The treasures of Padre Island, playground on the Texas Gulf Coast, reveal far more than sandy beaches and sand dunes rippling in the steady breeze. Dig beneath the sand castles and you find a legacy of grand visions and broken dreams.
Padre, a textbook example of a barrier reef island, edges the Texas coast for 113 miles from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande. Its width varies from a few hundred yards to about three miles.
South Padre, the town on the southern tip of the island, enjoys a year-round tourist industry from spring breakers who hang from the rafters of elegant hotels to families who come at other times in search of a retreat from the summer heat and winter chill.
Approaching the southern end of the island from Port Isabel, travelers cross Queen Isabella Causeway as it rises majestically over Laguna Madre and the Intracoastal Canal to offer the first view of high-rise hotels and condominiums, surf and sand, fun and sun of South Padre Island. In anticipation of an exciting holiday, it is easy to overlook the life-size statue of Padre José Nicolás Ballí welcoming visitors with open arms to his island.
A secular Catholic priest, Padre Ballí was born about 1770 in Reynosa, Mexico, the oldest son of a wealthy Spanish colonial family who owned more than a million acres of land in South Texas. Padre Ballí served as a missionary in the villas and haciendas along the lower Rio Grande. In 1800 he applied for a Spanish land grant of 11.5 leagues (about 154,280 acres) on “Corpus Christi Island,” one of the many names given to Padre Island.
Padre Ballí took his nephew Juan José Ballí as a partner, had the land surveyed, and established the island’s first settlement in 1804 called Rancho Santa Cruz, which lay about 26 miles north of the present town of South Padre. The Ballís ran large herds of cattle, horses, and sheep on their land, and the Padre established a mission to Christianize the Karankawa Indians who lived on the island.
Although the title did not clear until 1829, eight months after his death, Padre Ballí left one-half the land to his nephew Juan and the other one-half to Juan’s brothers and sisters. Juan left for a time and then returned and lived on the island until his death in 1853.
In 1847 a three-masted schooner wrecked during a storm near the south end of Padre Island. Captain John F. Singer, his wife, Johanna, and several sons were the only survivors. The family built a house using material from their ship and wreckage they found along the shore from other vessels.
Mrs. Singer inherited wealth, and in 1851, she bought the Ballí interest in Rancho Santa Cruz. The family rebuilt the ranch, raised large herds of cattle, and grew vegetables, which they took by raft to sell in Port Isabel. John Singer became wreck master of Padre Island and made huge profits salvaging material from destroyed ships washing ashore. In 1861 Singer told the postmaster in Brownsville that he had received a letter from his brother Merritt informing John the $500 he loaned Merritt enabled him to obtain a patent on a device making the newly invented sewing machine more practical for home use. His invention made Merritt quite wealthy and he was authorizing John to draw $150,000 from his bank.
John Singer planned to establish a steamship line from Brazos Island to New Orleans; however, the Civil War halted Singer’s dream. The Singers, known as Union sympathizers, fled to the mainland near Corpus Christi. Stories claim they buried gold and silver worth $62,000 before they left.
The Union army occupied Padre Island for the duration of the war, used the cattle to feed their forces, and tore the ranch apart to build their military installation. When the Singers returned after the war, they discovered shifting sand destroyed every landmark, every guide to where they hid the treasure. After his wife died, John Singer left the island permanently.
Over the years, the Ballí family continued selling pieces of their land believing they retained mineral rights. Meantime, Sam Robertson, a railroad man who laid the tracks for the St. Louis, Brownsville, and Mexico Railway in the early 1900s, saw potential in the rich delta land
near the Rio Grande. He developed present San Benito north of Brownsville, and then he turned his development eye to Padre Island. The stretch of hotels and condominiums visitors see today in South Padre represent the dream Robertson visualized forty-five years too early. He saw Padre and Brazos islands as Texas’ biggest resort areas. He confidently began developing the full length of Padre Island—established a ferry across the bay from Corpus Christi in 1927 and built twelve miles of asphalt road to his Twenty-five Mile Hotel. He completed a toll bridge to Brazos Santiago from Boca Chica at the mouth of the Rio Grande, built a bridge between Padre and Mustang islands (at the north end of Padre), and constructed a two-way causeway across Laguna Madre at the midway point on the island.
The stock market crash in 1929 forced abandonment of his scheme and the 1933 hurricane blew away all the new roads and bridges, bringing a devastating end to Robertson’s last big dream. He died in 1938.
Ballí descendants grew to over 300 and continued legal claims over the years to collect vast oil and gas mineral royalties. The Ballí heirs won an $11million award in 2005 claiming they were defrauded out of their mineral rights in 1938; however, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the family in 2008 claiming the family filed their suit after the statute of limitation expired.
When vacationers romp in the Gulf water, build sand castles along the beach, and relax in the luxurious hotels, not many know this tiny strip of sand offers a history rich in grandiose plans and devastating disappointments.
Note: This story and 112 more are in my latest book TEXAS TALES, STORIES THAT SHAPED A LANDSCAPE AND A PEOPLE.