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.

Butterfield Stage Across Texas

The famous Southern Overland Mail Route, better known as the Butterfield Stage in romantic Wild West movies, actually operated its twice-weekly mail and passenger service for less than three years from September 15, 1858 until March 1, 1861.  Two trails from the east started from St. Louis and from Memphis, Tennessee.  When the trails met at Fort Smith, Arkansas, they joined and continued west. The line swooped south through Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) in what was called the “Ox Bow” to avoid the snows and mountain passes of the central regions of the country. 800px-Butterfield-Overland The stages crossed the Red River into Texas on Colbert’s Ferry near present Denison and headed west for the 740-mile, eight-day trip to Franklin (present El Paso).  The stages ran night and day averaging speeds of five to twelve miles per hour.  Primitive stations offering water and a change of horses lay about every twenty miles along the flat, desert-like trail and were spaced between stops at Fort Belknap, Fort Phantom Hill, and Fort Chadbourne.  The route crossed the Pecos River, skirted the base of the Guadalupe Mountains, and reached the dividing point between the route’s east and west divisions at present day El Paso.

Passengers who did not want to make the grueling trip straight through could lay over, get some rest, and take a later stage.  However, if the next few stages were full, a traveler might be marooned for up to a month.  Almost everyone agreed the food was awful.  Waterman Ormsby, a reporter for the New York Herald was the only passenger for a portion of the first trip from St. Louis.  He sent dispatches along the way to his paper describing the journey.  He wrote, “…the fare, though rough, is better than could be expected so far from civilized districts. It consists of bread, tea, and fried steaks of bacon, venison, antelope, or mule flesh ­the latter tough enough. Milk, butter, vegetables were only met with towards the two ends of the trip.” He described another meal of shortcake, coffee, dried beef and raw onions.  He said that often there were not enough plates or tin cups to serve the passengers.  Mail delivery took top priority, which often resulted in mailbags being crammed into the coach with the passengers. On the stretch from Fort Belknap in Texas to Tucson, Arizona, the handsome

Butterfield Stagecoach

Butterfield Stagecoach

Concord-made coaches weighing more than two tons were replaced by lighter-weight “celerity” or mud wagons and the team of four to six horses stepped aside for mule power that proved to be a lot less attractive to Indians. The mud wagons had light frames that made it easier to maneuver the deep sands and mud.  The roofs were made of thick duck or canvass and the open sides allowed the free flow of air as well as dust and rain.

Mud wagon

Mud wagon

Until Congress authorized the U.S. postmaster general to offer a contract to deliver mail from St. Louis to San Francisco, all mail bound for the West Coast had to be shipped through the Gulf of Mexico, freighted across the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific and shipped up the coast to California.  John W. Butterfield and his associates won the U.S. government contract in September 1857 to haul mail and passengers across the southern part of the country to California.  It took a year to assemble the necessary equipment–a huge investment in 250 Concord Stagecoaches, 1,200 horses, and 600 mules. They dug cisterns or water wells and built corrals at 139 relay stations and hired 800 employees, including drivers, conductors, station keepers, blacksmiths, and wranglers. The government contract called for the Butterfield Overland Stage Company to receive $600,000 a year, plus the money it earned on passenger fares and the receipts for mail.  Postage cost ten cents per half-ounce and passengers paid $200 for the one-way 2,795-mile trip. The coaches departed each Monday and Thursday morning in the east from near St. Louis and in the west from San Francisco for the 25-day journey.

At the conclusion of that first trip west, Waterman Ormsby, the New York Herald correspondent wrote: “Had I not just come out over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I now know what Hell is like, I’ve just had 24 days of it.”

Despite passengers complaints of discomfort the Concord coaches, unlike other conveyances that rode on steel springs, were suspended on thoroughbraces, leather straps fashioned for each coach from over a dozen oxen hides that were cured to be as tough as steel.  In 1861, when Mark Twain’s brother Orion Clemens was appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory, Twain accompanied him on the trip west and wrote of the journey in Roughing It.  Twain describes their stagecoach as “a swinging and swaying cage of the most sumptuous description—an imposing cradle on wheels.”

Continued debt and competition from the Pony Express that proved mail could be delivered cross-country in ten days forced Butterfield out of the Overland Stage Company.  Wells Fargo took over the operation and in anticipation of the Civil War, the southern Ox Bow route through Texas made its last run on March 21, 1861.  With the start of the Civil War on April 12, Wells Fargo moved all the equipment north and continued the operation as the Central Overland Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Placerville, California.

On March 30, 2009, President Barack Obama signed Congressional legislation authorizing the study of the designation of the Butterfield Overland Trail National Historic Trail.

LOS EBANOS FERRY

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 border.

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 75 head of stolen cattle toward this crossing known then as Las Cuevas for the Mexican ranch on the opposite bank.  Word spread claiming Las Cuevas 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 earlier attack, he led 25 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 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 board the barge-like vessel on its round trip.

A new port of entry station is scheduled to open in January 2013, however 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.