POINT ISABEL LIGHTHOUSE
After Fort Polk, Texas, was abandoned following the Mexican War, on Feb. 27, 1850, the Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army recommended that the site and buildings be transferred as a lighthouse site to the Treasury Department, a recommendation which was approved on April 22, 1850. Because of an increase in maritime shipping through Brazos Santiago Pass to Port Isabel, Texas, and because of frequent foggy conditions in the area, Treasury Department officials agreed with the Army Quartermaster General and determined that the Department should construct a lighthouse in the vicinity as a navigational aid. On Sept. 28, 1850, the U.S. Congress authorized an appropriation of $15,000 for “a lighthouse and beacon light” at Brazos Santiago and President Zachary Taylor, former General of the Rio Grande and one-time commander of the region, signed the bill.
The original construction contract between the Treasury Department and John Garey of Brownsville was signed December 6, 1851, and work began in February 1852. It was listed as completed in the 1853 report of the Lighthouse Board and was included in the October 1853 “List of Lighthouses” with Stephen Powers as its keeper. As initially constructed the lighthouse was an 82-foot-higth brick tower topped with four lights. By 1854 it had 15 lamps and 21 reflectors. A third order lens was installed in 1857 and the fixed light was varied by flashes.
Probably the most colorful period of history of the Point Isabel Lighthouse occurred during the American Civil War. During the conflict, as federal ships blockaded the Texas coast, the Point Isabel Lighthouse was occupied by soldiers from both sides as a look-out post. Cannon and musket balls found in the walls of the structure a century later attest to the fighting in its vicinity.
After the close of the Civil War; the Treasury Department refitted the Point Isabel Lighthouse. It’s said that during the conflict Col. John S. (Rip) Ford of Texas forces removed the lens to prevent its falling into the hands of Union troops. In the months after the war, Treasury Department employees refurbished the tower, refitted the lamps, and then the lighthouse on February 22, 1866. In 1879 the Lighthouse Board reported that the tower had deteriorated to a dilapidated condition, but by 1881 a new iron lantern had been installed and the following year mineral oil lamps had been fitted. In 1888 the light was temporarily discontinued because of a question about the title to the land upon which it stood. Claimants proved that the United States government had not title to the land, forcing the government to condemn the land in 1894 to acquire title. The government paid $5,000 to secure unquestioned title and on July 15, 1895, the light returned to use. It operated for ten years, after which time it was extinguished in 1905. On Sept. 20, 1927, the Secretary of Commerce ordered the unused lighthouse and land sold. A local citizen purchased it for the sum of $2,760 on December 14, 1927, but in the late 1940′s a movement began to save the old lighthouse as a historic site. On October 5, 1950, the Texas State Park Board, as authorized by the Texas Legislature, formally accepted the lighthouse and surrounding land as a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Lon C. Hill, Jr., owners at the time. Later additions were made from two lots adjoining on the west side of the plot.
The Texas State Park Board began restoring the lighthouse in 1951 and completed the following year. Using original descriptions, the restoration was conducted as precisely as possible. The outside of the brick tower was recovered with plaster, but the original iron platform on the top of the tower was replaced with concrete and the glass dome was raised to provide easier access to visitors. The spiral iron stairway within the tower was reinforced during the restoration with a welded hand rail. A mercury vapor lamp was installed on the tower and the lighthouse returned to service as a navigational aid to seamen. Today the lighthouse is operated as a Texas State Historic Park.
Because of increasing maritime traffic through Brazos Santiago Pass, near the mouth of the Rio Grande on the Gulf of Mexico, the U. S. Department of Treasury constructed there in 1852 an eighty-two-foot-high brick lighthouse tower topped with a stationary white light which could be seen for fifteen miles. The lighthouse operated with changing equipment and with intermittent interruptions until 1905, after which time it was abandoned for several years. During the American Civil War the lighthouse served as an observation post for both Union and Confederate forces operating in the vicinity. After lying unused for most of the first half of the twentieth century, the Point Isabel Lighthouse was acquired in 1950 by the Texas State Park Board, subsequently was restored by that agency, and today stands both as a state historical park and as a functioning navigational aid.
The Port Isabel Lighthouse is open to the public year around. For more information call the Museums of Port Isabel at 956/943-7602.
All images are the property of a private collection and may not be used without prior permission.