Bar Pilots Were Early Professionals

by John Guthrie Ford

This article features historical information from the Mercer Logs, a diary kept by the Robert Mercer family from 1866-1877.

The cove on the north end of Mustang Island was the center of the
bar pilot profession in the 1870s.
(Image from writer’s collection.) COURTESY JOHN GUTHRIE FORD

An entry in the 1870 Mercer Logs reported eight schooners waiting offshore to enter the Aransas Pass.

Historically, that is a telling description. It speaks to the importance of the pass to the economy of south Texas — namely, the pass allowed maritime shipping to reach the ports of St. Mary’s (on Copano Bay), Rockport, Fulton and Corpus Christi.

The offshore schooners also point to the very first profession on Mustang Island: Each schooner captain was waiting for a bar pilot to board his vessel and guide it through the perilous pass and narrow waterways that led to the destination ports.

An early day (c. 1915) bar pilot stands ready by his pilot boat.
This boat was not geared toward creature comfort.
It was strictly a tool of the trade.

Bar pilot — the “bar” is the water area at the entrance to a pass — was the 19th century name for the professional mariner who took vessels through navigationally challenging waterways. Bar pilots were crucial to the maritime economy because they kept such waterways from being obstructed by wrecked vessels.

Mustang Islanders Thomas Clubb and the Mercer brothers, Ned and John, were bar pilots in the 1870s. They were members of the local pilot association, which also included William Roberts and Chesten Heath of St. Joseph Island. As professionals, bar pilots were paid for their services. The pilot fee at the Aransas Pass in 1870 was $4 for each draft foot of the piloted vessel.

The bar pilot reached vessels requiring his service in the pilot boat, a rowed or sailing craft. Because the pilot boat was the tool of the trade, great care was taken to maintain it. That brings us to the Mustang Island Cove, the heart of the bar pilot operation at the Aransas Pass. I used information from the Mercer Logs to create this historic area digitally

(see image).

In 1871, a substantial wharf with boat davits was built to keep the pilot boats from very high tides and bottom fouling barnacles. The pilot house had a pole for displaying signal flags, and the quarantine station is explicitly explained by this Mercer log: “September 9, 1873, Yellow Fever is in Galveston. No more vessels allowed to go to Corpus.”

In the image, see “cargo raft.” The man rowing a raft to shore represents a job perk enjoyed by the bar pilots. If the ship the pilot was bringing in carried cargo that the pilot needed, he could usually make a deal with the captain.

For instance, John Mercer needed shingles and nails to repair a roof, and so the captain sold him what he needed at a good price—a lot easier for John than going to Corpus Christi and back.

With Port Aransans still working today as ship pilots, the island’s very first profession is approaching its 150th year. And while the equipment and technology have certainly changed, the pilot’s commitment to ensuring a safe maritime environment is the same as when Ned and John Mercer guided sailing ships through the primitive Aransas Pass.

(first published in the Port Aransas South Jetty July 2012)

August 2nd, 2012|Columns by J Guthrie Ford|