Waco’s Bridge Over the Brazos

After the Civil War, Waco was a struggling little town of 1,500 nestled on the west bank of the Brazos River. No bridges crossed the Brazos, the longest body of water in Texas. During floods, days and even weeks passed before travelers as well as cattle on the Shawnee and Chisholm trails could safely cross the river. Although money was scarce and times were hard during recovery from the war, a group of businessmen formed Waco Bridge Company and secured a twenty-five-year contract to construct and operate the only toll bridge for five miles up and down the river.

John A. Roebling and Son of New York designed the 475-foot structure, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world at that time. Waco’s bridge served as the prototype for Roebling’s much-longer Brooklyn Bridge completed in 1883.

The fledgling Waco company ran into problems from the beginning. Work started in the fall of 1868 with costs, originally estimated at $40,000, growing to $140,000. The investors continued to issue new stock offerings. The nearest railroad stopped at Millican, over 100 miles away, which meant that coils of wire and cable, steel trusses, and custom-made bolts and nuts had to be hauled to Waco by ox wagon over rutted, sandy roads. The contractor floated cedar trees down the Brazos for shoring up the foundation in the unstable riverbed. Local businesses made the woodwork and the bricks.

The bridge opened to traffic in January 1870 with tolls of ten cents for each animal and rider; loose animals and foot passengers crossed for five cents each; and sheep, hogs, or goats crossed for three cents each. It was not long until residents on the far side of the river began complaining about the tolls. Businessmen who used the facility joined them in their protests.

Landowners along the river began allowing cattlemen, travelers, and local citizens to cut across their property to reach fords on the river. The uproar increased for the next nineteen years, until September 1889, when the Waco Bridge Company sold the structure to McLennan County for $75,000 and the county gave the bridge to the city.

Vehicles continued using the bridge, without paying a toll, until 1971 when it was converted to a pedestrian crossing. Today shaded parkland edges both sides of the river and the bridge enjoys a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and designation by a Texas Historical marker. In 2008 sculptor Robert Summers created “Branding Brazos,” the first of several bronze figures on the south side of the bridge that depict a trail boss driving longhorns on the Chisholm Trail.


Many stories survive from the 1836 Texas War for Independence from Mexico, but several almost forgotten tales surround the deeds of a beautiful young Mexican woman whose name is shrouded in the mists of history and legend. To a person they called her the “Angel of

Angel of Goliad, Courtesy The Austin Chronicle


She steps onto the scene as the woman accompanying Capt. Telesforo Alavez when his ship from Matamoros, Mexico, landed at Copano Bay on the middle Texas coast about the same day as the fall of the Alamo on March 6, 1836. Variously called Francita, or Panchita, or Francisca, those who met her assumed she traveled as Capt. Alavez’ wife; however camp women regularly followed the Mexican army, and later research disclosed that Capt. Alavez had abandoned his wife and children in Mexico the previous year.

When Francita arrived at Copano Bay, she discovered that General José de Urrea’s army held prisoners who were bound so tightly that the cords cut off the circulation in their arms. Several of those men remember her as the beautiful Mexican lady who convinced the guards to loosen the bonds and give them food.

As he headed to San Antonio and the Battle of the Alamo, General Santa Anna split his forces, directing Urrea’s army to move toward Presidio La Bahía, an ancient fort housing 500 militia, the largest collection of men in the Texas army.

It is unclear which route Capt. Alavez took with his cavalry regiment as he moved from the Texas coast to join Gen. Urrea’s forces. Some accounts claim a priest and “a Mexican lady named ‘Alvarez’” convinced Gen. Urrea at San Patricio to save the lives of twenty-one captives and ship them back to prison in Matamoros, thereby ignoring Santa Anna’s repeated orders to shoot all prisoners taken in arms.

Presidio LaBahia Chapel, 1836, Wikipedia

While Urrea continued his march toward Presidio La Bahía, the commander at the at the old fort, Colonel James W. Fannin, ignored orders from General Sam Houston to abandon La Bahía and join forces with Houston’s ragtag volunteers as they moved ahead of Santa Anna’s advancing army.

Fannin delayed for five days before he began a slow march out of the presidio, only to be overtaken in mid-afternoon by Urrea’s rapidly advancing force. The Texans and the Mexicans fought valiantly until darkness fell. Without sufficient water for cooling their cannons or to ease the suffering of the injured, and without the hoped-for reinforcement by the next morning, the Texans chose surrender.

Despite the decree that Santa Anna pushed through the Mexican Congress the previous December, which directed that all foreigners taken in arms against the government should be treated as pirates and shot, General Urrea appealed to Santa Anna for clemency for Fannin and his men.

Urrea’s force moved on to capture nearby Victoria while about 240 uninjured or slightly wounded were marched back to Presidio La Bahía under the direction of Col. José Nicolás de la Portilla. Colonel Fannin who had sustained an injury and about fifty more severely wounded were moved back to La Bahía over the next two days. Again, Francita appears as a comforter of the suffering, intervening to improve care for the prisoners crowded into the presidio’s 85- x 25-foot Chapel of Nuestra Señora de Loreto. Soon, more prisoners from other battles arrived to increase the population to over 500.

A letter from Santa Anna arrived on March 26 demanding that Col. Portilla carry out the orders to execute the prisoners. Two hours later, Portilla received a letter from Urrea imploring him to treat the prisoners with respect, especially Col. Fannin.

Despite being torn between conflicting orders, Portilla continued with plans to execute the prisoners at dawn the next morning––Palm Sunday, March 27. The prisoners were marched out in three groups––some believed they were going to gather wood, others expected to drive cattle, another group thought they were headed to Copano Bay for shipment to freedom in New Orleans.

Apparently Francita heard of the plans to murder the troops, for she worked during the night with several officers to hide about twenty men. Dr. Joseph H. Barnard, who was spared from the massacre and sent, with another doctor, to the Alamo to aid the injured Mexicans, wrote that “during the time of the massacre she (Francita) stood in the street, her hair floating, speaking wildly, and abusing the Mexican officers, especially Portilla. She appeared almost frantic.”

Another account, written years later by Benjamin Franklin Hughes, who at age fifteen had served as an orderly, claimed that his group believed they marched toward embarkation and return home. He saw Urrea’s wife and a young lady he called “Madame Captain Alvarez” watching the groups move out. As Hughes marched past, the ladies directed that he be taken from the ranks and placed between them. Within minutes, by a prearranged signal, the massacre began, and Hughes realized the women had saved his life.

A study of Fannin’s command indicates 342 executed, including Fannin and the wounded that were shot in the fort’s quadrangle. Only twenty-eight escaped the firing squads by diving into the nearby San Antonio River or escaping through the woods along the riverbank. A group of blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and other artisans that were needed to serve the Mexican army also escaped the massacre. About eight avoided execution because Portilla claimed they were not captured “while bearing arms.”

Although Francita accompanied Captain Alavez on to Victoria, she continued to send messages and supplies to the surviving prisoners at La Bahía. The grandson of one of the Victoria families preserved stories of the wives of Mexican officers throwing themselves in front of a firing squad, successfully halting the execution of three or four prisoners.

After Texas won independence from Mexico and captured Santa Anna in the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, the Mexicans began a slow retreat. Captain Alavez evacuated his Victoria post and returned to Matamoros where Texans told of “Señora Alavez” ministering to the prisoners. After she followed Captain Alavez on to Mexico City, he abandoned her. Returning to Matamoros penniless, she found friends among the Texans who remembered her kind treatment. However, none of the people who told the story of her humanitarian deeds ever bothered to accurately record her name.


Jefferson, a thriving inland port in deep East Texas, enjoyed a cosmopolitan air of success in 1877. Steamboats designed to carry a thousand bales of East Texas cotton on only three feet of water, left the port of Jefferson and returned from New Orleans with the latest fashion in

Diamond Bessie

clothing and home design as well as immigrants heading for settlement in Northeast Texas, Dallas, and the Texas Panhandle.

The giant sternwheelers traveled the Mississippi River from New Orleans, steamed up the Red River and finally entered Big Cypress Creek for the journey to the head of navigation at Jefferson. Town residents did not blink at wealth or lavish living until January 19, 1877, when a handsome man and a beautiful young woman arrived on the train from nearby Marshall.

The woman, although tastefully dressed, wore enough diamonds to open her own jewelry store. Some accounts claim townspeople, upon hearing the man refer to her as “Bessie,” began secretly calling her “Diamond Bessie.”

After registering at the Brooks House under the name of “A. Monroe and wife,” the couple spent two days walking about town apparently enjoying the interested eyes following their every move.

On Sunday morning, January 19, the young people purchased a picnic lunch and disappeared into the fog on the footbridge crossing Big Cypress Creek.

Abraham Rothschild

Late that afternoon the gentlemen returned alone. To questions about his wife’s whereabouts, he claimed she decided to visit friends. He casually went about his affairs until the following Tuesday, when he boarded the early-morning train headed east carrying all the couple’s luggage.

On February 5, after several days of sleet and snow, someone looking for firewood discovered the body of the well-dressed young woman, sans jewelry, lying under a tree amid the remains of a picnic lunch. The coroner ruled she died of a gunshot wound to the head and due to little decomposition, appeared to have been dead only four or five days.

Charmed by the beauty of the mysterious woman, the town collected $150 for a proper burial in Oakwood Cemetery. Further investigation disclosed the couple registered as “A. Rothchild and wife of Cincinnati, Ohio,” at a hotel in Marshall two days before arriving in Jefferson. Authorities discovered Abraham Rothchild worked as a traveling salesman for his father’s Cincinnati jewelry business, and met Bessie Moore a few years earlier at a brothel in Little Rock.

Fred Tarpley in Jefferson: Riverport to the Southwest writes that Bessie’s real name was Annie Stone, daughter of a prosperous shoe dealer in Syracuse, New York. “Black hair, brilliant gray eyes, a flair for grooming, and a well-chosen wardrobe combined to make her an extraordinary beauty and to attract early attention from men.” At age fifteen she became, for a short time, a young man’s mistress. Then, working as a prostitute, she traveled from Cincinnati to New Orleans and Hot Springs where she met Rothchild.

Tarpley claims a “considerable inheritance from her father” and gifts from her many admirers led to her stunning collection of diamonds. The nation-wide publicity surrounding her death, and the romantic stories growing in the imagination of mythmakers, obscured the facts about her life. In reality, Bessie and Rothchild were drunks, and over the two years of their association, he pimped for her when they needed money. No one ever found evidence that they were legally married.

Jefferson residents raged against the murderer of the beautiful young woman as authorities headed to Cincinnati to arrest Rothchild. In the meantime, Rothchild, in a drunken state of apparent remorse attempted to shoot himself in the head. He succeeded only in blinding himself in his right eye.

Rothchild’s parents disowned him; however, the family provided the best legal defense, including a future governor of Texas and a US senator. The state, embroiled in the most high profile case of its history, involved the best legal minds available. Legal wrangling delayed the trial until December 1878. After three weeks of testimony, Rothchild was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging; however, the judge of the Seventh Texas Court of Appeals declared a mistrial.

During the second trial a witness claimed to have seen Bessie with a man who was not Rothchild on two occasions after Rothchild left Jefferson. Despite the prosecution’s attack on the credibility of the witness, she planted enough doubt that the jury on December 30, 1880, found Rothchild not guilty.

The verdict did not put to rest the tales continuing to circulate like the one claiming twelve $1,000 bills appeared in the jury room during deliberations or the report in the 1880s of a handsome, elderly man wearing a patch on his right eye asking to visit the grave of Bessie Moore and placing roses on it.

The mystery of who killed Diamond Bessie continues to stir imaginations each year during the Jefferson Historical Pilgrimage. This year from April 28 through May 1, the pilgrimage presents the 63rd annual production of the “Diamond Bessie Murder Trial.”

Diamond Bessie Murder Trial

Last Hand-Operated Ferry on U.S. Border

Named for the ebony trees in the area and for the tiny town hugging Texas’ southern border, this ancient crossing on the Rio Grande serves as the only government-licensed, hand-operated ferry between the U.S. and either its Mexican or its Canadian neighbor.

Los Ebanos Ferry

For years before Spain began issuing land grants on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, colonists in Northern Mexico crossed this old river ford on their way to La Sal del Rey, a massive salt lake where they loaded blocks of the precious mineral in wooden carts for the trip back to Mexico.

In the 1740s José de Escandón, an appointee of the Viceroy of New Spain, led his men across this old ford on an expedition to locate the most favorable sites for Spanish colonization and Christianization of the Indians.

In 1875 an incident at this crossing resulted in the naming of a Mexican national hero. Despite Texas Ranger Captain L.H. McNelly’s efforts to drive Juan Cortina and his bandits across the border and out of Texas, cattle thefts increased. A rancher reported Cortina’s men driving seventy-five head of stolen cattle toward this crossing. The destination was Las Cuevas Ranch on the opposite bank. Word spread that the ranch headquartered the great bandit operation, and 18,000 cattle waited there to be delivered to Monterrey.

Captain McNelly’s men pursued the Mexicans across the river after dark, attacked a ranch, and killed all the men only to discover that they had stopped at the wrong ranch. They returned to the river and posted guards in the brush waiting for a counterattack.

When General Juan Flores Salinas, who owned Las Cuevas Ranch, learned of the massacre, he led twenty-five mounted Mexicans to the river only to die along with some of his men in the surprise ambush.

The following day, the Mexicans agreed to turn over the thieves and return the stolen cattle. Incensed over the indiscriminate killing, Mexicans across the region proclaimed General Salinas a national hero. His statue dominates the plaza across the river in the little village of Ciudad Díaz Ordaz.

Over the years, bandits and illegals used the ford, and during Prohibition as many as six boatloads of liquor crossed here every night. In 1950, the U.S. Border Patrol opened the entry station here. It remains the smallest of eight official ports of entry into Texas from Mexico, and it offers a glimpse of an earlier time when residents on both sides of the border enjoyed casual visits between neighbors sharing a common river.

Men pull the ropes to propel Los Ebanos Ferry across the Rio Grande.

Depending on the swiftness of the river, it takes from two to five men pulling hand over hand on heavy ropes to propel the wooden ferry loaded with up to three cars and a maximum of a dozen foot passengers across the 70-yard expanse.

The anchor cable that keeps the vessel from drifting off down river has been tied, since 1950, to the massive Ebony tree on the Texas side of the river. The giant tree, thought to be 275 years old, is listed in Famous Trees in Texas.

Ebony Tree anchors the ferry to keep it from being swept down the Rio Grande.

Most travelers choose to park their cars and join walking passengers who ride the barge-like vessel on its round trip.

Talk persists that fence-building under Homeland Security may close the old waterway. The time may be short for travelers to experience the last hand-drawn ferry on a U.S. international border.


These tales trace the Texas story from Cabeza de Vaca who trekked barefoot across the country recording the first accounts of Indian life to empresarios like Stephen F. Austin and Don Martín DeLeón who brought settlers into Mexican Texas. Visionaries—like Padre José Nicolás Ballí, the Singer family, and Sam Robertson—who tried and failed to develop Padre Island into the wonderland that it is today. There are legendary characters like Sally Skull who had five husbands and may have killed some of them, and Josiah Wilbarger who was scalped and lived another ten years to tell his tale. Stories of Shanghai Pierce, cattleman extraordinaire, who had no qualms about rounding up other folks calves and Tol Barret who drilled Texas’ first oil well over thirty years before Spindletop changed the world. Power brokers saved Galveston by building a seawall and raising the level of the island, and Miriam Ferguson, better known as “Ma,” became the first female Texas governor after her husband was impeached. The Sanctified Sisters got rich running the only commune for women and millionaire oilman Edgar B. Davis gave away his money as fast as he made it. All these characters—early-day adventurers, Civil War heroes, and latter day artists and musicians—create the patchwork called Texas.

Texas Tales will be available in softcover or e-book on Amazon about mid-April.

If you want a signed copy for someone who likes Texas stories, contact me at mcilvain.myra@gmail.com.


Galveston Refused to Die

The 1900 storm that struck Galveston still carries the designation, as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Periodically, storms flooded the marshy bayou-creased island on the Gulf of Mexico, but experts believed that the lay of the land somehow protected the thriving seaport from the vicious storms that had already destroyed the port city of Indianola on down the southern coast and that often ravaged Louisiana to the east.

Galveston had grown into Texas’ most prosperous city with a population of 38,000. Known as the Wall Street of the Southwest, it served forcefully as the business capital of Texas where all the state’s major insurance companies, banks, cotton brokers, and mercantile businesses maintained headquarters.

And then on the morning of September 8 heavy winds and rain began and by 4:00 P.M. the city lay under four feet of water. At 8:00 P.M. the wind reached an estimated 120 miles an hour, driving a four-to-six-foot tidal wave across the island. Houses splintered into debris that moved across the city like a battering ram destroying everything in its path. Finally, it crashed against the massive Gresham mansion and created a breakwater that protected the remainder of the city. At midnight the wind ceased and then the water rushing back out to sea sucked away many unsuspecting victims. As dawn came on September 9, the shattered city stared in horror at the devastation––over 6,000 dead and $40 million in property damage.

But Galveston refused to die. An esprit de corps developed among the populace, especially the business community that literally worked miracles to bring Galveston back to life. A board of three engineers headed by retired Brigadier General Henry M. Robert (author of Robert’s Rules of Order) recommended building a seawall and raising the level of the city behind the wall.

The Galveston Seawall was built in 60-foot sections.

The Galveston seawall is one of the great engineering feats of its time. The solid concrete wall rises seventeen feet, spreads sixteen to twenty feet at the base, and is three to five feet wide at the top. In July 1904 at the completion of the first phase, the wall protected 3.3 miles of waterfront. Over the years it has stretched further along the coast.

To raise the level of the city, dikes of sand were built to enclose quarter-mile-square sections of town. Dredges scooped up the sand from the ship channel and moved along canals dug from the port side of the island. Owners paid to have their houses within each cordoned-off section raised on stilts, making it possible for huge pipes to funnel the sand under the raised buildings and in this fashion to lift streets, streetcar lines, alleys, gas and water lines, and even the privies.

The three-ton St. Patrick’s Church was the heaviest structure raised. Workers placed 700 jackscrews under the building. The crew sang songs to synchronize the operation and on designated words, they cranked the jacks one-quarter turn. In this fashion, they lifted the massive structure five feet without causing a single crack, even in the bell tower. Church services continued without interruption. Other structures of almost equal weight were also lifted.

St. Patricks Church was raised five feet.

Because of frequent flooding, many structures already sat on piers or were built with a first level used only for a carriage house and storage. Those buildings simply had the first level filled as the area around them grew higher. The first floor of some two-story buildings disappeared under the sand and the second floor became ground level.

Catwalks crisscrossed the city to allow residents to get about above the stinking, muddy silt hauled in from the bottom of the ship channel. A drawbridge across one of the canals allowed movement about the city. Tourists came to see the activity. When two dredges collided and had to be pulled from the canal, residents brought picnic baskets and watched the operation. It became fashionable for ladies to carry their nice slippers in a little bag and upon arrival at an event, they simply changed out of their muddy shoes.

Houses were raised on stilt. The sand and slush was pumped in under them.

By the time the grade raising was complete in 1910, over 2,300 buildings, large and small, had been lifted from five to eight feet.

Before the storm, Galveston reigned as the business center of the Southwest, but with the completion of the seawall and grade raising, and the construction of a new causeway that handled five railroads, an electric Interurban, and a highway for automobile traffic the business community asked: Why not have a first class beachfront hotel and add holiday destination to Galveston’s allure? In 1911 the Galvez, a $1million hotel of the finest order opened overlooking the Gulf. Galveston was ready for its next chapter.

Shanghai Pierce, Cattleman Extraordinaire

It was unusual for a cattleman to come to Texas as a stowaway on a ship. But that is exactly how 19-year-old Abel Head Pierce made his way to Port Lavaca in 1854. Discovered when the ship reached the high seas, he earned his passage by mopping the deck and hauling cargo at

Abel Head Pierce

ports-of-call along the six-month journey.

Soon after landing with only the clothes on his back and seventy-five cents in the pocket of his too-short britches, Pierce met William Bradford Grimes, “the most important cattleman in the region.” Grimes hired the greenhorn to split rails, apparently thinking the six-foot-four giant with the booming Yankee accent needed to learn some lessons about the cattle business. Immediately Pierce informed his new employer that he wanted to be paid at the end of the year in cows and calves because he planned to go into the cattle business.

Pierce set about his work on the ranch with industry, rising early, and quickly taking on other responsibilities. In his eagerness to prepare for his future as a cattleman, Pierce hired a blacksmith to forge his own brand and then proudly showed the “AP” to Grimes. Chris Emmett in his delightful book, Shanghai Pierce: A Fair Likeness, says at the end of the year when time came for payment, Grimes “cut four old cows and three scrawny calves from the run of range cattle. . . .” As winter set it, the cows died, leaving Pierce with only the calves to show for a year of work. Grimes bragged that he gave Pierce his “first degree in the cattle business.”

The origin of the moniker “Shanghai,” claims an unclear pedigree. Glorying in his self-appointed image as a storyteller and entertainer, he relished an audience whether gathered around a campfire among cowboys or in later years among dignitaries. At times he alluded to school days in Rhode Island when “Shanghai” was a fighting word. Then he claimed it became a “brand of distinction.” He said, “I do not have time to fight everybody who wants to fight me. If I take that much time off I will not have time to take their money away from them.” His nephew said in later years that he “looked so much like the long-necked, long-legged rooster from Shanghai that they named him after his counterpart.” Chris Emmett tells another version, usually whispered, “came because he ‘shanghaied’ so many people out of their property.” He often made fun of his size by claiming he was born in Rhode Island, but the state got too small for him. When he lay down, his head landed in the lap of somebody in Massachusetts and his feet bothered someone in Connecticut.

Shanghai did not leave Grimes’ employ when Grimes cheated him out of his first year’s pay. Instead, he stayed on to work for the richest cattlemen in South Texas. Shanghai rounded up mavericks and branded them for Grimes at $1 a head. He told a fellow cowboy at the end of the year, “I’m damn glad he [Grimes] didn’t ask me whose branding iron I used this year.” That spelled the beginning of Shanghai Pierce’s cattle acquisitions.

At the end of the Civil War, when some of the men bragged about their accomplishments and tried to tease Shanghai about being the regimental butcher, he boasted: “By God, Sir; I was all the same as a major general: always in the rear in advance, always in the lead on retreat.”

After the war, when the only profit from beef lay in hides and tallow (the carcasses were fed to the hogs or thrown away), he went into the slaughter business. Finally, Shanghai Pierce became one of the first to drive a herd along the Chisholm Trail to market in Abilene, Kansas. He quickly proved to be a cunning and able businessman, eventually acquiring up to 35,000 head of cattle and 250,000 south Texas acres.

In 1881, when the railroad came through his land, Shanghai dreamed of Pierce’s Station becoming the county seat. He did not get his wish, but he discovered another interest. He wrote the railroad asking that two cars of lumber be deadheaded at Pierce because: “I am pioneering in another matter. I am trying to introduce religion into the community.” He ordered pews and a pulpit. Shanghai proudly showed the new facility to all visitors. One gentleman asked, “Colonel Pierce, do you belong to that church?” “Hell, no!” Pierce shouted. “The church belongs to me.”

Shanghai believed ticks caused fever in cattle and, after touring Europe, he decided Brahman cattle were immune to ticks because “’Bremmers’ sweated and the ticks fell off, and the cattle got fat thereafter.” After his death in 1900, his estate and another rancher, Thomas O’Connor, undertook the importation of Brahmans, the beginning of a new cattle industry for Texas.

During Shanghai’s European tour, the fine statuary caught his attention, and upon his return, he commissioned a marble statue of himself created by sculptor Frank Teich. They agreed on the payment of the $2,250 commission only if Shanghai felt satisfied that the statue represented a fair likeness of himself. As workmen placed the life-size marble statue atop a ten-foot granite pilaster, mounted on another ten-foot piece of gray granite, Pierce sat with a friend watching the finishing touches. A small black boy approached the statue and after walking round and round the figure and looking again and again at Shanghai, the boy said, “Mr. Shanghai, that sure does look like you up there.”

“Ugh, by God.” Shanghai snorted. “I’ll take it.”

Shanghai Pierce died on December 26, 1900, from a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried beneath his massive likeness.

Teich likeness of Shanghai Pierce