Best rivers in Texas: Lower Brazos River

Dense fog – and a palpable sense of foreboding – hung over our search for the true mouth of the Brazos River. You’d think such a large river, which stretches from the border with New Mexico almost 1,000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, would produce an obvious intersection with the sea.

Not so.

There’s an old mouth and a new mouth. And neither was particularly visible at this early hour, which greeted our 25th Texas river tracing last year. (My college buddy Joe Starr and I reach the state’s rivers by automobile, mostly along back roads, and then we hike a bit, noting the changing texture of the water, banks, flora, fauna and surrounding landscape from mouth to source or vice versa. We plan to trace fully 50 Texas waterways.)

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We started with the old Brazos mouth, flanked by the villages of Quintana and Velasco (now called Surfside Beach).

Occupied at least since Spanish colonial times, these outposts on slender barrier islands have been washed away by periodic hurricanes. Yet brave souls return after each storm to take advantage of river, sea and shore, as well as proximity to the giant shipping and refining centers of Freeport and Brazosport just inland.

Local historical markers inexplicably place the Quintana’s founding in 1532, but we can find no reference supporting this claim, unless it refers to a Karankawa campsite encountered by the shipwrecked Cabeza de Vaca. Its few lonely, stilted homes are now overshadowed by a Martian-outpost-looking liquid natural gas storage facility.

The fog bound the shore birds and the sea birds to the beach near the jetty. We headed out the pink-granite-banked jetty, past unsmiling Vietnamese fishermen into mist. Cold waves crashed over the aggregate walkway, soaking our jeans and sneakers, but we persisted to the unlighted channel marker at the end. I clung to its rigging for security as the waves continued to boom around us.

The presence of the birds – and nutrients washed downstream with the trash and enormous logs – suggests that the old Brazos mouth is still somehow active, even though, in the 1920s, the main stream was diverted three miles to the south.

This diversion saved Freeport from predictable river flooding – an enormous gate protects the town and its fishing boats from storm-driven surge – and enabled a steady channel for the clustered, deep-water ports. An enormous bankhead in Freeport – topped by a high-school football stadium – marks the spot where the Brazos formerly entered Freeport upstream. Perhaps there’s a controlled flow from pipes there.

We left the mystery of the jetty for an even more intriguing one at the newer mouth. So we headed from Quintana down Bryan Beach, which, since Hurricane Ike, has shrunk to a thread of wet sand barely a few yards wide.

A mile down the beach, we abandoned the rented SUV and walked the remaining two miles through the vaguely threatening fog. The high tide had clearly covered the entire island at points. The dunes and marshes on the inland side were, instead, a vast lagoon, weirdly almost devoid of bird life.

Why? We discovered when we passed the new mouth on foot.

Yes, you read right. Passed it. It was gone. Silted up. Or perhaps, Ike drove sand up its channel, forcing the fresh water into the estuary and the Intracoastal Canal. There we stood on the dry bed of a mighty river, with only a low bluff to indicate its former southwest banks.

Wow. Wow. As we already knew, autumnal rains had raised the Brazos almost to flood stages upstream. Yet here, at its new mouth, it disappeared. “Goodbye to a River, ” indeed, Mr. Graves.

After lunch in Freeport, we set out to criss-cross the Columbia Bottomlands. These are the lush lowlands dotted with oxbow lakes that reach from just above Freeport on the Brazos River almost to Richmond near Houston.

We checked in with these lands at Brazoria, East Columbia and the Brazos Bend State Park. Here, the Brazos is broad, red-brown and swollen with rain, therefore dangerous.

Vine-covered bluffs impound the muscular river. Above the bluffs spread the tangled forests, and higher, the Gulf Coastal plains, meadows studded mostly with low-spreading live oaks.

This is the Texas the Anglo-Americans chose to settle in the 1820s. Perhaps it resembled the overgrowth of the coastal Deep South, but Stephen F. Austin and company planted their first colonies along this stretch of the Brazos.

The river then was reliable enough to support some boat traffic and thereby the shipping of cotton, which still shares the upper prairies with sorghum and other cash crops.

East Columbia serves as a example of the precarious state of those colonies along the bottomlands. An early capital of Republic of Texas – and home to the region’s first English-language theater, according to one newspaper source – it was swept away by a Brazos flood. It was replaced by West Columbia, perched up on that comparatively protected prairie.

Some buildings remain. We love visiting this valentine to early colonial and republican Texas. East Columbia is now home to a dozen or so exquisitely restored 19th-century structures, but I’m afraid most Texans don’t even know it exists.

Brazos Bend is, by comparison, a popular gathering point. The state park’s primary attractions are its American alligators, more easy to view in the summer, when they sun on the banks of several bottomland lakes and ponds. We were there for the river, however, and, instead, hiked down to the closest point of contact.

The variety of plant life here is astonishing: Sycamores, buckeyes, yaupons, wild grape, various oaks, palmettos, just to name the most obvious inhabitants. Crows cawed overhead. A tricolored heron dipped onto the opposite banks.

Stephen F. Austin’s headquarters, San Felipe de Austin, located at a shallow bend, became the colony’s capital. Today, San Felipe State Park blends history (including a dog-trot cabin), recreation (a golf course) and hiking along the sandy banks of the river.

Our main destination this, our second morning, however, was Washington-on-the-Brazos. Quite a name, I know, especially for a veritable ghost village. Located at a former ferry spot just below the junction between the Brazos and Navasota rivers, Washington was where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed.

Geographically, Washington is not much different from the bottomlands downriver. Yet it is arranged more like a Civil War battlefield, with acres of smooth lawns, healthy trees, memorial stones and interpretive spaces. The gift shop is prodigious, including historical maps I’ve never seen for sale anywhere else.

The Star of the Republic Museum houses a full complement of artifacts from the republican period. There’s a working farm and conference center nearby as well.

In other words, this place is chock full of potential.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on the blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.