After visiting the Bryan Mound sulphur operation at the mouth of the Brazos River in Brazoria County in the early 1900s, Eric P. Swenson, who had numerous financial ties to Texas, conceived the idea of building a free port there.
He believed the site had the potential to rival Galveston and Corpus Christi as an ocean outlet for the fast-growing town of Houston.
In “Brimstone: The Stone that Burns,” author William Haynes notes that upon returning to New York, Swenson formed a syndicate in the name of S.M. Swenson & Sons with $700,000 in capital and obtained an option on Bryan Mound and the area around it.
This option covered some 10,000 acres on and adjacent to Bryan Mound. Although only about 800 of those acres covered the caprock itself, the agreement included all except 15 acres of the sulphur area.
Plans were made to mine that mineral at Bryan Mound once the patents on the Frasch System had expired, but the U.S. Court of Appeals eventually ruled against the Swenson interests in a lawsuit over this clause, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied a motion to review that decision.
When the Freeport Sulphur Co. was incorporated on July 12, 1912, the Freeport Townsite Company was organized, with plans to develop a city on the west bank of the Brazos River.
The company had contracted to have its sulphur extraction on-stream by June 1 of the following year, a momentous task considering the devastation that occurred in the area during the hurricane in 1909.
In his book “Brimstone: The Stone that Burns,” Haynes notes the storm had “all but wiped out the town of Velasco and wrecked the old, single-track railway from that town to Anchor, where it connected with the International-Great Northern Railroad.”
On the west bank of the Brazos, where Swenson planned to build Freeport, was a dilapidated dock that served as terminal of the Velasco ferry, along with a few corrals and shacks.
Fine homes belonging to members of the Bryan and Munson families were located at a distance of about a mile, with only a barn and corral on the prairie nearby.
According to Haynes’ account, the swampy area was only a couple of feet above sea level, which meant it was under water at times of extra high tides.
This meant that to cross the marsh, a road would have to be built to reach the mound from the river. A 6-foot levee was built along the river’s edge to protect access to the mine site.
Wells were drilled to provide water needed in the Frasch mining operation, and a 10-foot-deep canal was dug between the river and the mound.
Near the river, tanks were constructed to receive the oil that would be burned in the sulphur mining operation, with storage tanks located at the mound itself.
Haynes noted Perry Bryan and his wife, Octavia, who lived in a large house near the Gulf, “had a little 12- x 24-foot storm refuge, a tiny house anchored by two heavy wire cables, on the top of the mound.”
Bryan agreed to allow the company to use this building as its headquarters, with the proviso he would have all rights to it in an emergency, Haynes wrote.
Keep in mind that, at this time, the area had nothing in the way of supplies needed for the sulphur drilling process or for the people involved in it.
Everything, from lumber and nails to pipe and huge generators, had to be hauled to the site.
Transportation was a major problem, with choices involving “the rickety railroad or … the old barge canal from Galveston,” Haynes wrote.
As a further complication, everything needed would have to be moved across the river on a rope cable ferry, then hauled to the site of the mine. The county’s frequent rains turned the ground into sticky gumbo.
The route was so problematic workers joked that “Of three places not to build a town, this is all three of them,” Haynes wrote.
Workers were recruited from a Houston saloon called Sixty-six and drilling on three wells began. Nothing went smoothly, though, with excessive gas pressure causing problems.
Even so, the work was completed Nov. 12, 1912, just four months after it had begun.
Its success was marked by the arrival that night of a cart containing big yellow chunks of the sulphur. This was unloaded in front of the Tarpon Inn, where Eric P. Swenson was among the guests.
That same year, he and S.A. Swenson began erection of a larger plant at Bryan Mound, but again, operations were plagued by a variety of problems.
No roads, railroads or bridges existed for hauling the equipment and materials to the plant site, and it was necessary to ferry the first machinery across the Brazos then haul it by ox or mule teams to the dome.
Heavy rains converted the prairies into swamps, and up to 28 mules were hitched together in order to move one large air compressor from the river bank to the mine site.
The well blow-out problem that had occurred during the Guffey well days continued, and one of these left a crater 40 feet in diameter, into which the rig and other equipment had toppled, disappearing from view.
Next week: Melted sulphur is poured into vats to harden.