South Padre Island’s journey to National Seashore

First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson on South Padre Island’s beach in 1968.

By Rene Torres
Special to the PRESS

South Padre Island, which is 113 miles in length, is the jewel of South Texas.  It was originally granted to Nicolas Balli in 1759 by King Carlos III of Spain.  The land was passed on to his grandson, Padre Jose Nicolas Balli, of which the island is named after. But the story of how it became a National Seashore, is an often forgotten in local history; this is that story.

With Senator Ralph Yarborough, D-Texas, sponsoring the bill in the Senate, and Representative Joe Kilgore and John Young, both Texas Democrats guiding the bill through the house, the bill successfully makes it to the president’s desk. 

President John F. Kennedy signed into law the bill that created the South Padre Island National Seashore on September 28, 1962. 

With much pomp and ceremony, attending the signing event in the oval office included Oscar Dancy, Cameron County Judge, with Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson looking on, and other government officials.

In the same year, Washington also approved two other seashores: at Cape Cod in the Atlantic and Point Reyes in the Pacific.

The signing of the Texas bill set the stage for the state to take action to give its official approval.  The issue had a history of denials in Texas.  An ardent opponent at the time was Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Sadler.

President John F. Kennedy signs a declaration making South Padre Island a national seashore.

Sadler had previously attached the bill as a giveaway of 50,00 acres of highly valuable Laguna Madre and 80.5 acres of choice land in the gulf coast. 

There were some in the Texas Legislature that opposed the plan but still voted for it.  Some felt all along that Padre Island should have been made into a state park or left to private development. 

Three out of the five Valley GOP candidates for the Legislature opposed the measure in a symposium conducted by Valley newspapers.  Six Democratic candidates said they would vote for the bill and two rode the fence. 

The Texas State Park Board responded in a positive tone—estimating that the National Park from Corpus Christi to the Valley’s Padre, would bring an estimating 13.1 million annually from tourism dollars. 

After wrapping up a day at the beach at Corpus Christi— First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson, along with 10,000 cheering people, officially dedicated the South Padre Island National seashore on April 8, 1968. 

With the tune “Beautiful, Beautiful Texas,” the former first lady, along with 40 European journalists, who were traveling through the U.S. on a “Discovering America” tour, were delighted to be there

First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson touches a plaque dedicating South Padre Island as a national seashore.


The bountiful wildlife, and vegetation embedded in the dunes of then are gone. Also absent, are the Karankawa Indians who once roamed the land. 

The previously barren island is now saturated with a landscape engulfed with concrete, and less picket fences. 

Through the decades, people, and nature have nudged, carved, and shaped the once virgin land to what you see today.  

Editor’s note: Rene Torres is a retired assistant professor from the University of Texas at Brownsville, and Texas Southmost College. He has a long history in the Rio Grande Valley as an educator, sports historian and humanitarian. 

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