History of Port Aransas & Mustang Island

Port Aransas is the only town on Mustang Island -- but as recently as 3,000 years ago, there was no Mustang Island at all!  The shifting sands of the Gulf of Mexico are in constant motion, and where Amelia's Landing Hotel now sits was entirely under water.

In pre-historic times, the Karankawa Indians lived here.  A vicious, cannibalistic bunch, they greeted visitors from the New World with hostility, and were ultimately wiped out.  Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca was probably the first European to meet the Karankawas in 1528.

The island was first called Wild Horse Island, and then Mustang Island because of the wild horses called "mesterios" brought to the island by the Spaniards in the 1800's.

Jean Lafitte and his band of buccaneers spent a lot of time on neighboring islands as well as Mustang Island in the 1820's. Legend has it that somewhere on the island is a Spanish dagger with a silver spike driven through the hilt marking the spot where Lafitte buried a pirate's chest of gold and jewels.

As the still natural pass attracted more and more commerce and updated charts were needed, there appeared an 1833 map which noted the location of what would become Port Aransas, but was then called Sand Point. The pass was given the name Aranzazu, which later became Aransas.

During the 1846-1848 Mexican War, a small fort was built on Mustang Island to guard the entrance to Aransas Bay. It was used until after the Civil War. In the 1850's regular steamship service ran between Mustang Island and New Orleans. The first deep draught steamship went through the Pass in 1859. Mercer Docks was destroyed during the 1875 Storm, thus ending the service.

The town on Mustang Island was called Ropesville by the early 1890's but changed its name to Tarpon by 1899 because of the large numbers of the fish being caught in its waters. The population at that time was about 250. Citizens began calling their town Port Aransas about 1910. The storm of 1919 virtually wiped out the town except for a few structures.

The Civil War

Port Aransas, and all of Texas, was part of the Confederacy, and was, as such, blockaded by the U.S. Navy.  Around the start of the American Civil War, the lens was taken out of the lantern room of the lighthouse and hidden in the marshlands behind the structure. This lighthouse was of utmost importance because it controlled the night time pass; whoever governed the light beacon regulated the night time passageway. Without that light, Union ships could only traverse the treacherous pass in the daytime, limiting Union ship movement in the blockade of the coastline.

The harbors in the Corpus Christi, Rockport-St. Marys, Copano Bay area and Mustang and San Jose islands were all supplying the Confederate Army with beef, salt, seafood and cotton supplies for the troops fighting the North, and the Union was bent on stopping those shipments. Around November 1861, as expected the Union Navy started a campaign of coastal blockade. Then, Marines off the Navy vessel USS Afton surged ashore on San Jose Island and leveled the small town of Aransas, burning most of the houses, structures, warehouses, piers, docks and wharf sometime in February 1862. The small town was all but wiped out, but remnants of it can still be found today.

Jurisdiction of the lighthouse traded back and forth between the Confederate and Union detachments throughout the war. Though Lt. J. W. Kittredge attempted the expropriation of Corpus Christi from the Southern forces, Maj. Alfred M. Hobby and troops sent the Union ships sailing away.

By early that summer, southern civilians had forsaken the islands rather than be under the rule of the North. United States Navy vessels under J. W. Kittredge (before he was captured) besieged the coast, using St. Joseph's Island and the few remaining structures on it as a depot to store captured cotton. On Christmas Day of 1862 a move was made by Confederate General John B. Magruder, who authored a detachment of troops to commence the ruination of the lighthouse tower. Gunpowder kegs were clustered inside the tower and lit, resulting in the damaging of 20–25 feet of brickwork, the glass housing case and the round stairwell.

The next significant stage in the war for this arena was on May 3, 1863, when Capt. Edwin E. Hobby's Confederate company assaulted the Union garrison set to protect the lighthouse and killed twenty soldiers. On the May 8, the Confederates once again maintained a battery on Mustang Island; later in the month, they pushed Union forces off St. Joseph's Island. But their victory would not be long-lived as the Union comprehended the significance of the pass, and in November federal troops under T. C. G. Robinson came back and regained control of the island.

The Iowa Connection

Interestingly, from November 1863 to June 1864, Mustang Island was occupied by what was left of the 20th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment.   They were assigned the somewhat thankless task of holding the largely uninhabited island after a disastrous performance at the Battle of Sterling Farm, where their 500 man regiment was forced to surrender to a 5000-man Confederate army. 

Here's an excerpt from official history of the Iowa 20th, written immediately after the war:

"On the islands, waters, and mainland of this State, the regiment remained many weary months, being compelled to submit to a sort of honorable military exile, in obedience to that policy, which, under General Banks, resulted in nothing but cotton, disaster, and expeditions!

Having remained in the vicinity of Point Isabel about a week, the command embarked on the transport "Planter," and sailed to the southern end of Mustang Island. Immediately upon landing it commenced marching along the sandy beach, dragging two twelve-pounder howitzers by hand, the men carrying their knapsacks and sixty rounds of extra ammunition. The march was continued till midnight. 

At the northern extremity of the island the rebels had some earthworks, thrown up to defend the entrance to Corpus Christi and Aranzas Bays. These works were captured by two Maine regiments, before the arrival of the Twentieth with the artillery, those gallant regiments making a splendid and bloodless charge, with their arms at a right-shoulder-shift!

The regiment remained on Mustang Island, garrisoning the works, for more than seven months. The duties of the garrison were exceedingly light, and a number of expeditions were made up the bay to Corpus Christi, Lamar, St. Mary's, and other places, with a twofold object; first, to gratify the spirit of adventure natural to the western character; and, secondly, to procure lumber with which to erect barracks and houses for the comfort and convenience of the troops. When the parties engaged in these expeditions returned, they were usually accompanied by Union men and their families who took advantage of the presence of the garrison to escape from the tyranny and persecution of the insurgent government, its aiders and abettors.

There were some of these expeditions accompanied by great danger, and followed by results of importance. The bays of Texas are not easily navigated at any time, and sudden gales of wind, amounting almost to tornadoes, frequently arise, so that sailing here has all the adventure of a voyage on the high seas, and a great many more breakers to arouse the fear of mariners.  But squalls, breakers, reefs could not prevent the men of the Twentieth from capturing Texan towns and Texan lumber. A detachment of the regiment, under Captain Barney, also captured the blockade-running schooner "Lizzie Bacon," and compelled a noted pilot of those waters to run her from St. Alary's to Mustang Island. But all these operations which served to enliven garrison life were accompanied by trifling casualties. The capture of Captains Coulter and Torrey, in December, was about all the loss that befell the command."

Since Mary and I lived in Iowa for the 14 years before settling in Port Aransas, we find it amusing that our ancestors were ordered here, pretty much as a punishment! 

The 20th Century

Mustang Island’s delicate position at the edge of the Gulf has been tested by storms often over the centuries, and hurricanes in 1916 and 1919 did much damage to Port Aransas.  However, island residents rebuilt their community after each storm, up to and including Hurricane Celia in 1970 -- the last major hurricane to hit Mustang Island.

Despite the hardships and often harsh weather, Port Aransas residents knew that the island town would be an ideal tourist haven. To that end, the sport fishing industry was cultivated and touted throughout the country. In the mid-1920s, people who had heard of the bountiful fishing and long, clean beaches of Port Aransas began asking for automobile access to the island. A car-train system was developed to bring cars on a flatbed railroad car from Aransas Pass to Harbor Island, and from there to Port Aransas via ferryboat.

The first Port Aransas ferry, the Mitzi, carried six cars per crossing. By 1931, a roadway connected Aransas Pass to the ferry crossing and causeways connected Flour Bluff to North Padre Island and North Padre Island to Mustang Island.

One of the milestones in Port Aransas history came in 1932 when longtime islander Barney Farley organized the first Tarpon Rodeo. The Tarpon Rodeo, which evolved into what is now known as the Deep Sea Roundup, became one of the most popular fishing tournaments on the Texas Gulf Coast and firmly established Port Aransas as the center of the state’s sport fishing industry.

The most famous of all sport-fishing tourists to visit Port Aransas in 1937 was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who caught a tarpon during an excursion to the waters off the coast of Port Aransas.  This story and others are recounted by Farley in his book, “Fishing Yesterday’s Gulf Coast”, published posthumously in the fall of 2002.

World War II

By 1940, the population of Port Aransas had grown to about 500, a number that was doubled by military personnel stationed on the island during World War II. Reports of German U-boats off the Texas coast led the military in 1942-44 to build two gunnery emplacements, each on a high sand dune overlooking the Gulf. The remains of the bunker are still visible today near the University of Texas Marine Science Institute.

The institute was founded after the UT Board of Regents reported in 1892 to Texas Gov. Jim Hogg that the Gulf coast was a prime location for a marine station. As a result, in May of 1900, regents appropriated $300 for a marine laboratory at Galveston, and the first class of five students began to study littoral and shallow water fauna. When the hurricane of 1900 struck, the laboratory’s research vessel was heavily damaged, and it was 15 years before re-establishment of the lab was attempted. Before that effort got off the ground, another tropical storm caused such damage that the new research vessel was sold and the effort was abandoned.

A massive fish kill in Port Aransas in 1935 brought Dr. E.J. Lund, a zoologist from The University of Texas, to investigate. Lund managed to rekindle interest in marine science at the university after seeing the Port Aransas environment.  In 1941, the MSI was formally founded, and Lund was its first director. A permanent marine laboratory was established by 1946. A pier laboratory was added in 1948, and major expansions were constructed in the 1970s.

MSI began leasing the National Marine Fisheries Service Laboratory in the late 70’s and the facility was formally transferred to MSI in 1987. A new library and Visitor’s Center was built in 1982. In August, 2008, the Wetlands Education Center was opened, further expanding the MSI’s marine education program.

Port Aransas was a booming mecca for booze, girls and gambling in the late 1940s and 50s. Isolated from the authorities, the illicit activities went unchecked until Hurricane Carla swept over the island in 1961. Most of the illegal joints were destroyed by the storm and never rebuilt. With the advent of new transportation technology, the old lighthouse was decommissioned in 1952. In addition, a road connecting Port Aransas with the Padre Island Causeway was completed in 1954, providing direct vehicular access.

Today, in addition to the road connecting Port Aransas to Padre Island and what is now called the John F. Kennedy Causeway, Port Aransas is served by six 20-car ferries and two 28-car ferries that bring more than one million cars to the island each year. Port Aransas has continued its growth as a tourism center. Although the tarpon population dwindled drastically in the mid-1900s, the popularity of sport fishing continued to grow in the 1960s. There are now fishing tournaments, targeting species other than tarpon, every weekend during the summer and a few scattered through the fall.

The 21st Century, and beyond...

In addition to summer activities, the annual migration of Winter Texans from northern states has brought yet another season of tourism to the island.  Port Aransas’ population after the 2000 census was 3,370, and the community has nearly as many voters because many property owners who are part time residents register to vote here. 

Eco-tourism, including bird watching, began drawing greater interest as the 21st Century dawned, and Port Aransas in the late 1990s took on the Celebration of Whooping Cranes and Other Birds (now called the Whooping Crane Festival) as an annual event drawing birders from across the nation. The city has placed emphasis on its birding centers, particularly the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center on Ross Avenue, and the Joan and Scott Holt Paradise Pond Birding Center off Cut-off Road.  In December 2009, the city opened the first phase of a nature preserve in an area known as Charlie’s Pasture on the east side of the island.

- Excerpts from the Port Aransas South Jetty, The Port Aranasas Visitor's Guide, Wikipedia, and the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce website are included in this brief history.