Pilot’s license issued to Martin Reynolds, December 11, 1876 (3.8MB).
South of Bay City in Matagorda County, in Caney Creek, there’s a sunken sternwheel steamboat. It’s a remarkably well-preserved site, with all the boat’s machinery intact. (That’s quite rare in riverboat wrecks.) But despite 15+ years of (admittedly intermittent) study, the identity of the Caney Creek Wreck remains elusive. Everyone in the county knows it’s there — everyone in the area, it seems, has a not-too-bright brother-in-law who’s hit it with his bass boat — but the name of the steamboat and how it came to be there has been lost in the collective memory of the community.
Divers working at Caney Creek Wreck site in 2005. The water tastes as bad as it looks.
Several of Maritime Texas‘ contributors have spent considerable effort over the years recording, analyzing and researching this wreck, most notably Layne Hedrick, who wrote his masters thesis at Texas A&M on the subject.
Which brings us to Martin Reynolds. Years ago, my old friend Randy Jones gave me this pilot’s license (top), issued at Galveston, to Captain Reynolds. This license is a copy (Issue No. 2), issued in December 1876 for operations “on the waters of Pass Cavallo Bar and Matagorda Bay,” to the “head of navigation of the tributaries of Matagorda Bay.” This latter clause included Caney Creek, which at the time was connected to Matagorda Bay by a short canal. If, as seems likely, the Caney Creek Wreck dates from the years before 1875, then Captain Reynolds must have been intimately familiar with this wreck, which likely was the de facto “head of navigation” on the creek — at least for large commercial vessels.
Pilot’s licenses were fundamentally different from masters’ licenses (i.e., to command a seagoing vessel); while the latter required a thorough knowledge of seamanship generally, a pilot’s license required very specific and detailed local knowledge. A pilot had to not only be a good seaman, but also had to demonstrate a complete knowledge of the intricacies of navigating a specific set of waters. The pilot’s license only covered a limited geographic area. He — or she, in a few cases — had to know which shoals were exposed when the wind blew in a certain direction, how the tide would set around an island in the bay, and where were hidden obstructions that, although invisible to the casual eye, could impale and sink a wooden-hulled boat in minutes. All this knowledge was learned by experience; as Mark Twain described in his classic Life on the Mississippi, it was a demanding and intensive apprenticeship. Captain Reynolds would, inevitably, not only have known the navigational hazard created by the Caney Creek Wreck, but undoubtedly as well knew many people in the area with first-hand knowledge of the boat and the circumstances that left it at the bottom of the creek, miles inland from Matagorda Bay.
I don’t know much else about Captain Reynolds; his name doesn’t turn up in published works. It’s entirely possible that Captain Reynolds only worked actively for a short time in the area. Inland steam navigation was settling into a long, slow decline in the 1870s, as railroads expanded rapidly, siphoning off the passenger- and express cargo trade and (notably on the Brazos) setting up actual physical barriers to steamboats in the form of rail trestles. On Matagorda Bay, in particular, the main seaport of Indianola had been devastated by a hurricane the previous year, in 1875. (It would be leveled again, this time for good, in 1886.) The prospects for a licensed steamboat pilot on Matagorda Bay in late 1876 were not especially bright, and getting dimmer. Did Captain Reynolds decide to move on to learn the banks, sandbars and currents of some other area? Perhaps he died soon after, or retired for some other reason. Or is there a trove of historical information on Captain Reynolds still out there, waiting to be found?
Sure would like to know. But even more, I’d like to sit down with Captain Reynolds for a few minutes and ask, “so what’s the deal with that wreck up on Caney Creek?”
– Andy Hall