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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Ghost Town
without a Trace

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

For a time, early-day Texans apparently looked up to Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

When Dr. Francis F. Wells – one of Stephen F. Austin’s original 300 colonists -- and his sister-in-law Pamelia McNutt Porter settled along the lower Navidad River in 1832, Texas had been a Mexican province more than a decade. Since one of Mexico’s shining political stars was a soldier turned liberal politician named Santa Anna, what better name for a new town?

With a riverboat wharf, Santa Anna the town grew as the popularity of its namesake declined. By 1835, with Texas verging on revolt, Santa Anna had proven more a despot than democratic idol. Someone as anonymous today as the person who came up with the idea of honoring the dictator in the first place suggested the bustling river port be renamed Texana. (Get it? “Tex” plus “Anna” minus one “n.”)

If dry humor figured in the renaming of the town, no amusement could be found in Santa Anna’s bloody campaign to put down the revolution in early 1836. During the war, Texana’s dock saw an influx of freight and people, many of them coming to take part in the fight for independence.

That summer, Texas’ separation from Mexico assured by Sam Houston’s defeat of Santa Anna at San Jacinto, two New York developers came to Texana with big plans. Augustus and John Allen envisioned a great deep-water port for the new republic and thought they had found just the place to develop it. They supposedly offered Texana founder Wells $100,000 for his land.

That was a huge amount of money, but Wells countered by asking for twice that. Not surprisingly, the brothers said no deal. Legend has it that one of them stepped up on a stump and delivered this impromptu address:

“Never will this town amount to anything. I curse it. You people…within the sound of my voice will live to see rabbits… inhabiting its streets.”

The Allen brothers looked elsewhere for property, eventually staking out a town site along Buffalo Bayou farther up the coast. They called it Houston in honor of the republic’s first president.

Texana did not grow as fast as Houston, but nearly four decades later it continued as an inland port, business center and seat of Jackson County. In the mid-1870s a sandbar that had been impeding navigation up the Navidad had been dredged and, according to the Galveston News, “steamboat navigation between Texana and Indianola considerably agitated [as in increased.]”

Merchants, the newspaper continued, “have brought in large stocks of spring and summer goods, and are offering every inducement by selling very cheap to keep the trade at home.”

In addition to its robust commerce, Texana enjoyed a lively social scene.

“A nice ball…at which the hours glided by so pleasantly and swiftly that it was broad daylight when the boys took the girls home,” the newspaper reported.

Three years later, in 1878, a Texana jury acquitted Bill Taylor of murder in the shooting death of W.N. Sutton at Indianola, one of many killings connected to the infamous Sutton-Taylor feud. Awaiting trial in another murder, Taylor went free on $5,000 bond.

By 1880, Texana remained in economic good health, the governmental and commercial center for the county’s 2,000 residents.

A year later, however, Texana’s city fathers made a serious miscalculation when the New York, Texas and Mexican Railway offered to build through town in consideration of $30,000. That seemed like a lot of money and for the second time in its history Texana said no to business proposition. After all, why would a town need trains if it had riverboats?

Predictably, in 1883 the railroad bypassed Texana, laying tracks seven miles to the north. In a story that played out over the years at various places all across Texas, most of the people and businesses left Texana for Edna, the new town on the railroad.

Voters soon approved moving the county seat to Edna, and by 1884 Texana nee Santa Anna had become a ghost town. Time and periodic river flooding soon erased virtually every trace of the once flourishing port.

More than 130 years after the founding of Texana, in the late 1960s the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began planning a water-supply reservoir on the Navidad that would permanently alter the river that had been the old town’s life blood. Congress approved funding for the project in 1968.

In the winter and spring of 1972, archeologists surveyed the area that would be inundated when the lake filled. They recorded 81 prehistoric and historic sites, including old Texana.

The only tangible evidence of the town by that point was a series of barely visible rainwater cisterns, long since back-filled. While the bottoms of the cisterns might have been rich in artifacts if excavated, the only cultural material archeologists collected at the site were items found in eroded areas along the river. Nothing that would excite a non-scientist was found, mainly ceramic shards and various pieces of metal.

What it doesn’t take an archeological report to deduce is that a town needs more than an interesting name to keep it alive.

© Mike Cox - August 2, 2012 column
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Jackson County TX 1856 Map
1856 Jackson County TX Map showing Texana
Courtesy Texas General Land Office

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