Fabulous Port Aransas

Wreck of the Japonica from the 1919 Hurricane

by Miller Harwood and W. A. Serivner
Published 1949

Part 4

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On September 14, 1919, the busy port bore the brunt of one of the most destructive hurricanes of which the United States Weather Bureau has any record. Several hundred people were drowned in Corpus Christi, and a few were drowned in Port Aransas and Aransas Pass. This storm completely destroyed the railroad tracks and embankment, the warehouse of the dock company, and other port facilities.

However, the France & Canada Steamship Co. completed two of their concrete tankers under great difficulties. Oil continued to move from Mexico and was handled by barge from the hastily repaired docks at Harbor Island to Aransas Pass, where it was pumped into railroad tank cars and shipped to points in west and southwest Texas as before.

The owners of the Aransas Harbor Terminal Railway were slow in rebuilding their damaged properties, and it was not until 1922 that the railroad was restored to operating condition.


Corpus Christi interests for many years had been trying to get that city designated as a deep water port by the Government and had pressed their claims diligently. Many hearings were held by U. S. Government Engineers, and at these hearings the claims of Aransas Pass, Rockport, Harbor Island and Corpus Christi were heard. In 1922, by authority of the Rivers and Harbors Act of September, a deep water channel of 25 feet was authorized from Port Aransas to Corpus Christi, the channel to be dredged at the Government's expense. Corpus Christi agreed to build docks and a turning basin, and to provide all necessary port facilities. This new waterway was completed in July, 1926, and the port of Corpus Christi was opened to commerce. This rival port, with its many rail and highway transporation facilities, and its numerous sites for docks and industrial installations at waterside, killed Port Aransas as a harbor for the handling of general cargo and farm products.


However, also in 1926, the first oil pipe line was built to Port Aransas from Refugio. This was the beginning of the movement of crude oil through pipe lines to Port Aransas that later made it the largest station for loading crude oil in this country.

The Humble Pipe Line Co., in 1927, bought from the State a dock and tank farm site on Harbor Island and constructed one of the largest oil terminals in Texas. Later on, the Atlantic Pipe Line Co. purchased from William Morgan, the builder of the first pipe line from Refugio, the latter's interest in that pipe line, enlarging its terminal to such an extent that the combined loading capacities of the Atlantic and Humble companies by 1948 placed Port Aransas in the front ranks of the large ports of the country in point of tonnage. But oil loading operations require few men, and so the port has not benefitted to the extent that would have been the case had oil refineries also been located on Harbor Island.

The establishment of the terminals of these big oil companies on Harbor Island changed the fortune of the Aransas Harbor Terminal Railway and the Aransas Dock & Channel Co. The terminal and tank farm of the Atlantic Company is located on the land of the Aransas Dock & Channel Co., and the rentals received by the Dock Company make a steady source of income for that corporation.


Another development occurred in 1926 that was destined to play an important part in shaping the future of Port Aransas. The difficulty in reaching that place by automobile had always been a serious obstacle to its growth as a pleasure resort. To overcome this obstacle a train consisting of flat cars, capable of receiving automobiles, and drawn by an automotive truck, was placed in service. At Harbor Island this automobile train connected with a ferry boat which carried the automobiles across the channel and landed them on Mustang Island. From there the cars could travel down the Island as far as Corpus Christi Pass, a distance of 20 miles. A year or two later a bridge was built across this Pass which opened the entire beach of Padre Island to motor traffic.

In 1931 the automobile train service was superceded by the construction of a causeway from Aransas Pass to Harbor Island, this causeway being capable of sustaining motor traffic. The causeway was an immediate success. Travel to Port Aransas increased, and through advertising, the fame of that place continued to spread throughout the country as a beach resort.


After the causeway was constructed, the owner of the project enjoyed a two-year period of uninterrupted operations. Business was good despite the fact that the depression was adversely affecting the entire nation. But in 1933 another hurricane struck the lower Rio Grande Valley with destructive winds which caused a seven foot tide at Port Aransas. This tidal wave seriously damaged the causeway. Three months were required to repair it. During that period the ferry boats were operated between Aransas Pass and Port Aransas, but these could handle only a limited number of automobiles and trucks. The causeway was rebuilt in such a substantial manner that it was hoped that it could withstand hurricane winds and tides, but in 1942 a hurricane caused sufficient damage to the rebuilt causeway to stop traffic over it for a month. During this time the causeway company again handled traffic by ferry boat from the mainland to the port. World War II was then being waged, and military transportation vehicles received priority on the ferry boats. However, there was not much vehicular travel to Port Aransas during the war, as visitors were not allowed to go down the beach nor to go outside the jetties in fishing boats. This was a Government regulation occasioned by the fact that there were 500 men of the U. S. Coast Guard, the Navy, and Coast Artillery stationed on Mustang Island during most of the war period. Heavy guns were mounted on the dunes between the fishing pier and the south jetty. This military occupation of the Island was occasioned by reports of German submarines operating in the Gulf.

In August, 1945, still another hurricane lashed inshore near Port Aransas causing serious damage to the causeway. Again the company inaugurated a ferry service from Aransas Pass to Mustang Island. The damage was more extensive than that suffered in 1942, and six weeks' work was necessary to restore vehicular passage over the causeway.


Alexander Brown & Sons, the Baltimore owners of the Aransas Harbor Terminal Railway, the Aransas Dock & Channel Co., and subsidiary corpora-lions, sold these properties to H. H. Dewar and T. Frank Murchison, of San Antonio, in 1946. Since that time, the new owners have continued the operation of the properties through the same operating corporations which they purchased, with the exception of the Aransas Harbor Terminal Railway, which was abandoned in 1947, its tracks removed and its equipment sold. The announced policy of Messrs. Dewar and Murchison in regard to the Aransas properties, which they purchased, is both reassuring and encouraging to the people who are dependent for a livelihood upon the service of the causeway and the ferry boats, including the entire community of Port Aransas. This policy is first, to make the properties secure from the ravages of tropical storms. Upon the advice of competent engineers, work is progressing by a new method which it is hoped will solve this very difficult problem, so far as the causeway is concerned. A suction dredge was built and is now working on the north side of the causeway depositing the spoil on both sides of the road in such a manner that the slope from the same elevation as the road is so gradual that a storm tide, it is believed, will flow over the structure without undermining and collapsing it. Messrs. Dewar and Murchison have also announced other plans which they hope to carry out at some future time which will benefit the communities served by their transportation system. It is indeed fortunate for the communities of Aransas Pass and Port Aransas that corporations so vital to them have fallen into such able hands.


Beginning with the first authorization of improvements for the Port Aransas-Corpus Christi waterway by the Congress of the United States in 1879. and up to May, 1949, a total of sixteen million two hundred thousand dollars has been spent on this waterway by the Government. Private interests have spent over five hundred thousand dollars, which, added to that expended by the Government, makes a grand total of sixteen million seven hundred thousand dollars.

Private interests have constructed docks and shipping facilities along the waterway at a cost approximating seven million dollars. The Nueces County Navigation District, alone, built docks, terminals and warehouses, and dredged a harbor, at a cost of four million two hundred forty-five thousand dollars, and private interests in Corpus Christi own docks and facilities variously estimated at more than a million dollars. At Harbor Island, the Aransas Dock & Channel Co. and the Humble Pipe Line Co. have docks and turning basins estimated to have cost several hundred thousand dollars. Hogg Brothers of Houston built a dock and dredged a turning basin at Harbor City, which is used by the Humble Co. The Sun Oil Co., in 1947, completed a dock and turning basin about a mile below the Hogg Bros, dock, both installations costing several hundred thousand dollars.

Back of these privately constructed docks, shipping facilities, and turning basins are located oil tank farms, refineries, and industrial plants of various kinds that represent an investment of much more than a hundred million dollars.


The story of the discovery of Aransas Pass waterway; the first use of it in its natural state; the efforts that were made to develop it; the industrial installations and communities that have sprung up around it; has been told. But no history of this fabulous waterway is complete without reference to its fishing and hunting opportunities and to its recreational advantages. These center around the towns of Port Aransas and Aransas Pass.

From the early 80's until 1889 Port Aransas was called Ropesville and had a post office. The name was then changed to Tarpon the town continued by that name until 1912 when the present name was assumed.

In the 80's and 90's the fishing and hunting was excellent, especially the latter, due to the fact that this part of the coast was so isolated that wild life was not disturbed. W. A. Farley, now a resident of Aransas Pass, states that in the last decade of the nineteenth century there were so many ducks that they were hunted commercially and shipped to market. These ducks, when sold in San Antonio, brought ten cents each. Farley also stated that he acted as a guide for a man named Smith of New York, one day, who, in a duck blind located where the Humble tank farm is now situated, killed 192 red head ducks that day. The marketing of ducks was stopped by the Texas Game & Fish Commission in 1905. Geese were also plentiful and afforded good hunting.

W. A. Farley moved to Port Aransas (then named Tarpon) in 1899, and became a hunting and fishing guide. Tarpon had a population at that time of about 250 people, some engaged in fishing and some working on channel improvements then being done by Aransas Harbor City & Improvement Co. Farley stated that the fishing was mostly done in row boats, the guides being paid $1.50 per day for rowing the boat. On a very quiet day a row boat would go as far as five miles into the Gulf. All tarpon were caught on 72 lb. test lines, 18 lb. test lines not being used then.

R. L. Mercer now living in Aransas Pass, said that when he was a young boy he lived in Tarpon in the 80's and 90's, and that people came there in considerable numbers the year round to fish and to hunt, the hunting, of course, being done in the fall and winter. Mercer agreed with Farley that the fishing was done from row boats, and that guides were then available to row boats into the Pass and also out into the Gulf. Tarpon were caught in great numbers, and red fish, speckled trout and sheepshead were caught almost anywhere in the vicinity of Tarpon at any time of the year.


Around the turn of the century. Colonel E. H. R. Green, only son of the famous woman financier of New York, Mrs. Hetty Green, had a club house of about 20 rooms located on St. Joseph Island, about a mile from the Pass, which was visited by a great many men who had been made members of the club. These visitors kept several guides busy taking them out on hunting and fishing trips. Green brought the first gasoline launch to Tarpon and hired Ed Cotter to run it, after first sending Cotter to Chicago to learn about the combustion and ignition of gasoline engines. This young man's mother owned the famous Tarpon Inn which was the only hotel in the town at that time, and is yet, for that matter. The old building was so damaged in the hurricane of 1919 that it was converted into a kitchen and dining room for the present building. Cotter later sold the Inn and became mayor of the town and also a bar pilot.

Mr. and Mrs. J. M. Ellis bought the Inn from Cotter, rebuilt it, and continued serving the fine sea food for which it is nationally famous. The Tarpon Inn is now operated by Mrs. Ellis and her son, Bill.

During those early days, Sam Gray operated a daily freight, passenger and mail service by sail boat between Tarpon and Rockport.


According to John D. Wheeler, a lawyer now living in San Antonio, who lived in Aransas Pass when a youth, sea turtles were shipped from Tarpon in great quantities. These were big fellows weighing in some instances over 500 pounds each. These turtles had a habit of congregating in the shallows near Lydia Ann Island, which is near the light house. Fishermen made heavy nets, enmeshed the turtles in them, and dragged them into shallow water where they were loaded on light draft boats and carried to market. The turtle was flipped on his back, this making him helpless and easy to handle. In the same manner the turtles were shipped by railway express from Rockport to San Antonio and arrived at their destination alive and fresh.

In the early days of fishing around the Pass there were no shrimp trawlers, due to the fact that there was no market for shrimp. But now, shrimping is a major occupation with over a hundred shrimp boats based at the city of Aransas Pass. According to reports of the Texas Game, Fish & Oyster Commission, about one-fourth of the catch of the Texas Gulf coast is shipped through Aransas Pass to market.


But no record of the fishing history of Port Aransas is complete without mention of some of the celebrities who have visited it.

One of the early enthusiasts was Dr. Richard L. Sutton, of Kansas City. He wrote many books on sports fishing, one of them being entitled "The Silver Kings of Aransas Pass." He dubbed Port Aransas "The Tarpon Capitol of the World." He introduced the custom of fishing with hooks without barb so that the tarpon could be released without too much injury. It is said that he caught as many as twenty five in one day. However, Dr. and Mrs. N. S. Ozburn of Memphis, Tennessee, hold the record for one day's catch, having caught and released thirty seven tarpon.

Dr. J. A. L. WaddelL an eminent mining engineer, spent much time during the 1930's at Port Aransas. He was at one time advisor to the Chinese Government, shortly after it became a republic. He was often referred to as the dean of American engineers.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt anchored the "POTOMAC", the presidential yacht, near Harbor Island in 1937 and enjoyed the tarpon fishing.

In order to get a cross-section of the many sports fishermen who have visited Port Aransas, the following are mentioned as only a very few: Charles Urschel, oil man of Oklahoma and Texas; Durwood Kirby, National Broadcasting Company announcer; Buddy Rogers, moving picture star; and Amiee Semple McPherson, the noted evangelist of Los Angeles.


The recent completion of the Intra-coastal Canal to Brownsville is an event of prime importance, not only to south Texas, but to the entire state. It is obvious that cheap transportation is of great benefit to commercial interests and especially to the industrial installations now located along the entire Texas coast.

But the completed canal presents the state with another asset of incalculable potentiality. One may now travel by boat from Chicago to Brownsville along an inland waterway. If this fact is sufficiently advertised, visitors in great numbers from the heart of the middle west will come by house boat and in small craft on the new waterway to a vacation land heretofore closed to them. The last part of the waterway parallels the Texas Gulf shore for more than 400 miles. But only between Port Aransas and Port Isabel is there an unbroken beach for so great a distance as 130 miles. The sand dunes of Mustang and Padre Islands separate the canal in Laguna Madre from the Gulf of Mexico. Some day the State of Texas will construct a highway on this stretch of land from which the tourist can gaze on the boundless expanse of the Gulf where steamers are in sight on regular trade routes, on the one hand, and on the other, he can see the placid waters of Laguna Madre and catch an occasional glimpse of laden barges, house boats and small craft moving long the canal. Private interests will provide food and shelter at intervals along this roadway and dredge small inlets from the Laguna Madre waterway so that both water-borne and land travelers may meet and mingle and exchange experiences. The tourist can stop his car at any point along this 130 mile stretch of highway and cast his line into either the Gulf or into the lagoon, both of which are teeming with fish. He can bathe in the unrivaled surf on the seaward side, or he can watch the spectacular bird life on the shores of Laguna Madre.

The great Island of Padre was granted by the King of Spain to Nicolas Balli in 1806 and has been the scene of many a shipwreck in the days of the treasure galleons and the rendezvous of pirates. Ancient gold coins have been found in its dunes together with other relics of a romantic past. Ghost towns have left their evidence on the lower end of the island, and ranchmen have grazed their cattle and sheep on its coastal grasses. Coyotes roam over its dunes, and wild fowl of every kind drink at its fresh water pools.

A feeling of remote solitude hovers over this seascape. The visitor is impressed with the haunting mystery, as far down the beach he glimpses the white skeletons of unfamiliar trees washed ashore from some exotic isle. Savage war canoes, cocoanuts, battered skiffs and rafts, drums of oil and cases of liquor have been found along the shore. A translucent haze enshrouds the scene. The roar of the surf is ever present, and the cries of the birds intrigue the ear.

No other state can furnish such a unique recreational opportunity.

The tourist business is a tremendous industry. It has been neglected by the State of Texas. The building of a scenic highway from Port Aransas to Port Isabel would benefit the entire state to a greater degree than the establishment of America's greatest factories within its borders. The tourists attracted to the south Texas coast would swarm all over the state and the gasoline tax, alone, would pay for the highway.

This vision will be realized.


Fabulous Port Aransas, whose recorded history reaches into that dim and distant past when intrepid explorers were still seeking a passage to the Pacific from the Atlantic through the continent of North America! Whose Pass was discovered coincidentally with the discovery of Texas. Whose waters were used by smugglers and men with piratical intent in many an unrecorded and secret voyage to its inner bays. Whose dangerous bar was braved by the early Irish colonists destined to build a civilization in the surrounding coastal plain.

The indigo waters of the Gulf breaking in white foam at the entrance of the Pass lured man and Government into spending fortunes to improve the historic waterway. Neither storm nor war nor depression could prevent Aransas' rendezvous with destiny.

Men who gazed far into the future were able to envision a port serving a rich agricultural and ranching area. But even these men could not foresee the fabulous pools of oil which lay beneath the surface, nor the sprawling industrial plants which cluster along its shoreline. Nor did they dream of the long lines of sleek automobiles carrying a happy and prosperous people to bathing beaches, fishing launches, or duck blinds. Known to mariners, industrialists and sportsmen throughout the world, Port Aransas has come into its heritage and justified the faith of its god-fathers. And even the fish teeming in its limpid waters do their part, for "They Bite Every Day."

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