Author and deep-thinker Virginia Woolf said, “Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other.” Perhaps connectedness is the reason why I’ve climbed to the tops of so many of them, but Ruth and I recently saw one that is not isolated. In fact, it’s right in the center of a town of more than 5,000 people, Port Isabel, and overlooks the busy Queen Isabella Causeway. When established, Port Isabel was El Fronton de Santa Isabella and known as a natural deep water harbor with fine docking facilities. The Port Isabel lighthouse, now a state historic site, is the only lighthouse on the Texas Coast opened to the public.
The lighthouse keeper’s cottage is used for exhibits that explain this beacon’s past importance. The lighthouse itself was built in 1852 to guide ships between Padre and Brazos Islands and into the Rio Grande, which was then a major waterway with lots of boat traffic. Today it’s called a river to nowhere. A memorial plaque at the site accurately calls this lighthouse, “The beacon for the commerce of the Rio Grande” and notes that its light was extinguished during the Civil War. The whole facility was permanently discontinued 40 years after this war ended. It is 73 feet tall, contains 75 steps, and, when operating, could be seen 16 miles out on the Gulf of Mexico. It was one of 8 lights on the Texas coast.
The Port Isabel lighthouse survived 2 wars, hurricanes, and abandonment. During the Mexican-American War Port Isabel was a treatment center for the wounded and a supply depot. Early in the Civil War, Port Isabel was controlled by Confederate forces who used the lighthouse to spy on Union soldiers. The Confederates tried to blow it up when they had to evacuate. All the ships in the harbor were destroyed or captured when The Union attacked in 1963 ending the era of blockade running and the use of Port Isabel as a major Confederate exporter of cotton to foreign markets and as a source for cotton to make Confederate uniforms when Brownsville, Texas, was known as “the Backdoor to the South”.
The Port Isabel Lighthouse is structurally quite traditional, and the view from the top is of the town below, not a wild and wonderful ocean vista. It is, nevertheless, a 4 Compass attraction worth doing if you’re in the area.