An international river city with little appreciation for the rule of law, a place
where life is cheap. |
Far from the Middle East, another Bagdad lay on
the south side of the Rio Grande at the river's mouth, just across from a Texas
town called Clarksville. (Not to be confused with the Clarksville
in Red River County.)
"It was a small village consisting of a few thatched-roof
and mud-plastered jacales which served as the homes of ranchmen, fishermen and
pilots for the few merchant ships that came to the port," Teresa H. Clark Clearwater,
daughter of the founder of Bagdad's sister city, recalled years later.
to the Mexican War, the nearest port to Matamoras, Mexico was Brazos Santiago,
a small spit of sand just south of Padre Island. But when the Rio Grande became
the undisputed U.S.-Mexico boundary in 1848, Mexico established a port on its
side of the river's mouth.
The last outpost of what could be called civilization
on the 1,200 mile-long Rio Grande, Bagdad - located 50 miles downstream from Matamoras,
Mexico - slumbered on what seemed like a never-ending siesta until the outbreak
of the Civil War and the federal blockade of Southern ports.
the economic life blood of Texas and the Confederacy, soon made its way to Bagdad
by riverboat, ship or ox-drawn wagons. From the Mexican port, it could be shipped
to Britain and other European markets.
As Clearwater put it, with cotton
bringing a dollar a pound, Bagdad "grew to be a village of more than 20,000 souls,"
many of them "refugees from the invaded Southern cities."
technically in Mexico, Bagdad may as well have been in Texas. It had more southerners
living in it than Mexicans. To add more spice to the mix, the town teemed with
French sailors and soldiers (with the U.S. preoccupied, the Emperor Maximillian
had occupied Mexico) as well as men of other European nations.
and awash in money, Bagdad with its bars and brothels soon drew comparisons to
the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and other famously sinful venues.
"The cosmopolitan city of Bagdad," wrote Father P.F. Parisot in his "Reminiscences
of a Texas Missionary," amounted to "a veritable Babel, a Babylon, a whirlpool
of business, pleasure and sin."
With stevedores and other working men
bringing in $5 or more a day, and owners of skiffs and other vessels capable of
hauling people or freight from the riverside docks to the ships lying at anchor
in deeper water fetching up to $40 a day, money flowed through Bagdad with far
greater volume than the Rio Grande.
Indeed, as Father Parisot continued,
"The saloon and hotel keepers were reaping an abundant harvest. The Gulf, for
three or four miles out, was literally a forest of masts. Ten stages were running
daily from Matamoras to Bagdad."
Melinda Rankin, a Presbyterian missionary
who had been operating a school for girls in Matamoras, arrived in Bagdad in March
"It was not unfrequently the case that a hundred vessels were lying
off the bar," Rankin later wrote in her memoir, "Twenty Years Among the Mexicans."
"Not only were they discharging goods, but were receiving large quantities of
cotton for foreign ports."
An 1865 map of Bagdad shows roughly 200 structures
inside a northward bend of the river. Even after the Civil War ended, Bagdad continued
on Oct. 6, 1867, a powerful hurricane took dead aim at Bagdad and Clarksville.
The storm literally erased both towns, essentially leaving nothing but scoured
For years, one of the more common reminders of Bagdad and Clarksville's
maritime heyday came whenever a shrimp boat trolling off the mouth of the Rio
Grande hauled in an old anchor in its nets. Some of those anchors ended up in
museums and private ownership, though many got sold to scrap metal dealers.
Today, only local history buffs even know where the twin cities once stood. On
the Texas side, the location is distinguishable only by a few scattered chunks
of brick and small pieces of broken glass catching light from the harsh sub-tropical
Tales" > March
7 , 2007 column
Published April 3, 2007
by Mike Cox|