Rio History: The Devil’s Elbow of Padre Island

By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS

The Loop Current flows through the straits of the Yucatan into the Gulf of Mexico and then splits. The main current loops southeastward flowing through the Florida Keys (where it is called the Florida Current), and then into the Atlantic. Another, lesser current, called a “Loop Current Eddy,” which is a clockwise rotating ring of warm water, bulges out into the northern Gulf of Mexicoand drifts west towards Texas or Mexico.

As early as 1519, Spanish navigators recognized the value of this flow as an aid to navigation. The combination of prevailing winds and current, determined the course of the Spanish treasure fleets on their entire round-trip voyage to Europe.

Ships entering the Gulf through the Yucatan Channel, rode the prevailing wind and current westward to the port at Vera Cruz. These currents changed directions along the Mexican coast, carrying homebound ships north and east into the Straits of Florida and the Bahama Channel.

The same current used by ships entering the Gulf from the east, also brings trash from afar. Sea-beans and flotsam, from near the equator, washes up on Padre Island. These shore currents act like a giant vacuum cleaner, scouring the floor of the Gulf, depositing debris, and sometimes shipwrecks along the Texas Coast. The prevailing southeasterly wind produces wave-trains that strike the beach at an angle. Fifty miles to the north of the City of South Padre Island, lies the infamous Devil’s Elbow. Here, shore currents meet a north-flowing current driven by opposing winds; in the ensuing maelstrom, the impeded flow deposits its flotsam upon the shore. This effect is perhaps most noticeable on North Padre’s Big Shell Beach where the confluence of currents and wind have created a natural flea-market for the discerning beachcomber. One can find a constantly changing array of sea-borne driftwoods and a multitude of brightly colored shells.

The only way to reach Devil’s Elbow by land is to cross from Corpus Christi to North Padre Island then drive south along the beach about 40 miles. You will need a four-wheel drive vehicle and a full tank of gas. This is a desolate area so bring along spare water and a shovel just in case you get stuck in the heavy shell deposits of Little Shell Beach. From there, it is only a short distance further. You will know when you arrive. The beach will be littered with driftwood, oil workers hard hats, bottles, possibly an occasional glass float and trash of every description, much of which has been carried great distances by sea currents. But driftwood and flotsam are not the only treasures to be found. If you continue your drive south, another 10 miles or so, you will come upon the remains of a 600 ton steamer, the Nicaragua, which ran aground during the Hurricane of 1912. Controversy surrounds the details of the ship and the cargo she was carrying on that fateful night. Some even argue she was carrying contraband to the Revolutionaries in Mexico.

Farther on, about 5 miles, are the remains of the San Estaban, one of three Spanish galleons wrecked on Padre Island in 1554. The remains of the second ship, the Espiritu Santos, lies two and a half miles further south, while the third ship, the Santa Maria de Yicar, lies directly in the Mansfield Cut itself. It was discovered in 1957 by workers of the Willacy County Navigation District who were dredging the channel. Reportedly, the hoses from the dredge spewed silver coins and treasure along both sides of the manmade channel before anyone realized what was happening. Coins from this wreck are still being found by lucky beachcombers to this day.

But, a word of caution; do not metal detect along this area. It is illegal in Texas to hunt known wreck sites and you run a good chance of being fined and having your metal detector confiscated. (Metal detectors are forbidden in the National Seashore, which encompasses all of North Padre Island).

Happy Beachcombing!

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