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In search of Clara Driscoll

The "Savior of the Alamo" died in Corpus Christi, but the search for her birthplace led to new knowledge of a lost coastal city.
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Posted at 1:06 PM, May 17, 2023

Seventy-five years after her death, the name Clara Driscoll is still one of the most recognizable in Corpus Christi.

As "Savior of the Alamo", she is also one of the most revered Texans in a state that has had more than its fair share of extraordinary citizens. She had enormous political influence in the state, and her philanthropy was legendary.

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Most longtime residents of CC know all about her nationally recognized "Driscoll Children's Hospital", created with the bulk of her estate as called for in her will. The Driscoll Foundation continues to operate the hospital to this day. No child is turned away, and charges are based on ability to pay.

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And, we all remember the elegant Robert Driscoll Hotel that Clara built on the Bluff to honor her late brother. It was in her penthouse suite atop the hotel that Clara passed away on July 17, 1945. She was only 64 years old.

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At the time of her death, newspapers described her as the most notable woman in Texas. So, where did this remarkable woman come from and how did she get all that money?

Her ancestral roots are quite humble, but they tell the story of an immigrant family that achieved enormous success in their new home.

Her grandfather, Daniel O'Driscoll, had immigrated to Texas from Ireland sometime before 1836.

He would join Sam Houston's army and would fight in the Battle of San Jacinto, which gave Texas its independence.

His service was rewarded with the gift of 1,200 acres of land in Refugio County upon which he established a ranch.

Daniel would die in an accident in 1849.

When his widow died in 1852, ownership of the ranch passed to their two sons, Jeremiah and Robert (Clara's father).

The two boys would turn their operations into a multi-million dollar business that included ranching, banking, and commercial development.

Because of anti-Irish prejudice that was common in America at the time, the boys dropped the "O" from the family name.

As such, Clara was born Clara Driscoll rather than Clara O'Driscoll.

She was born in her home on April 2, 1881 in the town of St. Mary's, Texas.

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I had always assumed that she was born in Refugio or Corpus.

I had never even heard of a town named St. Mary's, and for good reason. The town no longer existed. Several years ago, Murphy Givens wrote about the town in one of his weekly columns. It existed for a relatively short time (1857-1907) and there is virtually no trace of it today.

When I discovered that the Driscoll family had recently erected a marker at the site of the Driscoll homestead, I knew that it was time to seek out and explore what is known as Old St. Mary's, Texas.

It is located on Copano Bay, immediately north of Bayside (just up the coast from Corpus Christi).

I went in search of Clara and that marker.

Finding the site of the house in which Clara Driscoll was born is not an easy task.

Turning off of FM 136 and onto Bayside Cemetery Road, I had no trouble finding "Old St. Mary's Cemetery" where many of the early settlers of St. Mary's, Tx. are buried.

I had seen this cemetery from the highway hundreds of times, but never bothered to go check it out.

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After touring the cemetery, I went in search of Clara's homesite.

I literally drove across a huge open field on a tiny dirt road, using GPS to locate the site. (Signs on the road warn against attempting the drive after a rainfall).

Once I arrived at the coordinates, the homesite was easy to spot.

A massive granite marker stands in an open field where Clara's home once stood.

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The house was located just a few hundred yards from the bay in the middle of what was once a major port city in Texas.

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From 1869 to 1871, St. Mary's was the county seat of Refugio County. Its piers served the Morgan Steamship Line and its wharves did a thriving business shipping lumber, cattle, cotton, and hides from the port.

However, the town's fate was sealed when the railroad by-passed St. Mary's in the early 1880's.

Hurricanes in 1886 and 1887 decimated the piers, wharves, and most of the town's buildings. St. Mary's ceased to exist in 1907 when the general store and Post Office closed and the town of Bayside annexed the land.

I did find the remains of an old cistern, but otherwise, there was no evidence that a town ever existed here.

Even so, I had the feeling that I had successfully found Clara.

There was a sense of honor in knowing that I was standing on the spot where this exceptional lady drew her first breath in 1881.

Robert Parks is a special contributor to KRIS 6 News. Parks was a history teacher at Carroll High School for 19 years and is now retired. His knowledge of Corpus Christi history makes him a unique expert in the subject.