The most iconic symbol of Port Aransas is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
We’re talking about the rock jetties that separate Mustang Island and Saint Joseph’s Island.
And just like the new project to widen and deepen the Corpus Christi Ship Channel. The jetties were touted as a way to boost the local economy.
And the story starts back in the early 1850s when the federal government built a lighthouse on the Lydia Ann Channel.
And that same decade, the Coast Guard built this life-saving station on Mustang Island to rescue shipwrecked mariners trying to get thru the shallow pass to Corpus Christi Bay.
The problem was, the pass kept moving.
Prevailing winds and currents were steadily pushing it south by about 200 feet a year.
When the lighthouse was built, it was at the head of the channel.
But when the government finally got around to starting construction on the jetties in 1890, the pass had shifted several miles south toward the small fishing community of Tarpon on the northern tip of Mustang Island.
And according to Bill Behrens, a docent and member of the Port Aransas Museum Board, it was quite an undertaking requiring men, mules, horses and steam engines.
“On the north jetties they actually brought the rocks to it on barges, and then had cranes on the barges lift the rocks onto into the north jetties,” Behrens said. “But the south jetties, they had to railroad all the way out to the end of it. We actually have a picture that shows the steam engine at the end of the railroad out in the ocean, putting in pilings and extending the railroad.”
Behrens says the base of the jetties had to have a gradation, they had to be built on a very fine grain base.
If you started with the large granite blocks that are at the top of the jetties, they would just sink into the sand and disappear, much like your feet do, when the surf washes around them.
So, they started with what they called “man rocks” = 40- to 50-pound chunks of granite that a man could pick up.
“There were workers that would pick the rocks up out of the railroad cars and just drop them in the water to build up the jetties, and then started putting down bigger and bigger rocks,” Behrens said. “And then they would use cranes, steam cranes, to lift them up and drop them in place.”
It was grueling work, 12 to 14 hours a day that left men with stooped shoulders and raw, bloody hands.
Many of them were immigrants from Eastern Europe and the locals didn’t much cotton to them.
Behrens says there was only one bar in town, and they were fairly exclusive. They didn’t want the Eastern Europeans to come and drink at the bar.
So, Behrens says a young entrepreneur seeing an opportunity built a small bar on a barge and anchored it near the work site.
“He opened it as the ‘deepwater saloon’ and the European immigrants would go there instead and quench their thirst.”
The jetties were finally completed in 1919, the same year a huge hurricane hit Corpus Christi.
The storm also destroyed the wharf and cotton warehouse that the government built on Harbor Island, but that’s another story.
And if you’d like to hear about that, or why the folks of Tarpon, Texas, changed the name of their small community to Port Aransas, you’ll find it all at the Port Aransas Museum.
They have hundreds of photographs documenting the town’s history, and some fascinating artifacts like the Fresnel lens from the lighthouse and the bell from the steam engine used to build the jetties.
“It doesn’t have a clapper in it anymore, if it had the clapper in it, you would hear it ring in there, and it would drive you crazy,” Behrens said. “But it does have a nice ring to it.”
The Port Aransas Museum is located at the corner of Alister and Brundrett streets.
It’s open Thursday, Friday and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
There’s no admission, but they gladly accept donations.