Port Isabel, Cameron County’s Oldest Settlement


On August 12, 1875, Angela Garcia de Tarnova and her sister Felipa Garcia de Manatou dedicated land for a city.

The initial survey commenced at the lighthouse tower. The plat showed each block was 300 feet by 260 feet in depth and divided by an alley into two equal parts with the lots having 50-foot frontage and 120-footdepth. The streets were 60 feet wide and the alleys 20 feet wide. Lots were set aside for a Public Common School and a Roman Catholic Church.

There had been an earlier attempt to develop the area by one of Brownsville’s founders, Simon Mussina, an American Jew of Dutch heritage, living and publishing the American Flag newspaper in Matamoros. He had procured a contract with Rafael Garcia’s widow, Dona Guadalupe Cisneros de Garcia, and two daughters for a portion of the Santa Isabel grant lands, including Fronton. This was on April 7, 1847 and extended again on February 21, 1850.

Mussina had interested John R. Butler, an experienced seaman and captain of the port of New Orleans, in the harbor of Point Isabel, and the heirs filed a plat of the “city of Point Isabel” pursuant to this contract. The 1875 plat was eastward of the original plat however there was some overlap with Mussina’s claim. All claims were dropped by jurisdiction after the law suits brought by Mussina and also Marie Josefa Cavazos.

Subsequently, in the period 1848-1852, the U.S. government maintained the largest garrison in the nation at Point Isabel.

An undivided interest in the 640 acre townsite was bought by Brownsville attorney and political boss James B. Wells on June 16, 1886 from B. O. Hicks, who had the undivided interest of the two Garcia sisters, Angela and Felipa. Hicks had purchased this interest from Therese Bogle, F. San Roman, Fred Boyle, and Angela Garcia.

The other undivided interest was owned by Charles Champion, who had purchased the interest from E. K. Butler of Chicago. Well’s share cost $6,250.

The town had its first officially appointed postmaster in 1897. Elizabeth Garriga served in this capacity from 1/1/97 until 1/8/98. The town was listed as Isabel, Texas in 1881 after the name Brazos Santiago was dropped but was changed to Point Isabel, Texas on April 1, 1915.

The coming of the railroad brought with it additional business opportunities. By 1910 both businesses and residential dwellings lined both the north and south sides of Railroad Avenue.

These included Holland, Milke, Champion, Hill, Woodhouse, Simo, Barcenas, Parra and Thorsell on the north and Juan Simo Sr. and Jr., Laroche, Garriga, Forto, Cortez, Gonzales, and Cris Hess’s men store on the south side.

As the United States beefed up its Great White Fleet in the 1910s, radio was being developed and expanded. In order to communicate with its military ships now plying the Caribbean,the now state-of-the-art wireless was placed aboard battleships. A site able to cover the Caribbean as well as the Panama Canal Zone now under U.S. Jurisdiction was South Texas and Point Isabel in particular. The wireless station, erected in 1916 and disestablished in 1923, encompassed an area of approximately 20 acres. In its time it was the largest wireless station in the world.

At present this area is bounded by W. Madison Street on the south, W. Adams Street on the north, Musina Street on the east, and Leal Street on the west. Dividing the Reservation and equally spaced were the east-west street W. Madison and to its north W. Jefferson.

At a later time Cisneros Street and Yturria Street to its east were carved out in a north-south direction. When the Point Isabel Station was deactivated as alternate antennae were erected at Fort Brown the local population continued to call its compound area “The Reservation” and did so for many a year. The station was abandoned for the most part then buildings on it were rented out until 1936 when the whole reservation was put on reserve.

In January 2006 a survey of the whole former wireless station area revealed that only five of the original structures which once existed on the station still exist. Three of the former four barracks buildings along the north side of West Jefferson Street are extant. Each is separated by an intervening lot having a small residence on it. The former barracks at 202 has a garage constructed and attached to its front. The barracks at 212 is considerably altered with a second floor placed on it.

The third barracks in the line at 220 is the most authentic and unchanged in outside appearance. It is in the process of restoration to near its original 1916 exterior appearance.

Behind several of these barracks and close to them there once existed catchment cisterns to collect rainwater running off the roofs of the barracks. The concrete lids of these were demolished and the cisterns filled in, though excavations would certainly reveal the internal structures of the original tanks.

On the northeast corner of Cisneros and Madison is a square two story original building which has undergone extensive change. It is stuccoed and its main entrance has been changed from the north to the south side of the structure. In the service alley behind it are four original concrete foundation blocks about sixteen feet apart in a square conformation. They once supported a tower upon which was a large water tank. This tower and tank are visible in some Runyon photos.

From 1906 to about 1925 Point Isabel processed more fish than all of the Texas coast combined. The 1920s and 1930s saw the initiation of a seafood industry. This brought experienced individuals from Louisiana and elsewhere. Among the families arriving were the Boudens, Hollidays, and Mocks, may of whom married into Hispanic families. It was also in 1906 that a hotel was constructed to entice visitors to the area and increase passenger traffic on the Rio Grande Railroad. Caesar Kleberg, a businessman associated with the Railroad inspired by Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation movement, built the hotel.

From a Texas Historical Commission marker we learn about the Queen Isabel Inn. “Built by 1906 to lodge Rio Grande Railroad Company passengers and tourists, especially fishermen and hunters, the Queen Isabel Inn was first known as ’Point Isabel Tarpon & Fishing Club.’ The hotel hosted family train excursions from Brownsville as early as 1907. Prominent visitors to the inn included president-elect Warren G. Harding in November of 1920. By 1930, indoor plumbing, electrical service, and a popular dining room made the hotel an attractive destination for vacationers. The Rio Grande Valley Fishing Rodeo was organized here in the summer of 1934 to promote tourism.

“The hotel was the headquarters for the contest, later renamed the Texas International Fishing Tournament [TIFT]. Hurricanes in 1933 and 1967 removed the hotel’s original porches and pitched roof. The hotel has served as the site for many important civic and social events and has been associated with the lives of persons significant to Port Isabel’s history. The Queen Isabel Inn sparked the beginning of the hotel and tourism industry in the area and endures as an important landmark business in Port Isabel history.”

Over more than a century of its existence the hotel has had numerous owners and resulting names. Among them are Point Isabel Tarpon Fishing Club, Alder-Deck Hotel.

The Jefferson Inn, Red Arrow Inn, Coastal Hotel, and currently the Queen Isabel Inn. The Rodeo had started in 1934 by the hotel’s manager, Dr. J. A. Hockaday. In 1950, the hotel was also the first in Port Isabel to install a swimming pool.