Matagorda, Texas
 


MA
TAGORDA

 

In a time in Texas history when the founders of Matagorda could have chosen any site on the coast of Texas they chose the area at the mouth of the Colorado River as their homeThe following description of the townsite was submitted to Stephen F. Austin on August 2, 1826, by H. H. League, James C. Ludlow, Elias Wightman, and Richard Matson.

 

We discovered to our admiration and surprise-one of the most beautiful situations for the building a large commodious and tasty commercial town that our utmost imagination could conceive a large amphitheatre, a semicircular bluff of about six or eight feet above a high-water mark of very permanent dry soil, and ascending back to an extensive and beautiful prairie, about 2000 bars in diameter, making a very regular curve-resting one end on the Rio Colorado and the other on the bay the margin of both being remarkably straight and regular-in the front of this amphitheatre is a rich low marsh prairie though no stagnant waters the beauty of the whole and particularly the Colorado is past description.

 

Moses Austin had originally planned a town at the mouth of the Colorado, but his son, Stephen, decided to settle inland at San Felipe. Because of restrictions imposed by Mexico, no settlement was to occur within ten leagues inland along the coast. Stephen F. Austin appealed to Mexico on behalf of his settlers who had already settled within the restricted ten-league area.  He convinced the Mexican government that a military post was needed to protect incoming settlers, and the town of Matagorda was born.

 

"In 1827 the owners drew up a constitution for the regulation and transactions of Matagorda.  The signers were James B. Austin, owner of one-fourth; H. H. League, owner of one-fourth; Duke and William Selkirk, owners of one-fourth; and Elias R. Wightman, owner of one fourth."
 

Now that Elias Wightman had a townsite, he needed people.  He decided to return to New York to obtain the settlers he needed. Twelve families from New York and Connecticut assembled at the head of navigation of the Allegheny River, Olean Point, to make the trip to their new home. The names of thirty-eight of those were:

 

Asa Yeamans, his wife and five children

Daniel Yeamans

Mariah Pierce (a widow with three children)

Margaret Wightman

Demis C. Woodward

Noah Griffith, his wife and five children

Benjamin Wightman, his wife and child

Elias Wightman and his bride

Henry Griffith, his wife and three children

Charles Edwards, his wife and child

Emilius Savage, his wife and child

Thomas J. Pilgrim

 

After taking two large flatboats to Pittsburgh, the colonists continued their trip via steamboat to LouisvilleThe group had to wait three weeks for a boat to take them down the Mississippi to New Orleans.  They arrived in New Orleans on December 10, 1828, and had to wait another two weeks before a ship could be found that would take them to Texas. Captain Alden, of Maine, offered to sell his 22-ton schooner to Wightman's group for $500 or sail them to Texas himself for the same price.  Since Thomas Pilgrim was the only person with Wightman who had any knowledge of sailing, the group decided to charter the Little Zoe to take them to their new home. The vessel's crew consisted of Captain Alden, Mate John McHenn, and a German sailor.  Sixty passengers boarded the schooner on December 26, 1828.  A trip that should have taken seven days stretched into thirty-one.  Food and water supplies were severely depleted before the weary and sick immigrants reached Matagorda on Sunday, January 27, 1829.

 

 

 

Elias Wightman and a few men from the group left the schooner in a skiff to locate those on shore who were to meet them. They were unsure as to whether or not they would be met by their friends or hostile Indians.  The friends and family remaining on the ship waited anxiously until two skiffs were observed returning.  After locating the few residents already at the Matagorda stockade, the travelers stayed one more night on the Little Zoe.  Fresh food and milk were sent out to them from the people on shore. Mary Wightman, the wife of Elias, was given the honor of being the first woman to ascend the river.

 

When the new settlers arrived on shore the next day, they were met by the first inhabitants of the stockade:  James Cummins; his widowed daughter, Mrs. Maria Ross; her four-year-old daughter, Bessy; and Mrs. Parker, the grandmother of Mrs. Wilbarger.  The militiamen were James Cook, Daniel Decrow, Andrew Jackson, a Kentucky youth named Helm, and about six others."

 

The only houses in the area of the townsite were a double log cabin being built by James Cummins near the river and a log cabin on the bluff owned by Jesse Burnham. The small stockade, fifty feet square and ten feet tall, served as shelter for the new citizens and militiamen until they could build their own homes. "Apparently one aspect of Matagorda's fame had spread, because it is reported that the stockade had mosquito netting!"

 

The new citizens set to work building their townOne of the first structures erected, was a log schoolhouse with a dirt floor. A house was also built for the teacher Josiah P. Wilbarger. Mary Wightman assisted Wilbarger for the next two and one-half years.  She also taught a Sunday School.  It is unrecorded as to what religion was taught in the Sunday School.  The Mexican government required all settlers to agree to be members of the Catholic church, even though few who had

immigrated actually remained loyal to the Catholic church once Texas became a republic.

 

On June 20, 1830, the first death among the colonists was that of the mother of Matagorda's founder.  Esther Randall Wightman died of fever, and six weeks later her husband, Benjamin, died on August 6.  Their graves were the first recorded burials in Matagorda Cemetery. The site was marked only by a mesquite bush at that time, since the proprietors did not designate the area officially until August 1, 1833. One of the colonists had the foresight to plan for the time that deaths inevitably would occur in the town.  "A quantity of plank was thoughtfully taken on board at New Orleans on purpose for coffins, though no one knew the motive.  Daniel Decrow made both coffins, a yoke of oxen and a cart did the office of a hearse, kind friends dug the graves." There was no physician to help the sick before the deaths and no minister to preside at the funeral service, "but all that sympathizing friends could do to soften the melancholy surroundings was done."

 

In the days that followed, many more vessels arrived in Matagorda loaded with immigrants who were to build new houses and expand the town.  "By 1832, the Town of Matagorda could boast of several large business enterprises, among which were two salt factories."  Mary Wightman reported that at one time she and her husband traded five cows and calves for hewed logs, 16 feet long, to use for a house. An accepted medium of exchange at that time was one cow and calf for $10.

There was often little need for currency in a place so far from other inhabited areas. Bartering goods and services met the needs of the residents much better than currency.  Within the next ten years, Matagorda's use as an avenue of trade was to increase. D. E. E. Braman wrote of the frontier town: "Mexicans came in with large caravans of horses and mules and brought their wares, blankets, saddles, scarves, leggins and bags which they traded for American goods.

 

In 1835, as the Texas Revolution approached, Matagorda gave many of her men to serve for Texas Major George Morse Collinsworth was commander of the Texans at the capture of Goliad on October 9, 1835.  Ira Ingram and Phillip Dimitt drafted the Goliad Declaration. It was written by Ingram on December 20, 1835. Thirty of the 92 signers were from Matagorda.  In anticipation of future problems "a Committee of Safety was organized in 1835.  It was Matagorda's boast that some of her sons fought in every battle that was fought for Texas independence.

 

Compared to the accounts of the Texas army activities during the Revolution, the exploits of the Texas navy have been ignored.  When the General Council of the provisional government realized the need to protect the supply lines between Texas and New Orleans, it passed a bill on November 25,1835, to purchase four schooners and create a navy.  Commodore Charles E. Hawkins was named as its first commander; Robert Potter was elected ad interim Secretary of the Texas Navy."

 

Early in January of 1836, the Texas navy purchased the former privateer William Robbins from its owners, the Matagorda Committee of Safety, and renamed it the Liberty.  The William Robbins, under the command of Captain William A. Hurd, had won fame as a privateer when it captured a Mexican prize crew from the warship Bravo, which had boarded the Hannah Elizabeth, an American schooner carrying cannons and ammunition for the Texas army. The small 70- to 80-ton schooner Liberty was sent to New Orleans for repairs, the Texas government had no money to pay for the repairs, and the ship was sold there, ending its service to the Texas navy.  The Liberty, Independence (former U. S. Revenue Cutter Ingham), the Brutus, and the Invincible comprised the first four-ship Texas navy.

 

To protect the flank of Sam Houston's retreating troops and to observe better the enemy movements, Commodore Hawkins chose to keep his fleet headquartered in Matagorda Bay, thus Matagorda became the first fleet base of the Texas navy.

 

The fleet base was moved to Galveston when the Mexican troops threatened Matagorda, and the provisional government needed its protection in the Galveston area in April, 1836.

 

Edwin Ward Moore, who became commodore of the Texas navy, surveyed the Gulf Coast in 1841, paying special attention to Matagorda Bay, which, in Moore's opinion, was capable of harboring a thousand ships in its anchorage. The fleet base, however, remained in Galveston during the days of the Republic.

 

Matagorda played another important role in the affairs of the Texas navy, when one of its illustrious citizens, Samuel Rhoads Fisher, was confirmed as Secretary of the Navy on October 28, 1836.

 

On March 2, 1836, when Texas leaders met for the convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos, Matagorda was again represented. Two of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence were Samuel Rhoads Fisher and Bailey Hardeman, both of the Matagorda district. In addition to Fisher, several men from Matagorda gave service to the Texas Republic. Bailey Hardeman was the first Secretary of the Treasury in Texas.  Ira Ingram served as the first Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Republic.  Many years later, Albert C. Horton served as the first Lieutenant-Governor of the State of TexasHe was trustee of Baylor University and later served as president of Baylor.  During a leave of absence by Governor James P. Henderson to fight in the Mexican War, Horton served as governor from May 19, 1846, to December 13, 1846.  Two Texas counties were named for Fisher and Hardeman in honor of their service to Texas.

 

The influence of Matagorda's men was such that Matagorda was only three votes shy of becoming the state capital in 1836. When the Congress of Texas met at Columbia in 1836, the problem of selecting a more permanent capital aroseThe House and Senate could not agree on a site because they each favored a different area and several towns had presented petitions. One of the petitions was from the town of Matagorda which was nominated by a Mr. Archer as the next capital of Texas.  The two houses met in joint session on November 30, 1836, for a vote.  In the first ballot Matagorda received 8 votes to Houston's 11.  By the fourth ballot Matagorda's votes had dropped to 4 while Houston won with 21.

 

Prior to the selection of Austin as capital in 1839, Albert C. Horton had "built a three-story building in Matagorda for the purpose of tendering it to the state for the capitol building, if the state would select Matagorda as the capital. Fearing an outcry of conflict of interests, Horton withdrew his bid when he was appointed to the selection committee for the new capital. 

 

When the Republic of Texas established the first Texas counties, the town of Matagorda became the county seat of the new county of Matagorda.  On January 28, 1840, Matagorda, along with Houston, was granted a charter creating a Chamber of Commerce.  Just a few days later on February 5, by an act of the Senate and the House of Representatives, the incorporation of the City of Matagorda was approved. Harvey Kendrick was elected as the first mayor."

 

During the days of the Republic, Matagorda's public institutions took root.  Matagorda Masonic Lodge No. 7 was formed as well as the Odd Fellows Lodge No. 1.  Matagorda Methodist Church was organized January 6, 1839,  and Christ Episcopal Church was organized January 27 of the same year.   Christ Episcopal Church was the first Episcopal Church in Texas.  Rev. Caleb S. Ives arrived in Matagorda as a foreign missionary of the Episcopal church in the United States.

 

Several newspapers were founded and printed in Matagorda during the years of the Republic and beyond.  The first, the Matagorda Bulletin, began publication on August 2,1837. J. W. J. Niles published the weekly paper until November, 1837, at which time it was sold to James S. Jones.  John G. Davenport was editor from the summer of 1837, until he died October, 1838.  W. Donaldson then took over the reins as editor.  The annual subscription rate for the four-page newspaper was $5.  Publication continued until 1839.

 

Following closely was the Colorado Gazette and Advertiser. Publication began May 16, 1839. The Weekly Dispatch began publication at Matagorda in December, 1843. James M. Dallum established a weekly newspaper in July, 1846, called the Colorado Herald.

 

Several years later the Matagorda Gazette, owned and operated by Galen Hodges, was founded in 1858.  After one year of operation, Hodges announced the end of publication in the July 30, 1859, issue.  E. J. Lipsey, former editor for Hodges, became the new proprietor and editor.  His first issue, Volume II, No. 1, was published September 10, 1859 The Matagorda Gazette has preserved a record of the life of Matagorda in the 1850's as many copies of the original issues are still in existence.

 

A customhouse served the Port of Matagorda. Incoming merchandise and cargo from the many ships were recorded by the customhouse official.  Lists of passengers on board each of the ships that docked at Matagorda were recorded as well.  The September 6, 1837, issue of the Matagorda Bulletin publicized the prices for much needed items, from those ships, that were available in Matagorda.  It also revealed what products were unavailable at that time.

 

Flour-Superfine, $25, Fine, $20.

Coffee-Havanna green, 20 to 23 cents. Rio, 22 to 25 cents.

Sugar-New Orleans, 20 to 25. Brown Havanna, 16 to 20.

Lump, 25. Loaf, 33 to 38.

Bacon-Hams, canvassed, 25c; hams, 25c, scarce.

Middlings, 20. Shoulders, 183/4.

Molasses-Orleans, 80 to 90. Syrup, 90c to $1.00

Pork-Mess, 30 to $35. Prime, 28 to 32.

Beef-Mess, none. Prime, none.

Lard-18 3/4 to 22c.

Whiskey-Rectified, $1.25 to $1.5 per gallon. Common,

Common, $1.00 to $1.25

Salt- Turk's Island, per bushel, $2.00.

Lead-12 per lb. to 15c.

Rice-IO to 12 1/2c.

Bagging-Kentucky, 35c.

Rope-Kentucky, 18 to 20c.

Lumber-$40 per M. scarce.

Bricks-$25 to $35 per M.

Shingles-$13 per M. scarce.

Nails-25c per lb. in demand.

Mackerel-None.

Window Glass-c-None

 

The schooling of Matagorda children during this time period and continuing through the Civil War era was carried out by private academies.  Henry M. Shaw posted notice in the Matagorda Bulletin in May, 1838, of his intention of opening the Matagorda Academy.  "A state University was planned for Matagorda County during President Mirabeau B. Lamar's administration (1838-41),"  but the university never materializedCatharine Wright conducted a Young Ladies school in the 1850's. The April 9, 1859, issue of the Matagorda Gazette describes Mrs. Wright's school in glowing terms:
 

MATAGORDA FEMALE INSTITUTE.-We are indebted to Prof. De Pelchin for a catalogue of the teachers and pupils of this flourishing Institution. The Institute, as shown by the catalogue, contains 55 students, with a reasonable supposition that the number will be largely augmented at the commencement of the next session. No school in the State offers greater advantages for imparting to young ladies a thorough and polite education. Every branch is taught that can contribute to female accomplishments.

 

All who have become acquainted with the eminent qualifications of Mrs. Wright, the Principal, are unanimous in according to her the highest attributes as a teacher, and one well worthy of being trusted with the guidance and training of the young.

 

Prof. Adolphe De Pelchin has had many years experience in teaching in the South, during which time he has discharged the duties of some of the most responsible positions with

credit to himself and honor to the cause in which he has embarked. He bears testimonials of thorough scholarship which, together with his sound morality, admirably fit him for the important position he occupies.

 

Mrs. De Pelchin, sister to the Principal, is well known to this community as possessing ample qualifications as a teacher, while her amiable disposition and social qualities render her an excellent companion for young ladies. With such a corps of instructors, we feel assured in saying that young ladies will find every incentive to study and improvement. The Institute merits the undivided patronage of this portion of the State. It is the duty of everyone who feels a pride in the advancement of his own section, to contribute his support to sustain the perseverance and

industry of that section. Nor must every individual who thus contributes his patronage, arrogate to himself the peculiar right of establishing a censorship over the object of his support.
 


Matagorda Bulletin, January 28, 1856


Matagorda Gazette, April 9, 1859

 

Mr. Barber's School was also opened and operating in 1859.  Many area plantation owners either moved to Matagorda or bought second homes in town so that their children could be educated.  Public schools were operating during the 1850's, but they did not emerge as the primary form of education until after the Civil War.  Mail service had been operating in the Matagorda area even before the town was actually founded.  Mail came from New Orleans by boat in the early 1820's.  In 1837 the area's first mail line from Matagorda to Columbus was established. Some of the local plantation owners raised $500 so that the route could be extended to San Antonio.  Two mail routes, one weekly and one bi-weekly, passed through Matagorda by 1840. Mail left Matagorda each Friday at 7 A.M. and arrived 8 P.M. in Columbus, on route No. 18. The route wound around to all the smaller settlements and outposts for 95 miles. The bi-weekly route, No. 26, ran from Brazoria to Matagorda. Many years later, 1889-1964, the post office was operated out of John Clauder's store.  Amos Duffy owned the store for a portion of that time and served as postmaster for twenty-two years.

 

The decade of 1840-1850 saw the formation of many more plantations. "James H. Selkirk helped construct one of the first docks in Matagorda and operated a successful shipping and warehouse business during the seaport's bustling early days." Sugar, molasses, and cotton were exported from Matagorda and shipped on Spanish and Italian vessels.   The following article appeared in the July 16, 1859, issue of the Matagorda Gazette. Mr. James H. Selkirk has furnished us with the following list of produce shipped from his warehouse during the year ending June 30, 1859.
 

        Bales Cotton 6,264

        Barrells molasses 795

        Hdds. sugar 390

        Bales wool 6
 

During the same period the year before, there were 4,439 bales of cotton shipped, which shows an increase for last year of 1,825 bales.

 

William Bollaert, in his writings taken from the book William Bollaert's Texas, noted that "Mr. Power gives a silver cup for the first lot of cotton coming into Matagorda."   Later during the 1850 's, Sea Island cotton was raised on the peninsula.  Bollaert also made the following observations of the town of Matagorda on April 23, 1842:

 

In speaking of the want of depth of water before the town

of Matagorda--a gentleman observed: "We cannot have all

we wish and want; our wars we pray will soon be over,

emigration must and will flock to our country. We have all

good health here in Matagorda, a fine climate, game, fish,

turtle, cattle, and poultry in abundance. I, who seldom ride

now, have a score in the prairie who take care of themselves."

I took a ride into the prairie with the said gentleman; in the

distance, ridges of timber were seen; nearer to us, horses and

cattle grazing, and although late in the spring, the prairie was

covered with flowers. The shores of the Bay skirted with

shady groves that were fanned by the southern breezes, that

swept over the flowery plains, excelled the choicest Parisian

perfumes.

 

Matagorda was quite the center of culture for the area. As early as 1838, "both Houston and Matagorda boasted theaters before the completion of their first church buildings."   "The Matagorda Thespians, reached their highest point of activity in 1840 and 1841."   They were encouraged by one commentator who wrote "the Thespian institution is not only harmless, but in fact may be considered a beneficial establishment for useful mirth and salutary woe,"  William Bollaert commented several times about the cultural activities in and around Matagorda.

 

April 19th, 1842: I passed the evening at Dr. Hunter's,

who amongst other attainments is a great music-violinist as

well as harpist, but above all, I subsequently found him a

kind friend, a good man and excellent companion. The

society I met at his house, both ladies and gentlemen, left

nothing to be desired. Beauty, talent, and friendship.

 

April 22nd, 1842: A musical party given at Col. L---,

when Dr. H[unter] afforded all a great treat by his performance

on the harp. Taking the toute ensemble on this

party-the music, dancing, and elegance, I could hardly

believe that a few years since the name of Texas was scarcely

known.

 

Tuesday, May 24th, 1842: Went to Matagorda. This night

the Thespian Company of Matagorda played the "Two

Thompsons" and "When Shall I Dine"-very well indeed in

their pretty little theatre.

 

The "Social Library Tax for 1847" lists the names and contributions of the shareholders. The list includes prominent first families of the era.

NO.           SHAREHOLDERS                                   NO.           SHAREHOLDERS

1. Axon A. Forester                                                    31. A. M. Levy                 $2.00 Paid

2.   James Attwell                                                       32. Eliza L. Lewis

3.   George Burkhart                                                  33. Ira A. Lewis

4.   Sam B. Brigham                                                  34. Rob!. Ludington

5.   Chas. A. Bower                                                   35. James W. Lonn

6.   D. E. E. Braman                     $3.00 Paid          36. H. B. Mitchell

7.   John W. Carter                                                     37. Wm. 1. Maynard

8.   John Culver                                                          38. McCamey

9.   H. L. Cook                                                            39. Jas. F. Martin              $2.00 Paid

10. Thom. M. Dennis                                                 40. John Mackey              $2.00 Paid

11.       John Duncan                                                  41. M. A. Pledger

12. Jas. T. Donaldson                   $2.00 Paid         42. John Plunkett               $2.00 Paid

13. James Denison                       $2.00 Paid         43. Wm. Prissick               $2.00 Paid

14. William L. Delap                                                  44. Dudley J. Parks           $2.00 Paid

15. Jas. L. Dawson                                                   45. Saml. G. Power           $2.00 Paid

16. Dallam, Jas. W.                                                   46. Chas. Powelr

17. Sam W. Fisher                        $2.00 Paid         47. Wm. Russell                $2.00 Paid

18. Henry Gibson                         $2.00 Paid           48. Wm. B. Royalll            $2.00 Paid

19. Henry Gibson                         $2.00 Paid           49. John S. Royall             $2.00 Paid

20. John G. Griham                                                    50. John Rugeley

21. Joseph T. Hefford                  $2.00 Paid           51. Jas. H. Selkirk             $2.00 Paid

22. P. W. Herbert                                                       52. Thos. Stewart               $2.00 Paid

23. J. F. Huttner                                                          53. Somerville

24. Wm. Hillard                            $2.00 Paid           54. W. W. Stewart

25. A. C. Horton                           $2.00 Paid           55. Joseph Smith

26. E. Harvey                               $2.00 Paid           56. Matthew Talbot            $2.00 Paid

27. Galen Hodges                                                     57. F. Waldman                  $2.00 Paid

28. Caleb S. Ives                           $2.00 Paid         58. A. Wadsworth              $2.00 Paid

29. Seth Ingram                                                          59. Geo. W. Ward

30. Henry Jones                                                         60. Thos. Ward  

 

The hub of the social events of the 1850's was the Colorado House, Matagorda's "fashionable hotel."  It was built in 1852 and was owned and operated by Galen Hodges. At times the fourteen guest rooms were filled, and the Hodges had to take personal friends into their own homes.  One of the four surviving registers of the hotel contains the signature of General Andrew Jackson who arrived there Sunday, May 3, 1857.  The Colorado House was the site of Christmas balls and

soirees. The following excerpt from the Matagorda Gazette of July 9, 1859, further illustrates the importance of the hotel:


No pre
paration has been made to celebrate the 4th of July

at this place, but the hearts of the people were still with the

heroes of '76. The day was ushered in with a salute of33 guns.

From the towering flag pole of the Colorado House, waved

in magnificant grandeur our national flag, and the whole

premises there abouts was decorated with small ensigns,

some of them bearing appropriate and patriotic mottoes.

 

In the midst of Matagorda's "golden days," a hurricane struck in 1854.  Even though it devastated the town, the Matagordans, undaunted, rebuilt and continued to thrive. The city boasted a gristmill by 1859, and the largest sugar mill in the state by 1860.

 

At the onset of the Civil War, the men of Matagorda once again answered the call to service.  After receiving authorization on July 26, 1860, Dr. E. A. Peareson organized a military company which was mustered into Confederate service in Victoria in October.  Matagorda's men were members of Company D, 6th Texas Infantry. The men fought hard in defense of the Confederacy both at home and in other states.

 

During the war, yellow fever struck Matagorda and claimed the lives of 45 of the 150 inhabitants who were still in the town. Among those who died were: the postmaster, the county clerk, a teacher, the sheriff and his entire family, and the widow of Samuel Rhoads Fisher.  Matagorda was again visited by tragedy in 1863, when 22 men from Captain E. S. Rugeley's Company drowned or froze to death while attempting to defend the town against an attack by Northern troops.

 

After the Civil War, Matagorda again flourished as life began to take on a semblance of order.  The town, though far away from most of the fighting of the war, still had problems adjusting during reconstruction. "In 1865, two companies of negro soldiers, officered by white men, were stationed in Matagorda."  The uniforms of the Northern soldiers were an ever-present reminder of the loss of loved ones. Cotton farming and ranching were the mainstays of the economy during

this period.  The Stabler Patent Beef Packing Plant was situated in Matagorda in 1866.  The town also had a hide and tallow factory before 1870.  

 

Matagorda was visited once again by damaging hurricanes in 1875 and 1886. After the storm of 1886, the town was infested with rattlesnakes.  The residents of the town had to rebuild and salvage what was left of their possessions.

 

The threat of hurricanes, as well as a desire for a more centralized county seat, prompted a move of the county seat from Matagorda to Bay City.  At that time most of the population of the county, 3,985, lived in the interior part of the county. "Elections and county affairs made citizens ride many weary miles by horseback to participate.  It is still said in Matagorda today that "the citizens of Matagorda went fishing one day and Bay City stole the courthouse" while they were gone.

 

As other Texas ports grew up along the coast, much of Matagorda's commerce was drawn away to new areas. That, along with the removal of the county seat, helped bring an end to Matagorda's "golden years.

 

The onset of the twentieth century did not find Matagorda dead by any means.  The August 28, 1901, issue of the Matagorda County Tribune included the following list in an article about the city of Matagorda.

 

MATAGORDA HAS

 

A drug store

One physician

No lawyers nor saloons

A good lumber yard

A fleet of oyster boats

A fleet of pleasure boats

Three good churches

An Odd Fellows Hall

A splendid public school building

An oyster packery

A public warehouse

A bay front

A river front

Three grocery stores

Three dry goods stores

A hardware store

A good hotel

Many elegant bay front homes

A host of good people

 

The article also included the following statement about real estate near Matagorda. "Property is now low in Matagorda, and there is no finer investment offered to the public than this same property.  Every investor and every tourist visiting Matagorda County should include Matagorda City on his itinerary.   In 1908 several investors did choose to buy land on Matagorda Peninsula and they formed the Ben Hur Beach Hotel and Boating Association.  The officers were:

 

J. C. Kennedy, an Indiana capitalist, president; Geo. B. Culver, former tax assessor of this county and now a leading business man of Matagorda, vice-president; Goodwin Sterne, the Matagorda banker, secretary and treasurer. These three officers together with Dr. A. A. Luther of Bay City and A. L. Gibbs of Oklahoma constitute the board of directors.

 

The capital of the company was $20,000, and the company renovated a concrete hotel on the peninsula as well as the area around the hotel building.  There was a power boat "to convey passengers to and from the main land at Matagorda.   One thousand acres around the hotel were platted and staked off for sale by the Southwestern Land Development Company.  A special grand opening was held May 26, 1908, and the following article provided information on the days festivities.

SPECIAL TRAIN

Excursion to Ben Hur Opening

On Matagorda Peninsula.

Tuesday, May 26th

 

The Santa Fe will run a special excursion train to

Matagorda next Tuesday Morning, passing Bay City at 8: 15

a.m. and arriving at Matagorda at 9:30. Returning will leave

Matagorda at 10 p.m.

Fare for round trip only 50(1: from Bay City, 75(1: from Lane

City and 95(1: from Wharton.

Be sure to see the races, trap shooting, bronco busting,

roping contest, etc., and enjoy the barbecue, oyster roast, fish

fry, bathing and sailing.

 

Mrs. Carroll Ryman recorded her impressions of Matagorda in the early 1900's in the following journal entry:
 

In 1913 when I married and came to Matagorda the town

edged the bay. Bluff Street ran across town at the edge of the

bay. Stately homes were all along the street, and the big hotel

also faced the bay. Two fish houses in east part oft own where

big boats brought fish and oysters. The fish houses were

owned by Mr. Lorino and Mr. Thornhill.
 

A pavilion built out in the bay ... was connected with the

town by a board walk. Benches were built in a very short

distance of one another.


Th
e pavilion was used for dances, picnics and all special

gatherings. All around the pavilion were big pleasure boats

owned by town men and at this place they went aboard their

boats to sail on bay and over to Matagorda peninsula where

they walked across to bathe in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Public schools were firmly established in Matagorda by this time.  A school building erected on the corner of Cedar and Lewis in 1888 still served the higher grades after a duplicate wing had been added in 1909.  From 1904 to 1908, a one-room school building near the Odd Fellows Hall housed the primary grades. Rooms in the Baptist church were also used for the primary classes. Private schools still educated some Matagorda childrenThe old Thompson building housed a private school taught by Cora Bullard. Angela McNabb operated a school at Big Hill.

 

The next seventy years were to see many changes in the Matagorda school system. December of 1914 saw the completion of a brick and concrete school building constructed on the public square at the intersection of Wightman and Market Streets. Bertha Funk, Bertha Lloyd, O. L. Bateman, and Lula Belle Salley were some of the early teachers that educated children in that school.

 

From 1920 until 1938, Matagorda and Gulf shared educational responsibilities.  Primary classes were taught in Matagorda, and secondary students attended the high school at Gulf.  When the Gulf school was closed, the secondary grades from Matagorda were transferred to Bay City. The building constructed in 1914 was razed in 1970, and classes were conducted in the fire station, and in the Episcopal rectory until January 4, 1971, when a new modern brick building was completed.

 

By 1914 many new businesses had begun operation in Matagorda. The Texas State Gazettee for that year included the following entry for Matagorda:

 

                        MATAGORDA

Population 1000. On the G. C. & S. F. Ry. and on the

Intercoastal Canal, in Matagorda County, near where the

Colorado river empties into Matagorda Bay, 22 miles south

of Bay City, the county seat and 95 southwest of Houston. It

dates its settlement from 1822, being one of the oldest

American settlements in Texas. Its location makes it one of

the most important fish and oyster points on the coast. It also

has 2 producing oil wells near by and sulphur mines are being

developed. Has Baptist, Episcopal, and Methodist churches,

a bank, ice plant, fish, oysters, mud shells for road building

and farm produce are shipped. Tel., W. U. Exp., W., F. &

Co. Telephone connection. Amos E. Duffy, postmaster.

Baer, A. G., cattle breeder.

Bank of Matagorda The (unincorporated), Goodwin Sterne

pres., Albert W. McNabb cashr.

Bankston, Louis, cattle breeder.

Bay City and Matagorda Telephone Co. (capital $5.000),

A. W. McNabb pres. and mngr., J. F. McNabb vice-pres., W.

E. McNabb sec. and treas.

Bay View Hotel, Mrs. J. H. Berg propr.

Berg, Samuel J., grocer and hardware.

Culver, G. B. cattle breeder.

Davis, Charles A., r.r., tel. and exp agt.

Duffy, Amos E., postmaster.

Duffy, A. A. & Co., (Amos E. Duffy), dry goods.

Ellis & Baxter (Clyde Ellis, Collins Baxter), restaurant.

Gulf Sulphur Co. (St. Louis, Mo.), P. W. Billingsley mngr,

5 mi east.

Lorino Bros., Antonio B. Lorino, Mngr., Wholesale Fish

and Oysters, Ice Mnfrs., Grocers and Ship Chandlers.

McNabb, Albert W., insurance.

Magnolia Petroleum Co, W. G. Thornhill, agt.

Mahavier, Charles, meats.

Matagorda Lumber Co. (Walter S. Stewart, Charles Nolte).

Matagorda Realty Co. (Albert H. Wadsworth, George B.

Culver).

Moberley Bros. (Elbert S. and Oscar R.) General Machinists

and Auto Garage, Mnfrs ofMoberley Acetylene Gas Light

Plants.

Norton Oil Co. (Houston), C. H. Rugeley, mngr., 5 mi east.

Phillips, Benjamin A., physician.

Phillips, Wm. J., grocer.

Sargent, George T., cattle breeder.

Sterne, Goodwin, lawyer and fire ins.

Stewart, Arthur c., dry goods, etc.

Stewart Bros., cattle breeders.

Stribling, Clem, confr, and blksmith.

Thornhill, Wm. G., Wholesale Fish and Oysters, Grocer and

Ship Chandlery.

 

Matagorda's economy was boosted in the 1920's by the establishment of the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company at Big Hill.   The sulphur operations provided employment for many of the Matagorda residents.  The two towns shared schools as well as jobs and each benefited from the other.

 

During the years preceding the Depression, the citizens of Matagorda functioned as a family.  Many activities centered around the churches.  There were carnivals, ice cream socials, and plays.  The opera house provided musical productions staged by local talent.  Mothers and children visited with neighbors during the heat of the afternoon.  One could not walk the main street of Matagorda around three o'clock in the afternoon without smelling coffee brewing in preparation for an afternoon of visiting.  After supper was also a time for neighboring adults to gather and visit while the children played games in the yard.

 

The water, both river and bay, was a gathering place for the entire town. The Colorado River swimming hole on hot summer evenings was the favorite gathering spot for everyone.  Parents tied ropes around the young children while they were learning to swim.  The young people demonstrated their expertise on the high diving board.  The bay provided a place to crab and sail small boats.
 

Due to lack of refrigeration, the seafood industry got off to a late start in Matagorda. In 1890 a steamboat made two trips a week from Matagorda to Galveston, marketing oysters in the shell. Soon after this, oysters were marketed in Port Lavaca, Texas, where they had a railroad and ice plant sooner than in Matagorda.

In 1902, the Cane Belt Railroad came to Matagorda and A. B. Lorino opened up a fish and oyster house about the same time, Morgan Smith & Edward Bell opened up another. W. G. Thornhill, who was depot agent for the railroad company, gave up his job and opened a fish and oyster house also. This gave Matagorda three seafood places all located out in the bay in front of the town. Oyster shell was used to make roads to the seafood houses and islands of shell around them. Oysters and fish were shipped to all parts of the United States, and the famous Tiger Island oyster became known in all parts of the country. Although the bay had an abundance of shrimp, crab, and fish, these industries did not get off to a good start until the 1920's.

 

The installation of electricity in 1926 provided the stimulus for the further development of the seafood industry.  With the addition of freezers the industry developed to gigantic proportions which continued to escalate.

 

The depression years struck hard in Matagorda and the seafood industry suffered a relapse.  There was no market for the seafood in the immediate area.  Fish and oysters were trucked to Houston and sold to cafes bringing one dollar a gallon at best.

 

This time period in Matagorda's history was one of continual change. After the depression and World War II, Matagorda was once again struck by disaster.  The hurricane of 1942 left the town devastated.  Almost all of the houses in the eastern portion of the town were destroyed.  Most residents evacuated to Bay City, but others "rode out" the storm in Matagorda.  The Red Cross set up headquarters after the storm and fed the people. They were without electricity and drinking water for many days. Mrs. Carroll Ryman wrote in her journal:
 

The wind and water destroyed all of the east end of town

but a few houses. Many of our town men went to Bay City. A

few stayed to ride the storm out. My family was among those

who stayed ... The water started to come in the house. We all

gathered in the west bed room huddled close together, fear in

our hearts and plans to what to do if water reached up stairs

or the logs beat the house down. The high wind abated about

five o'clock a.m. The water went down slowly. When

daylight came, we looked out and saw what the high wind

and water had done to our town. A sad sight and all homes

had much damage. It was a task to get things livable again.

But we did.

 

 Some families decided they could not face the inevitability of future storms.  Many sold their homes and moved to Bay City or farther inland.  Others chose to move their houses and live a greater distance from the water.

 

A protective levee was built around the town in the 1940's to help diminish the threat of storms like the one in 1942.  Because funds were depleted, the levee was not built as high as originally planned.  In 1961 the addition to the top of the levee was completed.  Before the contractor could remove his equipment from the site of the completed levee, Hurricane Carla hit MatagordaThe townspeople were unsure whether the levee could withstand the burden of water because it was "green" and had not had time to settle and weather.  The storm ravaged the area, tearing down fences, uprooting trees, and damaging homes, but the levee held and saved the town from flood waters.   Once again the residents began the slow process of restoring their homes and town.

 

Water was a problem again when Brown and Root was hired to build flood gates or locks on the Colorado River and Intracoastal Canal.  The continual silting of the river caused problems which were remedied in 1944.  After eighteen months of construction the locks were completed and water traffic was "turned back into the main channel Monday, August 7, at 12:00 noon.

 

The World War II post-war prosperity caused many "second homes" to spring up along the river road that connected Matagorda with the peninsula.  The town became a weekend retreat for fishermen and beachgoers.  Cafes, bait camps, and convenience stores were built to accommodate the weekend and summer visitors.

 

The primary industries operating in Matagorda in the 1970's and 80's are centered around the water - Matagorda's life-bloodFish, oyster, crab and shrimp are sold wholesale and trucked out of Matagorda daily in season. Bait camps are inundated by fishermen during the warm months, and guide services provide deep-sea fishing as well. On weekends and holidays a

steady stream of vehicles is seen taking visitors to the beach to enjoy the wind, sand, and surf.

 

At this writing, a project has been undertaken by the Corps of Engineers of the State of Texas to build a jetty system at the mouth of the Colorado River.  This will provide better access to the river, improve the fishing areas, and make the beach a safer place to swim.

 

During one hundred and fifty years, Matagorda has experienced prosperity, depression, war, peace, tragedy, disaster, and triumph. Matagorda has survived and overcome experiences which have caused other towns such as Indianola to become extinct.  Descendants of the original founders still make Matagorda their home.  The more recent citizens are doing their part to add to the heritage of Matagorda as it marches into the future.

 

Historic Matagorda County, Volume I, pp. 350-361

 

Submitted by Gale French