PICTURE OF ACTUAL LIGHTHOUSE STAIRS INSIDE
CAPTURED AT PORT ISABEL TX CAPTURE OF THE STAIRS FROM THE BOTTOM UP
TOUCHED UP IN PHOTOSHOP EFFECTS
To reach the port, vessels entered Laguna Madre through Brazos Santiago Pass, a narrow opening between Padre Island and Brazos Island. Three buoys were used to mark the pass in 1846, shortly after Texas became part of the United States, but Texans wanted a full-fledged lighthouse for their southernmost port. In 1850, the Texan representatives to Congress were successful in obtaining $15,000 for constructing a lighthouse.
The southern end of Padre Island and Point Isabel, a prominent bluff on the mainland, were both suggested as sites for the lighthouse. Local mariners favored Point Isabel, arguing that the island was subject to flooding and that a lighthouse on the elevated bluff could easily be seen beyond the low-lying, barrier islands.
Before being selected as the location for the lighthouse, Point Isabel had already played an important role in the area. The annexation of Texas by the United States sparked a war with Mexico, who had controlled Texas up until it became a republic in 1835. General Zachary Taylor established Fort Polk at Point Isabel and used it as a base for his military excursions into Mexico. After the war, the government retained the fort at Point Isabel for use by the customs service. The proposed site for the lighthouse was thus seemingly already in the possession of the federal government.
John S. Rhea, the Customs Collector for the port, recommended to Stephen Pleasonton, who oversaw the construction of U.S. lighthouses, that a masonry tower be built using local contractors, writing, “The building can be erected at Point Isabel of brick cheaper than any other material owing to the very reduced price of Mexican labour.” John E. Garrey of nearby Brownsville was contracted to build the fifty-foot, brick tower. Work began in December of 1851, and the tower was nearly complete by September of the following year. The spiral staircase and lantern room were shipped from New York aboard the Brownsville, but it wrecked en route, delaying the completion of the tower until early spring of 1853. Fifteen lamps, backed by twenty-one-inch reflectors were used in the lantern room, and the light was exhibited for the first time on March 20, 1853.
The first keeper, J.H.B. Hain lived with his family in a structure surplused from the adjacent Fort Polk. After a visit to the site, the Galveston lighthouse inspector declared the dwelling inadequate and successfully petitioned for a new one that was finished in 1855. Two years later the lighthouse received a third-order Fresnel lens illuminated by a single lamp, which greatly simplified the keeper’s chores. When Hain died in 1860, his wife assumed his job as keeper and served until the tower was deactivated during the War Between the States.
After the lens was removed from the tower, Confederate soldiers used it as a lookout for monitoring the movements of the Union forces. In May of 1863, a Union ship entered the harbor to engage blockade-running vessels. The Confederates exploded a charge inside the lighthouse, blowing out the glass in the lantern room, but the Union forces did not try to occupy the port. However, five months later, they returned with an invading force, and the retreating Confederates again exploded powder in the tower. This time they succeeded in causing more damage. The tower’s door was blown off, the brickwork was cracked, and the clockwork mechanism for revolving the lens was damaged.
With control of the port, Union officers petitioned the Lighthouse Board to repair the tower and return it to service. However, due to the ongoing war, years passed before the repairs could be accomplished. The lighthouse was reactivated on February 22, 1866.
In 1878, a work crew was sent to construct a screwpile lighthouse, known as the Brazos Santiago Lighthouse, near the southern end of Padre Island. While in the area, the workers also attempted to repair the leaky lantern room atop the Point Isabel Lighthouse. Still, water succeeded in penetrating the tower, and a new lantern room was installed in 1881.
In March of 1886, James B. Wells of Brownsville notified the Lighthouse Board that he was the rightful owner of the property on which the Point Isabel Lighthouse stood. He elevated his claim the following year by suing the lighthouse keeper for trespassing. The federal government never had secured a title for the property since occupying the point during the War with Mexico. Rather than paying the owner for the property, the Lighthouse Board decided the Brazos Santiago Lighthouse alone was sufficient for navigation in the area, and the Point Isabel Lighthouse was abandoned. Vociferous demands by the local population and politicians calling for the restoration of the light eventually persuaded Congress to allocate funds to acquire the property. The owner settled for a purchase price of $5,000, and the lighthouse sent forth its beams of light again in July of 1895.
The light served for an additional decade, during which a railway linking Corpus Christi and the Mexican interior was completed. The railroad diverted much of the shipping traffic away from Brazos Santiago, and in 1905, the tower was decommissioned again. The Lighthouse Board retained the property for two more decades, until an economic renaissance in the area prompted several individuals to attempt to acquire the lighthouse reservation. District Lighthouse Superintendent E.S. Lanphier recommended in July of 1927 that the lighthouse be sold “as this reservation will be a constant source of annoyance from everyone who thinks that a profit can be made by the acquisition of the site.” The property was subsequently sold to J.S. Ford of Brownsville for $2,760. Two months later, the Port Isabel Town Company purchased the lighthouse from Ford for $5,000 and used it to promote the recently renamed city.
The bluff surrounding the tower was lowered to form level city blocks, leaving the lighthouse perched on a small mound. The town promoters went bankrupt during the depression, and the structure fell into disrepair. The state stepped in to save the lighthouse, acquiring the property in 1947 and allocating twenty-five thousand dollars for repairs and maintenance.
Today, the square block encompassing the lighthouse is Texas’ smallest state park: Port Isabel Lighthouse State Historical Park. The lighthouse was fully restored in 2000, when a replica of the keeper’s dwelling was built to house an interpretive display and the offices of the Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce. The Point Isabel Lighthouse is the only one in Texas open for climbing, and the panoramic views of Laguna Madre and South Padre Island