Rio History: A Brief History of the Casino Hotel

By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS

1907: The first of the improvements at Tarpon Beach were let to Guadalupe Saenz, the contractor who built a hotel and almost all the buildings in Mercedes. The Padre Island Development Company expected to have a formal opening of the resort about May 1, 1908. In the next phase, the company built another wharf, boardwalk and bathhouse located about 1 mile north of the Brazos Santiago Pass.

A hurricane coming ashore during the early summer of 1909 forced visitors at Tarpon Beach to evacuate the clubhouse and seek shelter at the quarantine station which was located in the bay near the southern tip of the Island. Many fishing boats were capsized or cast ashore and one of the ferry boats went missing. Dozens of fishing shanties were demolished by the action of the waves.

No lives were lost and all who wished to leave were brought to the boat docks in Port Isabel.

Another storm swept in during the early hours of August 26 and again a large group of tourists sought shelter in the quarantine station. At Tarpon Beach every building except the lighthouse and the quarantine station were either heavily damaged or destroyed. Most of the destruction was caused by the high waves and a general inundation of the Island. The wind itself — which barely reached tropical storm status — caused little damage. Repairs took several months but by 1910 Tarpon Beach and the Casino Hotel were once again open to the public.

Over the next 15 years several violent Gulf storms damaged or destroyed much of Tarpon Beach including the Casino Hotel. During this time the only Island hotel consistently open was the Tarpon Beach Hotel, located bayside and built in 1908 by Jesus Vega of Brownsville.

In 1926, The James A. Dickinson interests rebuilt the Casino complete with a water toboggan slide and two fast speedboats to transport passengers to and from the Island. Business was brisk over the next few years and, though it cast a pall on most of the country, the Casino continued its operation.

An advertisement in the May 29, 1932 edition of the Brownsville Herald declared:

“Swim Where the Water Is Clearest: PADRE ISLAND CASINO 10 Spacious Cottages, Fine Restaurant Service 20 Rooms in the Casino Shore Dinners or Short Orders. We are Pleased to Announce the opening on Saturday, May 28, of the Padre Island Casino. Boats will leave the Casino dock at Port Isabel on the hour and the half hour, taking you direct to the Island. No walking, a bus will meet every boat on its arrival at the island to take all passengers to the Casino. A lifeguard will be on duty at the beach at all times while bathers are in the water.”

But, we who live on the Island know we are always just one hurricane away from utter destruction, as illustrated by the following article published in the July 6, 1933 edition of the Brownsville Herald: “PORT ISABEL, 3:45 p.m. the afternoon the wind at Port Isabel was increasing slightly, and has changed a little toward the east. Otherwise the situation remained unchanged from this morning. Three people from the Padre Island Casino were at the Coast Guard station on Padre Island, and the telephone line to the station has gone out.”

Several more hurricanes struck the Island during the summer and fall of 1933, doing much damage to structures at Tarpon Beach. Though heavily damaged the Casino was repaired and back in business in time to host a gathering of the Port Isabel Rotary Club. In addition to a meal, the group of 25 Rotarians enjoyed watching a Coast Guard drill put on by the members of the station on Padre Island.

In March of 1942, a pair of Memphis tourists visiting Brazos Island decided they’d like to have lunch at the Casino Hotel. Donning swim suits, the pair entered the water and swam the 1,200 foot ship channel. After a quick meal the two repeated their epic swim arriving at Brazos half an hour later.

In a January 14, 1945 article Frank Dobie wrote: “A Gulf storm took the top story off the Padre Island Hotel. Winds have swept the sand out from under it. No deserted bunk-house ever looked more dilapidated; yet it has more ancient signs about “cover charges,” “cashier,” “family meals with all the trimmings,” “European plan,” “American plan,” “laundry,” etc. than the Waldorf-Astoria. You can sit in one of the two old rope-bottomed chairs on the wide front gallery and look over the Gulf, listen to the surf break, watch for a fishing sail and feel your consciousness absorbed into the eternity of the universe.

“The entire service consists of a most accommodating and good-natured man who would look at home in a Georgia peanut patch. He coordinates with the ‘Sand Crab Taxi,’ which, when Mr. Ford turned it out 10 or 15 years ago, had fenders and a top, also seats. By riding it a half mile or so to the extreme southern tip of Padre Island you can look across the ship channel-Brazos Santiago Pass and see maybe a hundred white pelicans banked in peace on the opposite breaker wall.

“The planes that fly overhead (from the Harlingen Gunnery School and the base at the Brownsville Airport) seem no more a part of the war and of the whirling world’s realities than the washed shells at the water’s edge and the red-billed white-feathered royal terns flying by in the sunlight.”

The noiseless tooth of time continued her meal, though, and the old Casino faded into obscurity. Sometime in the early 1950s it was demolished and today there is no visible evidence of its existence on Padre Island.

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