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Stephen F. Austin State University

Commodore makes waves (January 2013)

Commodore makes waves
By Wanda Bobinger

Basil Muse Hatfield declared himself the 'Commodore of the Trinity' and embarked on a water-way trip from Fort Worth to the World's Fair in Chicago.

Hatfield envisioned a Trinity River Canal, with barges travelling from Fort Worth to the Gulf of Mexico and back.

The idea brought gales of laughter from many who believed that such travel from even Fortworth to Dallas would be impossible.

On a hot August day in 1933, hundreds gathered as Hatfield christened his 24-foot flat bottomed scow with a bottle of Trinity River water, waved his white Stetson hat at the onlookers and pushed off on his journey that would log 15,000 miles.

When the 'Texas Scowboy' returned on May 19, 1935, the laughter had turned to cheers.

Hatfield named his boat, which he had built of brown cypress from the Trinity bottoms, the Texas Steer. The scow was propelled by a small mail-order outboard motor. Behind the scow he towed a small supply boat, the Texas Calf.

He navigated down the Trinity to Houston, Beaumont, and Galveston. He then took the intra-coastal waterway to New Orleans and up the Mississippi to the Illinois River and Chicago. He sailed his scow right into the World's Fair Lagoon, where he was presented the keys to the city.

Upon Hatfield's return to Fort Worth, he reported that he had met 26 governors and 64 mayors in eight states. He had negotiated 34 waterways, spoken at 434 meetings, attended 64 banquets, and was serenaded by 65 brass bands. At each occasion, he promoted the Trinity River.

Hatfield's promotion of the Trinity River prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clear the channel for navigation over its lower 45 miles. Money was appropriated for a study of canalization of the Trinity, but construction was never approved.

The commodore's dream was strangled with bureaucratic red tape. Even so, to the people along the Trinity during the Depression, Hatfield was a symbol of hope.

He organized the nation's first chemurgic school in the river bottom near Romayor. He showed the very poor of the area how they could turn the common castor bean into cash crops. He was searching for more resources on the banks of his beloved river when he fell and was injured. That injury led to his death in 1942 at Liberty.

Before he died, Hatfield left precise instructions for his funeral. "I don't want any weeping. I want my body cremated and the ashes thrown into the Trinity for one last ride down the river. Do not play any funeral dirges. Play something snappy like "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" and "Turkey in the Straw."

The commodore's ashes were stored for many years in an old dented tin canister on a dusty shelf in a closet. The spreading of his ashes was delayed because his son was missing in action during World War II. The family continued to believe he would come home.

Forty-five years after Hatfield's death, on Saturday, August 15, 1987, his family tossed his ashes into the Trinity, along with a wreath of white carnations. A crowd of more than 200 applauded from the Belknap Street Bridge, where he had begun his first journey. A second funeral ceremony was held at Liberty on the Trinity, again carrying out the wishes of the commodore.

Basil Muse Hatfield was born on July 4, 1871 at Washington-on-the-Brazos in one of Texas' oldest plantation homes. His grandfather was old Devil Anse of the Hatfield-McCoy feuds of the 1880s.

As a young man, the adventuresome Hatfield rode a cattle boat to England and went with some British scientist to the Orient. He fought in the Boxer Rebellion in China.

He travelled to Afghanistan and Tibet studying philosophy with the gurus. He helped build the Trans-Siberian Railroad at the request of the Russian czar. He hunted ivory in Africa and fought in the Boer War there, receiving the Victoria Cross for bravery.

He worked on banana plantations in Central America and mined for silver in Mexico. He fought in the Spanish-American war.

Back in Texas, Hatfield drilled for oil across the state and become a millionaire.
When the Depression hit in 1929, his life changed. Wanting to do something for humanity, he gave away much of his fortune.

Although his dream and vision never came to be, the river legacy lives. Dams and lakes have been built for watersheds, recreation, flood control, and soil conservation. Hatfield was co-founder of the Forward Trinity Valley Association, which promoted canalization. Today, that organization is known as the Trinity River Authority.