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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Bad Water

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Water quality is not a new issue in Texas.

Long before pollution became a common term, the Pecos River was notorious for the odious quality of its water. Cowboys who'd herded stock across it, or worked along its banks, liked to josh newcomers to their outfit by "recalling" a time they'd seen a coyote venture cautiously out from the brush, take a long drink from the river, and then whirl around as if he'd been shot only to begin frantically licking its rear end.

"Why 'n the world would he do that?" the incredulous cowpoke would ask.

"To git the bad taste outta it's mouth," came the punch line.

In other words, water from the Pecos tasted pretty darn bad.

Less known is that the water from the upper reaches of the Brazos River also is brackish and alkaline. But its not nearly as bad as a certain 19th century military record says.

The U.S. Army, which garrisoned a string of forts along the state's western frontier to protect the populace from hostile Indians, was particularly interested in water. And compiling statistics.

"In making our report to the Chief Quartermaster of the Department it was necessary to convey an accurate idea of the adequacy and character of the water supply, that being a most important item in the practicability of any point for military as well as domestic purposes," wrote cavalry veteran H.H. McConnell in the ponderous prose of 1889.

McConnell came to Texas in 1867 with the 6th Cavalry and spent much of his time in the military at Fort Richardson in Jack County. After his discharge from the Army, he stayed in Jacksboro as a newspaper publisher. His book, "Five Years a Cavalryman: Or Sketches of Regular Army Life on the Texas Frontier, Twenty Odd Years Ago," is a classic Texana title.

A literate enlisted man, he often was tasked with handling Army paperwork. In compiling a report for the ranking quartermaster in Texas, McConnell was told to include an analysis of a sampling taken from the Brazos.

A few days later the post quartermaster walked into McConnell's headquarters office and said, "Well, you can state in your report that the doctor finds that the Brazos water contains one ounce of salt to each quart,"

McConnell protested that the ratio seemed ridiculously high. Water from the Brazos tasted bad, he said, but not that bad.

The quartermaster agreed, but that was the ratio the post surgeon had given the colonel for inclusion in the report and McConnell duly noted the doctor's finding. After all, there's a right way, a wrong way and the Army way to do things.

But just because the finding had been reduced to writing did not mean McConnell found it any more believable. Asking around, McConnell learned that the initial stage of the water quality test had been handled by the colonel's orderly, an old Prussian soldier named Stroop. His instructions had been to boil a gallon of river water down to a half gallon for analysis by the post surgeon.

Knowing Stroop was a stiff, by-the-book soldier not capable of pulling off a practical joke, McConnell drew him aside and asked how he had handled his assignment. After gaining a promise of secrecy, the Prussian confessed that he had fallen asleep after placing the water on the fire. When he woke up to the colonel's impatient voice asking him if the job was done yet, he discovered that almost all the water had boiled away.

Thinking fast, the orderly grabbed a handful of salt, threw it in the container, and poured in enough water to make a half-gallon.

When the doctor analyzed the water, he correctly detected an extremely high level of sodium chloride. The only problem was that his finding had absolutely nothing to do with the actual water quality of the Brazos. It would not have been militarily prudent to go through all the red tape it would have taken to fix the error, so McConnell said nothing about the botched test.

That's why somewhere in the National Archives is a handwritten report in faded ink asserting that the Brazos River is about as salty as the Gulf of Mexico.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" February 20, 2019

Related Topic:
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