THE RISE AND FALL OF INDIANOLA

Waves lap the sunbaked shell beach of a ghost town that never should have been. Despite its locale at near sea level, the thriving port of Indianola rivaled Galveston after the Civil War as a major shipping point on the Texas coast.

In the 1840s a group of German noblemen heard of the cheap land available in Texas, and they saw an opportunity to make a lot of money by ridding Germany of peasant farmers that had no hope of securing more land, craftsmen who were out of work because of the Industrial Revolution, and intellectuals who were unhappy with the strict political environment. The noblemen organized the Adelsverein or Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas and charged each family $250, which paid for transportation to the new land, 320 acres, seeds, tools, and a food allowance to sustain them until the first harvest.

By December 1844 the poorly organized and ill-fated Adelsverein had sent four shiploads of Germans to the bare shell beach at Indian Point, an empty spit of land jutting into the waters where Matagorda and Lavaca bays converge. It was March 1845, before that first wave of immigrants reached their new home, which they named New Braunfels.

The noblemen, ignoring the lack of any kind of village or port facility on the bay, continued sending ships that dumped a steady flow of immigrants, creating a horror story for over 5,000 men, women, and children who arrived at Indian Point and could not find transportation to move inland. Polluted water and lack of sanitation caused diseases that killed hundreds before they could be moved off the coast.

Disillusionment with the Adelsverein led many of the Germans to refuse to join the trek to the land they had been promised. Instead, they remained on the coast and built docks into the shallow bay to receive the steady stream of ships. By 1849 a community had developed at Indian Point, and the residents changed its name to the more melodious “Indianola.”

The United States War Department built a wharf and opened its Army Supply Depot to serve as the disembarkation point for personnel destined for posts as far away as El Paso del Norte (future Fort Bliss) and along the western edge of Texas settlement. Hundreds of freight wagons and Mexican carts loaded with silver from the mines of Chihuahua, Mexico, rolled into Indianola, where ships transported the silver to the mint in New Orleans.

If anything proved to the citizens of Indianola that their seaport was making a name for itself in Washington D.C., it was the arrival of thirty-three camels in May 1856, followed by a second shipment of forty-one camels the next February. The entire affair was an experiment initiated by the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, to test the viability of camels as beasts of burden in the Southwest.

Indianola was a southern town, but it boasted a seaport’s connection to the more cosmopolitan world of commerce, business cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe. The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing. Thus the vast slave plantations thrived much farther east and north along the rivers and in the rich bottomlands. Planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies could also buy slaves at auction on the front porch of Indianola’s Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests. Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by previous owners. They worked the docks and they operated pig farms on the huge Powderhorn Lake that sprawled ominously behind the low-lying port city. Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and they were allowed to go about their business without interference.

During the fall of 1860, talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.

Before the first war shots were fired, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away. The federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico soon forced the Indianola merchants to close and many residents to flee the city. Despite bombardment by federal troops in October 1862 and a three-month occupation of Indianola in early 1864, residents quickly returned after the war and began rebuilding the destroyed docks and their homes and businesses. The eagerness to return their port to a thriving commercial center and to assist families that had been impoverished by the war played well for an economy that thrived on its maritime commerce.

The problem of high tide washing into the downtown streets was virtually ignored as profits soared, freight wagons by the hundreds clogged the thoroughfares leading to the docks, and ships sat patiently at anchor waiting for access to the busy port. In September 1875, Indianola overflowed with visitors from all over the region who had come to witness the murder trial of participants in the infamous  Sutton-Taylor Feud. Few people noticed the increasingly bad weather until the road out of town became impassable and the railroad tracks washed away. By the time the storm ended, several hundred had died and most of the business houses were destroyed, washed into the huge Powderhorn Lake. Many residents moved inland, but those who remained were determined to rebuild their city.

When railroads were built from rival ports undermining Indianola’s shipping enterprise, businessmen began developing the town as a resort to take advantage of its clear water, excellent fishing, and fine restaurants and hotels.

In August 1886, a West India hurricane moved into the Gulf of Mexico. By the time it reached Indianola it was one of the most powerful storms in recorded history. Structures that had survived the 1875 storm soon gave way to the force of wind and flood. A lamp exploded in a disintegrating building and the wind fanned flames across the entire downtown. At dawn, the port city of Indianola was gone, and the survivors moved, many without ever looking back at the ghost town they left behind.

 

I have told Indianola’s story in The Doctor’s Wife and Stein House.

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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.