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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Immigrants Create a Seaport

In 1844, Samuel Addison White saw an opportunity to make some money and develop his barren piece of property that jutted into the waters between Matagorda and Lavaca bays––a protected area along the Central Texas coast. Prince Karl of Solms Braunfels, an aristocratic emissary representing a group of German noblemen, had shown up on the shell beach where White had built his small house. Prince Karl was desperate. He had been sent to Texas by noblemen who had created a grand scheme to make a fortune by shipping thousands of farmers, craftsmen, and intellectuals to cheap land in Texas.

When Prince Karl reached Galveston in July 1844 and discovered that the 9,000 acres his noblemen friends had purchased was unsuitable for settlement, he was overwhelmed by the sudden arrival of a shipload of colonists. He needed a port for disembarkation and a route that offered easy passage into western Texas where he hoped to settle the Germans. White agreed to allow the immigrants to occupy the beach near his home until the prince could make arrangements for their trek inland.

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Prince Karl and White were stunned in late November and December as four more brigs carrying 439 immigrants sailed into Matagorda Bay. Each family had paid the Adelsverein (society of nobility) $240 for transportation to Texas, for 120 acres, and for the necessities until they could bring in their first harvest. Instead, they huddled on the wet gravel shore with only rainwater to drink and no trees for constructing protection from the howling winds of a Texas “norther.”

Prince Karl had secured the services of the Rev. Louis Ervendberg, a German Protestant minister, who conducted Christmas services and offered communion. The group continued their traditional Christmas observances with a small tree—either an oak or a cedar—and the children sang carols. Soon after the New Year, Prince Karl secured fifteen ox-drawn wagons and fifteen two-wheeled carts for the journey into Texas. He rushed ahead searching for a suitable site for a settlement. He found a tract near the fork of the Guadalupe River and the short, spring-fed Comal River that offered excellent waterpower.

The weary settlers arrived at their new home on March 21, 1845, one week after the Prince made the purchase. Despite their disappointment with the Adelsverein and the failure to secure their promised acreage, they named the site New Braunfels in honor of Prince Karl’s home. In less than a month the aristocratic prince abandoned the colony, even before his replacement had arrived.

Meantime, not all the Germans trusted Prince Karl enough to follow him on the inland search for a new settlement. Johann Schwartz (Swartz) and his family were among those who chose to stay at Indian Point. Schwartz purchased property from Samuel Addison White three miles down the bay and built a home on the site that would become the center of the future port city of Indianola.

Neither Prince Karl’s abandonment, nor the Adelsverein’s failure to adequately fund their grand scheme slowed the shipment of more unsuspecting colonists to Texas. Between the fall of 1845 and the following spring, thirty-six ships brought 5,247 men, women, and children to the shore at Indian Point. In the beginning, constant rain made travel impossible and wagons could not reach the coast. Then, the impending war with Mexico over Texas’ annexation to the United States led to the U.S. military troops confiscating all the means of transportation to haul their supplies to the Rio Grande.

Upon hearing from the Adelsverein that more colonists were heading to Texas, Prince Karl’s replacement, Baron Johann Ottfried von Meusebach (who had the good sense to change his name to John before he reached Texas) had tents constructed along the beach for the new arrivals. As the extreme cold of that winter set in, people began dying of respiratory diseases.

The tragedy served as a vehicle to create a community. Dr. Joseph Martin Reuss, who arrived on one of the first ships, began his medical practice by caring for the sick and dying. He also opened an apothecary where he prescribed free medicines. When Heinrich (Henry) Huck, a young German who had settled in New Orleans in 1844, heard about the suffering of those stranded on the Texas coast, he quickly loaded a schooner with lumber and medicine and sailed for Indian Point. Huck opened a lumberyard, helped Dr. Reuss distribute the free medicine, and gave lumber to families for constructing coffins. Henry Runge open the area’s first bank in a tent.

As the summer heat of 1846 descended on the encampment, a steady flow of new arrivals poured in. Rain offered the only supply of drinking water. Sanitation facilities––trenches dug in the gravelly soil––proved inadequate, and a plague of mosquitoes, green stinging flies, and house flies descended on the community. Cholera, typhoid, and cerebro-spinal meningitis swept through the camp. Frau Reuss, Frau Huck, Mrs. White, and some of the other women prepared broth for the sick and cared for children whose mothers were ill.

The number of dead reached such proportions that victims were wrapped in blankets and buried in mass graves. No one knows how many perished; the estimates range from 400 to over 1,200. Many people panicked and began walking to the inland colonies, spreading diseases as they moved along the route. Over 200 died along the way.

Samuel Addison White platted a new town on his land in 1846 and began selling lots to the German families that decided to remain on the coast and begin their new life at Indian Point—a choice that would give them the prosperity and freedom they had imagined when they listened to the false promises of the Adelsverein.

9781491709542_COVER.inddWithin three years, the German village developed into the thriving port of Indianola. The wealth that came from the commerce on the high seas created a seaport that eventually rivaled Galveston. Then fortune changed, and the seas sent a fierce storm and tidal wave in 1875 that crippled the port city. Nine years later, a massive hurricane ripped down the buildings and a downtown fire destroyed the business center edging the port. Indianola was reduced to a ghost town.

I have written two historical fictions that trace the development and eventual demise of Indianola. The Doctor’s Wife chronicles the heartache, betrayal, and business success of German immigrants who play a leading role in the rise of Indian Point from the struggling tent community to the port for U.S. military destined for posts as far west as El Paso. As shipping increases and wharves extend along the beach, commercial interests change the village name to Indianola and welcome hundreds of freight wagons and carretas from the mines in Chihuahua, Mexico, loaded with silver for the mint in New Orleans. Indianola hosts 49ers headed to California and the International Boundary Commission that negotiates the border between the United State and Mexico. By 1853, the German enclave is a cosmopolitan entry-point for people from around the world.

Stein House opens in 1853 as a German widow and her children arrive in the bustling port city of Indianola and face the cruelties of slavery and yellow fever and the wrenching choices of Civil War and Reconstruction. While the Indianola seaport reaches commercial levels that rival Galveston, the family and the characters who board at the Stein House struggle with the threats of weather, murder, alcoholism, and finally the devastation wrought by the hurricane of 1886.