Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Fiery End of the Buffalo Bayou Steamboat Grapeshot

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 6, 2012

SmallSidewheelerA friend of mine e-mailed me the other day, having come across a steamboat name in the Buffalo Bayou book he’d always liked, Grapeshot. I agree — it’s a great name for a steamboat. Or a dog. Or a dog on a steamboat.

Grapeshot was a small, 179-ton sidewheeler built at Louisville in 1855.[1] According to Pam Puryear and Nath Winfield in Sandbars and Sternwheelers, she was built expressly for the Brazos River trade, running between landings on that river and Galveston, Texas’ primary seaport at the time.

The new boat’s arrival was widely anticipated on the Brazos; in late October 1855 the Columbia Democrat and Planter notified its readership that “the Grapeshot passed Vicksburg on the 17th Oct. en route for the Brazos river.” Unfortunately, the boat ran into trouble almost immediately, when in late November she attempted her first trip on the Galveston and Brazos Canal, a route that provided a sheltered passage between Galveston and the river, without boats having to risk the fifteen-mile stretch of the Gulf of Mexico between San Luis Pass, on the west end of Galveston Island, and the mouth of the river. A “norther,” a hard, cold northerly wind blew the boat hard against the edge of the cut channel, and stranded her so firmly that she couldn’t get off again until the wind died down. [2]

This was a common problem on the canal, which at the time was not yet two years old. The canal itself, the part cut through dry land, was short, less than five miles, but dredging and other improvements extended another thirty miles through an existing series of bays and lagoons to Galveston. The canal was only a very modest commercial success – it was found to be too narrow in some places, too shallow in others, and altogether too crooked – and it was found additionally that the steamboats’ sidewheels chewed away at the soft banks of the dredged channel, making repairs and upkeep an ongoing struggle. In time, sidewheelers like Grapeshot were barred from using the channel altogether, which greatly reduced its commercial viability.

Puryear and Winfield say that, having been proved unsuitable for the canal before even having completed a single passage of it, Grapeshot was soon relegated to the safer confines of the river itself, carrying passengers and cargo between river landings and the Buffalo, Bayou, Brazos& Colorado Railroad line at Richmond. But that seems not to be the case, because the very next month Grapeshot was running cotton down to Galveston from Buffalo Bayou, and announcing plans to run up the Trinity, all taking advantage of trade to be had during the fall and winter cotton shipping season. In one trip in January 1856, for example, she brought 564 bales of cotton down to Galveston, consigned to local merchants including J. C. Kuhn and William Hendley. The following week she brought down 548 bales, consigned to various Galveston factors.[3]

But it would be the Trinity where Grapeshot would find a permanent home. After a single trip up that river, the boat’s owners, Captain S. P. McGuire and his clerk, were convinced to sell their boat to Captain H. R. Dawson.[4] By the spring of 1856, Grapeshot seems to have settled into a regular routine of running between Galveston and landings on the Trinity River. In late March, for example, the boat was reported to have a arrived at the mouth of the river, downbound to Galveston, carrying 900 bales of cotton, a cargo almost certainly split between the boat itself and a towed barge, as was becoming common practice at the time. Nonetheless, if true, it was a remarkable haul for a boat that size. By May, with the river rising on from the springtime rains, Grapeshot was reported heading into the upper stretches of the river, well beyond Liberty.[5] Business was good on the Trinity, and Grapeshot’s master, Dawson, took a leading role that spring in organizing the Trinity and Liberty Steamboat Co., an enterprise founded to construct and operate a steamboat between Liberty and Galveston, “and up the Trinity river when the water will admit of it, providing this shall not interfere with her regular trips, between Liberty and Galveston.” The company was capitalized at $10,000, with 200 shares valued at $50 each. Dawson personally went in for one-third of the value of the company, 66 1/3 shares. Dawson, who press accounts described as having “had experience boat building on the Ohio River,” announced he was ready to begin construction of the boat at Green & Branch’s Mill, few miles above Liberty, assisted by Mr. W. Wicks, a “practical engineer,” and Mr. P. Burke, a ship’s carpenter.[6]

Grapeshot continued to run primarily, if perhaps not exclusively, on the Trinity for the next two years. There are several contemporary references to her reaching Parker’s Bluff, a river landing in Anderson County near present-day Palestine, over 500 statute miles from Galveston, following the serpentine bends and twists of the river. (It’s about 170 miles straight-line distance.)

The end for Grapeshot came on May 9, 1858, soon after the boat left the wharf at Galveston for the mouth of the Trinity River. The boat was caught in rough weather, and her master sought shelter in the lee of Pelican Island, just north of Galveston harbor. In the pitching waves her chimneys toppled, crushing the boiler deck down onto the boilers themselves and setting fire to the timbers. All aboard escaped with their lives by clambering onto the barge they had been towing, and then cutting the barge adrift, but the boat and much of her cargo were lost. Grapeshot’s passengers and crew were picked up and returned to Galveston aboard the Houston Navigation Co.’s steamer Island City, while the cargo barge Grapeshot had been towing was taken in charge by the steamer Water Witch. Grapeshot herself burned to the waterline, a total loss.

The Union Insurance Co. of Galveston ultimately paid its full liability of $2,614.86, and other insurers were reported to have settled claims for around $14,000. The total financial loss represented by the boat and her cargo had been estimated at the time to be between fifty and sixty thousand dollars.[7]

Sadly, contemporary accounts do not record whether Grapeshot had a dog for a mascot. But I’d like to think she did.


[1] Frederick Way, Jr., Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1983 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1983), 197.

[2] Columbia Democrat and Planter, October 25, 1855, 2; Pamela Ashworth Puryear and Nath Winfield, Jr., Sandbars and Sternwheelers: Steam Navigation on the Brazos (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1976), 88; Texas Ranger, November 29, 1855, 2.

[3] Galveston Commercial, December 27, 1855, 2; ibid., January 10, 1856, 2; ibid., January 17, 1856, 2.

[4] W. T. Block, Cotton Bales, Keel Boats and Sternwheelers: A History of the Sabine River and Trinity River Cotton Trades, 1837-1900 (Woodville, Texas: Dogwood Press, 1995), 204.

[5] Galveston Weekly News, May 27, 1856, 1

[6] Galveston Weekly News, March 25, 1856, 3; ibid., June 17, 1856, 3.

[7] Puryear and Winfield, 88; Palestine, Texas Trinity Advocate, May 19, 1858, 2; San Antonio Ledger and Texan, May 15, 1858, 3; San Augustine Eastern Texian, May 29, 1858, 2; Galveston Civilian and Gazette, June 15, 1858, 2.

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  1. Bummer said, on December 6, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Bummer’s father had an old german shorthaired-pointer that he named Grapeshot. All believed that the name should have been changed to Birdshot, since as a pup he took a good peppering while jumping into the air attempting to snag quail that flushed. Old Grapeshot lived 14 years, still carrying much of that lead around inside him. However, he never jumped again trying to catch flushing quail.

    Bummer


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