Rio History: The Lost Camp on Brazos Island

Special to the PRESS

A few years ago, I received a packet of photos and old periodicals from a Jim Jennings of Balboa Island California. Jim had lived in Point (Port) Isabel in the early 1930s. His Dad, Jim Jennings Senior had been the engineer in charge of building the Brownsville Ship Channel. Often times the younger Jennings sends me old photos and tales of his experiences while growing up in the sleepy little fishing village now known as Port Isabel Texas.

After reviewing the photos, I picked up the letter and started to read:

“In September of 1933 my Father, Jim Jennings Sr., then a young Civil Engineer was sent by the Army Corps of Engineers to survey and report the damage done by a devastating hurricane which struck the coast of Texas near the mouth of the Rio Grande…”

My interest was now piqued. Having explored that area many times over the years I am familiar with the site Jim was writing about. The senior Jennings and his survey party were the first to arrive on Brazos Island located a few miles from Port Isabel Texas. Securing their boat in the now quiet waters of the Laguna Madre, Jim’s father and crew waded ashore near a point just south of the jetties on present day Boca Chica Beach.

The men were amazed to find the remains of an old military base (Brazos Santiago Depot) used by Union troops during the Civil War. (It was also from this point that the men  of the 64th Colored Troops embarked on their ill fated attempt to capture Brownsville in May of 1865. The Northern troops lost that battle only to find out later that the war had ended some 5 weeks prior.)

A great storm sprang up in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer of 1867.  Striking almost dead center of the encampment, the surging tide leveled all the buildings before overlaying the entire site with about three feet of sand. The camp remained buried for the next 70 years or so until the hurricane of 1933 came ashore near the same area. Being the first visitors to arrive after the storm, Jennings and his men were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of artifacts that littered the beach.
Jim tells of his father’s delight at their find.

“My father had the advantage of getting the pick of the newly exposed relics. They found barrels of raisins, cornmeal and salt bacon, all in a remarkable state of preservation, perhaps so from their burial in the saltwater. Hundreds of personal items were found including ink bottles, wine bottles and an old “Plantation Bitters” bottle. Scores of badly rusted rifles and pistols numerous uniform buttons, bullets and other relics from a time now long gone, lay scattered across a wide expanse of hard-packed sand.

A grave yard was also uncovered, exposing the skeletons of men who had died in the defense of their country. In those days dentists used gold to fill a cavity or make a tooth. Needless to say, little time was wasted collecting the gold from the old jaw bones.

With-in a week of the storm, the area was inundated by newsmen, relic hunters and sight-seers. My father carefully stored the relics he had recovered, with the intention of giving them to the Brownsville Historical Society. There was no museum at that time and no safe place to store the relics so in 1948 my father gave them to me. I displayed many of the relics in my place of business in Balboa Island California and the collection would generate much interest to my customers. My father retired to Padre Island for some years and would often show people the exact site of the old encampment.”

After his father passed away young Jim inherited the collection which he proudly displayed in his service station on Balboa Island in Southern California. Sadly, young Jim himself died a few years back and the collection has been disbursed among family and friends.

Want the whole story? Pick up a copy of the Port Isabel-South Padre Press, or subscribe to our E-Edition by clicking here.

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