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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Bagdad

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Bagdad. 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.

Prior 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.

Cotton, 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."

Though 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.

Isolated 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 1863.

"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 to flourish.

But 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 sand.

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 sun.
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" > March 7 , 2007 column
Published April 3, 2007

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