When the tide is low enough, the stumps of old buildings and wharves peek above the waves. They are decaying reminders of the boom town that died a century ago when disaster visited twice.
Repeated storms over the years have pushed the coastline inland several blocks, allowing the sea to swallow the pilings that still stood after the devastating hurricane of 1886.
It was the second hurricane to ravage the bustling port community in 11 years, and the vicious winds took not only lives and property spared by the first storm, but the very spirit of Indianola as well.
“Many thought the end of the world had come. Prayers and hymns rose above the groans of the waves and the wind,” wrote Euroda Moore in a published collection of survivors’ accounts of the ordeal.
“It was a most terrible time,” Alice Reed, another survivor, wrote in a letter. “People fighting against fire, water and wind.”
Fire Followed Flood
The fire--started by a lantern that was smashed when the weather bureau office collapsed in the storm--gutted most of what the tidal surge had left standing.
History books say the population of Indianola once exceeded 6,000, and that its commerce rivaled that of Galveston, “the Wall Street of the Southwest,” about 130 miles up the Texas coastline.
Hundreds of people, along with the town, died in the hurricanes’ double blast. Those who lived fled inland, never to return.
John S. Munn, an attorney in Victoria, said words could not describe the horror:
“As fast as possible after the storm, those who were so fortunate as to be saved deserted the wrecked peninsula,” he wrote in the Jackson County Progress a week after the second hurricane.
“The very thoughts of Indianola will be avoided by those who passed through the valley of the shadow of death there for the remainder of their lives,” he wrote.
Settled by German immigrants in the early 1840s, Indianola was blessed with a naturally deep harbor along Matagorda Bay. In 1849, shipping magnate Charles Morgan made the town a port for his fleet.
Wharves that stretched half a mile into the bay served as a landing for goods to and from Texas, Mexico and California. Wells Fargo Express Co. shipped silver bullion from Mexico, headed for a federal mint in New Orleans, through Indianola.
The first cattle shipment to New Orleans left from Indianola, and all the Army bases in Texas were supplied through the port.
Even camels came through the harbor. In the 1850s, 125 of the beasts of burden arrived for service in the Army.
Stagecoaches left three times weekly for San Antonio, where travelers could make connections to California, 38 dusty days away.
“It was a miracle Indianola got as big as it did,” said George Fred Rhodes, chairman of the Calhoun County Historical Commission. “But they didn’t have any bad storms.”
The town’s luck changed on Sept. 16, 1875, when a hurricane slammed in from the Gulf of Mexico. A report in the Victoria Advocate estimated the winds at nearly 130 m.p.h.
Hundreds of people died as a tidal surge eight feet high submerged the town.
Corpses Littered Shore
“We are destitute,” Dist. Atty. W. H. Crain wrote in a letter he sent via a steamer captain to the Galveston Daily News. “Dead bodies are strewn for 20 miles along the bay. Send us help, for God’s sake!”
The hurricane was the first of several economic setbacks in that year. New tracks between Galveston and San Antonio diverted more ships to Galveston, and rail lines to Indianola were not rebuilt. Leading merchants, fearful of another storm, decided to leave.
Their fears were well-founded.
Aug. 18, 1886, was a cloudy and humid day, although the dark skies at first stirred hope, not fear. The area had been suffering from drought.
At 9:30 p.m., winds reached 36 m.p.h. Six hours later, the wind force had doubled. The wind gauge at the Signal Service, forerunner of the National Weather Service, read 102 m.p.h. when the building collapsed and touched off the fire from a kerosene lantern inside.
“Many people thought the end of the world had come,” one survivor said later. “Fire literally rained out of the sky. The terrific wind tore burning pieces of lumber from the fired houses, and the air was filled with flames and embers.”
County Seat Relocated
This time, Indianola could not recover. Three months after the second storm, residents voted to move the county seat farther inland, to Port Lavaca. The post office was closed in May, 1887. The last passenger train left a month later.
Today, a pink granite marker, battered by wind and waves, tilts precariously in the sand. Another stone stands at a crumbling cistern filled with stinking, stagnant water.
Huddled away from the beach are a few dozen tombstones.
Only about 35 people now live here year-round. A few dozen beach houses dot the coastline. The flat peninsula, still vulnerable to the elements, took 170-m.p.h. gusts from Hurricane Carla in 1961.
“You keep everything ready,” said Phyllis Brown, who has operated a bait stand and cabins just off the beach for 15 years.
“You always worry about it.”