The Making of a Ghost Town

After the Civil War, Indianolans were determined to rebuild and recapture the financial momentum that had driven the local economy before Texas seceded from the Union. They welcomed northern businessmen like Francis Stabler who came from Baltimore with a very successful method to preserve beef by using carbonic acid gas. He opened a meat canning plant and a tallow operation that spread to markets in New Orleans and New York.

Indianolans were as wary as were all the citizens of the former Confederacy when the Reconstruction Government imposed military rule and moved in federal forces assigned to see that the civil rights of the freed slaves were protected. Since there were only a small number of slaves in the entire county and the area had never been dependent on slave labor, the infantry companies found their task relatively easy. And residents began to see the occupying force as gentlemanly and courteous.

By the end of the war, the number of unbranded cattle had exploded. Steamships lined up at Indianola’s long piers to take on loads of cattle. Massive numbers of longhorns were driven to the railheads in Kansas.

In July 1869, the world’s first refrigerated warehouse was built at Indianola to hold thirty beef carcasses at a temperature just above freezing. Thus, began a new business constructing refrigerated warehouses and a future of shipping fruits and vegetables from as far away as the West Indies.

Gaslighting, washing machines, and Steinway pianos became readily available and there were more fine hotels with billiard rooms and fancy bars and restaurants known for oysters and seafood of all kinds.

Despite the completion of the railroad that hauled goods over the sixty-five-mile route to Cuero, the streets remained congested with hundreds of freight wagons and Mexican carretas loaded with raw materials and silver from mines in Northern Mexico and the produce from Western Texas farms. Ships from across the Gulf Coast and as far north as New York and Boston brought finished lumber and manufactured goods that the teamsters hauled to eager merchants at inland towns. The activity at the port of Indianola began to rival Galveston.

In the midst of the economic revival, resentment increased over men having to swear that they had never supported the South in order to receive amnesty. If they had been part of the Confederacy they were disenfranchised. The outrageous increase in taxes finally drove Democrats and moderate Republicans to join forces in 1874 and vote out the administration of Governor E. J. Davis.

Indianola continued to thrive and enjoyed very little of the political unrest and outright defiance of the law that stirred many communities across other parts of the South. However, on March 11, 1874, Indianola was thrust into the middle of the Sutton-Taylor feud, a bloody series of revenge killings that started after the Civil War and raged across DeWitt County. William Sutton, one of the principals in the fight had been persuaded by his pregnant wife to leave the area. Accompanied by his wife and a friend, they arrived on the train from Cuero and were walking up a ship’s gangplank, when two of the Taylor boys appeared out of the crowd and killed the two men.

The murder trial was scheduled to be held at the Indianola courthouse in mid-September 1875. Crowds from Victoria, DeWitt, Calhoun and surrounding counties descended on Indianola for the sensational event. They filled the hotels and boarding houses to capacity and buoyed the town with a spirit of excitement.

The winds picked up on Tuesday, September 14, and by Wednesday children and visitors were enjoying the white-crested waves. It looked like all the people gathered for the trial would return home with additional tales of the storm. By dawn on Thursday, the bay had moved into the streets and the surging water tore at foundations. The road out of town had become impassable and the force of the waves ate away at the railroad track. Observers scrambled to the second floor of the concrete courthouse and families used boats to move to structures that appeared stronger. As night covered the city, the winds increased and buildings were swept into the darkness of the prairie and bayous for twenty miles behind the town. People tied cotton bales together to form rafts. Banks secured cotton bales around the safes that allowed them to float when the buildings collapsed.

The silence of the center came after midnight. Then the deafening roar returned as the opposite side of the eye sucked the water back to sea with such force that it carried with it many of the weaken structures. Friday morning dawned clear and cool with a stiff wind. Three-fourths of the buildings had disappeared; most of the others were severely damaged; five bayous had been cut across to Power Horn Lake that sprawled behind the town. Entire families were gone, yet some people were found miles away after floating on doors or roofs. Because of the number of visitors in town, no one knew how many had perished. Almost three hundred bodies were found, many so mutilated that they could not be identified. Unknown numbers had been swept out to sea.

Aid flowed in from all over the country in the form of cash and supplies to help Indianolans rebuild their lives. Ironically, Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon who had increased his fortune by filling his steamships at the local wharves sent only a letter with an expression of sympathy.

The people imagined deepening the bayou that led into Powder Horn Lake and rebuilding their port on the higher ground beside the inland lake. When it became clear that representatives of the aging Charles Morgan would not help with such an expensive endeavor, many people and businesses moved to Victoria and Cuero. However, a determined core of residents decided to continue the shipping business and to build on the seaport’s natural assets––clear bay water, gleaming white shell beaches, excellent fishing, and hotels and restaurants of the first order. They named the beautiful beach drive that paralleled the bay The Promenade, and they advertised all the features that expanded their port city into a vacation and fishing locale.

The campaign began to work and Indianola rose again as a prominent coastal community for business and pleasure. Then on August 19, 1886, after a summer of extreme heat and drought, telegraph signals warning of an approaching storm failed to reach Indianola before the rising tide cut off all hope of moving to safety. During the fierce winds, a fire broke out and burned all but two of the downtown buildings. Structures that had withstood the 1875 storm collapsed under the wind and water. Although the wind speed was greater than the first hurricane, the rapid movement of the storm decreased the surge of water from the bay and the devastating outflow.

The end had come. Residents who could find portions of their homes, gathered up the pieces, renumbered the boards and began the sad process of abandoning their city by the sea. A few diehards hung on for a year or two and then the coast returned to the windswept place it had been when the first Germans arrived in December 1844.

STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA tells the Indianola story through the lives of Helga Heinrich and her four children who operated Dr. Joseph Stein’s boarding house through all those joy-filled and turbulent years.

The new edition of Stein House.
Cover image of Federal troops leaving Indianola in 1861 is from the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

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Indianola Rising

Matagorda and Lavaca bays, tucked behind barrier reefs edging the central Texas coast, teemed with commercial potential, and sea captains took note as ships carrying thousands of German immigrants precipitated the beginnings of the thriving seaport of Indian Point.  The United States War Department built a wharf and opened its Army Supply Depot to serve as the disembarkation point of personnel destined for posts as far away as El Paso del Norte (future Fort Bliss) and along the western edge of Texas settlement.

Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon who dominated Gulf coast trade, established his shipping terminus at Lavaca, which lay about ten miles further up the coast from Indian Point.  However, when Lavaca raised its wharf fees, Morgan showed his displeasure by moving his ships down the coast to the mouth of Powderhorn Bayou, near the four wharves at Indian Point.

By 1849 Indian Point residents began a serious discussion centered on changing the name of their new town to convey the proper image of the burgeoning port.  Mrs. John Henry Brown, whose husband had opened a stagecoach line between Indian Point and Victoria and had joined in laying out streets to front the Morgan Line’s new port facilities, suggested adding the Spanish word ola, meaning wave.  Thus, Indian Point acquired the melodious name of Indianola.

My historical novel, Stein House, which will be available by next week, tells the story of Indianola in its heyday and opens in 1853 as Helga Heinrich and her children get their first view of their new home.  We see Indianola through their eyes as they are met at the docks by Helga’s sister, Amelia, their only relative in the new world:

As they stepped off the long pier onto the dock, Hermie said, “All the buildings are made of wood. They’re so small.”

The port at Indianola

The port at Indianola

“We don’t have stone here. Ships bring in our lumber. Those warehouses by the docks are made of cypress. It weathers to that handsome silver color.” Amelia’s voice held pride, and when she saw Hermie looking skeptically at the buildings, she playfully tousled his already lawless brown hair.

“What’s that white dust?” Paul asked as he skipped to catch up with Amelia bustling along ahead of them.

“We have oyster shell all along the coast. Our streets are all shell, and many buildings have shell foundations. When it’s dry, wagons crush the shell to dust.”

Huge mule-drawn wagons clogged the street. Large carts that looked like open-sided baskets balanced between giant wheels painted in bold reds, yellows, and greens, crept behind sluggish yokes of oxen. The snorts and grunts of animals added to the bedlam of shouts and curses.

Paul stepped up beside a cart painted like a flower garden of bright colors. The wheels rose taller than the top of his head. Hitched to the cart, eight yoke of oxen stood silently, their heads hanging low. Helga didn’t notice the fierce-looking cock, its leg secured with a rusty chain, until its screech made Paul jump back and stare transfixed into the intense, beady eyes and sharp beak of the bright orange rooster. Its comb was gone, making its head look like a ball of blood.

Amelia laughed. “That’s a carreta, a Mexican cart. They always carry a fighting cock for games at the end of the day. Those carts come in here loaded with gold and silver from the mines in Mexico.”

“Gold and silver?” Hermie breathed in shocked awe.

“Sometimes there are 150 Mexican carts or freight wagons in a long train. They ship the gold and silver to the mint in New Orleans.”

“Do they get robbed?”

“Sometimes. That’s why you see men with rifles everywhere. They ride with the wagons and carts on the Chihuahua Trail to Mexico. The stages headed for California all have a man with a Winchester sitting up on the seat beside the driver.”

Paul and Hermie could hardly walk for staring at the milling, whinnying, shouting activities jamming the streets. Men wearing grotesquely colored shirts fringed with silver tips that swayed along the edges of their sleeves hid deeply tanned faces under wide-brimmed hats stained with greasy circles of sweat. They sat atop jittery, prancing horses like grandees, impatiently kicking their mounts with jangling spurs to press them forward between the maze of wagons and carts.

Amelia leaned close to Helga and shouted above the din, “They are cowboys. They’re riding Spanish ponies, way livelier than our German plow horses. The mules pulling freight wagons haul supplies from the ships to the towns and farms and even the military bases out west.” Amelia obviously delighted in pointing out things that made Indianola different from Oldenburg.

Paul rose on tiptoe to peek into the back of an open freight wagon. “I’d like to ride in that.” His pure blue eyes held the same dreamy excitement Helga had seen so often in Max.

All the activity stirred the dust, and it settled on everything, turning the colorful buildings lining Water Street to a faded gray and making Helga’s lips and tongue feel gritty.

Amelia led them over to Main Street, where they stepped onto a wooden walkway built high against two-story buildings. The second floors extended over the walk, offering welcome shade from the springtime heat. Wagons and animals milling so close together stirred the fishy odor from the dock, blending it with a manure smell so strong Helga wanted to cover her face.

It felt safer to be on the walkway, well above the nervous, pawing animals.

Street in Indianola

Street in Indianola

Next week’s blog post continues with the story of Indianola, a seaport that rivaled Galveston after the Civil War.

THE BELL WITH SEVEN LIVES

Travelers headed south across Central Texas may discover an interesting story of survival while passing through Cuero.  On the southwest corner of US highways183 and 87, the handsome mission style St. Mark’s Lutheran Church boasts three bells in its arched façade.

The small bronze bell, the one on the lower right, began life on the Reliance, a merchant ship sailing as part of the Morgan Steamship Line between New Orleans and the thriving port of Indianola.  In 1856, Indianola residents were enjoying a party aboard the Reliance docked at the end of one of the port’s long piers extending into Matagorda Bay, when a fire broke out. All the partygoers escaped unharmed and as they watched the burning ship sink into the shallow water they heard the ringing of its tiny bell.

The Lutherans needed a bell for their new church, and with Morgan Steamship Lines’ permission, some of the members dove into the bay to retrieve the bell for the church steeple.

Nine years later, during the Civil War, Union troops occupied Indianola for a few months.  While confiscating everything of value to take with them, a group of Union soldiers climbed the Lutheran church steeple and tossed the little bell to the ground, intending to return for it as they loaded the other booty.

That night, some of the church members quietly retrieved the bell and buried it. During the next ten years Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon, gave bells to most of the Indianola churches, which probably explains why the little bell remained buried and forgotten.

In 1875 a terrible hurricane wrecked Indianola, destroying most all the church buildings.  Many residents moved inland to places like the new railhead town of Cuero. Then, another devastating storm and fire in 1886 turned Indianola into a ghost town, forcing its residents to give up and move inland.

Meantime, Lutherans in Cuero, after holding services for several years in the German school house, finally built their first church in 1889.  As the building neared completion and talk centered on the need for a bell in the handsome steeple, one of the members remembered helping bury the little bronze bell almost twenty-five years earlier.  He led a group to the site where the little bell waited, and they proudly mounted it in the steeple.  For about five years the bell called the congregation to worship until a member donated a much larger bell.

Again, the little bronze bell took a new life summoning volunteers of the Cuero Fire Department.  After several years, the volunteer firemen installed a modern alert system, and an observant church member discovered the little bell tossed in a trash heap.   Upon completion of the present church in 1939, the little bell found its final home as one of three bells in the peal.

Serving as St. Mark’s Prayer Bell, it rings when worshipers pray the Lord’s Prayer and it tolls softly at the conclusion of funeral services as the casket is moved from the front of the church to the narthex.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church history claims the little bronze bell as a symbol for the calling of God’s people—to continue serving as circumstances change, even after being buried and resurrected or thrown on a trash heap.