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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