Rio History: An Island called Padre

By Steve Hancock

Special to the PARADE

July 24, 1907: George Sims, president of the Padre Island Development Company announced one of the most important land deals to date when he and his partners paid $12000 for a fifteen hundred acre parcel of land located on the southern tip of Padre Island. Before the drifting sand had filled the tracks left during their last visit, the partners began implementing their plan to establish a fifteen hundred acre resort to be built on the same spot now occupied by the Town of South Padre Island.

The gasoline launch Tarpon under the command of Captain Collins, was remodeled and fitted with an eleven-horse power gasoline engine and a new top. Tarpon was the first of a planned fleet of five motor boats that ferried passengers from both Brazos Santiago and nearby Point Isabel. A 600-foot wharf was constructed on the bay side of the Island near the Padre Island lighthouse. A 2600-foot long wooden boardwalk laid on mesquite posts ran from the wharf to the Gulf beach.

The first business established at the beach was a store and restaurant built by J.F. Hollis of Brownsville in 1908. It was reported in the Daily Herald that “Mr. Hollis has a good stock of goods including tobacco, cigars and canned goods.”  His restaurant’s menu boasts fresh fish or oysters. H.S. and T.C. Fairman were so impressed with the number of visitors that they placed an order for the lumber and materials needed to build a large ice cream and candy pavilion to be called “The Island.” Meanwhile, Mr. Gilhousen of Brownsville was putting the finishing touches on his planned photograph gallery to be located on property he had bought in the new “business district near the south boardwalk.”

Don Jesus Vega of Point Isabel operated a rambling hotel, restaurant and dance pavilion all built on pilings. A rickety 32-room bathhouse was erected on the beach and a 1200 square foot café was built about a block north of it. The café seated 40-50 people inside while a ten-foot veranda that wrapped around three sides made it possible to serve meals inside or out. A large clubhouse (casino) sat about a mile north of Tarpon Beach and could accommodate at least one hundred guests.

A water-distilling machine, invented by Thomas Simmons of the Eureka Plumbing and Sheet Metal Works of Brownsville ensured an adequate supply of water for casino guests. “This is to be one of the finest resort hotels of its kind on the Gulf,” Sims told a reporter from the Brownsville Herald during an 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.”

Initially, the first five hundred lots sold for $35 with the price going up as each additional five hundred were sold. The first island newspaper, the Tarpon Beach Monthly put out its inaugural issue in May
of 1908. A reporter for the Brownsville Daily Herald described the new publications content as, “Breezy as a paper devoted to a sea side resort should be and it is filled with interesting matter.”

But Tarpon Beach’s days were numbered. Several hurricanes striking within a short time of each other combined with a downturn in the economy spelled the end for Tarpon Beach and it would remain dead 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.

Next week: Colonel Sam’s Dream

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