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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Columbus Tower

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Writing by candle light, Capt. John Shropshire scratched out another letter to his beloved Carrie.

The captain and his fellow Confederate soldiers had covered about 12 miles that November day in 1861, stopping to make camp on the Frio River about 60 miles from Fort Clark.

The boys from Columbus were on their way to El Paso and eventually New Mexico. Shropshire knew it would be a long time before he held his wife in his arms again or saw their son, Charlie.
Columbus Texas birds eye view 1906 vintage photo

Bird's-eye view of Columbus, Texas in 1906
Taken from the courthouse. Photo courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library

If peace is not declared before we leave [El Paso], we can not possibly get back before 12 mo…which to me appears an age to be separated from my family,” he wrote.

Shropshire had been writing his wife since August, when his company marched off to war. “I tell you,” he had written, “soldiering so far has not been the most pleasant occupation I have followed.”

Indeed, before the war, he had been a successful cotton grower. “But these are no times to long for the comforts of home,” he had continued.

Early in the campaign, he had at least eaten well. “I managed to eat or worry down a small portion of a calf and also a pig which we pressed into the service of the Southern Confederacy,” he wrote.

“The candle has burnt out and I am writing by moonlight,” Shropshire continued in his November missive. “The moon shines very brightly in this country.”

By early December Shropshire wrote Carrie that his company was “dirty and hungry all the time.”

The day after Christmas, Shropshire wrote from a camp near the Rio Grande not far from Fort Quitman. Fighting Yankees would come, but for the time being, West Texas has proven a formidable adversary in its own right.

“I candidly confess I never would have come this way had I imagined the country was so mean,” Shropshire wrote. “If I had the Yankeys at my disposal I would given them this country and force them to live in it. I would make Devil’s River hollow headquarters for them.”

By late January 1862, the Texans had reached New Mexico. “In this long wearisome march my fancy has been idle and allowed to roam at will,” he penned. “Many are the fancy castles I have built for you and I and our little ones and I believe that some of them will be realized…”

Shropshire finally saw a fight coming, but he worried more about Carrie than himself. “Remember darling,” he wrote, “that if I am so unfortunate as to number among the slain in our country’s cause that to you alone on earth will our children have to depend.”

When the smoke cleared after the Battle of Glorietta Pass, Shropshire indeed lay among the unfortunate who would never see Texas again. But his name did eventually become associated with a castle – at least a structure that looks like one.
Columbus Texas courthouse square vintage photo
An early view from the NE corner of the Columbus town square

Photo courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library
  
A round, white tower on the Colorado County courthouse square looks like an architectural survivor of the days of yore in England. No matter how European it looks, however, the tower is the product of Yankee – well, Southern – ingenuity.

In the spring of 1883, two decades after the war that claimed Shropshire, a fire gutted a livery stable and adjoining hotel in Columbus. Volunteer fire fighters managed to contain the blaze before it leveled downtown, but getting enough water on the fire had been a problem.

To provide the city a water system, the county commissioner’s court authorized construction of a brick water tower. Built by R.J. Jones, the tower took shape from 400,000 locally made bricks. The walls lack only four inches being three feet thick. A metal water tank went atop the two-story brick tower. Beneath it, the city’s volunteer fire department had its office and equipment.
Columbus Texas tower and Columbus opera house
The tower with the clearly-identified Stafford Building in the background

Photo courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library
   
A hurricane damaged the top of the tower in 1909. The county had the structure repaired, but three years later decided the city needed a better water system. With completion of that system, the tower stood abandoned. Eventually, the county hired someone to tear it down, but dynamite did not phase it.

In 1926, it finally occurred to someone that the tower had other than utilitarian value. The officers of the John Shropshire and John C. Upton chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy got county officials to agree to let them use the tower as their meeting place.
Columbus Texas water tower vintage photo
Confederate Memorial Museum and Veterans Hall, Columbus Texas
L- The earliest photo of the tower courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library
R- The tower as it appears today after the removal of the tank. Photo by John Troesser, 2004
Local architect Milton Wirtz and contractor A.N. Evans Sr. refurbished the old tower, adding a small, rounded room on the east side of its base and a circular staircase leading to a second floor. Since 1962, the tower has been the home of Columbus’ Confederate Memorial Museum and Veterans Hall.

A photograph of Shropshire hangs on the museum wall, and his letters have been saved for posterity by Columbus’ Nesbitt Memorial Library.
Columbus Texas Water tower museum

The tower unpainted

Photo Courtesy Colorado County Visitors Bureau
   
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - January 13, 2006 column


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