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Oldest building on South Padre holds memories of rescuers

Island Breeze Image
The oldest building on South Padre Island, located at its southern tip, once housed the U.S. Coast Guard operations here. Today, it is used by the University of Texas at Brownsville—Texas Southmost College as an educational complex. (courtesy)

History to the Point

Recently, I was asked by an area visitor if there were any old or historic buildings on South Padre Island, and the answer is that one building is both old and historically important to the Laguna Madre area. Actually, there are several buildings on the Island that can qualify as historic in one form or another, such as the oldest house or hotel, but for pure historic value, it would be impossible to ignore the U.S. Coast Guard Station.

The historic roots of the U.S. Coast Guard here virtually mirror that of the American town of Point Isabel and the area it anchors. In March 1846, the first part of Gen. Zachary Taylor’s army to reach this place was the Revenue Cutter’s “Woodbury” ship and a small group of troops sent in advance of the army to reconnoiter the layout of the land.

Throughout the period known as the Mexican-American War, the Coast Guard (then known as the Revenue Cutter Service) played an important role.

Another branch of the U.S. maritime armada, the Lightship Service, which is a branch of the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment, also performed yeoman’s duty by marking the entrance to the Brazos Santiago Pass during the war and making it safer for ocean traffic. Later, all Lighthouse Service related branches were brought into the Coast Guard service.

From the construction of the Point Isabel Lighthouse in 1852 until they became part of the Coast Guard family, the servants of the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment performed almost continuous duty in the Lower Laguna Madre area.

The Revenue Cutter Service featured a prominent role here again during the American Civil War as they helped the Union’s coastal blockade. This action was designed to keep badly needed supplies out of the Confederates’ hands. A long, thin line of U.S. Navy vessels blockaded all vital ports throughout the entire Confederacy from Virginia to the Rio Grande. By November 1863, a formidable armada of more than 20 ships, including several Revenue Cutters, policed the Brazos Santiago Pass and performed support duties for the Union Army stationed on Brazos Island.

In the 1880s, the U.S. Government established a Life Saving Service Station on Brazos Island, and later they too were made part of the U.S. Coast Guard. This indispensable branch of the Coast Guard was recently immortalized in the movie, “The Guardian,” and I thought it was high time that these men and women were recognized for their heroic labor. Many people owe their lives to the rescue swimmers and rescue crews of our local station.

Locally, the U.S. Coast Guard base is known as the “Station South Padre Island” and is within the 8th Coast Guard District at the southern end of the Island. Originally known as the Station Port Isabel, the name was changed in 1998 to properly reflect its location.

The oldest building within the compound (and therefore the oldest on the Island) dates to around 1924, according to the stations web page. But photographic evidence seems to point to an earlier date. Perhaps it was damaged in a tropical storm and rebuilt or remodeled in 1924, I’m not sure—and I would invite any comments on this matter. However, there is no doubt that the building that now houses the annex for the University of Texas-Brownsville Southmost campus is the oldest building on South Padre Island.

Today, the building stands as a fitting monument to countless lives rescued in the performance of the U.S. Coast Guard’s duty at Station South Padre Island and the safe comfort they lend to the people of the Point.

Rod Bates writes about the history of the Laguna Madre area for Island Breeze on Sundays. To experience more history, visit Bates at the Rio Bravo Gallery at 107 E. Tarnava St., a half block south of the Lighthouse Square in Port Isabel.

Posted by: Ryan Henry on Aug 11, 07 | 3:07 pm | Profile
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