Fabulous Port Aransas

North Jetty in 1909

by Miller Harwood and W. A. Serivner
Published 1949

Part 3

Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4


While the Aransas Pass project was authorized by the Government in 1879, the work progressed slowly, due to lack of sufficient funds appropriated by Congress. Quoting from a paper read by Mr. Herbert U. Rhodius, an engineer, before the Scientific Society of San Antonio on November 8, 1910:

"The efforts to secure a deep water channel at Aransas Pass divide themselves into three periods:

. 1st. Early Government improvements 1878 to 1890

. 2nd. Work of the Aransas Pass Harbor Company 1890-1899

. 3rd. Recent Government improvements 1899-1910

"By Act of Congress March 2, 1889, a Board of Engineers was appointed to report on the selection of a deep water harbor on the northwest coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The Board recommended Galveston as the best adapted for the purpose, stating, however, that the harbors of Sabine and Aransas Pass were worthy of consideration, and vigorous prosecution of improvement under then-projects. In view of the smallness of the appropriations which had been made from year to year for the work at Aransas Pass and the general belief that any appropriations for harbor improvements in the immediate future for Texas would be confined to Galveston, the Aransas Harbor Company was incorporated to attempt to secure deep water at Aransas Pass by the expenditure of private capital. In May, 1890, Congress granted to this corporation certain rights and privileges and on June 30, 1890, relinquished charge of the harbor to this corporation. Up to that time there had been spent by the Government about $550,000."


Aransas Harbor City and Improvement Company was organized by T. B. Wheeler of Austin, Texas. Wheeler was an ex-mayor of Austin and Lieutenant-Governor of Texas from 1886 to 1890. In 1889, while still Lieutenant Governor of Texas, he came to the present site of the town of Aransas Pass. At that time there was no town or post office there. He and his associates bought from T. P. McCampbell, of Goliad, Texas, twelve thousand acres of land fronting on the shores of Red Fish Bay and extending back to what is now known as Avenue B, about two miles west of Aransas Pass, running north and south.

Wheeler decided that the present site of the town of Aransas Pass was the logical point on the mainland for the location of a city; and then proceeded to organize the Aransas Harbor City & Improvement Co., which took over the twelve thousand acres of land bought from McCampbell. This land was then surveyed, and the town of Aransas Harbor laid out. Subsequently, in 1892, the name of the town was changed to Aransas Pass. This change was made when Rockport, which, for a short period, had assumed the name of Aransas Pass, changed its name back to Rockport.

Among Wheeler's associates was Russell Harrison, a son of former President Benjamin Harrison. Russell Harrison was President of the Aransas Harbor City & Improvement Co. In the city of Aransas Pass today there is a Harrison Boulevard, a Wheeler Avenue, a Yoakum Avenue, a McCampbell street, a Nelson Avenue, and a Houston street. Nelson Avenue was named for the contractor, J. P. Nelson, who built the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railroad on into Rockport.

J. P. Nelson, a few years later built what is known as the "Old Terminal Railroad"; chartered the Aransas Harbor Terminal Railway; and constructed three and one-half miles of rail line from the mainland at Aransas Pass to Morris & Cummins Cut, it being a part of the plan of Wheeler and associates to build this road to Harbor Island and to establish docks and terminals to accomodate traffic moving through Aransas Pass waterway.

Aransas Harbor City & Improvement Co. held public sales of lots and tracts of land in the new townsite, the first sale occuring in September, 1890. Another sale was held in January, 1891. Many lots and tracts were sold at these sales.

During the period, 1890-91, it was generally thought that the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railroad would connect the mainland with a railroad to the deep water harbor at Aransas Pass waterway, but a financial panic at that time caused the railroad to abandon any such plans. It was shortly thereafter that the San Antonio & Aransas Pass R.R. passed into the control of the powerful Southern Pacific Railway System, which had heavy investments in terminal facilities at New Orleans and at Galveston. A new port, serving southwest Texas, would decrease the earnings of the Southern Pacific system by diverting goods from the long haul to Galveston and New Orleans from the southwest coast area. Therefore the Southern Pacific contributed nothing to the development of the proposed new port. This was a keen disappointment to Wheeler and his associates, whose success in building a city was entirely dependent upon securing an adequate depth of water in the Aransas Pass channel.


The Government having relinquished to Aransas Harbor City & Improvement Company the project of deepening Aransas Pass, the latter proceeded with the difficult task. The progress of this work is shown by further quotations from Rhodius' report:

"It seems that when the Aransas Pass Harbor Company took charge of the Pass, it had no definite plans of improvement. The first work of this corporation, in 1892, consisted of the Nelson jetty running seaward from a point on Mustang Island at which the Government revetment ended. This jetty was built for about 1800 feet, and then the work, for some reason, stopped. The Harbor Company then employed Messrs. Lewis M. Haupt and H. C. Ripley, two civil engineers, to prepare a project for the improvement of Aransas Pass. These engineers advised the construction of a single jetty, which is described as follows in a letter dated 1895:

" . . . the work will be entirely of stone with a brush mattress extending under a portion of its length, which will be 6200 feet in all. Top width 10 feet, to a height of three feet above mean low tide. The base will vary with the depth, from 40 to 70 feet. In plan it will differ from the usual form of jetty or breakwater, being detached from shore and located on the bar to windward of the channel. Its axis will be curved (compound and reverse) to produce reactions similar to those found in the concavities of streams. It is designed to fulfill the fundamental conditions of (a) arresting the litteral drift (b) admitting the full tidal prism to the interior lagoons (c) controling the ebb currents and producing a reaction across the bar (d) changing the equilibrium of flood and ebb currents in favor of the latter, and (e) of affording aid to navigation by a structure of only half the length of the usual convergent jetties in pairs. The work is to be constructed in two parts. The construction of the proposed breakwater as designed will unquestionably result in securing navigable depths over the bar of 15 feet for the first part of the work and 20 feet for the second.'
Signed Lewis M. Haupt H. C. Ripley

"This is the reaction breakwater over which there has been so much controversy. It was constructed substantially as above described in 1895-96, the work being done by Charles Clark & Company, of Galveston, under contract with the Aransas Harbor Pass Co., and it seems, owing to lack of funds, not entirely completed according to plans of the engineers who advanced the project. The superstructure subsequently sank beneath the waves, and the jetty accomplished no lasting results, except to cause the channel to remain more fixed.

"Up to January 1, 1898, the Aransas Pass Harbor Company spent the sum of $401,000.00. In 1897 the Harbor Company decided to abandon the project and petitioned the Congress again to take over the improvement."


In 1894 Alexander Brown & Sons of Baltimore became interested in the project through the efforts of Wheeler. It was this firm which furnished the funds to pay for the improvement referred to in the latter part of the report quoted above. Because of this new source of funds, hopes were again revived in the town of Aransas Pass, and the other communities in the immediate vicinity, including San Antonio, that at last a deep water channel was assured at Aransas Pass waterway.


The widespread interest in the Aransas Pass area at this time is illustrated by the following quotations from a copy of "The Daily Herald", a paper published in Aransas Pass at that time:

"Ex-Governor A. C. Mellette of South Dakota said: 'After visiting Galveston and Port Arthur, I can't help but think that this is the most practicable place as a port of entry ... If the people of the northwest only knew what was here, thousands of them would be here tonight.'

"Lon C. Hill, of Beeville, Texas, said: 'Commercially speaking, Aransas Pass is the greatest scheme on the American continent today. It is to Texas and the west what the Nicaraugan Canal would be to the United States'."

Ex-Senator Merrill of Wyoming is also mentioned in the personal column of the paper as a visitor to Aransas Pass that week. The issue of the Herald quoted above is of date February 16, 1896, and is in the possession of F. G. Bigelow, of Aransas Pass, who established the first store in that town.

In 1897, when it became evident that the plan of deepening and maintaining the channel at the Pass had failed, the town of Aransas Pass reached its lowest ebb, and many people left.

Builders are men of vision and of faith. They first conceive of an objective, and their faith in this objective produces perseverance and determined persistence. Such a man was T. B. Wheeler. Failure only spurred him on to greater effort. Consequently, at this juncture, he took up the burden of reviving interest in the project through friendships in Washington and particularly through his friendship with Senator Joseph W. Bailey.

The United States Engineers never did believe in nor approve of the Haupt jetty theory but, incredible as it seems, when Wheeler succeded in getting the Rivers and Harbors Committee of Congress to approve further study and authorize appropriations for improvements, Lewis M. Haupt prevailed upon the Committee to recommend the completion of the curved breakwater, or Haupt jetty, undertaken by the Aransas Harbor City & Improvement Co. This was attempted but again resulted in failure in 1902.


Notwithstanding this failure. Wheeler with characteristic persistence, continued his efforts in Washington, and in 1906 another examination of the project was ordered. Major Jadwin, the U.S. District Engineer at Galveston, recommended a two jetty type, which was adopted by Congress and money appropriated with which to begin the work. A contract was let to D. M. Picton & Co., of Rockport, for about a half million dollars. The Picton contract was prosecuted with energy. The north jetty was connected with the shore of St. Joseph Island and the south jetty completed about half way. By June, 1909, the water over the bar had improved rapidly and the channel had widened all the way out. A stone dike was built along the bay shore of St. Joseph Island for about three miles to prevent high tides from cutting in behind the north jetty, as the island had only about five feet elevation near the end of the jetty. At the completion of this contract the navigable water over the bar and through the channel was 17 feet.

It was now apparent that deep water in the Aransas Pass channel was assured, and Engineers' reports recommended that the harbor be established at Harbor Island. This afforded an opportunity to private interests to connect the mainland and the harbor with transportation facilities.


The dream of Governor T. B. Wheeler was now a reality. His indomitable energy finally resulted in deep water over the bar of Aransas Pass sufficient for the commerce of the world. He was typical of those pioneer Texans who gave to this generation a mighty state. He subordinated the usual aspirations of men and his private fortune to his effort to effectuate a vision which gave to the world a new port. Aransas Pass, Port Aransas, Rockport and Corpus Christi are deeply indebted to him. When one looks at the busy wharfs, the oil installations, the great industrial plants, the large hotels and countless tourist cottages which stem from the fact of deep water over the bar at Aransas Pass, it staggers the imagination to consider what the efforts of one man can achieve.

T. B. Wheeler was the "Father of Aransas Pass", town and waterway alike.


In 1909, E. O. Burton and A. H. Danforth of San Antonio established themselves in Aransas Pass, operating under the firm name of Burton & Danforth. Their purpose was to continue building the city begun by T. B. Wheeler and also to build docks at the port and connect them with the mainland by dredging a channel in a direct line between Harbor Island and Aransas Pass, a distance of six miles.

The firm first bought from the widow of T. P. McCampbell that portion of the twelve thousand acres originally purchased by T. B. Wheeler which was unsold by the latter and which he had returned to the former owner. They then proceeded to sell town lots and five- and ten-acre tracts. With deep water assured so near the town of Aransas Pass, and with so much publicity having been given this project, is was not difficult to sell these parcels of land. It is claimed that more than six thousand of these lots and tracts were sold to people from many parts of the United States.

Burton & Danforth completed a channnel from Aransas Pass to Harbor Island eight feet in depth, in 1911. Through special legislation, called "The Harbor Island Act of 1911", the State of Texas authorized the General Land Office of the state to sell land on Harbor Island fronting on the harbor so recently recommended by U.S. Engineers. The Harbor Island Act of 1911 further stipulated that only those who built docks and or a railroad and or channels to connect the harbor with the mainland, all in the interest of the public, were eligible purchasers. Burton & Danforth, by virtue of the channel that they had dredged from the mainland to the harbor, bought all the land to which they were entitled under the terms of the Harbor Island Act at the harbor site.

This harbor is located directly in front of the Pass. It is about 800 feet in width and 3000 feet in length, and the Government authorized it to be dredged to a depth of 20 feet. When this dredging was started, the spoil was deposited on Harbor Island, raising the elevation of the water-front property to about eight feet. Subsequent dredging operations from time to time completed the job of raising the land to a height of twelve feet over a large area. Prior to these operations. Harbor Island was subject to overflow by high tides to a depth of three or four feet. In dredging the channel between the harbor and Aransas Pass, a spoil bank was created on the south side of the channel of sufficient quantity with which to build a railroad embankment, and the railroad was constructed on this embankment in 1912.


Due to financial difficulties, Burton & Danforth, in 1911, offered to sell their holdings, rights etc., to Alexander Brown & Sons of Baltimore. Although the Brown people had spent, according to Government records, about S400,000 on the Aransas Pass waterway in 1895 to 1898, yet they purchased from Burton & Danforth the land which the latter had acquired from the State and other certain rights and titles. The Baltimore firm then proceeded to build the railroad to Harbor Island and docks thereon. The operating companies controlled by Alexander Brown & Sons were the Aransas Dock & Channel Co. and the Aransas Harbor Terminal Railway, W. A. Scrivner being Traffic Manager first, and several years later being elected president of both companies. These corporations opened Port Aransas to commerce in 1912, and although it was in August when this was done, 35,000 bales of cotton were exported that year. Preparations were made for a big cotton export business in 1913, and over a hundred thousand bales passed through the port in that year. Also in 1913 a coastwise shipping company, operating between New York and Freeport and handling general cargo, diverted its sailings to Port Aransas, and merchandise was moved through the port destined chiefly for Corpus Christi and San Antonio.

The faith of Alexander Brown & Sons in the possibilities of Aransas Pass had now brought the commerce of the world to this waterway. Under the able direction of L. S. Zimmerman, of Baltimore, and representative of the Brown firm for its Aransas interests, the early vision of T. B. Wheeler had now become a reality. This firm was headed by a remarkable man in the person of Alexander Brown, who passed away in 1949 at the advanced age of 96 years. He was an illustrious example of that great coterie of financiers who took the shattered pieces of America at the close of the Civil War and welded them into the mightiest nation on earth.

At this time a new type of commerce, not originally contemplated by the developers of the port, started moving from Tampico, Mexico. This was crude oil shipped by the Mexican Petroleum Company, a Doheny corporation, to the Magnolia Petroleum Company, who, in turn, distributed it to all points in southwest Texas and as far as Bisbee and Douglas, Arizona.


In 1914, while its citizens were anticipating a tremendous business for Port Aransas in cotton exports, World War I broke out in Europe. While the United States did not enter this war until 1917, its effect on commerce and shipping in this country was immediately felt by southern ports. Even in the big port of New Orleans shipping declined. A part of the south Texas cotton crop was stored at Port Aransas in 1914, European markets being closed against this commodity. Only oil passed through the Aransas Pass channel, and this continued throughout the war. The city of Aransas Pass again experienced a low ebb period, and a great many people moved away from the town, seeking work in war plants, ship yards, etc.


In 1916 a hurricane of considerable intensity struck Port Aransas and the railroad and docks were heavily damaged. It cost about $120,000 for repairs. In. this hurricane, the "PILOT BOY", a small steamboat in regular trade between Corpus Christi and Galveston, went down just north of the Aransas Pass jetties. Sam T. Bromley, now living in the city of Aransas Pass, was at that time employed by the U. S. Government Engineers' Department and was stationed at Port Aransas. He stated that three men of this crew were drowned including the captain, and that their bodies were recovered. A pathetic touch was given to the story of the tragic incident when Bromley stated that one of these men undertook to save the life of the ship's mascot, a cat, and when he plunged into the water he carried the cat in his arms. His body, when found, bore mute evidence of the struggle to save the cat by its lacerated and clawed condition. Bromley stated that he helped to rescue two of the men, one of whom was taken to his home for first aid treatment. The men had had only life belts as aids to keep afloat.


In 1918 the France & Canada Steamship Co., of New York selected Port Aransas as a site to build concrete boats, due to the fact that its climatic condition permitted concrete to be poured the year round. The program called for the building of oil tankers first. This work brought a great many laborers to Aransas Pass, and a housing shortage developed overnight. The Aransas Harbor Terminal Railway ran a train for the workmen from Aransas Pass and also hauled a great deal of material used in the construction of these boats. This new business, coupled with the increased movement of oil through the port, brought to the railroad, the dock company, and to the people of Aransas Pass a welcome period of prosperity. This condition continued until September, 1919, when, in addition to the other traffic and business, cotton again started moving through Port Aransas.

End of Part 3    Continue with Part 4

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