Rio History: A Brief History of the Queen

Postcard of the first Queen Isabella Causeway.

 

By Steve Hathcock
Special to the PRESS

The idea of connecting Padre Island to the mainland had been floated for over 25 years before the following notice appeared in the November 16, 1925 issue of The Galveston Daily News: D.E. Colp, member of the state park board, announced plans for a scenic beach drive extending along the shores of Padre Island from Galveston Texas to the southern tip where a causeway will be built to connect Padre Island with Point Isabel and the mainland. A private company will finance and operate the road and collect tolls at Galveston, Corpus Christi and Point Isabel. 

Due to financial problems several more years would pass before a plan to construct a causeway in Point Isabel was revealed. 

July 30, 1930, Brownsville Herald: Contract for construction of a $15,000,000 causeway and hotel at Point Isabel awarded to The General Electric and Development Company of New York City by the Port Isabel Bridge Company Inc. 

Plans called for the construction of a causeway that would span the Laguna Madre with a causeway boulevard to be built across the Island where it would terminate at the site of a new 150 room hotel that would be built on the beach itself.

One million dollars to build the causeway with another $500,000 to be spent on the hotel….(It must have been a real palace at that price. One can only wonder how much a room would cost?) 

Plans for the new causeway were approved by the War Department in 1934 and the company wasted no time moving forward with the project. Advertisements like the following were placed in strategic papers around Texas:

 

Wanted Local Representative

Individual or firm for big

beach development on Padre

Island, Texas. Contract already

Let for building causeway from

Point Isabel to Padre island,

For the erection of a 150-room

Hotel, a casino and large bath

house on Padre Island. Work

on causeway has begun, selling

campaign now on. For infor-

mation see O.F. Whittle

Aldolphus Hotel before 10 a.m.

 and after 5p. m.

 

April 6, 1937, Heraldo de Brownsville (Newspaper):  “Everything looks favorable said Senator John Hastings of New York who is considering extensive financial investment in this area The Senator and his friends were considering the construction of the causeway and hopes were high that he would take on the project. But the Depression that gripped the country took its toll on the investors and by August 1938 the company asked for an extension, and then another before they finally accepted defeat when the Island was quarantined at the onset of the war. 

“Valley officials were jubilant when informed that Governor Beauford Jester had signed the Padre Island Bill in Austin,” read the headlines of the May 7, 1949 issue of The Valley Morning Star. They had good reason to celebrate. Opening the Island to the outside world would help develop the tropical paradise into a playground to rival Florida’s Miami Beach. The San Antonio News carried an article that read in part: 

“Except for the comparatively few fishermen who frequent Boca Chica Beach and the mouth of the Rio Grande, Padre Island will draw fishermen the way a shiny new lure will entice the wily tarpon to run with the bait.”

By March of 1950, Valley voters approved an $850,000 bond to help build a causeway from a point on South Garcia Street to just north of where the blue towers now reside in the KOA RV Park on South Padre Island. The bill was pushed along by State Senator Rogers Kelley of Edinburg. Corpus Christi also received the go-ahead on its proposed causeway. An agreement was reached. The new structure would help pay for itself with the installation of a toll booth at the entrance in Port Isabel. The total cost of the new causeway was estimated to run more than $2,000,000. The contract was let and construction began. 

A special steel barge, named the Isabel, constructed in Tell City, Indiana, was sent down the Mississippi River then proceeded along the Intercoastal Waterway to Port Isabel. Once here, she was outfitted with a roadway, hoists and a crew. The Isabel became a swing bridge leading to the new causeway. 

(The old swing bridge continues to operate to this day as the only route to and from Long Island Village.)

On July 7, 1953, a barge rammed the new bridge, toppling two 70-foot pilings and breaking the cap that connected the rest of the pillars. 

“It will be a problem,” said County Engineer Jim Harris. “The cap can be easily repaired but it will be tough to pull the two broken pilings. In addition, the pile driver has already left the area and will need to be called back.”

But soon the repairs began and work continued at a feverish pace. The last link was poured October 15, 1953. All that remained was construction of two earthen approaches at either end of the bridge and connection of the swing bridge. 

Opening day of the first Queen Isabella Causeway in 1954. Photo provided by Steve Hathcock.

On November 14, a truck full of officials, intent on being the first to officially cross the new bridge, set out from Port Isabel. Their vehicle was stopped two thirds of the way by several steel barricades that blocked the roadway. It seems the telephone system was not quite completed.

“The next part of the trip,” Bill Watts from the Brownsville Herald wrote, “was aboard the most comfortable dump truck anyone had ever ridden in!”

By 1954, plans were being executed for a 400 locker bath house to be located at the southern tip of the Island in Isla Blanca Park. A bait stand and other concessions were also built to provide for the expected onslaught of visitors. 

The tollgate at the first Queen Isabella Causeway.

It’s interesting to note the project was finished on schedule. The dedication, held on July 3, 1954, officially opened the Island to tourism. By August 20th, 73,462 vehicles had paid the toll to cross to the island. A ceremony to celebrate the 100,000th crossing occurred in late October.

More than a decade later, in the early hours of June 26, 1966, a string of barges struck the swing bridge, damaging the pivot point mechanism and disrupting power and communications along the causeway. Damage was estimated at around $10,000. Temporary repairs enabled the reopening of the swing bridge within several hours and the flow of traffic to the Island continued unabated.

Then in 1967, Hurricane Beulah caused severe damage. Cracks could be seen spider webbing along the concrete and huge pot holes dotted the roadway. 

A skyview of the first Queen Isabella Causeway.

Collection of tolls on the bridge ended at 12:01 a.m., Friday, March 1, 1968. 

August 9, 1969, plans were announced for a new, four lane causeway to be built a half-mile or so north of the old one. State Highway 100 was extended through the business district of Port Isabel all the way to the edge of the bay. Several blocks of buildings were razed to make way for the divided highway that would cross the Laguna Madre. 

Billed as the longest bridge in Texas and the only roadway connecting the island to the mainland, the new Queen Isabella Causeway, which was built at a cost of $12 million, stretched 15,272 feet across the bay. Its long curving design would enable the bridge to withstand the most powerful hurricane. 

Since the day of its dedication in 1974, the causeway has suffered repeated ‘hits’ by errant barges and even withstood a plane crash in 1996. The scarred, wooden pilings, framing the Channel that flows underneath the bridge, offer mute testimony of the difficulty in navigating the Intracoastal Waterway during high tide or on windy days. 

In the early morning hours of September 15, 2001, a group of barges under tow hit the Queen Isabella Causeway, dropping a 240-foot section of the bridge and several vehicles into the water 85 feet below. Eight people died as a result. 

The bridge reopened two months later the Wednesday before Thanksgiving

During a ceremony held on Friday, November 21, 2003, State Senator Eddie Lucio, renamed the Queen Isabella Causeway, the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge in honor of both those who died and the survivors of the tragedy. Also honored were the many men and women of various state, federal, county, city agencies and private firms whose efforts helped prevent further loss of lives and the rebuilding of the causeway in record time. 

Permanent link to this article: https://www.portisabelsouthpadre.com/2020/07/01/rio-history-a-brief-history-of-the-queen/

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