It is the story of one man and two trips down the Trinity River—two trips taken fifty-four years apart.
He was known around town as “the Commodore,” and he was a pure-dee Cowtown character. Basil Muse Hatfield was a Texan doodle dandy, born on the Fourth of July 1871 in Washington-on-the-Brazos, where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed. His grandfather, also named “Basil Muse,” had helped to lay out the town in the 1830s. Clip is from the July 2, 1899 Dallas Morning News.
By 1900 father Sam, Basil, and siblings were living in Navasota County.
“Commodore” (the title was self-ascribed) Basil Muse Hatfield was a big man: six foot three, three hundred pounds. And if just part of his resume was true, his life had been as large as the man himself. He claimed to be his family’s fourteenth Basil Muse Hatfield, of old English stock. A relative was William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, patriarch of the Hatfield clan of the Hatfield-McCoy feud of the 1800s. In his youth the Commodore traveled to India, China, and Africa. He crossed the Himalayas and studied with lamas at Lhasa, Tibet. Fought in the Boer and Spanish-American wars and in assorted revolutions in South America, built a railroad in Russia, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. In Central America he worked on banana plantations. In Mexico he mined for silver and was “associated” with Pancho Villa. (Illustration from the November 1949 Junior Historian.)
Hatfield was the kind of man who made things happen. And when he wasn’t making things happen, it seemed that things happened to him, such as the time he drove a Ford model bee.
By 1922 Hatfield—at that point just “Colonel”—was in Fort Worth, ramrodding the Texas-Mexia Drilling Syndicate. As a geologist Hatfield pursued the extraction of potash, coal, and oil. During the Texas oil boom of the 1920s he drilled, struck it rich, and became a millionaire. And then, it is said, he gave away most of his fortune to focus on his real passion: the Trinity River.
Hatfield’s rank of “commodore” may have been self-ascribed, but his passion for the river was genuine and congenital: In the 1800s his grandfather, Captain Basil Muse Hatfield, had operated barges and a steamboat—the Black Eagle—on the lower Trinity. The commodore, like Amon Carter and other visionaries, believed that the river could be made navigable all the way from the gulf to Fort Worth. Also, the commodore crowed, “The Trinity basin is more fertile than the fabled Nile acreage.”
Fast-forward to 1932. Hatfield and his family lived in this house at 2801 Avenue H in Poly. It was while living in this modest house that the commodore got an idea: To promote the potential of navigation of the Trinity River, he would sail from Fort Worth down the river to the gulf and then sail along the intercoastal canal east to the Atchafalaya River and then northeast to the Mississippi River and thence north to the Illinois River and thence northeast to Chicago in time for the Century of Progress world’s fair. The commodore estimated that the trip would take forty days.
On August 23, 1933 Commodore Basil Muse Hatfield and his crew of four weighed anchor of his twenty-four-foot Texas Steer flatboat at the then-new Belknap Street Bridge and set sail from “Port Fort Worth.” As Hatfield began his voyage he was sixty-two. And clean shaven. He did not remain unwhiskered for long: He had vowed not to shave until the Trinity River was navigable—by commercial craft—from the gulf to Fort Worth. Eventually his chin was a waterfall of gray whiskers. Note that Hatfield shared the front page with Machine Gun Kelly.
As the Texas Steer headed downstream a crowd cheered, and the Blue Bonnet Stringed Band played “Over the Waves” and “Three Cheers for Commodore Hatfield,” an original composition.
But the first day’s progress over the waves was modest at best: To take on supplies, the boat tied up downstream at the 1st Street Bridge, within earshot of any lingering cheers back at the Belknap Street Bridge. During the first leg of the trip the crew poled and rowed the boat, with stops in Arlington and Grand Prairie.
But the Texas Steer had not gone many miles before Hatfield was reminded of why the Trinity River still was not navigable after decades of efforts: snags. Keep in mind that the Trinity River of the commodore’s day was not the Trinity of our day. Another major flood and twenty more years would pass before the Army Corps of Engineers would give the shallow, convoluted, snag-bedeviled river a major makeover. Clip is from the September 1 Dallas Morning News.
Hatfield’s next stop was Dallas, where a beer bottle filled with Trinity River water was used to rechristen the Texas Steer. Snags be darned, the commodore predicted navigation of the Trinity in time for the Texas centennial in 1936. Notice that Dallas once had a turning basin, dredged in anticipation of river boat traffic on the Trinity. While in Dallas the commodore had a one-cylinder engine added to the Texas Steer. Clip is from the September 17 Dallas Morning News.
Because of Amon Carter’s interest in navigation of the river, the Hatfield voyage was well covered by the Star-Telegram. Crockett was just one of many cities along the boat’s route where welcoming ceremonies where held.
The Texas Steer reached Galveston before Thanksgiving.
And Beaumont before Christmas. The Texas Steer, with its rounded canvas cabin, looked like a floating Conestoga wagon. Hatfield, by then well whiskered, displayed a pennant from the city of Beaumont.
After some delay, the Texas Steer reached the Mississippi River. According to Time magazine, while on the Mississippi the Texas Steer hitched a ride by tying up to a towboat going north from New Orleans. “Three or four days out, according to river bargemen, the cook complained to the captain that the commodore ate too much. The captain ordered the commodore listed as ‘four guests’ for the rest of the voyage.”
As Hatfield had in Texas, along his route he stopped in towns to have the Texas Steer rechristened and to give speeches.
In July 1934 the commodore sailed the Texas Steer—by then festooned with pennants—into Chicago. The boat had sailed nineteen rivers on the trip of 4,500 miles, the Star-Telegram wrote. Hatfield ceremonially poured into Lake Michigan water from every river along the route.
By October 1934 Hatfield was back in New Orleans on his way home to “Port Worth.” Clip is from the October 17, 1934 Morning News.
But the river was not done challenging Hatfield. By the time he reached “Port Grand Prairie” on his return trip, he was sending out an SOS for a crosscut saw with which to cut driftwood blocking his passage home to Port Fort Worth.
But on May 23, 1935, twenty-one months after setting sail from Fort Worth, Hatfield chugged back up the Trinity to the Belknap Street Bridge. Fort Worth welcomed him home with a parade down Main Street. Clip is from the May 23, 1935 Morning News.
In 1935 Hatfield was honored for his efforts on behalf of Fort Worth and the Trinity River. Amon Carter gave Hatfield one of Carter’s signature Shady Oak Stetson hats and promoted the commodore to the rank of “first admiral of the Trinity.”
The Texas Steer’s one-cylinder engine had African Queened its way nine thousand miles on the round trip. More than one hundred different crew members had come and gone. Along the way the commodore gave almost five hundred testimonials touting the river, met with twenty-six governors and sixty-four mayors, and was toasted at more than sixty banquets. Oh, and he played Santa in two Christmas parades.
Despite his efforts, canalization of the Trinity never occurred, of course, and in early 1942 the commodore was injured when he fell on the banks of the river, still researching the river’s natural resources. “When I die,” he said, “I don’t want any weeping at my funeral. I want my body cremated and the ashes sprinkled into the Trinity River. And don’t play any funeral dirges. I believe in action. I want some snappy music at my funeral, like ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’ or ‘Turkey in the Straw’ . . . nothing sad . . . I just want folks to remember, there was a man who was willing to make a fool of himself if he thought it would help his fellow man.” (Photo from Life magazine, 1941.)
Commodore Basil Muse Hatfield, first admiral of the Trinity River, died in 1942 while living in Liberty, Texas, located on the river he loved.
As for the commodore’s wish that his ashes be scattered on his beloved river, his final trip down the Trinity would face some snags of its own. His ashes were brought back to Fort Worth from Liberty but would not be consigned to the river until a son serving in the Navy consented.
That son, a graduate of Poly High, was taken prisoner by the Japanese and held in the Philippines. He was killed in December 1944 when the United States sank the unmarked Japanese military ship on which the young Hatfield and other POWs were being transferred to Japan.
At last, in 1987, forty-five years after he died, the commodore took his final trip down the river he had championed. From the Belknap Street Bridge, where his 1933 trip had begun, his ashes were sprinkled, no doubt spicing up the Trinity soup considerably.