BY NORMAN ROZEFF
The Mexican government had maintained a garrison and one navy ship at Point Isabel. This was particularly important during the Texas revolution of 1836-37.
Jurisdiction over the port was settled in 1846 when General Zachary Taylor’s troops occupied the area at the outset of the Mexican-American War. When, in 1846, General Zachary Taylor and his force arrived from Corpus Christi and the Mexican-American War was soon to commence, the town, described as being full of flimsy house, was mostly burned down before the soldiers arrived on their march from Brownsville.
There then arose Fort Polk, named after the then president of the United States, James Knox Polk. It was constructed on the area’s highest bluff. As forts of that time went, it wasn’t much to speak of. Instead of high earthen or stone ramparts it was shoddily constructed of brush, debris, lumber of demolished structures and timbers salvaged from old shipwrecks.
On the cover of the 1996 THC marker dedication brochure was a map outlining where Fort Polk was once located. The Port Isabel Lighthouse is located exactly where the southeast center side of the fort was. The shoreline east of the fort in 1875 was 300 feet from where it would erode to by 1931. An 1862 sketch of the area shows the lighthouse, the U.S. Hospital built in 1847, the U.S. Customs House, and the first Catholic church built in the village.
When Taylor had constructed a bridge across the Boca Chica channel at the south end of Brazos Island and brought in steamboats to ply the river, Point Isabel lost some significance for a period.
Solis family connections to Point Isabel were documented in a narrative sent to the Texas Historical Commission while securing a THC marker for the Solis Cemetery in La Feria. This was recorded: “Lazaro Solis was one of eight children of Francisco Solis (1801-1876) and Anastacia Rivas de Solis (born 1808), early residents of Point Isabel and Brownsville. Francisco’s family eventually grew to include Albert, Peter, Nicholas and George Champion (Campeoni) – three brothers and a cousin from Revigno, Austria (present-day Italy). The brothers and their cousin married four of Francisco’s daughters – Estefana, Felicita, Teresa, and Cerilda Solis. Albert had married Estefana of Point Isabel in 1850. Thirty two years old when he immigrated, he had been a grocer in Italy and continued that trade in Texas. The Champions’ knowledge of transportation, commerce, and ranching subsequently contributed to the economic development of Brownsville, as well as the livelihood of the Solis and Champion families. Charles Champion and James B. Wells would later own much of Point (now Port) Isabel.
Rozeff in his article on the US Navy Wireless Station at Port Isabel wrote of the later history of the area.
He stated: About one-half its area had come into the possession of Judge James B. Wells 1886. Charles Champion purchased for $17,500 the other half-interest in 1904 from E. K. Butler, President of the International Harvester Company of Chicago. It was from the estates of Wells and Champion that the station land was purchased. Charles Champion had purchased a general store from Christian Hess in 1895. The Champion House/General Store, which had its construction start in 1899 and completion in 1903, remains today as a unique landmark and is part of the Port Isabel Museum complex. The numerous frescos on the front of the Champion building identify the many species of fish once caught in local waters. For many years there existed a well behind the Champion building. It had been dug on orders of General Taylor and served as a fresh water supply for the military. Together with the Port Isabel Lighthouse constructed in 1852-3, they are lasting reminders of the community’s history.
Champion Family notes to be found on Ancestry.com relate that Sebastiano Campeoni changed his name to ALBERT CHAMPION when he and his brothers came to the United States. One brother, Simone Campeoni II, remained in Italy with his parents. However, George Champion, Simone’s son, joined his uncles in Texas. Albert married one of the Solis sisters, daughters of Francisco Solis and Anastacia Rivas – four of the Solis sisters married Champion brothers. The fifth, Rosa Solis, was a nun of the sisters of the Incarnate Word in Brownsville, Texas.
While the Champion brothers were residing in New Orleans in the year 1846 when war broke out between the US and Mexico. The American Army had occupied the little village of Point Isabel, then known as El Fronton de Santa Isabel, where General Taylor established his main base of supplies.
New Orleans was then the most important American port in the Gulf of Mexico, and it became the marshaling center and port of embarkation for the troops and supplies destined for the U. S. Army on the Rio Grande. The trickle of commerce which had up to that time passed through Point Isabel now surged to a remarkable degree. Thousands of militiamen from the different states of the Union and thousands of tons of supplies to maintain them entered through this port. The Government had to employ a sufficient number of transports for this operation.
The four Champion brothers [later reduced to three brothers and their cousin] with their background and experience in sailing vessels immediately became a part of this section of the war effort and soon found themselves at the anchorage off the Brazos Santiago Pass, the entrance to the harbor of Point Isabel. The scene which they first witnessed at this point was both novel and exciting. The sea was crowded with sailing vessels of all descriptions riding at anchor in the open Gulf as the shallow inlet did not allow them to enter the harbor.
Small steam and sailing votes called lighters were busily engaged in transporting both men and supplies from the large ships to the landing inside the bay, and then across the Laguna Madre three miles to the army base at Point Isabel.
The point (presently located as the site of the lighthouse tower) was the place of concentration of army supplies and was surrounded by earthen embankments, armed with Navy guns, to protect the Government property, and officially named Fort Polk. No civilian structures were permitted to be erected in the immediate vicinity of the fort, the non-military population established the village 3/4 of a mile to the north on the bay beyond the present cemetery and appropriated for it the name of Point Isabel named so until early 1920 when it was subdivided for development.
The Champions remained on transports during the war years. They had often visited Point Isabel when on shore leave and had fallen in love with the place, perhaps because it reminded them of their birthplace on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.
The Federal Government has operated a coastal installation at Point Isabel since 1852. One structure is the third permanent building erected here, one of a line of nine stations established along the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to the Texas-Mexico border.
Originally consisting of a main floor, attic, and lookout tower, all elevated off the ground on wood and concrete pilings, the structure served as barracks and headquarters for the U.S. Coast Guard unit that patrolled the coastline and conducted sea rescues. By 1860, eleven men manned the custom service at Point Isabel.