When were towns on Matagorda Island?
Part II - Barrier Islands
By Pam Stranahan, Friends of the History Center
The barrier islands that protect Aransas Bay were first mapped in 1519 by Capitan Alonso Alvarez de Pineda. Spain’s interest in the Gulf coast extended from Vera Cruz to west Florida. Many ships came through Pass Cavallo during the time that the Spain and Mexico controlled the Gulf. At that time American Indians canoed and fished on the bay side of the islands with their primary villages on the mainland.
Matagorda Island was part of the empressa of Colonel James Power so he proposed a townsite called Saluria. Power’s agent, Alexander Somervell, promoted a plan with 300 lots including a port, pilot station and resort. Judge Hugh W. Hawes, a transplanted Virginian, bought many of the lots and became the main developer with a wharf and warehouses. A pre-fab lighthouse was assembled in 1852. Prominent landholders were Hawes, Little, Byrne, Boone, Brundrett, Dubois, Hill, Holzheuser, Madden, Storrs, and Vandeveer.
During the Civil War destruction of facilities and homes on the barrier islands was devastating. The Union blockade was imposed in 1861. Later Union war ships bombarded Fort Esperanza, a Confederate fort, on Matagorda Island. Confederate section commander Magruder ordered civilian evacuation and destruction of anything that the Union might use. Fort Esperanza was occupied by 500 men mainly from Major A.F. Hobby’s regiment. In 1863 after three days shelling the troops evacuated under cover of night. Federal occupation troops stayed until 1869 then folks returned.
Census for 1870 showed 166 people were back on Matagorda Island. The lighthouse was rebuilt. Reconstruction of the community was interrupted on September 15, 1875 when a hurricane struck and people did not have time to evacuate. Several hundred people died. In 1878 the U.S. Life-Saving Service built a Lifeboat Station to assist in case of storms. On August 20, 1886 a hurricane once again swept Matagorda Island clean. Few people returned this time. Later a few families (Hawes, Hills and Littles) maintained ranches from the 1890s through 1940s.
In 1933 Clint Murchison bought land on the island. With his partners, Dudley Golding and Toddie Lee Wynne, he built a retreat for family and friends along with their cattle ranch. During World War II land on Matagorda Island was bought and leased by the U.S. government for development of an air field and Bombing and Gunnery Range. The military used this target range throughout the Korean and Vietnam wars. The northern end of the island had been condemned and purchased by the government for $7 an acre. The south end was leased then returned to Wynne who developed the Star Brand Ranch. As a backer of Space Services Inc of America, Wynne offered Matagorda Island as a launch site. On September 9, 1982 Conestoga I lifted off in a test flight. Sadly Wynne had suffered a massive heart attack during night and died in flight to Dallas.
In 1971 the air force agreed to let the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) manage the northern part of the island. Some land was returned by the U.S. government to the state of Texas and became Matagorda Island State Park. In 1982 USFWS had primary responsibility for wildlife management and TPWD managed public access. In 1986 the Texas Nature Conservancy purchased the Wynne property. Department of Interior acquired title to TNC land in 1988 bringing the island under public ownership.
To learn more about Matagorda and San Jose islands, view the “Barrier Islands” exhibit at the History Center for Aransas County, 801 E. Cedar St. You are invited to the exhibit between Aril 27 and mid-August. The Center is open on Saturday 10 AM– 4 PM and Sunday 1-4 PM. FMI call 361 727-9214 or visit www.thehistorycenterforaransascounty.org.