The Doomed City of Bagdad, Mexico

In a letter to H.P. Lovecraft dated March 2, 1932, Howard recounts the tale of a wild, wide open town south of the Rio Grande that flourished during the Civil War only to be washed out to sea a few years after the war ended:

But to get back to the Valley. It’s more historical than most people realize. There, for instance, were the famous ports of Clarksville and Bagdad, at the mouth of the Rio Grande; Bagdad, founded by the Spaniards about 1780, reached the pinnacle of her lurid glory during the Civil War, when the trade of the world flowed through her fingers — cotton, armaments, slaves. It was on the Mexican side of the river, Clarksville on the American. There were more than fifteen thousand people in Bagdad when the thirsty gulf rose and drank her, and her sister city, in a single night. When the dawn rose calm and clear over the waves, it was as if the sites of those river towns had been swept with a titanic broom. So a Catholic priest had prophesied, for men said it was the wickedest city in the world, with its criminals, cut-throats, pirates, smugglers, renegades and the scum of the Seven Seas. That was in 1867.

As Howard notes above, on October 7, 1867 an intense hurricane struck the mouth of the Rio Grande with great fury and devastated the towns of Clarksville and Bagdad. The twin cities were situated on the coastline, just about twenty miles to the east of their larger counterparts, Brownsville (pop. 25,000) on the Texas side of the river and Matamoros (pop. 60,000) on the Mexican side.

In 1846, Clarksville sprang from a temporary U.S. Army camp used during the Mexican War. The town was named for William Clark, a civilian who established a country store and was an agent for the various steamship lines that used the small Texas port. During the early days of the Civil War, the town prospered on the trade of the Southern blockade-runners However, in 1863 the strategic port was captured by Union soldiers who held it until the end of the war.

Bagdad, Tamaulipas, Mexico was established in 1848 on the south bank of the mouth of the Rio Grande. The port city was major player in the Civil War and of vital importance to the Confederacy in its struggle against the Union, even though few people realize it even existed. Suffering greatly under the Union blockade, the Southerners needed a way to get their valuable cotton crop to Europe where it commanded a high price.

By routing their cotton through Bagdad, the Southerners could keep a steady stream of revenue flowing. The Union dare not start a war with Mexico and did not want to interfere with their trade with the Europeans even though they were fully aware of how Southern cotton was getting to European buyers. Bagdad may as well have been in Texas. It had more Southerners living in it than Mexicans, many of them refugees from invaded Southern cities.

Cotton from East Texas and other parts of the South was transported across the Rio Grande to Bagdad. At Bagdad, the cotton was loaded on to shallow draft boats that carried the cotton to the mouth of the Rio Grande, which was choked with sand bars and shallow waters. Once there, the cotton bales were loaded on to waiting ships in the Gulf. It has been reported that as many as 300 foreign ships were anchored waiting for the South’s cash crop.

Until cotton times, Bagdad had been a deplorable collection of fishermen’s shanties. In just a few months, all this changed. To this town a motley group of the dregs of the world found their way in great numbers, augmented by the intermittent visits of soldiers from the French, Austrian, Belgian and Mexican armies. The town was filled with peddlers, gamblers, swindlers and smugglers, prostitutes and thieves.

Business was so good that simple laborers made up to $10.00 per day in cash and the owners of skiffs and lighters (small craft carrying cargo through the treacherous surf to large ocean going vessels anchored offshore) could demand upwards of $40.00 per day in pay.

The New York Herald described Bagdad as:

 . . .an excrescence of the war. Here congregated . . . blockade runners, desperadoes, the vile of both sexes; adventurers . . . numberless groggeries and houses of worse fame. [Where the] decencies of civilized life were forgotten, and vice in its worst form held high carnival . . . while in the low, dirty looking buildings . . . were amassed millions [in] gold and silver.” A blockade runner once described Bagdad as a place where everyone was trying to grab what he could by using whatever scheme possible to make money out of crisis.

In fact, Father P.F. Parisot wrote in his Reminiscences of a Texas Missionary, “The cosmopolitan city of Bagdad was a veritable Babel, a Babylon, a whirlpool of business, pleasure and sin.” The reverend was an Oblate priest who ministered to the citizens of south Texas during the 1950s – 1860s. Indeed, the city was awash in money, with saloon and hotel businesses booming, there were ten stagecoaches running daily between Matamoras and Bagdad.

In 1865 Bagdad had over 200 structures inside a northward bend of the river. The port was large and it was not unusual to see over 100 vessels waiting offshore for entry to the harbor to deliver or load goods. In April of 1865, Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox ended the port’s usefulness. The next few years were very tumultuous for the city, with bandits, deserters from both armies and desperadoes roaming the area at will. Banks were not safe and most of the citizens hid their valuables close at hand.

In early October 1967, a storm was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. The winds along the coast and the rising tides were the first warning signs for the townspeople in Clarksville and Bagdad that something big was coming their way. There was little they could do but seek shelter on higher ground when thunder, lightning and black clouds foretold the coming of a life changing event.

Here is another excerpt from Father Parisot’s Reminiscences of a Texas Missionary describing the storm. The story picks up with the approaching storm, which arrived just as a large new convent was being completed. Father Parisot gives a firsthand account of the destruction. While Howard states it was a priest who foretold of the destruction of the twin cities, in this eyewitness acount it was not a priest but an Irish woman:

The aspect of the future was certainly bright, when a dark and heavy cloud appeared in the North. When it burst, a strong wind arose and the rain poured down in torrents. Through the day the wind became stronger and stronger. In the evening it became more violent. The hammer was heard all over the city. The doors and windows were fastened and barred: everything forebode a terrible calamity. For three days previous an Irish woman had foretold the destruction of the twin cities, crying out in the streets, “Woe to Brownsville, woe to Matamoros!” She was looked upon as a crazy woman and locked up in jail as a disturber of the peace.

At 10 p. m. October [7th], 1867, a terrific hurricane shook the city to its very foundations. It seemed rather like a tremendous earthquake, which it would be useless to try to describe. Suffice it to say that the next morning the two cities were an unsightly heap of ruins. The prophetess of woe was killed under the fallen walls of the jail.

At daybreak, I went out to survey the havoc made by the cyclone. My first anxiety was about the convent and its inmates. I found the new and costly building a heap of ruins, the chapel and the old convent terribly shattered and cracked: so damaged as to render them unsafe for habitation. At the beginning of the hurricane the nuns with their boarders had taken refuge in the chapel; where, with uplifted hands, they cried out for mercy and protection. One boarder was missing. Where was she? One of the Sisters ran up stairs and found the girl sound asleep in her cot. The child, seven years of age, was wholly unconscious of the danger she had been exposed to. The Sister wrapped her up in a shawl and brought her safe to the chapel. One minute later, say the nuns, the dormitory, where the little girl had been found sleeping, came down with a tremendous crash. There is certainly a special providence for innocent souls.

Since he was a voracious reader, one has to wonder if Howard read the priest’s account – it was published by a small San Antonio press in 1899 – and incorrectly remembered the account of the prediction of doom for Bagdad.

In fact, the entire Texas coast was affected by the massive storm, with Galveston getting hit hard on October 8th as the storm hugged the coastline and moved north from far south Texas. It is regarded as the first “million dollar” hurricane in Texas. Following the storm, in an editorial in the Brownsville Ranchero newspaper, the editor posed the question, “What would happen if a similar storm struck Galveston directly as it had the lower coast?” Eerily, that speculation would come true on September 8, 1900 when Galveston took a direct hit from a hurricane packing 145 winds and a storm surge of 16 feet which nearly wiped the island off the race of the earth and resulted in over 8,000 deaths.

Not a single house was left standing in Bagdad and only three houses survived in Clarksville. Some 70 people were killed on the Texas side of the river and an unknown number perished in Mexico when the 14 foot waves washed over the two towns sweeping everything out to sea, sinking five steamers and numerous smaller vessels.

Bagdad was quickly abandoned, and a later storm in 1874 finished off what was left of Clarksville for good. Today, only few glass shards, scattered bricks and rusty metal relics buried in the sand are all that remain of both towns. The population at their peaks totaled over 20,000. But like all other boomtowns, the twin cities were casualties of time and events beyond their control.