South Padre Island to Laredo: Steamboats and Borderland Culture
Imagine a balmy stretch of the Rio Grande River flowing calmly in a 19th century morning light. Drifting fog lifts with the rising sun, exposing the river to a birdsong blue sky.
Sabal palmettos line the river’s high banks, shading the bustle of shops, offices, and custom houses built from hand-cut sandstone, locally-fired brick, and decorative wrought-iron. Spanish greetings can be heard up and down the river in communities like Port Isabel, Brownsville, Rio Grande City, and Roma where folks are busy loading steamboats, unloading barges, landing flatboats, and piloting keel boats stacked with trade goods for transport up and down the Rio Grande. River shipping ushered in a golden age for our river communities from the Gulf northward to Laredo and the era left behind a permanent cultural mix of Mexico and Texas that continues to drive the borderland economy today.
Discover its roots by traveling the steamboat route with a start at the Port Isabel Historical Museum. Peruse the museum’s many historical artifacts and then drive on for some real trade goods shopping in Brownsville's Mercado Juarez, where merchants from across the border set up shop in the Deco-era Majestic Theatre. Or catch the homemade goods at the Farmer's Market held next to the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art. Ranching icons Captain Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy also made river shipping big business, moving a variety of trade goods like cotton and cattle. Learn the story of their riverboat business partner Charles Stillman at the Stillman House Museum, part of the Brownsville Historical Association’s Heritage Complex. Then discover the many health perils of the times at the Old Cemetery Center exhibits and tour.
The first known trade ships along the river were flatboats, which carried goods from Laredo to Reynosa in the late 1700s. River shipping picked up in the 1800s with boats like the Ariel, the first steamboat to sail in Texas waters. But the river’s steamship heyday really got a boost by the Mexican War of 1846 when the U.S. Army chartered more than 42 steamboats to ply the river waters. Once the war was over, many of the boats’ captains stayed, piloting steamers for a living.
An overnight in Rio Grande City’s historic La Borde House should give you a sense of the era. Don't miss a chance to tour the Spanish Colonial and Mexican vernacular architecture of Roma’s National Historic District, once one of the busiest steamship landings on the river. Then catch time’s shadow on the 1851 sundial at San Ygnacio’s Fort Treviño before continuing north to explore Laredo’s San Agustín Plaza. The arrival of the railroad, together with a decline in river depth, ended river navigation for trade. Today, knowledgeable river region “captains” conduct guided hikes, operate trams, and offer educational programs combining natural and cultural heritage such as those offered by Friends of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge or Sabal Palm Sanctuary, both on the river just north and south from Brownsville. No barge-loading labor in exchange for passage required.