Day Trips

Once painted with red, white, and black stripes, the lighthouse at Bolivar Point across the channel from Galveston has survived since 1933 on private property off TX87.

photograph by Gerald E. McLeod

Lighthouses invoke a special romanticism all their own. Perhaps it is because of the lonely existence of the lighthouse operator or the idyllic setting on the edges of the earth that conjure peaceful visions in our mind's eye. There are probably lots of reasons why lighthouses dwell in a special place of our collective psyche.

Without tall coastal bluffs to guide ships into Texas ports, the Gulf shoreline was in particular need of warning beacons. The Texas coast is a low shoreline where water and land intermingle. Shoals and sandbars claimed numerous sailing ships that lost their way among the maze of bays and channels.

Of the 16 lighthouses originally constructed on the Texas coast, only seven have survived. Construction of lighthouses along the coast began soon after Texas joined the U.S. in 1845. Construction of the navigational beacons was one of the first signs that the federal government was moving in.

The only lighthouse open to the public is the Port Isabel Light at the gateway to South Padre Island on the southern tip of the state. Constructed during the boom years of the 1850s, the white stucco tower was built on the site of General Zachary Taylor's army camp in the early stages of the Mexican War in 1846. A few years later it was learned that Taylor never actually paid for the land and the government had to negotiate with the landowners to keep it operational.

During the Civil War the light was turned off, but used as an observation post by both sides at one time or another. At the end of Queen Isabella Causeway connecting the mainland to the island, the light was extinguished for good in 1905, but the area became a state park in1952.

Probably the most famous lighthouse still standing on the Texas coast is the black iron tower at Bolivar Point, a free ferry ride across the ship channel from Galveston. The original tower at the point was also constructed in 1852, but Confederates reforged the cast iron into armaments. Reconstruction of the iron lighthouse wasn't completed until 1872.

On Sept. 7, 1900, the Bolivar Lighthouse faced its biggest challenge. A hurricane that was to become noted as the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history hit Galveston with its full force. More than 6,000 people were killed in the storm that covered Texas' most prosperous seaport in five feet of water. The 100-foot tower was a safe haven to 120 people who rode out the day-long storm inside the tower. Another 85 people survived a hurricane 15 years later by gripping to the spiral staircase while the winds pounded the iron skin.

The Bolivar Point Lighthouse still towers over the flat, coastal marshes much like it did in 1933 when the light was turned off for the last time. The property is now used as a private beach resort and is not open to the public, but is right off the highway.

The Matagorda Lighthouse on Matagorda Island is now part of a state park. The original lighthouse on the island was built in 1852. A later edition that looks much like the one at Bolivar Point was built in 1873 about two miles from the original site.

Still guiding boats into Matagorda Bay, the lighthouse is not open except during special tours. The island is only accessible by boat, either your own or a ferry service that runs on weekends and holidays to the island's national wildlife preserve.

The lighthouse at Aransas Pass or Lydia Ann Pass began operation in 1857. The red brick lighthouse is one of the most beautiful of Texas lighthouses, but is on private property and is accessible only by boat. Several sightseeing boats out of Port Aransas go past the tower. The Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse in 1952, and sold it in 1970 to a Texas rancher. He put the light back in use at his own expense. The original Fresnel lens is on display at the Port Aransas Civic Center.

The Halfmoon Reef Lighthouse once stood on pilings in the middle of Matagorda Bay from 1858 until a hurricane nearly destroyed it in 1942. World War II bombers were about to finish off the wooden structure when a Coast Guard vessel waved them off. The building is now part of the Port Lavaca Chamber of Commerce on TX35.

Looking like a rocket about to blast off from the marshes on the Louisiana side of the Sabine River, the Sabine Pass Lighthouse is visible from the town of Sabine Pass on the Texas side. The light has been out since 1952, after lighting the way for sailors for most of 96 years. The tower is on private land and not open to the public.

For more information on lighthouses on the Gulf Coast from the Florida Keys to the Rio Grande, find a copy of Gulf Coast Lighthouses by Bruce Roberts and Ray Jones published by The Globe Pequot Press. The 96-page book has wonderful histories and color pictures of the Southern lighthouses, including easy-to-follow travel directions and other day-tripping information.

Coming up this weekend...

National Fishing Day will be celebrated around the state on June 6. Texans can fish without a license during the day or while attending special events at LBJ State Park, Stonewall, 830/644-2252; Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, Athens, 903/676-BASS; Matagorda Island State Park, Port Lavaca, 512/983-2215; and other state parks.

Grand Opening of the State Railway Trail marks National Trails Day, June 6. The 20-mile trail runs along a former railroad corridor from Lake Mineral Wells State Park. 940/328-1171.

Model A Convention and Tour loops around downtown Georgetown, June 4-7. 512/930-5289.

Summertime Festival in Fayetteville brings back old-time fun, June 6 & 7. 409/378-4281.

Coming up...

CineFestival in San Antonio is the nation's oldest and largest Latino film and video festival, June 10-14. 210/271-3151.

Latino Laugh Festival brings Latino comics to San Antonio, June 11-13. 800/PURO-LATINO.

Lighthouse History Tour at Matagorda Island State Park is one of the rare occasions to see the 1867 tower up close, June 13. 512/983-2215.

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