Port Isabel is on the point where Texas Highway 100 meets the Laguna Madre in southeastern Cameron County, sixteen miles northeast of Brownsville. It is connected to South Padre Island by the two-mile-long Queen Isabella Causeway (Park Road 100). The first settlement in the area, Brazos Santiago, was on nearby Brazos Island.
In 1788 water sellers traveled to the area to obtain water. The site was also used as a summer resort by 1800. Jean Laffite is said to have had a fifteen-foot well dug near the site of present Laguna Vista, five miles northwest of Port Isabel. Official claim to the land was not made until 1828, when it was granted to Rafael García as part of the Potrero (“Pasture”) de Santa Isabel. During the 1830s a small community developed at the site, known as El Frontón de Santa Isabel.
Later that name was changed to Punta de Santa Isabel, that is, Point Isabel. A post office was established in the community under the name Point Isabel in June 1845. The name of the post office and community were changed to Brazos Santiago in 1849, when the Oblates of Mary Immaculate arrived in the community and established Our Lady by the Sea Church. Also that year the community suffered an outbreak of cholera, and it was several years before it recovered fully.
In 1850 Port Isabel was the second largest town in the area, which by 1859 was exporting $10 million dollars worth of cotton annually. The Port Isabel Lighthouse was built in 1853 at a cost of $7,000; it served as a lookout during the conflict with Juan N. Cortina known as the Cortina War. During the first three years of the Civil War, Port Isabel was known as a haven for blockade runners due to its proximity to Mexico. All the ships in the harbor were destroyed or captured during a Union attack on May 30, 1863.
The first railway in the area was the Rio Grande Valley Railway, a narrow-gauge line connecting Port Isabel to Brownsville, funded and built by Simón Celaya of Brownsville, which began operation in 1872. The name of the post office was changed from Brazos Santiago to Isabel in 1881.
The town was incorporated as Port Isabel on March 23, 1928. That year a shallow-draft channel was dredged around the south and west sides of the town. Also in that year, the Rio Grande Railroad was acquired by the Port Isabel and Rio Grande Valley Railway. By 1929 the population had reached an estimated 750. In 1930 the post office changed its name to Port Isabel. The Point Isabel Press was in operation from the 1920s into the 1930s, after which it was the Port Isabel Press.
On July 3, 1930, the River and Harbor Act authorized the expansion of the Port Isabel harbor through the Brazos Island harbor project. In 1933 the ship channel was dredged to a depth of twelve feet and a width of 125 feet. That year Port Isabel had an estimated population of 1,177 and forty-five businesses.
The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, completed during the 1950s, increased trade and improved the economic health of Port Isabel, but it also caused problems. A spoil bank from its construction polluted the community, and the city’s board sought the assistance of the United States government to solve the dust problem.
The Queen Isabella Causeway, with a swing bridge across the ship channel between Port Isabel and South Padre Island, was completed in February 1954 at a cost of $2.2 million. The causeway drew tourists to the area.
The shrimping industry contributes significantly to the local economy. In 1960 Port Isabel harvested 7,136,000 pounds of shrimp and served as a gateway into South Texas and northern Mexico. The port, equipped for all types of export and import tonnage, handled 444,627 short tons that year.
In 1966 Hurricane Beulah devastated 15 to 20 percent of the town, and another 25 percent required major repairs. That year Port Isabel had an estimated population of 4,000 and 122 businesses.
During the 1960s, forty-one million pounds of shrimp annually, 65 percent of the state’s production, came from the area. At the annual Shrimp Fiesta held in Port Isabel, among the many ceremonies is a Blessing of the Fleet. The area is also supported by other commercial fishing, tourism, and the petroleum industry.
Among the larger businesses in the 1960s were a chemical refinery, a pipeline-service company, shipyards, and a frozen-food company. In 1978 the Port Isabel Ship Channel had been dredged to thirty-six feet in depth and 200 feet in bottom width. The new Queen Isabella Causeway was constructed in 1974 and replaced the original Queen Isabella Causeway, which became known as the Old Fishing Pier.
During the 1980s the town continued to attract tourists. Recreational opportunities included fishing, boating, and hunting. In 1989 the port handled 263,335 short tons of cargo. In 1990 Port Isabel had a population of 4,467 and a school, although the number of businesses had declined. The town continued to support itself from the shrimping and fishing industry as well as the tourist industry. In 2000 the population was 4,865. (source)
The Port Isabel Lighthouse has long been a dominant feature at the southern tip of the Texas Gulf Coast. Its heavy brick walls have stood against the elements for more than a century, and for most of that time, its light has been a familiar aid to seafarers. The lighthouse began construction in 1851 out of a necessity for a navigational light through the Brazos Santiago Pass to Port Isabel, which, at the time, was called Point Isabel. The lighthouse was finished two years later, complete with a stationary white light that could be seen for nearly 16 miles.
During the Civil War, the armed conflict brought both confederates and federalists through the area, both using the lighthouse as an observation post during different times.
In 1866 the lighthouse was repaired and relit. For the next two decades its beacon guided large numbers of commercial vessels to southernmost Texas. The light was extinguished between 1888 and 1894 during negotiations over ownership of the site; when finally reactivated, its years of service were numbered. The lighthouse was
abandoned permanently in 1905 after shipping traffic declined. And although the coast was later active with defense measures during the two world wars, the tower at Point Isabel stood a dark watch.
The lighthouse and its associated buildings were donated to the state in 1950 as a historic site by Mr. & Mrs. Lon C. Hill, Jr. and the Port Isabel Realty Company. The State Parks Board remodeled the tower by replacing the iron platform with concrete and by raising the glass dome to provide easier access for visitors. Additional repair work by the Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD Point Isabel Lighthouse flyer) was completed in 1970. At present, the tower with its mercury-vapor light is marked on sea charts as an aid to navigation. Of sixteen lighthouses constructed along the Texas coast, Port Isabel Lighthouse is the only one now open to the public. (source)
One of three unique museums comprising the Museums of Port Isabel, the Port Isabel Historical Museum chronicles the history of the city and neighboring South Padre Island. It’s a considerably robust history, spanning the centuries between the area’s original inhabitants, the Coahuilitican Indians, and the modern-day shrimp and sports fishing industry. The museum features two levels of exhibits, artifacts, videos, and interactive displays, including one of the nation’s largest collections of military artifacts from the U.S.-Mexican War
The museum building is also a part of local history. Constructed in 1899, the structure was built by Charles Champion, son of an Italian immigrant who settled in Texas in 1855. Champion, born in Old Point Isabel, served as Hidalgo County district clerk before pursuing a career as a merchant. Once completed, Champion named his building “The Key of the Gulf”. The new building housed a general store, the U.S. Customs House, and a post office.
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