Rio History: Treasure Hunting at Isla Blanca Park

Special to the PRESS

The tide was out when we arrived at Isla Blanca Park at the southernmost tip of South Padre Island. My friend John headed to the water to hunt for jewelry while I worked my way south to a small sandbar that is only visible at low tide. As expected, I found the ground to be heavily mineralized and spent some time adjusting the controls before I was ready to hunt. In order to test the pinpointing capabilities of the Infinium LS met detector, I set the discrimination control at zero. This would ensure that the detector would respond to all metals.

My first find was a tent stake. I had an idea that was what it was by the tone given off by the detector and length of the target. Within the next half hour I found two more tie-downs, a couple of bottle caps and a pop-top. Now most people would be concerned about not finding coins or jewelry but I had bench tested the Infinium and knew that I could trust it to find any valuables up to 2 feet beneath the sand. Odds were that another detectorist had successfully hunted the beach earlier that day. Regardless, my mission was to learn more about my machine so I was grateful for what I was finding and considered the day a success. John had better luck hunting the surf, finding several coins and a donut sized silver hoop earring. As I worked my way north I couldn’t help but think about how this beach looked a hundred years ago.

1909, Tarpon Beach on Padre Island:
A 600-foot wharf extending westward over the bay near the Padre Island lighthouse received ferry boats from Point Isabel on the mainland and Brazos Island situated just across the channel at the southern tip of Padre Island. A 2,600-foot long wooden boardwalk laid on mesquite posts connected the wharf to the beach.

Don Jesus Vega of Point Isabel operated a rambling hotel, restaurant and dance pavilion all built on pilings. A 32-room bathhouse was erected on the beach and a 1,200-square-foot café was built about a block north of it. The café seated 40-50 people inside while a 10-foot veranda that wrapped around three sides made it possible to serve meals inside or out. A large club house (casino) that sat about a mile north could accommodate at least 100 guests while a water distilling machine, invented by Thomas Simmons of the Eureka Plumbing and Sheet Metal Works of Brownsville ensured an adequate supply of water.

“This is to be one of the finest resort hotels of its kind on the Gulf,” general manager George Sims told a reporter from the Brownsville Daily Herald during a 1908 interview. “The object being to make it a place where people used to comfort and elegance can come and spend several months during the winter when everything is frozen solid in the north.”

The first island newspaper, the Tarpon Beach Monthly, put out its inaugural issue in May 1908. A reporter for the Brownsville Daily Herald described the new publication’s content as, “Breezy as a paper devoted to a seaside resort should be and it is filled with interesting matter.”

But Tarpon Beach’s days were numbered.

A severe hurricane struck in June 1909, inundating Padre Island and causing much damage.

The summer visitors at Tarpon Beach evacuated the clubhouse and sought 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 was missing. Dozens of fishing shanties were demolished by the action of the waves.

The lifesaving station at Brazos Santiago was nearly washed away by the water and where it formerly stood was now a small island with a 17-foot channel of water several feet deep between it and the rest of the mainland.

Captain Reed, of the Life Saving Service, was lifted from the porch of the station 15 feet into the air and fell into the surging water. Fortunately, the salty sailor had secured himself to a lifeline and was pulled from a watery grave by his crew.

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.

Several hurricanes striking within a short time of each other like that, combined with a downturn in the economy, spelled the end for Tarpon Beach which would remain forgotten for a dozen or more years until a man named Sam Robertson purchased the land for his own development plans. But that’s another story altogether.

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