Brazos Island, its unique legacy

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Barometers measured the storm’s low pressure at 28.02 inches or 948 millibars at Brownsville at 1 am on Monday, the 5th. These figures characterize the hurricane as a Category 3 one. It is listed as #31 of 65 of the most intense storms to hit Texas.

The elements created a tidal surge of 13 feet along Brazos and South Padre Islands. All dunes on the latter were flattened. South Padre Island had over 40 overflow channels cut in it to the Laguna Madre.

The marginal ranching on the south part of South Padre Island was abandoned forever after this storm. On Brazos Island some Valleyites had constructed summer cottages of wood on pilings. They were in residence because of the holiday weekend. Coast Guardsmen boated over to Boca Chica Beach to warn them of the coming storm.

Some fled immediately while others chose to ride out any storm. In a VMS 8/4/05 account Lorene Valdez Meyners related what transpired. Battering waves soon struck the beach houses and started to tear them apart. The occupants then began a trek five miles south to Del Mar Beach and the shelter of its bathhouse.

Many ended by cowering behind sand dunes and moving as one by one they were eroded by tidal action. Fortunately all survived as the strongest part of the storm edged into the Valley a little more to the north. Their neighbors had not been so lucky.

Young Jose Longoria saw his 18-year-old sister Concepcion hit on her head by a beam, then swept by the winds out of the beach house only to be impaled on a spiny shrub. She succumbed to her injuries. The Coast Guard ferried some of the harrowed survivors to Port Isabel. Sam Robertson related that his Del Mar complex was not inundated by the high waters but that a large channel had been cut in the north end of the island.

This, of course, wasn’t the first hurricane to devastate the island. Most of the then existing buildings on the island were destroyed by the hurricane of 1867. This included the military depot on the north end. It was never rebuilt.

The 1933 storm did have one positive impact. The storm surges that drove waves across Brazos Island uncovered numerous Union Civil War artifacts, especially at the very north end where the Union Army had established a depot at Brazos Santiago. Col. Sam was to collect many artifacts from the sands turned up by the waves.

This piqued his interest in the Civil War, a war that had devastated his father’s life and that of his grandfather. He went on to collect stories and documents from old local residents. These included an 1867 map of the island. He donated this to Port Isabel’s Harbart Davenport, the local historian who was also a founding member of the Texas Historical Society. Davenport, in turn, presented it to Lota M. Spell of the Advisory Board of Texas Historians. Lota Mae Spell was the first director/curator of the Nettie Lee Latin American Collection.

The resort had opened with considerable fanfare with family friends and newspaper people attending the event. Another promotion in April 1933 ended in tragedy. During a skydiving exhibition, the parachute of William G. Swan failed to open, and he fell to his death over open water.

Continuing to lure guests to the resort the Robertsons, as Thomas relates, continued various promotions. One was

“October 1, 1934 (when) Sam and Maria promoted a fishing tournament for Red Fish, Trout, and Catan. Paul Usher won most trout for a day (28) winning $ 2.50, Librado Perez won largest red fish (19 ¼ lbs.) winning $ 5.00 prize money, and C. A. Pinkley won longest catan, winning ($1.00 ) prize money. August 25, 1937 (brought) a crowd of 3,250 visitors and on April 25,1938 (the resort) had 1,650 visitors. (On) May 13,1938 they again promoted ‘Cottages, Casino action, and Redfish competition at the Del Mar Beach Resort’.”

During World War II the U.S. Coast Guard asked Maria, who succeeded her dead husband in managing the resort, to close its operation. This was done on Thanksgiving Day 1942. After the war the lease and 800 acre property were sold by Al and Lloyd Parker to wealthy Dallas Texas business investors. The Brazos Island and Boca Chica State Park access are served by Texas State Highway 4.

The area has used over the decades by four-wheel drive vehicles, fishermen, campers, surfers and bathers but because of its remoteness isn’t heavily trafficked. The park was acquired and opened in May 1994. In July 2007, the Texas Parks & Wildlife entered into a 50-year lease agreement with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and is now part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Now the area and the south end of Brazos Island will get a new lease on life as development by the Space Explorations Technologies Corporation, better known as Space X, continues with its rocket launching base, currently under construction. Brazos Island with its long, unique history will again welcome change.

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