The Navidad River Wreck

My colleague Ed Cotham passed along a sad news item:

A Victoria, Texas man died Friday [January 1] after impaling his vessel on a sunken Confederate steamboat in the Navidad River about three miles from Lolita. . . .

[Texas Parks and Wildlife district supervisor Rex] Mayes said people have struck the ship wreckage throughout the years, but attempts to mark the area have been unsuccessful.

“We’ve tried to mark it and either people steal the buoys or when we open the flood gates, it washes away,” he said.

During normal water levels the wreckage is submerged, but Friday a low-tide exposed about six inches to a foot of the wreckage, he said.

I visited this wreck in 1990 (twenty years ago already? — sheesh!) with Barto Arnold, then the State Marine Archaeologist with the Texas Historical Commission. I was on the staff of the Texas Maritime Museum at the time, and the Navidad River Wreck was the first shipwreck I ever looked at and help record in any organized way.

I don’t have any photos from that visit, but as I recall the upper parts of the wreck were just barely submerged. Barto did most of the hands-on recording, while my TMM colleague Jerry Moore and I made notes and tried to figure out what we were looking at. I remember vividly Barto describing the regular notches cut into the upper edge of the hull plating, through which wooden beams would pass. All three of us were pretty stumped about what vessel this might be, though all of us recognized that this big, iron-hulled craft was a most unusual sort of ship to turn up in a narrow, South Texas waterway.

In September 1991, a five-person team led by Charlie Pearson of Coastal Environments, a cultural resources management firm, completed an assessment of the Navidad River Wreck, along with two other nearby sites. The Navidad River Wreck was the largest and most significant of these, accounting for ten full days of the team’s time in the field.

Coastal Environments Team
The Coastal Environments field crew (l. to r.): Stephen R. James, Jr., Franklin Fisher, Charles E. Pearson, James Duff and Todd Hannahs.

What they found was a  very substantial iron ship, at least 144 feet (35m) long and more than 6 feet (2m) deep, from the intact bottom plating to the notched, upper edge of the gunwale. Her iron hull plates were either clinker-built, with each row of plates overlapping the row below it, or “sunken and raised,” with rows of plated alternating inboard and outboard of each other. The remains of five massive timber keelsons, port and starboard, remained in place; the largest measuring 20 inches vertically. Although no machinery was present, its original place was marked by a heavy bed of timbers and a single, graceful iron support column once probably braced a single-cylinder, “grasshopper” type steam engine.

Profile of the Navidad River Wreck. Figure in red at right added for scale.

Navidad Wreck 2
Cross-section of the Navidad River Wreck, showing the heavy timber bed that originally supported the engine.

The Coastal Environments team believed that a large, iron-hulled steamboat wreck on this (relatively) quiet stretch of the Texas coast would be easy to identify in the historical record. That turned out not to be the case.

Divers from Coastal Environments working at the wreck site, September 1991. At right, the project boat is tied off to the engine mounting column shown in the cross-section above.

One of the leading candidates for the identity of the Navidad River Wreck was Mary Somers (or Mary Sumner), an iron-hulled sidewheel steamboat built at Baltimore in 1839. The 203-ton steamboat was sold to the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Department in 1846, and reportedly renamed United States in 1848. By 1850, though, she had arrived in Texas and was running out of Indianola – which connects directly to the Navidad River by Matagorda Bay – under her original name. There’s no record of Mary Somers being formally registered in Texas, but there is extensive documentation of her operating here throughout the 1850s.

A view of Indianola, Texas, c. 1860. Library of Congress.

No one knows exactly what happened to Mary Somers/United States with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. It’s widely believed that, like many other river craft who found their livelihood cut off by the war, she was either chartered or sold to the Confederate government for service as a transport. This, in turn, has led to confusion that she may have served as a blockade runner. She didn’t. Similarly, her reported Confederate service has led to her being described as an “ironclad,” which is also incorrect. (An iron-hulled ship is not an ironclad, any more than a steel-bodied automobile is a tank.)

This steamboat, shown at lower right in the larger print above, has been speculated to be a depiction of
Mary Somers, which is believed to have been operating at Indianola at the time.

Over two decades since Coastal Environment’s study of the site and identification of Mary Somers (among others) as a possible identification of the wreck, that name has stuck. It happens that way sometimes, but in this case it seems likely correct.

Images and material adapted from Underwater Archaeology Along the Lower Navidad and Lavaca Rivers, Jackson County, Texas by Charles E. Pearson, Stephen R. James, Jr., Kay G. Hudson and James A. Duff (Baton Rouge: Coastal Environments, Inc., May 1993).

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