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East Bernard and its San Bernard

Monday 17 July 2017 at 5:08 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for July 13, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Before my wife and I moved to East Bernard in 1975, I had lived in Wharton for 9 years, she had lived in New York for 5 years, and we both had lived in Rosenberg and Ann Arbor for a short time. Having a number of friends from a diversity of geographical locations, we were frequently asked, Where do you live? East Bernard, we’d say. How do you spell that? Is it two words or one word? Is there also a West Bernard? What an odd name for a town? Not really! How about Dime Box and North Zulch?

            Eventually they’d want to know how the town got its name. Since I had written the entry for East Bernard in the Handbook of Texas, I was only too eager to show off the results of my research, providing them with more than they wanted to hear.

            Well, it was named after the San Bernard River, and, no, there’s not a “West Bernard,” but there was a Post West Bernard, and there is a town named Bernardo, and a community near Sweeney called El Bernardo. The Spanish explorers actually named our river El Rio de San Bernardo, and it was Anglicized to East Bernard. It begins as a small spring near New Ulm, Texas, and flows through Austin, Wharton, Brazoria, and a couple more counties until it empties directly into the Gulf of Mexico near Sargent. I’m told it’s one of a few Texas rivers emptying in the Gulf. The San Antonio River, for example, empties into the Guadalupe River.

            Just as the San Antonio River was named after Saint Anthony of Padua by a Spanish expedition, the San Bernard River was named after Saint Bernard of Clairvaux by early Spaniards. No doubt the Spanish explorers were very devout Catholics, because they named a lot of geographical locations after aspects of their faith. A nearby river, the Brazos, for instance, was named Brazos de Dios (Arms of God).

            My non-Catholic friends wanted to know, Who in the world is Saint Bernard, I thought he was a dog. I naturally had to answer their question in as much detail they would allow me to give.

            OK, here goes: Bernard of Clairvaux was a French abbot and strong supporter of Pope Innocent, who helped to reform the Cistercian order. One of his disciples became Pope Eugene III. He was a monk for forty years and organized Crusades. He was one of the first Cistercian monks to be canonized a Saint. The dog breed that later came to be named “Saint Bernard” was used to guard the grounds of Switzerland’s Hospice St. Bernard. The dogs were used to find and save lost and injured travelers. I’m sure the Spaniards named the river after the Saint, not the dog.

            Some of the great rivers of the world are famous because of legends which developed about them. For example, the Rhine River in Germany is known for the famous legend of the beautiful, blonde-headed woman, named Lorelei, who lured sailors to their death, causing ships to sink, by her beauty and her enchantingly beautiful and eerie singing.

            I couldn’t resist telling my friends that a similar legend surrounds a mystery of the San Bernard River. Since the San Bernard River flows through a number of counties, I’m not sure that this river-mystery has been observed in our area. I’m not sure where it originated, but my guess is in the area through which it flows near Gulf Sulfur. I’ve never heard any of my friends who live near the Bernard mention it.

            For more than a hundred years, folks along the San Bernard River reported hearing an enchanting sound, much like that of the wail of a violin. The sound appeared to come from the River, but the mystery was never solved. Some people believe that the mysterious sound came from escaping gas. In any case, the San Bernard River was once known as the “Singing River.” The Rhine, too, was a “Singing River.”

            When I lived in Wharton, like other residents, I often went down to the Colorado River, located at the end of the town and walked along the River. I would pass families having a picnic by the River, and, one day, I even saw the famous playwright, Horton Foote, walking near the big bridge. So, naturally when I moved to East Bernard, I thought walking along the San Bernard River might be a very pleasant way to spend an evening. However, there was only one problem, I didn’t know how to get down to the River, so I asked a longtime resident to recommend a location for a pleasant River walk.

            This old-timer looked at me with shock, alarm, and disbelief in his eyes. “I don’t know which would get you first, the cottonmouths or the copperheads,” he replied shaking his head. “I guess you’re one of those junior college teachers,” he said as I walked away. I don’t think that was a compliment.


Ray Spitzenberger has retired after serving as pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, for 28 years, teaching in high school for 9 years and at Wharton County Junior College for 22.

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