Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore

History

History & Culture

For almost its entire existence, Padre Island has been wilderness. The first permanent settlement on the island was established around 1804 near the island's southern tip by a Spanish priest named Padre Nicolas Balli. Prior to then, the only people known to have come to the island were nomadic native Americans, Spanish troops or ships searching for evidence of English or French incursion into their territory, and the survivors of three ships wrecked on the shore in 1554.

From 1804 to the opening of the National Seashore in 1970 the island was used almost solely for ranching. The most prominent and lasting exceptions to this have been the development of the tourism industry (including the development of the town of South Padre Island and the National Seashore) beginning in the early 1920's, and the exploitation of the island's oil and natural gas reserves beginning in the 1950's.

One of the most interesting periods of the island's history was from the Second World War to 1960, when a Navy bombing range existed on the northern section of the island.

Four nations have owned Padre Island at different times. The first was Spain, which owned Padre Island from its entry into the New World until the Mexican Revolution of 1820. The second was Mexico, which owned Padre Island from 1821 until 1836, when the newly formed Republic of Texas claimed the area between the Nueces river and the Rio Grande. The Republic of Texas owned Padre Island from its formation until the War with Mexico of 1845-1848, when its territory was acquired by the United States. Throughout these times, the island has been known by several names, with Padre Island being only the most recent. It has also been known as la Island Blanca (White Island) and Isla de los Malaguitas (Island of the Malaquites--a native American people) among others.

Because the National Seashore endeavors to preserve Padre Island in its natural state, visiting the island is very much like stepping back into the past. With few exceptions, visitors can now see Padre Island as it has existed throughout most of its history and how it is described in the few extant descriptions by the early explorers.

 

The Importance of the 1554 Shipwrecks

In April, 1554, three Spanish naos (a type of cargo and passenger ship similar to Columbus's Santa Maria) went aground on Padre Island following a storm that had blown them across the Gulf of Mexico from the coast of Cuba. At the time this was the greatest disaster to ever befall the Spanish fleet in the New World. Tons of treasure bound for Spain was lost in addition to the lives of approximately three hundred passengers and crew who died from hunger, thirst, and attacks by natives as they attempted to walk back to the port of Vera Cruz.

But the story of the 1554 shipwreck does not end there nor does it end with the conclusion of the salvage operations that took place later that year. As with any important historical event, its effects resonate through the centuries and can still be felt today—if one looks for them.

First of all, the wrecks were the first documented occurrence of Europeans on the island and one of the first occurrences of Europeans in what was to become Texas. The salvage operation was the first documented instance of Europeans intentionally coming to the island and staying for an extended period.

Second, the three ships that wrecked (the Santa Maria de Yciar, the Espiritu Santo, and the San Esteban) are the oldest shipwrecks ever found in North America (excluding the Caribbean and Latin America).

Third, when the remains of the ships were discovered in 1967, a private company called Platoro, Ltd. began excavating them. This set off a long, legal battle over ownership of the remains as Texas had no laws governing antiquities at the time. In the long run, the state won its case and the remains were turned over to the National Park Service, who has transferred curation of the artifacts to the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, where they may now be viewed.

Historian and Marine Archeologist Dr. Donald Keith, President of the Ships of Discovery at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, notes that:

"The 1554 shipwrecks are important for a lot of reasons. The "mining" of them by Platoro caused the State of Texas to realize that shipwrecks and archaeological sites in general are important, and the property of the people and the state. They are cultural resources that have to be cared for. Some of the earliest experiments in the conservation of artifacts from the sea were done on the objects and hull remains that were recovered from the sites that Platoro and the State worked…The Platoro conflict did lead to the establishment of the Texas Antiquities Committee, which led to the Texas Historical Commission, which led to the discovery and excavation of La Belle [the ship of the French explorer La Salle, found on the Texas coast within the past few years] among other accomplishments."

This third and last effect on our present society is undoubtedly the most important, because it resulted in new Texas laws to protect archeological resources. These laws follow the federal Antiquities Act in spirit, which gives federal agencies custody of relics found within their jurisdictions so that they may be properly protected and studied. Thus, instead of ending up in private collections where they become curiosities for a fortunate few, the knowledge derived from the artifacts goes to the public in the form of publications and exhibits in museums and on websites.

Bits and pieces of the 1554 wrecks and many other historical events still wash up on the island or can be found emerging from the sands. If you discover something, please remember that the right thing to do is leave it where it is and report it to us, so that we may conduct a proper archeological dig and learn more about the rich history of the island and share our findings (and yours) with the world.

 

The Twentieth Century

Padre Island began the twentieth century as a ranching community with a few small businesses operating alongside the ranches. The first two decades saw the advent of two industries that would set the course for the future: tourism and natural gas.

After the development of the automobile, various entrepeneurs saw that the island, with its sunny weather and warm winters, had the potential for attracting great numbers of vacationers and they began to dream of resort areas similar to Miami beach. Hindering their progress, however, was the fact that the island was difficult to access because of the lack of a bridge or highway going directly to the island. Visitors either had to take a boat across the Laguna Madre or take a long drive through Port Aransas and down Mustang Island. This was remedied or the northern end of Padre Island in the second half of the century with the building of what was then known as the Padre Island Causeway, which is now called the JFK causeway.

The island remained peaceful throughout the twentieth century. However, the Second World War brought a military presence. The Navy established bombing and aerial gunnery ranges on both the northern and southern parts of the island. In addition, the Coast Guard began patrolling the shoreline searching for German saboteurs and spies that might be smuggled in by submarines.

At about the same time dreams of a tourism industry began to evolve in the 1920s and 1930s, oil and natural gas companies became aware of great, untapped natural gas deposits under the island. Drilling for oil and natural gas began in the early fifties and continues today.

The development of the National Seashore in the 1960s, as a product of the tourism boom, insured that most of the island would remain natural. This is because the mission of National Park Service, as stated in its founding legislation (called the Organic Act), is "...to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

The Military Presence

Pilot training began at the new Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi in March, 1941 and the beginning of World War II accelerated it. By the end of 1942 Corpus Christi NAS and its auxiliary bases were processing 2,500 pilots per month and became the largest naval pilot training facility in the world. Among the notables trained there were future President George Bush, Senator/Astronaut John Glenn, actor Tyrone Power, and TV emcee Bob Barker. Among other training disciplines that were increasing was the need to practice bombing.

Early in the war the island was declared off-limits to civilians, all information concerning activity on the island was declared classified and seven bombing targets (large white bull's-eyes encircled by concentric white rings 100 yards in diameter) and eight strafing targets (vertical cloth or paper targets) were built spaced about five miles apart. Bombs dropped on the targets were usually very small and contained only enough explosive for pilots to check their accuracy. The principal practice bomb, the Mark IV, was only nine inches long and contained a 40-gauge shotgun shell in the nose as an explosive. Some larger bombs were dropped on occasion, however (for example 500-pounders), and typically half of their weight would be explosive. With the construction of the targets also came the need to service and repair them and naval personnel had to perform this duty. Initially, crews had to travel by boat to reach many of the targets, but eventually a housing facility known as Caffey barracks was built. Caffey barracks is still on the island and now serves as the ranger station.

Aerial bombing was not the only military activity on the island during the war. By 1942 German submarines had established a presence in the Gulf of Mexico and there was concern that they would be used to infiltrate spies or saboteurs into the country, as was common in that day. The Gulf coast, with its numerous oil fields and shipyards, offered many potential targets for all three. Consequently the U.S. Coast Guard started patrolling Padre Island, along with the rest of the U.S. coastline, with men, horses, and dogs. By 1943, nine patrol stations were established on Padre Island. There is no indication that spies or saboteurs ever landed on the island, but there was plenty of evidence of U-boat activity against shipping in the debris which washed up on the shore. Between 1942-43 33 Allied ships were sunk and 434 lives were lost. As the war progressed U-boat losses grew and bombing of U-boat support and production facilities in Europe increased. As a result the submarine threat in the Gulf of Mexico ended by 1944 and Coast Guard patrols stopped. Navy training and bombing continued though, through the end of the war.

In spite of the new military presence on the island, cattle operations continued as they had for over a hundred years. Bombing practice was halted during the annual round-ups and for the rest of the year several thousand cattle roamed the island as they had since the days of Padre Balli. Observers noted that "the cattle move in and around the targets as soon as the firing stops and graze bombing areas when the ranges are quiet. At the first sound of an airplane, they move out of the area without any prompting."

Post-War

Use of Padre Island as a bombing range continued through the Korean Conflict and into the 1960's. The range was decommissioned in 1966 and the Navy sent out ordinance experts to sanitize the ranges of all unexploded ordinance. The sand at the targets was sifted down to a level of 18 inches using heavy equipment and the bombs removed. Unfortunately, long after the ranges were closed unexploded ordinance was still being found on occasion and some souvenir hunters were injured by improperly handling munitions, whose explosive charges had become increasingly unstable as time had passed. Unexploded ordinance still turns up, albeit very infrequently. If a metal object is seen sticking from the ground, do not touch it, mark its location and report it immediately to a Park Ranger.

Native Americans

No one knows who the first native Americans to set foot on Padre Island were. By best estimates, the first people to inhabit the area now known as South Texas arrived around 10,000 B.C. The best estimate for the age of the island however, is 3,000 to 5,000 years, meaning the island formed sometime around 3,000 B.C. at the earliest. Recent analysis of native American points (i.e. arrowheads, spear points, knife blades, etc.) found on the island indicates the island has probably been visited, if not inhabited, by native Americans since its formation.

The peoples who most recently inhabited the coast of South Texas were the Coahuiltecans and the Karankawas. Both were groups of interrelated nomadic hunter-gatherer bands that roamed the coast and inland for some distance.

In general, the Karankawa ranged within the area between Corpus Christi Bay and Galveston and the Coahuiltecans generally ranged within the area from Corpus Christi Bay south into Mexico. However, please note that these areas are only broad approximations. Both peoples often wore little, if any, clothing and usually decorated themselves with tattoos and body piercings. The bands, usually consisting of a single family, were related linguistically and culturally, but otherwise probably had few ties. Each band wandered the country foraging for food on its own and probably seldom came together with other bands of its tribe, except by accidental meeting. Bands usually moved from place to place depending upon where they knew they could find food. Both peoples lived off deer, small game, rodents, and even insects, but their main food sources were probably plants such as prickly pear cactus, mesquite beans, and pecan. Bands from both the Coahuiltecans and Karankawa would sometimes come out to Padre Island to live off the game, fish, and abundant shellfish. Describing the Coahuiltecans and Karankawas is difficult, because customs could vary widely between bands of what we consider the same people.

Very little is known about the Coahuiltecans and the name of the group is a generalization. "Coahuiltecan" is a name used by archeologists to refer to the various bands of people that wandered in an area between present-day San Antonio and northern Mexico. The Spanish who colonized the area left few records of the Coahuiltecan people or their language or languages. It is probably best to say that the bands of the Coahuiltecan were probably related by language. Some bands of the Coahuiltecans were known to number into the hundreds. The Coahuiltecans usually built circular huts of a wooden framework, such as willow, and covered it with animal skins or matting. They would hunt with bow and arrow, but usually kept a club nearby for self defense.

One of the Coahuiltecan bands was known as the Malaquites (often seen on Spanish maps as Malaquitas or Malaquittas or even Malaguittas) and is the band for whom the Malaquite beach section of the National Seashore is named. A map drawn by Colonel Diego Ortiz Parrilla, who scouted the island for Spain in 1766, shows several Malaquite settlements on the southern end of the island while a Karankawa settlement and two other bands are noted on the northern end.

More is known of the Karankawa, who existed as a people in Texas until about 1850. The Karankawas lived in the same nomadic lifestyle as the Coahuiltecans, living in small bands, hunting with bow and arrow, eating whatever was available, and living in huts made of a simple wooden framework covered by skins or mats. Because the Karankawas were mainly a coastal people, they often traveled by dugout canoe. The Karankawas were noted for being tall (between 6'-7'), excellent archers, and ferocious in appearance. They also a somewhat undeserved reputation as cannibals, based on a religious ceremony taking place after a victorious battle, in which an enemy captive was at least partially consumed. Otherwise, the Karankawas were apparently as repulsed by the idea of eating other humans as modern people are. The Karankawa never adapted to the new ways of the European settlers as well as many other peoples did. Their population was decimated by intermittent warfare with them and by the new diseases which had been introduced.

 

Padre Balli

The first European settlement on the island was established around 1804 when Padre Jose Nicolas Balli founded a ranch named Santa Cruz de Buena Vista about 26 miles north of the island's southernmost tip.

Nicolas Balli was born around 1768 and came from a wealthy family in the town of Reynosa seventy miles from the mouth of the Rio Grande in what is now Mexico. His brother was the captain and chief justice of Reynosa, just as his grandfather had been, and likewise owned large tracts of land in the Rio Grande valley. Nicolas chose a different career path and decided to become a priest. He studied at the University of Salamanca, Spain and was ordained a lay priest in 1790-91. However, his duties did not require a vow of poverty. Like his brother and grandfather, Nicolas also owned a lot of land. He apparently decided to increase his holdings and sometime between 1800 and 1805 applied to the Spanish crown for a land grant on the "Isla de Corpus Christi", the name the island acquired after the naming of Corpus Christi Bay in 1766. Previously, it had been known as "Isla Blanca" or "La Isla de los Malaquittas". The padre owned the island jointly with his nephew Juan Jose Balli: Nicolas owning the southern half of the island and Juan Jose the northern half. In addition to his island holdings Padre Balli also owned large tracts of land in the Rio Grande valley and in the present-day border towns of Reynosa and Matamoros.

On the island Padre Balli and his nephew (and foreman) Juan Jose Balli raised large herds of cattle, sheep and horses, never actually living there themselves; two hired hands lived on the island and oversaw the operations. However, there is a report that Padre Balli sought refuge on the island for a short while during the Mexican revolution as he was a member of the Mexican aristocracy. He is reported to have returned to his ranch San Juan de los Estores on the south side of the Rio Grande and twenty miles from its mouth, following the revolution.

The actual ranch structures were probably little more than thatched huts made of willow laths. Little is known of the ranch operations and the stock probably grazed freely throughout the island and were probably only collected once per year. It was not a small operation however, as in 1811, Padre Balli stated in his will that he owned 1,000 head of cattle.

As the land grant giving Padre Balli the land was issued by Spain around 1804, he had to reapply for it to the Mexican government after Mexico won its independence in 1821. As part of having his land grant confirmed, the property had to be surveyed in 1828. The survey report included this description: "The land was characterized by high sand dunes, some of which were covered with grass. In addition, one found a great number of willows, oleanders, short oaks, plenty of herbs known as anise, and many fresh water lakes or pools covered with reeds."

After the padre's death later that year, Juan Jose chose his brother-in-law, Raphael Solis, to take formal possession of Nicolas's share of the island. In 1830, Juan Jose sold his (northern) half and one-seventh of the southern half of the property to Santiago Morales, who kept it until 1845, when he sold it to Jose Maria Tovar. Except for 7,500 acres, all of the southern half was eventually sold off by the seven heirs of Nicolas until it came into possession of Nicolas Grisante.

Spanish coins

Padre Island National Seashore is fortunate to have the National Park Service's largest collection of coins from the Spanish Colonial era. During the time of their use, these coins were called reales (singular: real, pronounced ray-AL in Spanish, plural ray-AL-es). Many of these coins came from the wrecks of three Spanish ships that went aground during a storm in 1554. However, some may have come from other ships that wrecked on the island or may have washed up from shipwrecks elsewhere in the Gulf. There are undoubtedly other sources as well. Some of these pieces are quite rare.

 

Padre Island During the Civil War

During the Civil War, the Union blockaded the passes between the local barrier islands to disrupt the export of cotton from the Confederacy and to prevent salt from the Laguna Madre reaching the southern forces. Union troops occasionally landed on the island to secure fresh meat from the herds of free roaming cattle or by hunting deer. Occasionally, southerners would endeavor to transport cotton across Padre Island and load it onto ship standing off shore in the Gulf, but with Union warships patrolling just beyond the horizon, this was always a precarious occupation at best.

Only one small skirmish occurred on northern Padre Island. The engagement was so small that the local newspapers referred to it as "The Affair on Padre Island". The Padre Island National Seashore Historic Resource Study (James W. Sheire, 1971) gives the following detailed account of the action, however, as will be seen, this account conflicts with others in minor ways. Among other resources, Sheire used The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies for his account of the engagement.

"In December, 1862, the war came to Padre Island. Early in the month Confederate Capt. John Ireland and seven men crossed Corpus Christi Bay to Corpus Christi Pass in order to check the depth of the bars on both ends of the pass. The depth measured three and half feet at one bar and five feet at the other, i.e. the pass was too shallow to allow any ships to use it. While checking the depth, Ireland and his men observed a Union bark, Arthur, which apparently was looking for them. Beaching their boat on Mustang Island, Ireland spent an hour watching Arthur's movements. At noon the Confederates returned to their boat, the Queen of the Bay, with the intention of returning to Corpus. No sooner had they pushed off from Mustang than they discovered that Arthur had succeeded in putting overboard two launches which were closing fast on the Queen. Quickly realizing that he would not be able to escape the launches, Ireland beached his boat on Padre Island. The Confederates hastily grabbed some baggage and some weapons and took up a position in the sand dunes. When the Union launches closed to within two hundred yards of the beached Queen, the rebels opened fire. The Union force returned the fire, but realizing that they were exposed in their open boats, while the Confederates enjoyed the cover of the dunes, they turned away and landed on the other side of Corpus Christi Pass on Mustang. In their haste to get out of range of the Confederate sharpshooters, the Yankees failed to secure or anchor their launches. No sooner were they safely under cover than the two boats came loose from the beach and drifted across the pass towards the Confederate position. Seeing his good fortune Captain Ireland waded out to one of the launches and secured it. When he looked into the boat, he discovered why the northerners had been so anxious to find cover. Two men lay at the bottom of the launch, one dead and the other wounded. Meanwhile the other Union launch, which had also broken away from Mustang, was drifting towards the gulf. Jack Sands quickly jumped into the captured Union launch, rowed out into the pass, and pulled it in. With the two Union boats in their hands, the Confederates reboarded the Queen of the Bay, pushed off from Padre, and headed back to Corpus. The 22 stranded Union soldiers watched them sail away and, badly embarrassed, wondered how they would get back to the Arthur. Back in Corpus, Captain Ireland proudly reported that his party had captured two launches with full equipment, one double-barrel shot gun, three holster pistols, four percussion muskets, four cutlasses, and one bayonet. The affair of Padre Island, as the official records call this minor engagement, was an insignificant rebel victory, but it did much to boost Corpus morale."

The following much briefer account is given at NavalHistory.com and is part of their history of the USS Sachem. However, it does add a few details either not in the Sheire account or that conflict with it. Note that it states that the Union vessel involved is not the Arthur, but the USS Sachem. According to the same article, the Sachem was a screw steamer that was being used as a tender for the Arthur, which was a bark blockading Aransas Pass at the northern end of Mustang Island. Therefore, it is likely that the Confederates mistakenly identified the Sachem as the Arthur in their reports. NavalHistory. com states that it takes its accounts of the actions of individual ships from the Dictionary of Naval Fighting Vessels, published by the Department of the Navy from 1959 to 1993.

"On the night of 6 December, Sachem captured a small, unidentified schooner manned by three men and laden with salt. The prisoners told of an armed Confederate schooner which had left Corpus Christi to sound the channel at Corpus Christi Pass. Two boats from Sachem got under way the next morning to intercept the Southern ship. They caught sight of their quarry some 28 miles further and gave chase. After pursuing the schooner, Queen of the Bay, about 8 miles, the boats forced her ashore. The Confederates abandoned their ship and opened fire on the Union boats from the shore, killing three men and wounding three others including the commander of the boat party, Acting Ensign Alfred H. Reynolds. The Federal sailors then left their boats and retreated overland 30 miles to rejoin Sachem at Aransas Bay."

The briefest account can be found at US Naval Landing Party, which is the website for U.S. Naval Landing Party, an organization of Civil War Reenactors, and is taken from Civil War Naval Chronology 1861-1865, published in 1966 by the Naval History Division, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Navy Department. It provides a few details in neither of the above accounts, but maintains the same basic story.

"Confederate steamer Queen of the Bay, Captain H. Willke, CSA, sounding Corpus Christi pass, was chased by boats under Acting Ensign Alfred H. Reynolds and Master's Mate George C. Dolliver from USS Sachem. Captain Willke ran Queen of the Bay aground on Padre Island , deployed his men, and took Union boats under fire. Reynolds, seriously wounded, was compelled to land on nearby Mustang Island and abandon his boats to the Confederates before retreating overland 30 miles to rejoin Sachem at Aransas Bay, Texas."

A list of casualties and personnel involved (on both sides) in the Affair of Padre Island is available at CORPUS CHRISTI PASS, TEXAS.

The following November (1863) Union forces captured Brazos Island near the southern tip of Padre Island. On November 18, a large body of Union troops including the 13th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment sailed up to Corpus Christi Pass and landed on Mustang Island, moving on to assault the Confederate garrison at Aransas Pass, about thirty miles away across from the northern end of Mustang Island. After minor skirmishing, the Union forces prevailed. The forces pushed on north to Matagorda Island, but soon had to be withdrawn to participate in campaigns elsewhere in the Gulf.

The Salt Industry

From at least the early 1850s to 1874, salt production was a major local industry in the Laguna Madre. The following excerpt from the Corpus Christi Caller (the predecessor to the Caller-Times) from many years ago describes it:

"Salt was procurable in seemingly inexhaustible quantities 60 miles down the bay in the Laguna Madre, a long neck of shallow water which at that time was extremely saline. Evaporation would take place when the action of wind and tide washed the salty water up on the shore, leaving solid sheets of salt. This was cut away like ice, loaded in small boats and brought to the mill where it was ground with power from the windmill to various degrees of fineness. Table salt, salt to preserve cowhides and meat, ice cream salt, and rock salt to feed cattle were turned out at the little mill and bought by the people of the little village of Corpus Christi and neighboring communities which grew up around and gradually acquired names."

The industry reportedly employed about 150 men daily in mining the salt and transporting it to Captain John Anderson's salt mill in downtown Corpus Christi; this was at a time (1850-1875) when the population of Corpus Christi ranged from about 1,000 to maybe a little more than 2,000. The salt was used not only locally, but was exported to as far away as Oklahoma. In fact, the industry probably began before the 1850s. The Handbook of Texas Online notes that the village of Laguna Vista near Port Isabel was "...settled in the early 1800s by Mexican salt traders who transported salt through the region to northern Mexico."

The industry reportedly met its end with the hurricane that struck the island in September, 1874. A newspaper account of the day noted in its description of the damages wrought by the storm that (the material in brackets was inserted during the writing of this article to provide background material):

"...On Padre Island, near the Peaeseal [now known as Pensacal Point on the southern point where Baffin Bay joins the Laguna Madre], a large warehouse belonging to Captain Kenedy was blown down level with the ground, five or six miles below that another warehouse was badly damaged, with considerable loss of salt [this was probably at what was then known as "Murdock's Landing" , which is now Yarborough Pass]. At Padre Settlement [probably meaning either the settlement on the island's northern tip or the Curry Settlement on the Laguna shore a few miles south of the current Malaquite Visitor Center] 25,000 bushels of salt on the beach were washed away." The book "Padre Island", written by a group of local authors in 1950, notes that this hurricane apparently broke up the salt deposits and either washed them away or hid them so that they were never found again.

Based on this and other sporadic accounts, the salt was probably often transported up the island or across it to waiting ships. One of the consumers of the salt was the meat-packing plant at Packery Channel, which was one of several packeries in the area.

Why do we no longer see blocks of salt in the Laguna? There are probably several reasons. One author reasoned that the building of the Intracoastal Canal lowered the salinity of the Laguna so that salt can no longer accumulate in the quantities it once did. Perhaps it was simply mined out of existence.

Please help us preserve the island's history. If you find anything of potential archeological value, please report it to the Malaquite Visitor Center or the nearest law enforcement officer. In return the park will give you a certificate to commemorate your contribution.

In addition, remember that taking artifacts from the park not only deprives the public of the historical knowledge they offer, but is also illegal.

 

The Wrecking Industry

Almost everyone has probably heard stories of 19th century "wreckers" on the island. The popular version is that these were men who lived on Padre and Mustang Islands and made their living by luring ships to wreck on the island by suspending lanterns from burros, which they walked along the beach. Ships would see the swaying lights, and thinking it was another ship that was heading through a channel to Corpus Christi, and would follow it hoping for safe passage. When the ship ran aground, the wreckers would either wait until the crew abandoned the ship and then would board it and steal what they wanted, or they would simply board it and hold the crew at gunpoint while the wreckers took what they wanted. These men were often referred to as "sand pirates".

History records only one man on Padre Island as having been a wrecker. His name was Mr. Tilley and he lived on the island in the 1840s. Probably only because of the sensational nature of his work, the pirate-wrecker receives more attention in the history books and in legends than his legitimate counterpart.

The average wrecker was probably just another working man or someone trying to make some additional income. In fact, for many decades, because of the frequency of ships running aground during storms or for navigation errors, wrecking was an industry in South Texas. During the 1800s, Nueces County government had a office with the official title of "Wreckmaster". His job was to pay men to salvage whatever possible from a wreck, and bring it into Corpus Christi, where it would be sold at auction and the proceeds would go to the rightful owner of the vessel. The County kept a small percentage of the money from the sales to pay for expenses.

In the Local History section of the Corpus Christi Main Library are several receipts on file detailing how the Wreckmaster paid wreckers for their work on Mustang Island. However, there is only one record for Padre Island: a ledger page detailing the expenses involved in salvaging the wreck of the schooner Ben Jones. Unfortunately, no mention is made of where on the island the schooner wrecked. The transactions involved took place over several days in January and February 1879 after the schooner apparently wrecked in the beginning of January. There are receipts for stripping the Ben Jones's hull, transporting the salvaged parts to Corpus Christi, and the sale of individual parts (one flying jib $5, one hawser $8, one skiff $9, etc.). The entire process was overseen by the county Wreckmaster Peter Benson, witnessed in writing by a notary public, and certified and signed off by a county judge.

The park's and state's outside estimate of the number of ships that have run aground on Padre Island during its history is around four hundred. No doubt, the reason we can find so few remains of the ships is because of the work of the wreckers, both legal and illegal. Most of the little they did not take has probably been scooped up by modern-day treasure hunters armed with metal detectors.

Please help us preserve the island's history by not taking anything of potential archeological value from the park. Report your finds to the Malaquite Visitor Center or to the nearest law enforcement officer. In return, the park will present you with a certificate to commemorate your find and donation.

 

The Oil and Gas Story

It is a beautiful day at Padre Island National Seashore. The sun is shining. A light breeze is blowing gently across the dunes. The dump trucks, back loaders, and water trucks are driving busily down the beach toward Yarborough Pass. Wait a moment--why all the heavy equipment in a national park? What is happening here? The answer to that question involves a story of controversy and compromise within the National Seashore. The issue dates back to the 1920's when people first began to dream of creating a protected wilderness beach for public use.

Since protection was first proposed for this beautiful beach, it was obvious to everyone involved that the privately owned mineral rights were too expensive to purchase. The 1935 release of "Our Vanishing Shoreline" helped revitalize the idea of protecting one of our nation's last expanses of wild coastline. As the idea slowly matured, a National Park Service commission, including Regional Director Hugh Miller, was assembled in 1957 to survey the suitability of the area for national seashore designation. Director Miller came to the conclusion that if the mineral rights could not be purchased, there should be no park.

Other groups involved in the studies felt differently. The Board of Trustees of the National Parks Association adopted a resolution finding Padre Island to be nationally significant and suitable for inclusion in the National Park System. They noted the detractive aspects of drilling for minerals but felt these activities could be limited and controlled by agreement. Which choice would you have made if you were on the committee to decide? Would you have sided with Mr. Miller and given up on the national seashore idea, if it included drilling, or would you have chosen to compromise and work to minimize the effects of mineral exploration?

Most viewers today feel congress made the right choice by choosing the challenge of compromise. Concluding that the mineral rights were unaffordable, congress wrote the enabling legislation to guarantee owner access to the minerals.

"Sec. 4.(a) When acquiring land, waters, or interests therein, the Secretary shall permit a reservation by the grantor of all or any part of the oil and gas minerals in such land or waters and of other minerals therein which can be removed by similar means, with the right of occupation and use of so much of the surface of the land or waters as may be required for all purposes reasonably incident to the mining or removal of such from beneath the surface of these lands and water and the lands and waters adjacent thereto, under such regulations as may be prescribed by the Secretary with respect to such mining or removal." (See 16 U.S.C. §459d-3(a).)

Then, as now, the goal of acquiring the mineral rights has always been a legitimate idea. Ultimately though, acquisition of those rights is again up to congress. It is not an issue the National Park Service alone can decide. Today we continue to strive for balance and compromise at Padre Island National Seashore. Our primary mission is to preserve and protect America's special places. As evidence of that commitment the park recently produced the Oil and Gas Management Plan to better address the challenges posed by mineral extraction. The plan strengthened and improved specific rules and regulations that energy companies must follow to minimize impact on the delicate ecosystem.

As is true of many public land issues, there is no perfect solution that works for everyone. Constructive public input representing many viewpoints will ultimately help produce and effective management plan for the National Seashore. It will produce the compromise congress sought between preserving the surface from development while allowing for the extraction of private and state owned mineral resources.

Ranching

After the dissolution of the Balli estate, the island passed through many hands. For most of the island's post-settlement history, very few people lived on the island and the island was used almost solely as open rangeland, although a meat packery to process hides and tallow did exist at Corpus Christi Pass from at least 1870 to 1874. This was followed by a short-lived cannery. During this time, much of the island was owned by Nicolas Grisante, who had purchased it from Padre Balli's heirs. Portions of Jose Maria Tovar's portion of the island's north was gradually sold off to prominent Corpus Christi citizens such as John McCampbell and Stanley Welch.

What we know of the island's population during this time comes from local accounts, reports of people who were shipwrecked on the island, or on the rare occasions that a military reconnaissance party scouted the island for a route to the Rio Grande Valley. From those sources, it is known that most inhabitants were ranchers or cowhands or hermits.

Mention of hermits being found on the island crops up periodically in the records. Little is known of them, although it appears that often they survived by being "wreckers", men who salvaged wrecked ships run aground or beach combed and either sold the spoils or used them to build their homes. Sometimes a wrecker was noted as deliberately luring ships to their doom at night by hanging a lantern from a donkey or horse and walking the animal down the beach. The crew of a ship would spot the light and, thinking it was another ship that had found a safe passage, head for it.

The historical records also note at least a few settlements in the island's interior, but usually inhabitants collected near the southern or northern tips. One settlement is said to have existed prior to the Civil War about sixty-five miles from the northern end on the Laguna shore. During the Civil War Union soldiers (probably ashore scouting for cattle to use as fresh meat) reportedly visited the "Curry settlement" on the Laguna Madre about twenty miles south from Corpus Christi Pass. The Curry settlement was named for one of its inhabitants, Carrey Curry, who raised cattle and was a Baptist minister. Another settlement is said to have existed at "Murdock's Landing" on the Laguna Madre thirty miles south of Corpus Christi Pass.

Perhaps one of the more notable people who lived on the island in its early days was John Singer, brother to the famous sewing machine manufacturer. He was captain of a vessel named the Alice Sadell, which wrecked on the island in 1847. Instead of hurrying to leave the island however, Mr. Singer bought one of the seven original divisions set up by Padre Balli for his heirs and set up a ranch across from Port Isabel and established a family consisting of a wife and six children. He made his living by ranching, wrecking, and selling vegetables he had grown. John Singer might have stayed on the island for the rest of his life but for the Civil War. Because his ranch was located near the strategic Brazos Santiago pass and because he was known to have northern sympathies and ties, he was forced off the island in 1861. He moved to Flour Bluff on the mainland, just across the Laguna Madre at the the island's northern tip. There his wife passed away in 1866. Then he sold his Padre Island holdings to Jay Cooke and moved to New Orleans. Rumors have persisted throughout the years that Singer buried as much as $80,000 before leaving the island, but no one has ever found his legendary treasure.

In the 1870's Richard King and Mifflin Kennedy acquired giant ranches between Corpus Christi and Brownsville. As they fenced off their territories with barbed wire the era of open range cattle ranching ended forcing many smaller landowners out of business. One of these was Patrick Dunn. Faced with either moving west or going out of business he decided to move east instead and set up his cattle operations on the island. By the 1940's Patrick Dunn owned most of the island. During the 1960's the National Park Service bought the Dunn Ranch in order to establish Padre Island National Seashore.

The Dunn Ranch

Patrick Dunn was born in Corpus Christi in 1858 and began working with cattle on the open range as a teenager with his brother. In the 1870's, after the invention of barbed wire started putting an end to open rangeland on the mainland, many small ranchers were forced to either move elsewhere or to go out of business. Dunn decided, along with his brother, to establish a ranch on Padre Island.

The island had several advantages over the open range as pastureland. First, it was bordered on all sides by water and thus, for the most part, no fences were needed. The only exception was the southern border of Dunn's property. Because he did not own the entire island, Dunn had to erect a fence across the island in the vicinity of the the present Mansfield Channel. Another advantage was that there was then, as there is today, very little brush on the island. Brush was a place where cattle were often lost and the cowboys (then usually called "brush whackers" or "brush poppers") would have to ride through the brush to find them. They would then be cut by thorns or risk riding into rough branches. Another advantage was that water was easy to find on the island. Dunn had learned, reportedly from the local native Americans, that water could be found practically anywhere on the island by simply digging down a few feet. He therefore created small wells on the island throughout his time here, by digging at the foot of a dune and inserting a wooden frame about 2 feet by 8 feet in size (about the size of a watering trough). In his later years, Dunn once estimated that about 75 wells were located throughout the island.

Dunn leased a portion of the island's north end in 1879 from two Corpus Christi gentlemen, John McCampbell and Stanley Welch, and brought out 400 cattle, which he had purchased from a man named Rachel in White Point. Bad weather during the first winter severely damaged the herd, and Dunn was not able to make his first payment on the note owed to Rachel. As a result, he signed on to a firm called the Coleman-Fulton Pasture Company to herd 1,000 head of cattle to Webb County. That money enabled him to make his payment. That was the only time Patrick Dunn was unable to make a living on the island.

So that cattle could be worked all over the island, Dunn built a series of three line camps at 15 mile intervals: Novillo, Black Hill, and Green Hill. The 15 mile interval was the distance cattle could be rounded up and driven in one day (a day starting at 4:00 a.m. and lasting until dusk). Each line camp consisted of a large trap, a bunkhouse for the vaqueros (cowboys), a private bunkhouse for himself, an outdoor kitchen, and smaller traps and corrals. Furniture and building materials for the camps came from driftwood and shipwreck debris found on the beaches. Operations were uneventful for 10 months of the year, but during May and October cattle were rounded up for branding, vaccination (in later years), and yearling selection for market. The round-up started at the southern boundary of Dunn's property and moved north as the vaqueros drove the cattle from line camp to line camp and ending at the Dunn's headquarters on the northern tip of the island.. Usually the entire round up took about three weeks to a month. Those cattle sent to market were herded across the Laguna Madre near the present location of the JFK causeway.

During the early years, Dunn lived with his family in Corpus Christi. In 1884, Dunn had firmly established his ranch and decided to move his family to the island. They lived in a settlement about twenty miles south of the northern end. About five to six years later, one of his daughters became partially paralyzed from a case of scarlet fever. Dunn believed conditions on the island had contributed to his daughter's illness and consequently moved his family back to Corpus Christi. For the next sixteen years however, Dunn continued to live at the settlement or at one of his line camps. In 1907 Dunn built a two-story house on Packery Channel using drift lumber found on the beaches. Reportedly, after the Nicaragua wrecked on the southern end of the ranch in 1913, Dunn used furniture from the ship to furnish his house. During these years the family spent several months of each year on the island, while maintaining their permanent residence in town. In 1916 a hurricane demolished the house and Dunn replaced it with a smaller house, which was reportedly still standing as of 1971, but which had been remodeled several times.

On February 1, 1926, Pat Dunn sold all his holdings on Padre Island to Colonel Sam Robertson, who envisioned developing the island into an attraction for the growing tourism industry. However, Dunn retained the mineral and grazing rights so his use of the island was effected little if any.

After Patrick Dunn died in 1938, ownership of the ranch passed to his son, Burton, who introduced several changes into ranch operations. One of the first was the purchase of a four-wheel-drive truck following World War II. Instead of driving the cattle from line camp to line camp, the vaqueros simply drove the cattle to the nearest line camp where they were loaded onto the truck and shipped north. Burton also introduced vaccinations into operations as well as incorporating salt and minerals into the cattle's diets. Previously the cattle had gotten their salt from any source they could. Apparently it was not unusual for visitors to the island to see a cow walking down the beach chewing a saltwater-soaked rope or a fish. Another innovation, albeit unsuccessful, was the use of windmills to pump water to the cattle troughs, but these were found not to work any better than the traditional wells and were not replaced after hurricanes blew them down.

An innovation that Burton Dunn was forced to make came as a result of the building of the Intracoastal Waterway in the 1940's. Cattle could no longer ford the Laguna Madre to go to market. Burton Dunn had to drive them to the northern end of Mustang Island where they were ferried to the mainland. This problem ended in 1951 with the construction of the Padre Island causeway, which made it possible for tractor-trailer trucks to go to the Novillo line camp, where the cattle were loaded.

The Livelys: A Pioneer Family

Hundreds of thousands of visitors come every year to the National Seashore to enjoy the natural beauty and serenity of the island. Most are probably too immersed in the experiences of the moment to give much thought to the island's past, but if they do, they probably envy the pioneers who settled the island prior to the Civil War, because they experienced the island in its final decades before its landscape and animal life were altered by those who followed. Still, one must be careful not to paint too idyllic a picture of those early times. Though life then had perhaps more beauty than today, it also had more dangers and hardships.

Little information exists about the hard lives of the island's settlers who lived here prior to the Civil War. There are a few local anecdotes, occasional official documents, scattered newspaper stories, and a few books penned by local authors, usually decades after the events they describe, but not much else. But among these sources one can find the names of at least some of the families that lived here, such as Lively, Curry, Chisum, and about a dozen more.

The family on which we currently have the most information is the family of Amos and Mary Lively, who moved here in 1859 with their four children, grown daughter and new son-in-law to raise cattle. Almost all the knowledge we have of the Livelys is based on copies of letters Mary sent to her family in the north, about half of which were donated to the park by one of her descendents.

Letters and other informal documents usually collected by families can be rich sources of information for historians. Through the Mary Lively letters we can tell what life was like for the people on the island and also find an eyewitness account of landscape, wildlife, and other aspects of nature that were not documented through other means. The Lively letters are particularly important because they give us a picture of the island during the Civil War and of the island's nature in the years before the ranching industry took hold and transformed the island into the near desert that the National Park Service bought and allowed to revert to its original, verdant state.

Based on what is written in and what can be surmised from Mary's letters to her family in Connecticut and Illinois, Mary, Amos, and their five children (ages 3-13) came to Texas in 1852 from New York via Alabama, where Amos had spent a few years working as a salesman. They traveled to Texas via ship, landing at Port Lavaca after suffering through a terrifying storm at sea and enduring terrible seasickness. They originally settled in Belmont northwest of San Antonio, but moved to Padre Island in December, 1859 after two more children were born and their daughter Josephine married a man named John Chisum, who decided to settle on the island and raise cattle. The move apparently wasn't solely to stay near their only daughter however, because Amos and Mr. Chisum had made a deal to raise cattle together on the island. Amos and Mary thought they would be able to have a prosperous life here and her letters talk of what a wonderful life they would live out here with plenty of oysters and fish to catch, cattle to raise, and salt to harvest and sell (which was a major industry in the Laguna Madre at that time). They moved to the island along with Mr. Chisum, stopping along the way at Oakville to buy 900 cattle.

We do not know precisely what the island's terrain was like during the years the Livelys lived here. It was probably not much different from today, but there would have been species then that either no longer exist here today (such as whooping cranes and wolves) or whose numbers are now severely depleted (such as reddish egret). Mary states in one letter that there were no trees here and that people obtained the wood to build their houses by using driftwood or lumber that washed ashore. Apparently at least a few trees existed however, because she talks of Amos building a rail fence, though there wasn't enough wood to build a picket fence to protect Mary's garden from rabbits. Neighbors were scarce; only six families lived here. There was no post office here and mail had to be picked up in Corpus Christi. The only way to mail a letter was to send it via boat.

Life on the island must have been a constant struggle. Coyotes occasionally attacked the Livelys' hogs and rabbits ate everything in their garden except the onions. Given the poor, sandy soil here, raising vegetables had to be tough in its own right. Amos tried to raise cotton at one point, but worried about worms ruining his crop. The salt they harvested from the Laguna was coarse and could not be sold without being crushed first, which was expensive, at least for the Livelys. Amos probably tried whatever he could to support his family. Nonetheless, during his efforts to earn a living Mary struggled to keep a good home and to send her children to both school and church. Ironically, the Livelys had moved to the island just before the Civil War began that brought an end to their homestead.

We do not know exactly why the Livelys left, but they left in 1864 after the Union occupation of the island. In spite of Mary's northern roots, the Livelys were Confederates. One son served in the First Texas Cavalry and Amos, according to family tradition, sold horses to the Confederate army.

In late 1863, Union forces occupied both Padre Island and confiscated whatever cattle they found for the use of their troops. So far no documentation has been discovered to state unequivocally that Union forces destroyed the Lively ranch. All we know for certain is that in a letter dated July 3, 1864, Mary's mother wrote to a Mrs. Grover (her relationship to the Livelys is unknown) that Mary and her family had left the South and had moved to Illinois and that, "Mr. Lively and his son-in-law were living very comfortable, before the war broke out but then they had all their means of living destroyed, so that they were one week without one mouthful of bread to eat."

If you have old letters or documents about the island, please talk to the museum coordinator about how you can help build a history of the island.

 

The Spanish

The first European to explore this area was Captain Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, who was commissioned by the Spanish Governor of Jamaica in 1519 to explore the coast with four ships and 270 men in hopes of finding a water passage to the Orient. De Pineda mapped the entire coast of the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Vera Cruz (in present-day Mexico) including what was then known as "La Isla Blanca" (the White Island), which later became known as Padre Island. Legend claims he also discovered a small bay on June 24, 1519 which he named for the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi, which was celebrated on that day. After his voyage of exploration de Pineda went on to become a conquistador and eventually Mayor of Peru, where he died in 1534. De Pineda is known only to have passed through the area, though he probably saw the island from off shore. There is no record of De Pineda having set foot on Padre Island.

The next European who passed through the area was Cabeza de Vaca, who was part of an unsuccessful exploratory expedition to what is now Florida in 1527. After Cabeza de Vaca and much of his company were marooned, he and several companions tried to return to Vera Cruz by sailing around the Gulf of Mexico in makeshift boats. Unfortunately, they were caught up in a storm and shipwrecked somewhere near present-day Galveston.

Cabeza de Vaca and the few of his companions that survived the first winter with the local natives eventually became their slaves. Fortunately, the medical skills of Cabeza de Vaca were valuable to the natives and he was able to establish himself as a merchant between the various peoples he served and others. As time progressed, Cabeza de Vaca lived and traveled with several native peoples along the coast and eventually made his way to the west coast, where he rejoined the Spanish who were living in what is now California.

Although the exact route of Cabeza de Vaca's journey is unknown, based on clues in his writings in later years, it is believed that he passed through the vicinity of Padre Island. Like de Pineda, there is no evidence that he ever actually set foot on the island, though it is possible that he did.

In 1543, the remnants of Hernando de Soto's expedition that marched from Florida into what is now the American south came down the Mississippi to the Gulf under the leadership of Luis Moscoso (de Soto having died of fever a few weeks before). There they built crude boats with sails made from animal skins and sailed down the coast to Vera Cruz. They are known to have put ashore at several points along the way, the descriptions of several of which are very similar to the terrain of Padre Island. Nothing explicitly states that they were on Padre Island, but it is quite probable that they did land on the island at least once.

The first documented visit by Europeans was in 1554 when three ships were blown off course by a storm and shipwrecked near the present-day Mansfield Channel. The ships (the San Esteban, the Santa Maria de Yciar, and the Espiritu Santo) had been carrying colonists, cargo, and treasure from Vera Cruz to Spain. Of the approximately three hundred passengers and crew onboard, thrity are believed to have sailed one of the ship's boats back to Vera Cruz under command of Francisco del Huerto to report the wrecks and begin rescue and salvage operations. However, those left at the wreck site were not so lucky. A chance meeting with local natives, which began peacefully, turned into a battle. The remaining survivors then began to walk back to Vera Cruz. Only two are known to have survived the trek, the rest having been killed by native peoples or dying from thirst or starvation.

Immediately following them was the salvage crew who traveled from Vera Cruz to recover the gold and silver that had been lost in the wreck. They recovered most of the treasure and what little remained has probably been collected by treasure hunters and archaeologists since then. Unlike the survivors of the wrecks, the salvage crews did not encounter any hostile natives.

The salvage crew was headed by Garcia de Escalante Alavarado. Salvage operations lasted from July 23 to September 12. Alvarado's arrival was preceded by Angel de Villafane, who arrived in June with a small unit of soldiers to protect the wrecksite from looters from the (nearest) villages of Panuco and Tampico. Villafane stayed on the island until the end of operations and returned to New Spain with Alvarado.

At the wreck site, the Alvarado and Villafane found that only the superstructure of the San Esteban was visible. The Santa Maria de Yciar and Espiritu Santo were completely submerged and had to be located by dragging a chain. At the end of the operations, Alvarado recorded 29, 075 pounds of silver and 22,000 pesos (in gold and silver with one peso equaling about one ounce in weight) recovered. Also found were other articles such as clothing, utensils, cargo, and so forth.

In 1558, the Spanish crown commissioned a man named Martin Lavazares to take a small fleet and scout the Gulf coast between Vera Cruz and Florida in order to establish colonies and outposts in order to protect Spanish interests in the region. The first stop he made was on the Texas coast at the latitude of present-day Kingsville at 27 degrees, 30 minutes north. This is the same latitude as present-day Malaquite Beach. Lavazares did not attempt to establish a settlement here, so the stop may have been simply to explore the island or to search for fresh water or other supplies.

Over the next two hundred years, few people are known to have passed through the Padre Island area. Those that are recorded were mostly Spanish ships searching for the ill-fated Fort St. Louis established at Matagorda Bay by the French explorer Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle in February, 1685. At least two of these expeditions recorded descriptions of Padre Island in their logbooks as they progressed along the coast.

The first of these was led by Martin de Rivas and Pedro de Iriarte, who set sail from Vera Cruz on Christmas, 1686. In June, 1687, when Rivas and Iriarte were overdue to return, Spain sent two more ships under Captains Don Andres del Pez and Luis Gomez Raposo to search for the settlement. Based on the latitudes recorded in their logbooks, both expeditions are known to be describing Padre Island. They described the island as low-lying and marshy or subject to flooding with dunes, tall-grass, and few, if any, trees.

Four expeditions for the La Salle colony were mounted by land from 1686-1689 and led by Alonso de Leon. De Leon marched up the coast from the Rio Grande to the Baffin Bay area on his second expedition and may have been on Padre Island, but this is only supposition. He found one survivor of La Salle's colony (Jean Jarry) on his third expedition, and finally found the remains of the colony at Matagorda Bay on his fourth.

The next documented visit was by Spanish troops and their Indian guides under the leadership of Diego Ortiz Parrilla in 1766. The Spanish government had heard that the English were trying to establish a settlement somewhere within the coastal bend area and sent Ortiz Parilla to scout the area for English settlements and to map it. Although the Colonel found no English settlers, he did draw up a map of the area which survives today and which shows the locations of several native bands living on the island, three channels breaking up the island into four smaller islands, and the location of several English shipwrecks on or near the island. At the time, the island was known as "Isla Corpus Christi", but afterwards it became known as "Isla de San Carlos de los Malaguitas" because of the Malaquite Indian settlements found in the southern half.

By 1766, the area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande had been already been designated as the Spanish province of Nuevo Santander. From that point on, settlers gradually replaced explorers in the area that was later to become south Texas.

 

People

Except for the wreck of the 300 in 1554, there were never any major events or battles of historical signifcance on Padre Island. Many would think that this means nothing of historical interest ever occurred on the island. They would be wrong.

Padre Island is rich with history, but because no major events occurred here, little was recorded about the people who lived or passed through here. That simply makes finding the information difficult.

 

Tourism

When Colonel Sam Robertson bought out Pat Dunn's interests (except for grazing and mineral rights) on the island, he envisioned developing Padre Island into the Miami Beach of the Texas coast. To that end he developed several projects to bring people to the island and which still exist, although not in their original form.

In 1927 Colonel Robertson built the first causeway from the island's northern end to Flour Bluff on the mainland. He named it the Don Patricio causeway in honor of Patrick Dunn. The construction was very simple: four wooden troughs supported by a trestle. The troughs were spaced so that a standard automobile could place it tires in them and drive across. One pair of troughs was for eastbound traffic and one was for westbound. In the first month of its operation, 1,800 cars used the causeway and 2,500 used it the second month. After that use dropped.

Robertson also stationed ferries at Port Aransas and built a bridge over Corpus Christi Pass. At the south end of the island he stationed another ferry. At the same time he began developing accommodations for the influx of tourists he anticipated. He built a hotel and four houses on the southernmost 45 miles of the island. He built a fifth house on the northern end about 3.5 miles south of the causeway.

By 1930, however, it was apparent that Robertson's plan was failing the the tourist boom did not develop. After the 1929 depression, Robertson was unable to make his payments and he sold his interests on the island to two brothers from Kansas City named Albert and Frank Jones, instead of allowing the land to revert to the Dunn family per his original agreement with the family.

The Jones brothers founded a company called the Ocean Beach Drive Corporation to continue Robertson's development, but actually did little or nothing. In 1933 a hurricane blew away most of Robertson's structures including the Don Patricio causeway. The brothers restored nothing and the island reverted to being primarily grazing land and a spot for fishermen.

In 1936 a bill was introduced into the Texas legislature to develop Padre Island into a state and it received wide support from Corpus Christi and many other communities. The legislature passed the bill and allotted $400,000 to purchase land. However, Governor Jim Allred vetoed the bill saying that true ownership of the land had not yet been determined and that it was possible that the state already owned a large portion of Padre Island. This was not settled until 1945 in State of Texas vs. Balli et al. in which the Texas Supreme Court determined that the original land grant to Padre Balli covered the entire island and not just 50, 912 acres as the state had maintained.

From 1933 to 1950 there was very little concrete development of Padre Island as a tourist destination. A few plans were dreamed up, but none came to fruition. The only real recreational development on the northern end came about in 1949, when 1,000 acres of land were set aside to establish a Nueces County Park. Development was also minimal on the southern end, where around the same time small areas were set aside for Isla Blanca and Andy Bowie county parks. The greatest concrete changes on the island during this time were the stationing of coast guard troops along the shoreline during the Second World War, development of a navy bombing range in the northern reaches (from the World War to 1960), and the beginning of drilling for oil and natural gas.

During this time the idea started to take shape of developing the island into something other than a resort area. A few people started to discuss preserving the island's natural state and using it for outdoor recreation. In retrospect, this growing dialog had an enormous impact on the island's future and influenced all the development that was to home. It was during the 1940's though that the idea to establish a national park on the island began to form among a few Texans who wanted to preserve the island's unaltered environment. Scientists and nature enthusiasts had long recognized the island's value as an unaltered barrier island, which was becoming increasingly scarce. Professional and amateur ornithologists had a longstanding interest in the island because of the thousands of annual migrants and the abundant rookeries. Since the 1930's the National Audubon Society had taken a special interest in two prominent Laguna Madre rookeries known as the Bird Islands. When plans were raised in the 1940's to build the Intracoastal Waterway and the Queen Isabella causeway on South Padre Island, the National Audubon Society protested fearing their development would harm the environment. When the waterway and causeway were finally built, no harm was done to the environment, but interest in preserving the island for its environment had been stimulated.

All the plans and dialogs began to take concrete form in the 1950's. The Queen Isabella Causeway to South Padre Island was completed in 1954, allowing easier access to the southern end of the island. A private channel was cut through the island in the present location of the Mansfield Channel in September, 1957, but its jetties were severely damaged by a hurricane in November of that year. It was rebuilt by the Corps of Engineers in 1962.

In 1958, Senator Ralph Yarborough introduced a bill into congress to establish a national seashore on Padre Island with hearings on the proposal beginning in 1959. The final bill took into account the variety of interests connected with the island (oil and gas industry, environmentalists, developers, and private citizens) and was signed by President John F. Kennedy on September 28, 1962.

The Nineteenth Century

During the nineteenth century, the island changed from an isolated wilderness to settled ranchland. The transition was mostly peaceful, with only one minor skirmish occuring on the island during the Civil War.

The nineteenth century also saw the appearance and then disppearance of several local industries that endeavored to make commercial use of the island's natural resources: primarily salt and birds. Another business the island saw come and go was the salvaging and selling of wrecked ships, jetsam, and other debris that washed onto the shoreline. This was known as the "wrecking industry".

Finally, during the times when epidemics (such as yellow fever) were common in the U.S., the island had a quarantine station operated by the city of Corpus Christi at what is now Packery Channel.

Comments

I found the following comment in an article about Padre Island on your blog. In searching for information on the Queen Isabella Causeway I happened on to your site.

The following statement took me by surprise; "All the plans and dialogs began to take concrete form in the 1950's. The Queen Isabella Causeway to South Padre Island was completed in 1954, allowing easier access to the southern end of the island.

Here's my problem. In 1952 I went to Harligen, Texas as a member of one of the last classes in the Air Force Cadet program before the opening of the Air Force Academy. During the period I was there, 1952 to 1954, many of us went to Padre Island and spent the weekend on the beach. We took the causeway to the South end of the island, took a left and drove down the beach (no roads at the time, just hard packed sand) about a quarter mile and stayed the weekend.... I'm getting the feeling that the causeway was open in 1953.

I know this is small potatoes, but I just got wrapped up in some nostalgia. I really feel sorry for those who go there now, for you cannot imagine what a great experience that island was with absolutely no one around. Just us, the dolphins, and the sea gulls.

Thanks for the article.

Ted Stockwell

Huntley, Il.

 

Dear Mr. Huntley,

 I am glad to hear that this article brought back some happy memories for you, and I will do my best to clear up the confusion regarding the causeway. I have consulted a few reliable sources, and most of them say that the causeway was completed in February of 1954. The Texas State Historical Association has posted research on this topic on their website, and Scholar Valerie Bates has written a book entitled Images of America: Port Isabel, both of which resources support this date. However, parts of the causeway were definitely developed, if not completed, when you were at Padre Island.

According to a historic resource study completed by the National Park Service, the north end of the causeway was finished in 1950 and the south end in 1954. A real estate site claims that the causeway was opened in 1953, but evidence points to the final completion being in 1954. While 1954 seems to be the most agreed upon year of completion for the causeway, there is a great chance that you may have visited sections of the causeway that were well developed or even completed in part.

With this being said, I would like to thank you on behalf of the American Park Network for serving our country. Your sacrifice is honored and cherished, and I hope this article brings nothing but nostalgia and fond memories for you as you reflect. Thank you.