Port Isabel Lighthouse
Climb the winding staircase to explore this historic sentinel.
By Marian Edwards
Seven year-old Sara pauses outside of the entrance to the Port Isabel Lighthouse and gives her sandal straps one more tug. “The first time I climbed, I wore flip flops, but it was hard to climb the steps,” she explains, “Now, I can get to the top faster and see out!” Good planning, Sara. Those 75 winding steps up through the cool interior of the lighthouse are worth the effort for the view.
The beaches of South Padre Island and the sparkling waters of the Lower Laguna Madre spread out before us when we reach the top of the tower. We can see for miles. Hang-gliding adventurers compete with pelicans and sea gulls for air space over the bay. Below us, cars and trucks hurry across the Queen Isabella Causeway, and tourists are enjoying lunch under colorful umbrellas at waterfront restaurants.
The Port Isabel Lighthouse has been standing watch over the lower Texas coast, through storms and wars, since 1852, and still serves as an aid to navigation on sea charts. The lighthouse was built on the site of old Fort Polk after the Mexican War, and was controlled by both Confederate and Federal troops during the Civil War, who used it as an observation post. After the Civil War, the lighthouse was repaired, returned to service and continued to guide commercial shipping along the low-lying Texas coast. It was abandoned in 1905 when shipping traffic succumbed to the more efficient railroad as the method to transport goods.
Now known as the Port Isabel Lighthouse State Historic Site, the lighthouse and grounds are owned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and operated by the City of Port Isabel. TPWD restored the lighthouse in 2000, returning its appearance to that of 1880, when the last major operational renovation was completed. The quaint, white clapboard visitor’s center is a replica of the lighthouse keeper’s original cottage and houses the Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce, along with an interpretive exhibit about the lighthouse and the Fort Polk site it is built on.
The climb up the winding staircase and three ladders is an adventure unto itself for Sara, but a shady picnic lunch is waiting downstairs. The green, grassy knoll the lighthouse perches on is perfect for running up and rolling down, if you have energy to burn, or for sitting in the sun. Before the family packs up to head for the beach, Sara poses stiff-shouldered against the sun-warmed white bricks for her annual “lighthouse picture.” “I can count the bricks up and see if I have ‘growed’ since last year,” she says.