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Fire and Rain

The short life and violent death of a town called Indianola.

By Larry Bozka

Blanketed today by a shallow veil of subsidence-induced bay water, the town that would have been Galveston died many years before it drowned. If Indianola taught us anything, it's that Mother Nature does not gladly suffer arrogance.

Relatively few Texans have ever heard of the ill-fated port first known as "Indian Point." Located on a narrow wedge of land between Matagorda and Lavaca Bays, Indianola was, in its heyday, a virtual beacon of human determination. With waters deep enough to accommodate shipping traffic, it held significant strategic value during both the Texas Revolution and the Civil War.

Indianola represented a gateway to West Texas and far beyond. It was, during the period from 1847 to 1887, arguably the most promising port in the nation.

The Mainzer Adelsverein at Beib-rich am Rhein (Society of Nobles for the Protection of German Immig-rants in Texas) was founded on April 20, 1842. Germany was in economic and social turmoil. Inspired by letters sent from the area's first pioneers and the opportunity to procure farm land via grants managed by the Adelsverein, German citizens departed their homeland in eager droves. One family after another, they packed their possessions and money inside the holds of miserably crowded wooden sailing ships.

Then, answering the summons of competing empresarios, the intrepid Germans and a smaller contingent of French crossed the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico to stake a claim in the Republic of Texas.

They paid the Adelsverein for travel and property rights, roughly $240 per head of household and $120 per individual passenger. For that, they got transportation to the colony and housing upon arrival, a literal ticket to the American dream.

For many, it became a nightmare.

New Braunfels was at the center of the immigrants' universe, a modern-day Promised Land. Sadly, relatively few made it that far before succumbing to calamities and ailments that would have altogether wiped out people of lesser fortitude.

The cost in human life was staggering. Traveling overseas in the mid-1850s was easy for no one. The gritty, mosquito-infested salt flats of what is now Calhoun County were particularly hostile terrain - a sobering piece of reality that many of the overzealous, immigrant-luring empresarios of the era conveniently chose to downplay.

In May of 1844, Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, Germany, was appointed Commissioner General by the Adelsverein for the planned coastal port of Indian Point. He immediately set sail for Texas to assume his duties. Unfortunately, Prince Carl was frightfully unprepared when the first of many waves of German settlers arrived a mere two months later.

He was joined on his trip by several other empresarios (essentially, land agents). Authorized by Republic of Texas President Sam Houston, Prince Carl and his companions were promised generous allocations of land in exchange for successful efforts to bring as many newcomers to Texas as quickly as possible.

Empresario Henri Castro (the namesake of Castroville), for example, signed a contract stating that he would settle 600 immigrants in Texas, with an option, if successful, to increase that number to 1,000. There was, as usual, a stipulation. The contract required that the entire number be in place within three years, one-third of those within the first year. It was a tall order that required some serious salesmanship. Yet, Henri Castro, Prince Carl, Frenchman Bourgeois d'Orvanne and others of their ilk could only envision that most precious of assets, the same one that motivated their followers. Land.

Challenges they either could not foresee or chose to ignore manifested themselves soon enough.

On February 3, 1845, the Republic of Texas apportioned $1,500 for the acquisition of land at Port Calhoun on Matagorda Island to accommodate a lighthouse. By spring of 1846, more than 5,000 German settlers had watched the town's lights grow brighter as they excitedly approached the shores of Indian Point.

Despite the promising glow, Indian Point was cruelly indifferent to the settlers. Due to a severe shortage of wood, they were forced to camp in crude, hastily erected shelters on the beach. Hearing of this, Heinrich Huck, a New Orleans merchant, loaded a ship to capacity with lumber and medicine and set sail for Indian Point. Upon arrival, he created the town's first lumberyard. Many similar enterprises soon followed, from banks to newspapers to the area's first churches.

Nonetheless, many immigrants continued to go without shelter and medical care. Cerebro-spinal meningitis, typhoid, cholera, yellow fever and a host of other life-threatening ailments took a vicious toll on the newcomers, many of whom were buried in mass, unmarked graves.

By late 1846, some 3,000 immigrants had stepped ashore at Indian Point. On February 19 of that year, the Republic of Texas became the 28th state of the United States of America. While coping with a relentless onslaught of diseases, many brought ashore by recent arrivals, the early settlers also faced the challenges of the Mexican-American War. Little did they realize that the Civil War would soon make the war with Mexico seem a mere skirmish in comparison.

Then again, they had very little time to reflect on such possibilities. Survival was best approached on a daily basis. For the residents of Indian Point, renamed "Indianola" in February of 1849, visions of flourishing New Braunfels homesteads abruptly yielded to simply eking out an existence. Within a few miles of the wharves, roughly a thousand of the 1846 arrivals died as a result of disease, overexposure and even starvation. Those who set out often died en route to their land grants. The relative few who made it to New Braunfels were on the whole an ill, malnourished and despondent lot. Still, their fate was to be far better than that of those who stayed.

There were indeed compelling reasons to stay. Indianola was blossoming, attracting ever more immigrants and the commerce that inevitably followed. Coach services arrived to assist travelers heading inland from Indianola to Victoria. Postal service was established. By early 1848, Indianola was a bustling commercial hub. Traders brought animal hides, pecans and cotton to exchange for food supplies, hardware, clothing, furniture and lumber.

Wealthy Indianola merchant John Eckhardt contracted with John A. King to survey and create a public road from Victoria northwest through Yorktown and New Braunfels.

"Eckhardt's Trail" whittled 26 miles out of the trip to New Braunfels.

Shipping magnate Charles Morgan added Indianola as the Matagorda Bay endpoint for his New York-based steamship line. Indianola was outranked as a port only by Galveston. Competition, especially for planned rail lines, was fierce between the two communities.

In 1856 and 1857, under the direction of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the first of several shiploads of camels were brought to Indianola as part of an experimental program to investigate the creature's potential to replace horses for the transportation of military supplies. Though it created a fascinating chapter in Texas history, the camel experiment was ultimately unsuccessful.

Almost 20 years of prosperity passed before September 16, 1875, when Indianola was assaulted by a catastrophic hurricane. The storm left behind numerous casualties and staggering destruction of property. After tearing a watery path from Barbados through Haiti, Jamaica and Key West, it destroyed Indianola's wharves and killed a large number of people, many of whom had come to witness the trial of accused murderer Bill Taylor. Saltwater inundation ruined locomotives' water supplies and flooded the tracks. Roads became impassable. The people of Indianola were trapped.

The eye of the hurricane passed just after midnight. Believing the worst was over, residents ventured out onto the streets only to be met by the fury of the receding storm surge. By sunrise, three-quarters of Indianola's structures were gone. The town's remaining buildings were severely damaged.

Victims' bodies lay exposed across 20 miles of shoreline. Exact numbers will never be known, but the death toll was estimated to be at least 300. Most were buried where they were found.

Although many residents relocated as far away as San Antonio, a resolute few stayed behind to salvage the town and resurrect its position as "Texas' Dream Port." The hurricane, after all, had come and gone.

The courthouse was repaired. Most of the rail lines were refurbished and reopened. Ominously, though, on January 12, 1883, the competition to become Texas' premier coastal rail destination concluded in failure with the driving of the final spike into the southern transcontinental rail line's junction with the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway.

Still, Indianola was situated at the eastern end of the Southern Chihuahua Trail. Stretching all the way from Matagorda Bay to San Diego, after the Civil War, the trail continued to provide the shortest route for military transportation and a whole new flood of inland-bound immigrants.

Albeit on a smaller scale, Indianola was rebuilt. Its founders remained optimistic. Many were even prospering.

But they had little time to celebrate their success.

The final nightmare began on August 19, 1886, when U.S. Signal Office telegraph operator Isaac A. Reed received warning of an approaching hurricane. Those who believed the 1875 storm was literally the "storm of the century" soon learned otherwise. Reed and his partner, Dr. H. Rosencranz, were among the first to die. After screwing down an anemograph and exiting the building, the duo was struck by falling timbers. Both men drowned.

Worse yet, Reed left behind a burning kerosene lamp during his hurried retreat. Amid the growing wreckage, the lamp exploded and sparked an inferno. Fed by 102-mph winds, the fire quickly leapt from one building to the next on both sides of Indianola's main thoroughfare.

The next day, with the fire still ravaging the town, the full force of the hurricane descended upon Indianola. Two-and-a-half miles of railroad track disappeared. All that remained of Huck's lumberyard was a still-standing safe. The depot, the stage line and most other business buildings were either burned or washed to sea.

Indianola's fate was sealed, the town declared dead. John Mahon, Indianola postmaster, permanently closed the post office on October 4, 1887.

Meanwhile, up the coast in Galveston, a cautious contingency of residents pleaded with the town's council to fund and create a seawall. Nevertheless, opponents of the idea went so far as to suggest that the repeated hits on Matagorda Bay were proof positive that Galveston Island was inherently immune to hurricanes.

In August of 1886, a powerful storm that skirted Galveston presaged an event still 14 years in the future. People drowned, property was destroyed and yet an islander who called himself "An Old Galvestonian" wrote a blatantly apathetic letter to the editor of the Galveston Daily News on August 27. It read, in part, "It (the recent hurricane) simply demonstrates the fact that we are the safest place on the Texas Coast and that we are out of the line of these winds and waves. It further demonstrates that Galveston cannot be overflowed."

Indianola's tragic legacy and lesson were perversely twisted into justification for arrogant indifference on Galveston Island. On September 8, 1900, the "Old Galvestonian" and others like him learned the error of their thinking.

The Great Storm of 1900 claimed an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 lives. Construction of the Galveston Seawall began on October 27, 1902.

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