By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS
Every now and then I am asked about light houses on Padre Island.
Today if a visitor to the Island wanted to explore an old lighthouse, they would need to make their way across the Laguna Madre to Port Isabel where they will find a perfectly preserved stone tower measuring some 80 feet in height. This structure sits in the center of Lighthouse Square and is surrounded by gift shops and restaurants and draws thousands of visitors each year. But Port Isabel has not always had a monopoly on lighthouses.
The earliest mention of a light on Padre Island was contained in an article carried in the 1853 issue of American Seamen’s Friend Society, which was a journal of the day devoted to the needs of the modern mariner. The editor described a new light that had been established on the southern end of Padre Island, and north of the Brazos Passage
The light was placed atop a square tower constructed of wood, painted black, which sat atop wheels so that it could be moved about in much the same manner as the men of Troy moved the horse into the city. Because of its color it was easily distinguished from other objects by day. Its light could be seen 3.5 miles out to sea. The keeper’s house was located about a quarter mile from it.
In 1855, lighthouse inspector W.H. Stevens submitted the following report:
“Sir: In accordance with the annual circular from the Light-house Board, I have the honor to submit the following report on light-house service in my district:
A new dwelling for the keeper at Point Isabel light-house has been built, and a new structure for the beacon at Padre Island, Brazos St. Jago, to receive the 5th order lens belonging to that light. The general condition of the different branches of the lighthouse service is, I believe, unexceptionable. The want of clerkly ability among some of the keepers causes some unsightly returns, but all are honest and faithful.
I do not anticipate any extensive repairs or renovations during the ensuing year, except for the dwelling of the keeper of the beacon light on Padre Island. This house should be removed, so as to be nearer the beacon, and will need some repairs. It was never completely finished. The sum of $500 will cover the necessary expense.”
The following year the tower received a 5th order Fresnel lens making its light 35 feet above sea level. It was used as an entrance light for Brazos Pass. At the onset of the Civil War, the Confederates destroyed the Padre Island light. The Point Isabel light, with its 4-foot thick walls, resisted several attempts to blow it up. Not to be totally defeated in their effort to extinguish the powerful beacon, Confederate Rip Ford ordered the removal of the lens, which effectively neutralized any night use of the tower.
The lighthouse board established a temporary light on Padre Island in 1864 and immediately sought funding for a permanent tower. Ten years later a hurricane washed the wooden structure away and Congress appropriated $25,000 for a new tower.
Surprisingly, it took 4 years for the Board to obtain the site, which was located just to the south of the present day Coast Guard Station, from the State of Texas. Construction of a frame dwelling on screw piles in began in 1878. The keeper exhibited the light, which was perched above the living quarters, on March 1, 1879. That same year the board established a fixed light atop a square white tower 25 feet in height on the south side of Brazos Santiago. (This light was destroyed in a hurricane sometime in the 1880s.)
The Padre Island Light caught fire and burned on March 8, 1940. A low power, temporary light was put in place but it was some time before the radio beacon was replaced. Blackouts were in effect during most of the war years and Padre Island itself was quarantined. The old light finally faded into obscurity and has since been dismantled.
An era had come to an end.
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