting near Harrisburg, near modern-day Houston.

Successful Steamboats on the Brazos River

Many steamboats navigated the Brazos River

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

After some poor starts, steamboats did successfully move along the Brazos River. The Yellow Stone, Mustang, Lady Byron, and Cayuga frequently moved goods along the Brazos River, connecting San Felipe to the coast. By 1840, one of the biggest hurdles to Brazos River navigation, the Velasco Bar, was successfully passed by the Constitution.

Obstacles on the Colorado River

Log jams miles long like this one in Idaho created serious problems for steamboats in Texas
Photo: Flickr/Boston Public Library

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