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.
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.
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.
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.