Padre Island, A Story of Hope and Heartbreak

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.

South Padre Island
Courtesy City of South Padre Island.

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.

Padre Nicolas Balli

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

Don Patricio Causeway constructed by Sam Robertson.

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.

Campaign to Open the West

After the Civil War, views differed about what should be done about the Southern Plains Indian’s often-vicious determination to keep their hunting grounds free of white settlement. The Texas government wanted to see the Indians exterminated, while the federal government planned to move them to two reservations established in Indian Territory (present Oklahoma).

Two turbulent chapters in history came together in the 1870s to subdue and contain what the white man called the “Indian threat.” The first transition followed the completion in 1869 of the Transcontinental Railroad, which opened the east coast and European markets to commercial shipment of buffalo hides from the Great Plains. An avalanche of professional buffalo hunters swarmed onto the Southern Plains where tens of millions of buffalo grazed on the rich grassland. The second upheaval, the Red River War, began in 1874 as a campaign of the United States Army to forcibly move the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes to the reservations in Indian Territory.

Bison sustained the life of the nomadic tribes who used every part of the buffalo for survival. Hides provided housing and clothing; brains soften the buffalo skin; bones could be scraped into brushes and awls; hair made excellent ropes, stuffing, and yarn; sinew served as thread and bowstrings; and dung became fuel. Every part of the animal, even the nose gristle, fetus, and hump contributed to the Indian diet.

Indians hunted with bows and spears, killing only the number of bison they needed for survival, whereas a good buffalo hunter made a stand downwind from a herd and could shoot as many as 100 in a morning and 1,000 to 2,000 in a three-month season.

The teams varied in size from one hunter and two skinners to large organizations of hunters, skinners, gun cleaners, cartridge reloaders, cooks, wranglers, and wagons for transporting equipment and supplies. After skinning a beast, which weighed up to 2500 pounds and stood

Buffalo hunters used a tripod to steady their aim.

six feet tall at its shaggy shoulders, the men ate the delicacies—hump and tongue. They hauled hides and bones to the railroad and left the carcass to rot on the prairie. This careless slaughter almost completely exterminated the buffalo

Buffalo hides waiting for shipment to the railroad.

and observing the demise of their livelihood infuriated the Indians.

Charged with harassing the agile bands of Indians until they gave up and moved to the reservations, several army columns crisscrossed the Texas Panhandle searching for the Indians as they moved entire families to various campsites. When the army units discovered a group of Indians, few casualties resulted, but the army destroyed the supplies and horses, slowly reducing the size and force of the roaming Indian population.

In retaliation for the army’s tactics of search and destroy, coupled with Indian anger over the destruction of the buffalo, in June 1874, Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and a spiritual leader named Isa-tai led 250 warriors in an attack on Adobe Walls, a small outpost of buffalo hunters in the Texas Panhandle. The hunters, using large caliber buffalo guns, held off their attackers, but the violence surprised government officials. As the warriors continued raiding along the frontier, President Grant’s administration authorized the Army to use whatever means necessary to subdue the Southern Plains Indians.

With firm directions from Washington, the Red River War began with a fury as five army columns swarmed across the Texas Panhandle from different directions. Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie’s scouts found a large village of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne hidden in their winter quarters on the floor of Palo Duro Canyon, a 6,000-foot-deep gorge stretching almost three hundred miles across the Texas Panhandle.

Palo Duro Canyon

At dawn on September 28, 1874, Mackenzie’s troops hurtled down the steep cliff wall, surprising the Indians who tried to protect their squaws and pack animals as they fled from the persistent army fire. Nightfall found four Indians dead, 450 lodges burned to the ground, and the winter supply of buffalo meat destroyed. The army rounded up 1,400 horses, shared some with their guides, and shot the remaining.

MacKenzie Raid at Palo Duro Canyon

Out of food and housing, without their horses, and facing winter, the Indians had no choice but to walk to the Fort Sill reservation.

The Red River War ended the following June when Quanah Parker and his band of Comanches—the last of the southwestern Indians––surrendered at Fort Sill. The almost complete devastation of the buffalo and the persistent military attacks successfully ended the Indian presence on the High Plains and opened settlement to white farmers and ranchers.

Texas’ Pioneer Inventor

A brilliant eccentric—Gail Borden reportedly rode about Galveston on a pet bull. He invented a “locomotive bath house,” a portable affair that allowed women to bathe privately in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico before he was “discouraged” by the city authorities. While he

Gail Borden

worked for the Galveston City Company laying out the streets, he was busy designing a self-propelled terraqueous machine that was supposed to move on land and on water. During the maiden voyage, it reportedly dumped its occupants into the Gulf.

Born in Norwich, New York, Gail Borden, Jr. (1801-1874) moved with his family to Indiana where he received about a year and a half of formal education. Before coming to Texas in 1829, he began to show his lifelong concern for others by helping rescue a freedman from rustlers.

After settling in Texas, he farmed, raised stock, and began serving as a surveyor for Stephen F. Austin’s colony. He prepared the first topographical map of Texas, and as the war for Texas independence from Mexico became a certainty, Borden and some partners started the Telegraph and Texas Register newspaper to keep the citizenry informed of the pending conflict. Throughout the war, the Telegraph was moved across Texas just ahead of General Santa Anna’s advancing army. Ten days before the Texas victory at the Battle of San Jacinto, the Mexican army captured the Telegraph printers and threw the press into Buffalo Bayou. As soon as Texas won its independence Borden traveled to Cincinnati and bought a new press, which he continued to move across Texas following the new republic’s congress as it began to meet in Columbia and then on to the new capital of Houston.

Borden drew the map laying out the new capital on the muddy banks of Buffalo Bayou. In 1837, the year after Texas became a republic, Borden moved to Galveston to serve as the first customs collector at the port. Active in the Baptist church, he worked in the temperance movement, served as a local missionary to the poor and to travelers visiting Galveston. He and his first wife, Penelope, reportedly were the first Americans to be baptized in the Gulf of Mexico west of the Mississippi River. He served as a trustee of the Texas Baptist Education Society, which founded Baylor University, and as an alderman, he helped rid Galveston of gamblers. Temporarily.

He apparently began inventing around 1840 with a scheme to market jelly made from the horns and hooves of oxen. He tried preserving a peach mixture using hydraulic pressure. Penelope’s death in the yellow fever epidemic of 1844, prompted Borden to abandon his other projects and search for the cause of the disease. Recognizing that yellow fever struck during the summer heat and disappeared with the first cold front, he built a large-scale icebox, using ether to cool its interior. He imagined a refrigerator large enough to cool the entire population of Galveston during the summer months. When his giant refrigerator for people did not materialize, Borden devoted himself to creating a meat biscuit that he believed would provide nutrition for the U.S. Army and for travelers. He boiled eleven pounds of meat to get one pound of extract, which he combined with flour and baked into a biscuit. It was recognized for its nutritional value and earned a gold medal in London at the 1851 International Exposition. Borden built a factory in Galveston; he introduced the meat biscuit at Texas’ first state fair in Corpus Christi, and he moved to New York to be closer to distribution centers. Sales fell flat because the biscuit tasted terrible, which ended his expensive investment.

Copper vacuum Borden used for his first successful milk experiment.

Still convinced that he could improve the food supply by developing concentrated food products, Borden condensed milk by using a vacuum pan with a heating coil to remove the water without burning or souring the milk. In this fashion, he produced the first condensed milk in 1853 that could be stored and shipped long distances. He started a dairy company in Connecticut, and for the first time in his life, he was in a perfect position to capitalize on his invention. When the Civil War, he provided condensed milk for the Union Army. Still the experimenter, Borden created processes for condensing fruit juices, for condensing extract of beef, and for coffee.

After the war, he returned to Texas, founded the town of Borden west of Houston, established a meatpacking plant, a sawmill, and a copperware factory. His Borden Milk Company with Elsie The Cow as its logo became known throughout the world.

Borden Condensed Milk, 1898


The story that places Margaret Leatherbury Hallett in early Texas merits being called a “legend” because not every part of her saga meets the truth test. Born on Christmas Day 1787, she was the youngest daughter of a prominent Virginia family and probably the feistiest.

At eighteen she fell in love with John Hallett, a merchant seaman—not exactly the pedigree her parents planned for their daughter. One account says that John was the youngest son of a gentleman from Worcester, England. At an early age, he joined the Royal Navy, but when an officer threatened him, he jumped overboard and swam to a nearby American ship. Allowed to stay on board, he was brought to the United States and adopted by a merchant seaman. Either Margaret’s family did not know his history or they did not care, because it is said that when they insisted that she could do better than a seaman, she said “I would rather marry John Hallett and be the beginning of a new family than remain single and be the tail-end of an old one.” Whereupon she left for the Chesapeake Bay area, and a chaplain married the couple onboard ship.

Margaret and John lived in Baltimore for several years, and after John fought in the War of 1812 against his former countrymen, one of the accounts says that he and Margaret joined a wagon train of homesteaders heading west. The West to which this story refers was still part of Spain’s colonial empire and the Mexicans were involved in a war for independence from Spain (1810 to 1821), which makes it unlikely that homesteaders were heading to that region. It is far more likely that John took his wife aboard a ship that sailed through the Gulf of Mexico to the mouth of the Rio Grande. Again, the legend needs checking because it says the couple settled in Matamoros, a Mexican port across the Rio Grande from present Brownsville. The village where they settled was a commercial center used by area cattlemen that did not get named Matamoros for another ten years. It’s still an amazing account since they opened a mercantile business in the Spanish Colonial village while Mexicans were fighting for independence from Spain. During that time, their first two sons were born in 1813 and 1815.

The family moved up to the community surrounding the Presidio La Bahía that was known as Goliad and opened a trading post. A third son, Benjamin, and a daughter, Mary Jane, were born at Goliad. Something happened to Benjamin when he was ten; some accounts say Indians carried him off, but no record of the incident survives. In 1833 John acquired a league (4,428 acres) of land from the Stephen F. Austin Colony on the east bank of the Lavaca River in present Lavaca County. The family continued operating the trading post at Goliad while John took workers with him to build a log cabin on their new property, dig a water well and protect the property with a moat around the cabin that was five feet wide and three feet deep. (The moat is never mentioned again in any of the accounts.) The family remained in Goliad and John continued to travel to their new land until his death, probably in early 1836.

After the fall of the Alamo on March 6, 1836, Margaret and her daughter Mary Jane fled in the Runaway Scrap with all the other families escaping Santa Anna’s advancing army. Upon their return, they found their property destroyed and set about rebuilding and replanting. The two oldest sons fought at San Jacinto on April 21 in the battle that won Texas independence from Mexico. The oldest son, John, Jr., returned home after the war and was killed by Indians. That same year, his brother William went to Matamoros to buy land where he was accused of being a spy and sent to prison where he died.

Margaret, a forty-nine-year-old widow, and her daughter Mary Jane were the only survivors, and when a young man, Colatinus Ballard, rode into Goliad to let Margaret and Mary Jane know that settlers were moving onto the property they owned up on the Lavaca River, the two left immediately for their cabin. Upon arriving they met two friendly Tonkawa Indians and their new white neighbors who told stories of constant Comanche attacks. Margaret called a meeting of the settlers and the Tonkawas who agreed that they must go to San Antonio to seek help from Texas Rangers to rid the land of the raiding Comanches. Margaret prepared food for the trip and issued instructions for the best route. Within two weeks the Rangers had cleared the Comanches from the area.

As more settlers arrived, Margaret stocked her cabin with supplies and began operating a trading post, bartering coffee, sugar, and other merchandise with the Tonkawas and her new neighbors in exchange for hides and pelts. She hauled the hides and pelts to nearby Gonzales to trade for corn, which she planted as a crop and began raising cattle and horses that carried her own brand.

One legend says that some Tonkawas came into her trading post asking for free merchandise (same say whiskey). When she refused, one of the Indians began to help himself, and Margaret hit the Indian on the head with a hatchet raising a large knot. When Chief Lolo came to investigate the incident, he was so impressed with Margaret’s independence that he named her “Brave Squaw” and made her an honorary member of the tribe.

Despite being a widow, Margaret never wore black, instead preferring brightly colored clothing. She also wore a chatelaine bag––a purse like affair––that hung by a chain from her waist. Gossips claimed that she carried powder in that bag, and it was not the kind that required a puff. Apparently, no one had the nerve to ask what was in the bag.

Margaret donated land in 1838 near her trading post for a town, which was named Hallettsville in her honor. She built a new house in the town and when the legislature of the Republic of Texas authorized a new county named La Baca (it later became Lavaca) Margaret opened her home for county and district court sessions. When the time came to select the county seat, the older town of Petersburg claimed the honor. Some stories claim that after two elections failed to secure Hallettsville as the county seat, Margaret Hallett sent an oxcart to Petersburg to retrieve the county records, and that settled the matter.

Although Mary Jane attended a private convent, Margaret gave the land in 1852 to establish the town’s first public school, and she helped organize the Alma Male and Female Institute. Mary Jane married Colatinus Ballard, the young man who had ridden all the way to Goliad to warn Margaret that settlers were moving onto her league of land. One story claims that Ballard, a native Virginian, was the first cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Margaret Leatherbury Hallett died in 1863 at the age of seventy-six and was buried on her league. Her remains were later moved to City Memorial Park and a grave marker placed on the site that names her the founder of Hallettsville.

Marker for Margaret Hallett in City Memorial Park, Hallettsville.

Oil Man Who Gave Away Millions

If you are driving south from Austin on US 183, you know when you’ve arrived in Luling. Even if you’re the passenger and your eyes are closed, you’ll recognize Luling. It stinks. Yes, oil pumping stations (pump jacks) operate all over town—even in the heart of the city. Nobody in


Pumpjack in downtown Luling

Luling minds the odor. They say it is the smell of money. In fact the residents appreciate the oil so much that all nine of the pumping stations are decorated. You’ll see Uncle Sam, a girl eating a watermelon slice (yes, it’s also watermelon country), a grasshopper, Tony the Tiger—you get the idea.

The story of Luling’s oil business dates back to 1919 when the little town of 1,500 with a railroad running parallel to its dusty main street and wooden sidewalks was struggling to recover from the effects of WWI. Edgar B. Davis a loud-talking, over-sized bachelor from Massachusetts with a strong Yankee accent showed up. The residents welcomed the jovial fellow who had already made a million in the shoe business and over $3 million in the rubber business.

Edgar B. Davis

He had come to Luling because his brother Oscar asked him to look into a $75,000 investment he had made in oil leases that weren’t producing.

Against the advice of everyone, including geologists, Davis bought his brother’s interest, ordered the drilling to go from 1,700 to 3,000 feet, and promptly drilled six dry wells in a row. Almost broke and deeply in debt, Davis drove out to the seventh well site on August 9, 1922. Suddenly, black gold shot straight up in the air announcing the arrival of Rafael Rios No. 1. Within two years the field produced 43,000 barrels of oil a day.

In 1926 Davis sold his leases to Magnolia Petroleum Company for $12 million (half in cash), an oil deal considered the largest in Texas up to that time. If that were the end of the story, it would just be another ho-hum tale of a rich man almost going broke and rebounding into even more wealth. This is no ordinary story. Although Edgar B. Davis did not belong to a church, he held a strong belief that Providence guided his life. He planned a “thank offering” for his friends, associates and employees. He bought forty wooded acres on the north side of town and built an athletic clubhouse for blacks. South of town, on the banks of the San Marcos River, he bought 100 acres and laid out a golf course and clubhouse facilities for whites. He fully endowed both sites. Then, he hosted a barbecue, strung Japanese lanterns, built polished, outdoor dance floors, imported bands, and brought in singers from the New York Metropolitan Opera. Estimates of attendance ranged up to 35,000. The food reportedly cost $10,000 and included all the accouterments, even Havana cigars.

Next, the man who believed that he was an instrument of God gave bonuses to his employees of 25 to 100 percent of their total salary—an estimated $5 million. But he wasn’t done. With the firm belief that he had been “directed” to deliver Luling and the surrounding counties from the oppressive one-crop cotton economy, Davis purchased 1,200 acres west of town and established the Luling Foundation. This experimental farm continues to conduct research in all facets of farming including experimental and management programs in cooperation with Texas A & M University.

When I visited Luling to research this story, I heard several strange tales about Edgar B. Davis. Perhaps the strangest came from an older gentlemen who reported that Davis continued to wildcat and eventually found himself in such financial straits that the bank was about to foreclose on his home. In a series of mysterious late-night raids, his house was burned to the ground. When I questioned why anyone in the whole region had reason to burn Davis’ home, the old gentlemen said. “I guess folks figured if Edgar B. Davis couldn’t keep his home, nobody else was going to get it.”

Before Davis died in 1951 at age 78, he rebuilt his fortune. He was buried on the grounds of his destroyed home. Today the Seton Edgar B. Davis Hospital, which opened in 1966, operates on the home site of the man who believed that the more one gives, the more one has.

Edgar B. Davis grave on the grounds of his home and current hospital.

Galveston Refused to Die

The 1900 storm that struck Galveston still carries the designation, as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Periodically, storms flooded the marshy bayou-creased island on the Gulf of Mexico, but experts believed that the lay of the land somehow protected the thriving seaport from the vicious storms that had already destroyed the port city of Indianola on down the southern coast and that often ravaged Louisiana to the east.

Galveston had grown into Texas’ most prosperous city with a population of 38,000. Known as the Wall Street of the Southwest, it served forcefully as the business capital of Texas where all the state’s major insurance companies, banks, cotton brokers, and mercantile businesses maintained headquarters.

And then on the morning of September 8 heavy winds and rain began and by 4:00 P.M. the city lay under four feet of water. At 8:00 P.M. the wind reached an estimated 120 miles an hour, driving a four-to-six-foot tidal wave across the island. Houses splintered into debris that moved across the city like a battering ram destroying everything in its path. Finally, it crashed against the massive Gresham mansion and created a breakwater that protected the remainder of the city. At midnight the wind ceased and then the water rushing back out to sea sucked away many unsuspecting victims. As dawn came on September 9, the shattered city stared in horror at the devastation––over 6,000 dead and $40 million in property damage.

But Galveston refused to die. An esprit de corps developed among the populace, especially the business community that literally worked miracles to bring Galveston back to life. A board of three engineers headed by retired Brigadier General Henry M. Robert (author of Robert’s Rules of Order) recommended building a seawall and raising the level of the city behind the wall.

The Galveston Seawall was built in 60-foot sections.

The Galveston seawall is one of the great engineering feats of its time. The solid concrete wall rises seventeen feet, spreads sixteen to twenty feet at the base, and is three to five feet wide at the top. In July 1904 at the completion of the first phase, the wall protected 3.3 miles of waterfront. Over the years it has stretched further along the coast.

To raise the level of the city, dikes of sand were built to enclose quarter-mile-square sections of town. Dredges scooped up the sand from the ship channel and moved along canals dug from the port side of the island. Owners paid to have their houses within each cordoned-off section raised on stilts, making it possible for huge pipes to funnel the sand under the raised buildings and in this fashion to lift streets, streetcar lines, alleys, gas and water lines, and even the privies.

The three-ton St. Patrick’s Church was the heaviest structure raised. Workers placed 700 jackscrews under the building. The crew sang songs to synchronize the operation and on designated words, they cranked the jacks one-quarter turn. In this fashion, they lifted the massive structure five feet without causing a single crack, even in the bell tower. Church services continued without interruption. Other structures of almost equal weight were also lifted.

St. Patricks Church was raised five feet.

Because of frequent flooding, many structures already sat on piers or were built with a first level used only for a carriage house and storage. Those buildings simply had the first level filled as the area around them grew higher. The first floor of some two-story buildings disappeared under the sand and the second floor became ground level.

Catwalks crisscrossed the city to allow residents to get about above the stinking, muddy silt hauled in from the bottom of the ship channel. A drawbridge across one of the canals allowed movement about the city. Tourists came to see the activity. When two dredges collided and had to be pulled from the canal, residents brought picnic baskets and watched the operation. It became fashionable for ladies to carry their nice slippers in a little bag and upon arrival at an event, they simply changed out of their muddy shoes.

Houses were raised on stilt. The sand and slush was pumped in under them.

By the time the grade raising was complete in 1910, over 2,300 buildings, large and small, had been lifted from five to eight feet.

Before the storm, Galveston reigned as the business center of the Southwest, but with the completion of the seawall and grade raising, and the construction of a new causeway that handled five railroads, an electric Interurban, and a highway for automobile traffic the business community asked: Why not have a first class beachfront hotel and add holiday destination to Galveston’s allure? In 1911 the Galvez, a $1million hotel of the finest order opened overlooking the Gulf. Galveston was ready for its next chapter.

The Bell With A Past

Church Bell, Port Lavaca United Methodist Church

Church Bell, Port Lavaca United Methodist Church

The bell sitting on a brick platform next to the United Methodist church building in Port Lavaca has a colorful past. Originally, it belonged to the Indianola Methodist Church about nine miles down the coast from Port Lavaca, but a hurricane in 1875 destroyed much of the thriving seaport and most of the church buildings. Although Indianola continued as a port city, the Methodists never rebuilt. In 1886 another horrible storm and subsequent fire turned Indianola into a ghost town.

That 1886 storm also caused major damage forty miles inland to the Victoria Methodist Church. After the congregation completed repairs to their building, they sent a group of men down to Indianola to retrieve “the finest bell in Texas” from the wrecked Methodist Church.

Melinda Harris, a tiny black woman, the only surviving member of the destroyed church still living in the abandoned town, met the men and told them that the bell belonged to her and they couldn’t have it. They returned to Victoria empty-handed.

Meantime, Melinda Harris moved up the coast to Port Lavaca and when the Methodists built a new building, she gave the old Indianola bell to the congregation. Old timers remembered her as Aunt Malindy, owner of a white boarding house. She went about town wearing a starched white apron and sat on the back row at the Methodist church every Sunday morning.

The Frontier Times reprinted a story written in 1925 by Rev. M.A. Dunn in which he says that when he arrived to serve the Port Lavaca church in 1901, a little black woman named Malinda Harris came to him wanting to pay to have the church painted. When the work was completed and he went to collect the payment, Aunt Malindy drew thirteen ten-dollar bills from an old Bible. He said the money was so stiff that he thought of Noah’s Ark. Then, he realized that those bills had been gathered from the floodwater after the Indianola storm and pressed dry because they stood up like cardboards.

When Malinda Harris died in 1914 she left her property consisting of one-half lot worth two-hundred-fifty dollars and personal property worth twenty-five to the church.

The bell story continues: The Methodist congregation outgrew its site and moved in 1958 to a new location. The sales agreement called for the congregation to take the church bell. However, the new facility didn’t have a sanctuary, only a fellowship hall and classrooms. The bell was left behind and forgotten.

L.E. Gross did not forget. He said he was a country boy and never got to enjoy a church bell until he had moved to Port Lavaca. He nagged his men’s Sunday school class until they raised the money to hire a crane and move the bell to the new church site where it was placed on the ground and covered with a tarpaulin.

In 1975, when the church built a sanctuary L.E. Gross remembered that bell. Again, he nagged his men’s class until they raised the money to repair the old bell and build a brick stand on which to mount it. Until his death, L.E. Gross rang that church bell before every worship service.

Rev. Dunn wrote in his article: “Today, if you are in Port Lavaca, and hear the Methodist Church bell ring, you will hear the bell that survived the storms of Indianola both 1875 and 1886. It will tell you that the workmen are buried, but the Church of God still survives.”