Gulf Coast Byway
GULF COAST BYWAY
Over 200 miles of white sand and the sparkling blue water of the Gulf of Mexico forms the eastern boundary of the Texas Tropical Trail Region. Known as the “Gulf Coast”, this area stretches from South Padre Island and the Mexican border up the Texas coastline to San Antonio Bay and Refugio County. Tales of pirates, shipwrecks and buried treasure have been part of the Gulf Coast history since the 16th century.
In April 1554, a Spanish fleet set sail from Veracruz, Mexico homeward bound to Spain via Havana, Cuba, loaded with riches and over 400 people. Only one of the four ships reached Havana; the others met a disastrous fate off the lower Gulf Coast near present-day Port Mansfield.
The convoy was half way to Havana when a storm hit and they were swept off course and ran aground on the sandbars off South Padre Island. More than 300 people died during this tragic event which has become known as “The Wreck of the Three Hundred”. Visit the Corpus Christi Museum of Science & History and the Treasures of the Gulf Museum in Port Isabel to learn more about this ill-fated event and see the artifacts and coins that have been recovered.
One hundred and thirty years later, in 1684, Louis XIV of France commissioned Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, to lead an expedition of four ships to the New World with a mission to claim more lands for France. The ships missed their intended destination at the mouth of the Mississippi River and ended up in Matagorda Bay just north of today’s Texas Tropical Trail Region boundary. What follows is a fascinating tale of Karankawa Indians, the first French settlement in Texas and the murder of LaSalle, by his own men. The entire story of the La Salle Odyssey is detailed in exhibits in seven museums throughout South Texas, two of which are located in the Texas Tropical Trail Region, the Texas Maritime Museum in Rockport and the Corpus Christi Museum of Science & History.
One of the most famous pirates along the Texas Gulf Coast was Jean Lafitte. Originally from Bayonne, France, the legendary buccaneer’s colorful background included operating a blacksmith shop in New Orleans, smuggling slaves with Jim Bowie (of Alamo fame) and serving under Gen. Andrew Jackson to help defeat the British in the Battle of New Orleans.
For about 10 years beginning in 1817, he and his pirate band sailed up and down the Texas Tropical Trail Region portion of the Gulf Coast looting slower vessels and then burying the treasures on the sandy beaches of Padre Island. It has been said that Lafitte took refuge in Laguna Vista near South Padre Island where he dug a fresh water well.
Drive through the Gulf Coast Byway, and you’ll find lots of places to stop and explore including the Texas Surf Museum, historic homes and lighthouses, the oldest federal military cemetery in Texas, aquariums and much more. You will even find a pirate ship to sail on!
ARANSAS PASS (Aransas County)
Aransas Pass, incorporated in 1910, is named for the pass between St. Joseph and Mustang Islands. After two attempts to sell it for its agricultural possibilities, Aransas Pass offered lots for $100 each in a lottery style sale in 1909. Fraught with legal issues, the sale left the town short of its growth objectives, but oil was eventually discovered and growth soon followed. Aransas Pass is on the mainland and is connected to Mustang Island and Port Aransas by the Aransas Causeway and a ferry system.
Aransas Pass Light Station (above) was commissioned by the United States Light House Service in 1854 and guided ships through the nearby channel for the next 100 years. The tower was darkened during the Civil War when Confederate troops removed the lens and blew up the tower to prevent Union forces from using the station. According to local story, the lens was buried in the nearby salt marsh. The light was decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1954 and sold into private hands. After 34 years of dormancy, a lens was found and the tower was relit on July 4, 1988.
Tern, such as Caspian, Royal and Common (above), found along the Gulf Coast Byway, is an exmple of the shoreline sights and sounds along the region’s many bays and the Gulf of Mexico.
BAYSIDE (Refugio County)
Stretching more than 3 ½ miles along Copano Bay, Bayside was founded in 1908, near Black Point, as an attraction to the fruit and vegetable industry. Effective marketing of Bayside resulted in the need to annex the abandoned townsite of St. Mary’s of Aransas several years later. The town incorporated in 1977 and relies on tourism and fishing.
The Wood House (above) was built by Maj. John H. Wood in 1875 on the foundation of the original house that was damaged by lightening. In 1983 the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and became a Texas Historic Landmark in 1998.
CORPUS CHRISTI (Nueces County)
Known as the “Sparkling City by the Sea,” Corpus Christi was founded in 1839 as Kinney’s Trading Post or Kinney’s Ranch to sell supplies to a Mexican Revolutionary camp nearby. In 1847 the city was named Corpus Christi and incorporated in 1852. Corpus Christi is the Nueces County seat.
The Corpus Museum of Science & History features history, archeology and natural history exhibits where you can tour a replica of Columbus’s Pinta, discover alligators, snakes and turtles in the live animal exhibits or explore guns and gold from the oldest scientifically excavated shipwreck in the Western Hemisphere, the La Belle.
1900 N. Chaparral Street
Texas Surf Museum is Texas’ only surf museum with 3,000 square feet of hundreds of pieces of surfing memorabilia.
309 N. Water Street
Originated in 1845 and situated on 3 ½ acres near downtown Corpus Christi, the Old Bayview Cemetery is the oldest federal military cemetery in Texas. Voices of South Texas (above) don period attire and bring history to life during an annual cemetery walking tour.
FULTON (Aransas County)
Located on Aransas Bay, Fulton was founded in 1866 and named for George Ware Fulton, Sr., who built a large house nearby in 1874-76. In 1888, citizens voted to change the name to Aransas, but by 1900 the name was changed back to Fulton. Cattle ranching played an important role in Fulton’s growth and economy.
The Fulton Mansion was built on a fortune gained from shipping cattle tallow and hides to New Orleans. In 1877, the showplace was completed after three years of construction and is a classic example of French Second Empire domestic architecture. The historical significance of the house lies in its noteworthy architectural style, unique construction methods and advanced mechanical systems — which featured gas lighting, central heating and indoor plumbing with hot and cold running water.
317 Fulton Beach Road
Above, working fleets of boats which harvest fresh Gulf shrimp dock in Aransas Bay.
PORT ARANSAS (Nueces County)
As early as 1850 a sheep and cattle grazing station on Mustang Island became the seed from which Port Aransas grew. Port Aransas was called Ropesville in 1888 and Tarpon by 1896, because of the abundant tarpon in the surrounding waters. When this area was first settled, herds of mustang roamed the dunes on the island and became namesake to Mustang Island. Port Aransas and Mustang Island are connected to Aransas Pass via Harbor Island by the Port Aransas Ferry System. Nearly 800 vehicles per hour can be transported between the communities.
Marine Science Institute Visitors Center above) offers self guided tours, educational movies, seven aquaria displaying typical Texas costal habitats and research exhibits.
Franklin D. Roosevelt autographed this tarpon scale commemorating a 5 ft. 1 in. 77 lb. tarpon caught May 8, 1937. This artifact and a complete display of tarpon scale trophies can be found at the historic Tarpon Inn.
200 E. Cotter Avenue
PORT ISABEL (Cameron County)
Located on the Laguna Madre Bay just a couple of miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Port Isabel, known at El Fronton, boasted natural deep water port and 30 ft. bluffs which attracted military concerns from Mexican-American War and the U.S. Civil War. Incorporated in 1928, then Point Isabel changed its name to Port Isabel and two decades later was known as the Shrimping Capital of the World.
The Point Isabel Lighthouse was constructed in 1852 and remains the only lighthouse on the Texas Gulf coast open to the public. In 2004, the Lighthouse Establishment Cinema was created. Movies are projected onto the side of the lighthouse.
This Roseate Spoonbill (above) in flight is an example of the coastal birds seen on the Bahia Grande, the world’s largest wetlands restoration project, located on Highway 48 outside Port Isabel.
Treasures of the Gulf Museum spotlights three 1554 Spanish shipwrecks. Meeting their fate just 30 miles north of Port Isabel, they are brought to life with murals, artifacts and hands-on activities. Also featured is a Children’s Discovery Lab and Ship Theatre. Also on the grounds Port Isabel Historical Museum is a state-of-the-art facility located in the Champion Building(above). Built in 1899 as a dry goods store and residence, it now houses two exhibit levels, a theater, gift shop and one of the largest collections of Mexican artifacts from the U.S.-Mexican War. The facade features the famous ‘fish mural’ painted in 1906 by a local fisherman.
317 E. Railroad Avenue
PORT MANSFIELD (Willacy County)
Formerly known as Red Fish Landing, in 1950 a port was opened and was then known as Port Mansfield when the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway was extended from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande. In 1957, a pass was cut through Padre Island and five years later the Port Mansfield Channel was completed creating a fertile sport fishing and commerical shrimping environment.
Port Mansfield has abundant wildlife viewing opportunities (see photo above).
RAYMONDVILLE (Willacy County)
Located on the Missouri Pacific Line, Raymondville was established in 1904 by Edward Burleson Raymond who organized the Raymond Town and Improvement Company and is the “Gateway to the Valley”.
Fruit stands along Highway 77 feature locally grown produce and citrus and Mexican curios.
Raymondville Historical Museum located in the old Raymondville High School. The museum features beautiful murals painted by local artist Elmer Kochert, a costume room, memorabilia from the La Parra and Mifflin Kenedy Ranches, and a separate Farm and Ranch Museum, as well as a Creative Arts center.
427 South 7th Street
REFUGIO (Refugio County)
Located on the banks of the Mission River, the Nuestra Senora del Refugio Mission was the last of the Spanish missions to be established in Texas in 1795. Because the mission failed, it was not until 1828 that a more permanent settlement began to form when two Irishmen obtained an Empressario’s contract from the Mexican government to bring 200 families from Ireland. These early Irish settlers arrived by boat at Copano, just a few miles from Refugio, in 1834. Two years later the citizens of Refugio played an important role in the Texas Revolution at the Battle of Refugio on March 12-15, 1836. By electing Sam Houston and James Power to represent Refugio at the First Convention of Texas to form a new government, the people of Refugio opened the way for the “Day of San Jacinto.”
The Refugio County Museum features permanent exhibits which trace the history of the area, from the establishment of the Spanish Mission to the immigration of Irish settlers; and the impact of ranching and oil after 1929.
102 W. West Street
Mount Calvary (Our Lady of Refuge) Cemetery (above) was established in 1836 with the burial of 16 soldiers killed during the Texas Revolution. Among those buried is Empresario James Power one of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence.
The 1905 Frank Booth Rooke House (above), a three story building built in the Victorian style 1n 1905 features a widow’s walk on the roof with a view of nearby Refugio and Woodsboro.
ROCKPORT (Aransas County)
Rockport was established as a shipping point in 1867 and became the Aransas County seat in 1871 and is home to the Texas Maritime Museum, the Fulton Mansion, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and Goose Island State Park.
The Aquarium at Rockport Harbor (above) gives a close up look at the abundant and varied sea life surrounding Rockport-Fulton.
702 Navigation Circle
The area around Rockport has a wide variety of wildlife viewing opportunities, such as this Turkey Buzzard (above).
SAN PATRICIO (San Patricio County)
San Patricio was founded in 1829 by the empresarios James McGloin and John McMullen after they received permission from the Mexican government on August 16, 1828, to settle 200 Irish Catholic families in Texas. A town site four leagues square, called Villa de San Patricio de Hibernia in honor of Ireland’s patron saint, was laid out by surveyor William O’Docharty.
Knolle Farm, located in Sandia, was home to the world’s largest herd of Jersey cattle and is now a working ranch and a bed and breakfast (below left).
The James McGloin home (above) was the first frame building of the old colony of San Patricio de Hibernia. The historical marker reads: Born in County Sligo, Ireland. With John McMullen he secured a contract to settle 200 families, August 17, 1828, landed his colonists at El Copano, 1830. In 1834 laid out the town of San Patricio. His house on this site was built 1855. Died here, 1856.
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND (Cameron County)
One of the top three beaches in the U.S. and located on 34 miles of the longest barrier island in the world, South Padre Island’s history dates back to Pineda (1521). South Padre Island has been under the flags of Spain, Mexico and the Republic of Texas before the Mexican-American War settled ownership in 1848. South Padre Island was first connected to the mainland in 1954 by the first Queen Isabella Causeway.
The north jetty on South Padre Island, 5,370 ft. long, was completed in February 1935. The jetty system was built to protect the natural pass from the Gulf of Mexico to the Laguna Madre Bay.
The Railroad Vine adds color on the Island’s natural sand dune landscaping (above).
The north end of South Padre Island was used for a Navy bombing range from World War II until 1960. Areas from where PR 100 ends to the Mansfield cut offer wade fishing, beach combing, swimming and primitive camping. Careful note must be made of incoming and outgoing tides.
This Great Blue Heron (above) comes in for a landing at the South Padre Island World Birding and Nature Center. A 5 story tower, over 4,800 linear feet of boardwalk and 7 bird blinds offer a front row seat to the abundant wildlife on South Padre Island.
6801 Padre Blvd.
TAFT (San Patricio County)
The town was named after Charles Taft of the Coleman-Fulton Pasture Co., and originated in 1886 at the site of a Southern Pacific Railroad flag stop. The Taft Blackland Museum is located in the old Coleman-Fulton Pasture Co. headquarters and features rooms dedicated to different periods of time, as well as a collection of arrowheads, barbed wire, and many rocks and minerals.
Taft Blackland Museum, housed in the historic Coleman-Fulton Pasture Co., features images like the one pictured below. R. Mallory
301 Green Avenue