RETROSPECTIVE Trinity River Visionary

Commodore Hatfield, an early hypester of tall Texana, was the first to see riches and fame in a muddy river.

Since John Neely Bryan built his log cabin near the Trinity River in 1841, area settlers have dreamed of remodeling the moody waterway into a commercially navigable canal and turning Dallas/Fort Worth into a legitimate inland port, From pioneer days to the space age, generations of Trinity advocates have produced a voluminous legacy of commissions and studies calling for commercial development of the river. Whatever the motives of their campaigns, they would doubtless be saddened at the condition of the river in recent times, fouled by sewage and plagued by downstream fish kills. But none would be more disheartened than Commodore Basil Muse Hatfield, First Admiral of the Trinity.

A most colorful and spirited river supporter, the Commodore was in his sixties in 1933 when he embarked from Fort Worth on a twenty-six-foot flatboat christened the Texas Steer. Headed for the Chicago World’s Fair, the motor-driven scow went down the Trinity, across the Intracoastal Canal to the Mississippi, up the Big River to the Illinois River, and on to the Windy City. The Commodore’s purpose was to prove that the Trinity was navigable even in its undeveloped state and to win publicity for the river’s natural resources and commercial possibilities. “The Trinity basin is more fertile than the fabled Nile acreage,” claimed Hatfield.

As the Texas Steer shoved off from the Fort Worth Belknap Street bridge, to the tune of “Over the Waves” played by the Blue Bonnet Stringed Band, the big-as-Texas Commodore made another pledge-not to shave or cut his hair until he returned. Some scoffed at the project, wisecracking that the Commodore would not even make the thirty miles to Dallas, But doubting Cowtowners had to eat their Stetsons nearly two years later when Hatfield returned triumphant, sporting an Old Testament coiffure and claiming that he had won national support for the Trinity Canal.

Fort Worth welcomed the Commodore home on May 10, 1935. He was treated to a parade down Maín Street, presented with $500 and a new hat by the Chamber of Commerce, and promoted to the exotic rank of “First Admiral of the Trinity.” The Texas Steer’s one-cylinder engine had chugged and puffed its way on a remarkable voyage of 9,000 miles. The skipper’s log recorded meetings along the route with twenty-six governors and sixty-four mayors. One hundred twelve different crew members signed on and off as the little boat negotiated thirty-four separate waterways. Brass bands and banquets greeted the folksy Trinity prophet as he sang the river’s praises across the land. Hatfield said the river basin could provide “sufficient land to support 10 million persons who, with proper diligence, can produce foodstuffs that will support 200 million others.” The Commodore was tailor-made to carry on the time-honored Texas tradition of stretching the blanket. His vision for his native state was boundless and poetically licensed: “It’s all right to lie about Texas-it’ll be the truth tomorrow,” he philosophized in one of a thousand mottos.

Commodore Hatfield was born on the Fourth of July in 1871 at Washington-on-the-Brazos, first capital of Texas and site of the signing of Texas’s declaration of independence. His grandfather. Captain Basil Muse Hatfield, fought with Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto and was himself a pioneer in Trinity River navigation, operating barges and the steamboat Black Eagle on the lower sections of the Trinity and Brazos rivers. As restless as his ancestors who helped settle Texas, young Commodore Hatfield left home early in life to seek his own fortune.

Due to his unique gifts in the art of public relations and the enthusiasm with which he spiced up a tale, newspapers of the Thirties and Forties have preserved tor us a considerable body of Commodore lore. Most accounts agree that he left home around 1892 after a brief career teaching school to cut loose on a breakneck, continent-hopping romp of adventure that lasted for twenty-five years.

At the age of twenty-one the Commodore sailed for the Far East on an English expedition bound for India, China, and Africa. He later found himself in the thick of the action of the Boxer Rebellion in China and in the Boer War in South Africa. For his service in the Boer War he was to be awarded the Victoria Cross, but H.B. Fox maintained in the Houston Chronicle that Hatfield refused the medal on a lark and was jailed for insubordination. The Commodore also found time to prospect for gold in Borneo, help engineer construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Russia, fight in the Spanish-American War, drill for oil in South America and several other continents, serve time in the Philippine Constabulary, and mine for silver in Mexico in the company of Pancho Villa, to name just a few of the Commodore’s self-reported exploits. Hatfield landed back in Texas for good around the outbreak of World War I after aligning himself with the losing side of a local revolution south of the border.

Back on native soil, he continued work in the oil business, attaining some success, and began exploring the commercial possibilities of lignite and potash deposits along the Trinity. As the Depression set in, the Commodore declared that he “ought to do something for humanity” and traded his fancy La Salle automobile and materialistic ways for a hobo lifestyle. The Commodore established an “office” in an empty eight-inch niche between the Texas Hotel and the Worth Building. It seems that this eight inches of space was not being used or claimed by either the hotel or the office building, so the Commodore claimed squatter’s rights to use the property and gained plenty of publicity to boot. From this cramped outpost in downtown Fort Worth, the “sailor 300 miles from the sea.” as many called him. dedicated the rest of his life to preaching the Trinity gospel.

The Commodore learned the value newspaper publicity held for his project one day in 1932 when he tried to have a telephone installed on the wall of his unusual office. As the baffled phone man tried to figure the logic of putting a telephone on an outside wall on a busy street and the Commodore defended his squatter’s rights to an irate Texas Hotel manager, a young reporter named C.L. Douglas happened by and recognized a potential news story. Hatfield escorted the newsman around the corner to his library, actually a bay window next door to a newsstand, and gave the eager reporter a personal interview that made the front page of the following day’s Fort Worth Press.

When he returned from the World’s Fair in 1935, Hatfield extended his tonsorial vow, saying he would keep his long whiskers and locks until the Trinity Canal was a reality. “I’m not so crazy,” the Commodore would say. “Who’d pay attention to me if I shaved?” Dallas writer Paul Crume compared him to Walt Whitman for his poetic verbosity as well as appearance. And like Whitman, the Commodore’s world view included a gutsy passion for robust, physical, social activity. Many of Hatfield’s friends believed that his experiences in the Far East had a lasting impact on his personal philosophies, as seen in his earlier rejection of material wealth and his turning to the more simple ways of the water. Some of his recorded preachments resemble the teachings of the be-here-now swamis of the Sixties. “Live now, in this minute. Yesterday has gone, and, good or bad, you can’t do anything about it, and tomorrow is a myth. Reality lies in this moment alone.”

In September 1941, feeling that the TrinityCanal was assured, the Commodoreclipped his locks and trimmed his beardinto a neat Vandyke. Though Hatfielddenied submitting to the scissors because hischin brush had become a fire hazard, FrankX. Tolbert reported in his “Tolbert’s Texas”column in The Dallas Morning News that”the Commodore smoked Bull Durhamcigarets to the stubs in absent-mindedfashion and he was always setting his beardafire.” Earlier that year Hatfield campaignedfor a seat in the United States Senate, running in the special election to fill the post leftvacant by the death of Senator Morris Shep-pard. He ultimately got about twenty-sixvotes, but even before the election the candidate referred to himself as “Senator Hatfield,” saying, “If you don’t count ’em aheadof time, you might not ever have any votes.”

The Commodore spent the last years of hislife downriver in the town of Liberty andpassed away in 1942, ironically, from injuries sustained in a fall on the banks of theTrinity. At the time of the accident he hadbeen researching the banks of the Trinity,looking for more materials to add to the listof the river’s natural resources. His last request was to be taken down the Trinity oncemore. “When I die,” he said, “I don’t wantany weeping at my funeral. I want my bodycremated and the ashes sprinkled into theTrinity River. And don’t play any funeraldirges. I believe in action. I want some snappy music at my funeral, like ’My BonnieLies Over the Ocean’ or “Turkey in theStraw’. . .nothing sad. . . I just want folks toremember, there was a man who was willingto make a fool of himself if he thought itwould help his fellow man.”


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