Kate Ross Padgett was born January 6, 1851 and was the first white child born in Waco. Her parents were Shapley Prince and Catherine Fulkerson Ross and they lived in a log cabin built near the Brazos River. Her older brother was Lawrence Sullivan (Sul) Ross who was a young child when the family moved to Texas. The exact location of the home is thought to be on the west side of the Brazos near downtown Waco, near the intersection of what was then Bridge Street and First Street, roughly where the Waco Suspension Bridge meets the river today. There was a natural spring nearby. The cabin was later replaced by a hotel, the first hotel in Waco, when the Ross family moved to a home near 12th and Dutton streets.
Kate was one of nine children born to Shapley and Catherine Ross. Shapley received permission to operate a ferry crossing the Brazos, approximately where the Suspension Bridge lies. Some accounts say that Kate may have christened the bridge at its opening in early 1870. Others just say that she took part in the ceremony, which coincidentally occurred on her 19th birthday. Kate received her education at Waco University, a Baptist entity that merged with Baylor University in the 1880s when the latter school relocated from Independence, Texas to Waco. In 1867, the year she graduated from Waco University, she was one of eight females to complete their course work.
When she was still a young woman she also took part in the christening of a steamboat, the “Kate Ross,” which was built to carry people and products up and down the Brazos. Congressman R. L. Henry had secured a federal grant to improve the Brazos River and try and make it navigable all the way to the Gulf. The Kate Ross was not large by Mississippi River steamboat standards. About half the money for her construction was supposedly furnished by Robert J. Goode and by the Conger brothers, Norman and Harvey, who are thought to have furnished the engine. A Captain Gibson furnished the other half of the financing.
Work was commenced in 1874 in a shipyard of sorts on the east side of the river. The hull was completed first and then the lower deck was added. It was 100 feet long and 25 feet wide and drew 16 inches of water when unloaded. Captain Gibson named her the Kate Ross in honor of Kate, now known as Mrs. Kate Ross Padgitt, as she had recently married Tom Padgitt, a saddle and harness maker located in Waco.
The craft made its maiden voyage in February, 1875. Richard Coke of Waco, then governor of Texas, gave a speech at the christening, as did John Wesley Downs, mayor of Waco. After that day, the steamboat operated for a while up and down the Brazos near Waco carrying cotton, flour, animal hides and cedar charcoal. There being no railroads yet in that part of Texas, Captain Gibson’s ultimate intent was to further improve the craft to carry passengers in the more densely populated regions nearer the Gulf, further south in Texas. Gibson proceeded to take the craft south and made it all the way to just north of Calvert before bottoming out on the falls. She remained stuck for about 10 days until the river rose again, enough to allow them to pass, only to get stuck once more at a place called Smiley’s Ferry in Calvert. They were never able to get past the shoal and the Kate Ross was finally broken up and sold for lumber, with the Conger brothers retrieving their engine.
A second craft, the “Lizzie Fisher,” was built in 1875 also to navigate the Brazos. It was smaller but was intended for commerce on the river. It was commanded by a Captain Woodruff, but its known existence was short-lived. That same year the Brazos experienced a “red rise” from heavy rains that fell upriver and the Lizzie Fisher disappeared overnight. It was later learned that Captain Woodruff was heavily in debt and may have slipped away with the craft under cover of darkness. Unconfirmed rumors also had her being spotted in New Orleans, but her actual fate is unknown. So the Lizzie Fisher and the Kate Ross were the first two steam powered watercraft to navigate the Brazos although neither venture was successful. No images of either craft are known to exist.
Kate Ross Padgitt was well known in Waco and was a supporter of its growing African American population. She contributed substantially to Paul Quinn College. The institution was originally founded in 1872 in Austin by a group of African Methodist Episcopal ministers at the old Metropolitan A. M. E. Church there who first named it Connecticut High School and Institute. The college moved from Austin to Waco in 1877 and was renamed Waco College. In Waco, it was housed in a single building where freedmen were taught skills such as blacksmithing, carpentry, tanning and saddle making. It was later renamed for Bishop Paul Quinn who headed and developed the school during his tenure. The campus grew to twenty acres and the curriculum was expanded to include traditional liberal arts subjects. It was granted a charter as Paul Quinn College in May, 1881 making it one of the earliest institutions of its type in Texas. Paul Quinn remained in Waco until well into the next century. It relocated to Dallas in 1990 on the former campus of Bishop College which had gone out of business. Kate also supported Central Texas College, another African American school founded in 1902. At this time, not much is known about the history of this institution, but in honor of her contributions, one of its buildings was named Katy Ross Padgitt Hall.
(The Padgitt Leather Shop, Image credit: Waco Herald-Tribune)
Tom Padgitt’s first wife Amanda had died in childbirth in 1876, four years after he had set up his shop in Waco. The story is told that Tom Padgitt was known to be quite blunt and that he had only courted Kate a short while before proposing, and doing it in his own peculiar way. The story is that he sent an employee to deliver a note to Kate announcing his intentions and assuring her that he “meant business.” Their relationship was successful, by all accounts. Tom and Kate had five children and they remained married until their union was ended by death. Tom and Kate were known to have been quite social, organizing the Possum Club, where Wacoans would gather and sometimes go possum hunting on horseback on the banks of Waco Creek. Padgitt also was institutional in forming the first fire brigade and a baseball team, the Waco Red Stockings. Kate died of a stroke at her home in Waco on January 18, 1912 and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery.
Kate Ross Padgitt had lived her entire life in Waco. Being the daughter of a pioneer family, she had experienced a wide variety of things, beginning from the days when Waco was a sleepy little village inhabited by the Huaco Indians and a few settlers of European ancestry. In just over six decades, Kate had witnessed the settlement of Waco, the Civil War and the growth of Waco into a regional economic center.
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