2017-09-01 / City Stuff

Tarpon, Texas turns into tourist town

Daisy Heard of San Antonio landed this 5-foot-11-inch tarpon in a boat captained by Johnie Martin Mathews during the 1949 Tarpon rodeo. Daisy Heard of San Antonio landed this 5-foot-11-inch tarpon in a boat captained by Johnie Martin Mathews during the 1949 Tarpon rodeo. High- and low-rise condominiums, beach vacation houses, brand-name hotels and an Arnold Palmer signature golf course that occupy Port Aransas would be unrecognizable to the residents of the little village once known as Tarpon,Texas.

Today, Port Aransas bears little resemblance to the wide-open island village that was punctuated primarily by sand dunes and sea oats.

The Port Aransas of the 21st century features multi-story condominiums, five national-brand hotels as well as several independent motels, restaurants and retail shops, canal-front subdivisions, a network of paved streets and sidewalks, an airport and a golf course – all this and more where Karankawa Indians once roamed and cattle grazed.

Initially an isolated camp town where only fishermen came to reap the bounty of the plentiful waters, Port Aransas has become a popular coastal destination for tourists from throughout the United States and the world.

The Tarpon Inn was built in 1886 with surplus lumber from Civil War barracks. It was first used to house workers for the Mansfield Jetty (the south jetty for Aransas Pass). After work was completed on the jetty, the building became a hotel-and it is still in operation today. The Tarpon Inn was built in 1886 with surplus lumber from Civil War barracks. It was first used to house workers for the Mansfield Jetty (the south jetty for Aransas Pass). After work was completed on the jetty, the building became a hotel-and it is still in operation today. At the northern tip of Mustang Island, Port Aransas is on one of a string of barrier sand reefs off the coast of Texas that stretches from Galveston to Mexico.


The first residents were the Karankawa Indians, a tribe of fierce nomad hunters rumored to be cannibals. They roamed the Gulf coast until Anglo settlers spelled their doom, making them extinct by 1860.

European explorers are known to have visited the area as early as the mid-1500s, but no permanent settlement existed until the 1800s.

Several men tip a few at the Deep Water Saloon in Port Aransas many decades ago. Several men tip a few at the Deep Water Saloon in Port Aransas many decades ago. The name

Recent research has discounted previously held beliefs about the monikers under which Port Aransas has existed.

Port Aransas historian John Guthrie Ford learned from an expert on the U.S. Postal Service that Port Aransas was known first as Ropesville, according to records by then-postmaster William R. Roberts, who recorded the town’s name on July 12, 1888.

According to Ford’s research, the town became Tarpon on July 17, 1896, according to the postmaster at the time, Emma A. Roberts. Roberts also recorded the last name – Port Aransas – on Dec. 23, 1910. The city was incorporated effective Nov. 25, 1911.


The old Aransas Pass Lighthouse, now called the Lydia Ann Lighthouse, was the first permanent structure in the area. It was built in 1855 to guide ships through the treacherous natural pass between San Jose and Mustang islands to Corpus Christi Bay. The first lighthouse keeper was appointed in 1856.The lighthouse went back into operation in July 1987.

After lying in darkness for 35 years, the lighthouse was recommissioned on July 4, 1988, as an operating lighthouse. It is privately owned by Charles Butt and is maintained by a lighthouse keeper.

Military presence

During the turbulent years of the Texas Revolution and the Civil War, Mustang Island was used as a base for pirate raids and military expeditions.

Legend has it that the most famous buccaneer of the Texas Gulf Coast, Jean Lafitte, had camps on Mustang and San Jose islands where, it is said, there is buried treasure.

The pass from the Gulf has long been a key tactical route from a military standpoint and played critical roles in the strategy of war.

When Mexico threatened to invade the new State of Texas in 1845, the United States responded. Gen. Zachary Taylor, with an armada of ships and soldiers, sailed through the pass and anchored at what is now Corpus Christi. A small fort was built on Mustang Island to guard the pass while Taylor and his men marched to the Rio Grande.

Several skirmishes took place during the Civil War in the vicinity of the pass. Once, Union troops attempted to seize the lighthouse in order to guide federal ships through the pass. However, Confederate men, under orders to destroy the lighthouse to foil Union troops, removed the lens. The disposition of it is unclear, according to Ford’s research.

The lens on display at the Port Aransas Museum, circa 1867, is the second lens installed at the lighthouse.

First settlers

The first settler to build a home in Port Aransas was Robert Ainsworth Mercer, an immigrant from England via Alabama who arrived on the island to raise cattle in 1855.

Within 10 years, the Mercers had been joined by about 50 other settlers who also ranched on the island, and the roots of today’s Port Aransas were firmly established.

The pass

During the late 1800s several meat packeries were in operation on the island to treat and render the cattle products that resulted from ranching. Deep draft steamships began plying the pass, bringing with them a new era of commerce for island residents.

Federal efforts to stabilize the pass in 1860, 1879 and 1884 failed for a variety of reasons, but in 1888, a stone jetty (called the Mansfield Jetty) on the south side of the pass was successfully erected.

The present-day jetties, composed of huge pink granite blocks quarried from Granite Mountain near Marble Falls in the Texas Hill Country, were constructed beginning in 1885 with the north jetty, according to Ford’s research.

The north jetty was nearing completion in 1907 and construction of the south jetty was authorized.

Both jetties were completed by 1919.

Coast Guard

The need for a life saving station in Port Aransas was evident. Thanks to the presence of a station in Corpus Christi a life saving station was established in Port Aransas on June 18, 1878 by an act of Congress. In January of 1915, the modern day Coast Guard was formed and the life saving station in Port Aransas became Coast Guard Station Port Aransas. That new Coast Guard station included a house for the officer in charge and his family. It remained occupied until 1976, when the current station was built. Additionally, the officer in charge’s house was moved by truck down to Channelview Drive where it is still today.

Tarpon Inn

One of the earliest structures on the island was the original Tarpon Inn, built in 1886. It was destroyed by fire in 1900, but it was soon rebuilt using lumber salvaged from the first inn.

The island’s delicate position at the edge of the Gulf has been tested by storms often over the centuries, and hurricanes in 1916 and 1919 did much damage to Port Aransas. However, island residents rebuilt their community including the venerable Tarpon Inn, after each storm, up to and including Hurricane Celia in 1970.

Despite the hardships and often harsh weather, Port Aransas residents knew that the island town would be an ideal tourist haven.

Fishing, ferries

To that end, the sport fishing industry was cultivated and touted throughout the country.

In the mid-1920s, people who had heard of the bountiful fishing and long, clean beaches of Port Aransas began asking for automobile access to the island. A car-train system was developed to bring cars on a flatbed railroad car from Aransas Pass to Harbor Island, and from there to Port Aransas via ferryboat.

The first Port Aransas ferry, the Mitzi, carried six cars per crossing.

By 1931, a roadway connected Aransas Pass to the ferry crossing and causeways connected Flour Bluff to North Padre Island and North Padre Island to Mustang Island.

Tarpon Rodeo

One of the milestones in Port Aransas history came in 1932 when longtime islander Barney Farley organized the first Tarpon Rodeo. The Tarpon Rodeo, which evolved into what is now known as the Deep Sea Roundup, became one of the most popular fishing tournaments on the Texas Gulf Coast and firmly established Port Aransas as the center of the state’s sport fishing industry.

The most famous of all sportfishing tourists to visit Port Aransas in 1937 was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who caught a tarpon during an excursion to the waters off the coast of Port Aransas. A souvenir from that visit, a tarpon scale signed by Roosevelt, hangs today in a place of honor in the lobby of the Tarpon Inn.

This story and others are recounted by Farley in his book, “Fishing Yesterday’s Gulf Coast”, published posthumously in the fall of 2002.

U-boat threat

By 1940, the population of Port Aransas had grown to about 500, a number that was doubled by military personnel stationed on the island during World War II. Reports of German U-boats off the Texas coast led the military in 1942-44 to build two gunnery emplacements, each on a high sand dune overlooking the Gulf. The remains of the bunker are still visible today near the University of Texas Marine Science Institute where there is a historical marker.


The institute was founded after the UT Board of Regents reported in 1892 to Texas Gov. Jim Hogg that the Gulf coast was a prime location for a marine station.

As a result, in May of 1900, regents appropriated $300 for a marine laboratory at Galveston, and the first class of five students began to study littoral and shallow water fauna. When the hurricane of 1900 struck, the laboratory’s research vessel was heavily damaged, and it was 15 years before re-establishment of the lab was attempted.

Before that effort got off the ground, another tropical storm caused such damage that the new research vessel was sold and the effort was abandoned.

A massive fish kill in Port Aransas in 1935 brought Dr. E.J. Lund, a zoologist from The University of Texas, to investigate. Lund managed to rekindle interest in marine science at the university after seeing the Port Aransas environment. In 1941, the MSI was formally founded, and Lund was its first director.

A permanent marine laboratory was established by 1946. A pier laboratory was added in 1948, and major expansions were constructed in the 1970s.

MSI began leasing the National Marine Fisheries Service Laboratory in the late 70’s and the facility was formally transferred to MSI in 1987. A new library and Visitor Center was built in 1982.

In August, 2008, the Wetlands Education Center was opened, further expanding the MSI’s marine education program.The 3.5 acres of wetlands are part of the 185,000- acre Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve, for which the MSI is also headquarters. Ground was broken in 2009 for a headquarters building on the MSI campus.

Party mecca

Port Aransas was a booming mecca for booze, girls and gambling in the late 1940s and 50s. Isolated from the authorities, the illicit activities went unchecked until Hurricane Carla swept over the island in 1961. Most of the illegal joints were destroyed by the storm and never rebuilt.


With the advent of new transportation technology, the old lighthouse was decommissioned in 1952. In addition, a road connecting Port Aransas with the Padre Island Causeway was completed in 1954, providing direct vehicular access. Today, in addition to the road connecting Port Aransas to Padre Island and what is now called the John F. Kennedy Causeway, Port Aransas is served by six 20-car ferries and two 28-car ferries that bring more than one million vehicles to the island each year. Another 28-car ferry is under construction that will replace one of the 20-car ferries sometime this year. A new ferry headquarters building was completed in March 2015, and on the horizon are ferry-stacking lanes in the area of Port Street that will change the approaches coming to and leaving Port Aransas.

Tourism, growth

Port Aransas has continued its growth as a tourism center.

Although the tarpon population dwindled drastically in the mid- 1900s, the popularity of sport fishing continued to grow in the 1960s. There are now fishing tournaments, targeting species other than tarpon, nearly every weekend during the summer and a few scattered through the fall.

Condominium development began in 1965 with the completion of Sea Isle Village, and the condominium business boomed through the 1970s and early 80s.

Tourism reached a peak in the 1970s and into the 80s with summer holidays, weekends and the annual spring pilgrimage of thousands of students boosting the island’s reputation as a top vacation spot. In addition, the annual migration of Winter Texans from northern states has brought yet another season of tourism to the island.

The oil bust of the mid- to latter- 1980s put a temporary cap on the development of the tourism industry in Port Aransas.

The Texas economy began a rebound in the 1990s that continues today, although the pace is tempered by a recent downturn in the oil industry. Port Aransas’ population after the 2010 census was 3,480, and the community has nearly as many voters because many property owners who are part-time residents register to vote here.


Eco-tourism, including bird watching, began drawing greater interest as the 21st Century dawned, and Port Aransas in the late 1990s took on the Celebration of Whooping Cranes and Other Birds (now called the Whooping Crane Festival) as an annual event drawing birders from across the nation.The city has placed emphasis on its birding centers, particularly the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center on Ross Avenue, and the Joan and Scott Holt Paradise Pond Birding Center off Cut-off Road.

Three locations in Port Aransas are on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.

The city has focused on infrastructure to accommodate the growth in tourism, and began a program of improvements that included reconstruction and/or surfacing of streets, curbs, gutters, sidewalks and drainage. Voters approved bond issues to fund some of these projects.

In December 2009, the city opened the first phase of a nature preserve in an area known as Charlie’s Pasture on the east side of the island.


In the past 30 years, the growth of Port Aransas has seen construction of a new public library (an expansion broke ground in May) and public safety building, a community park with a swimming pool, ball parks, jogging trails and more; city services expanded to include recycling, a computer center, a revitalized parks and recreation department, reconstruction of streets with curbs and gutters, expansion of the city marina to include floating docks and bulkheads along the Corpus Christi Ship Channel to curb erosion.

One doctor, a dentist and a national chain pharmacy serve the community, as do expanded retail operations that cater not only to tourists, but full-time residents as well.

Texas SandFest/Theater

Port Aransas also is home to the official Texas Sand Sculpture Festival, called SandFest. Each spring it draws thousands of visitors to watch and participate in the competition that includes master sculptors from across the country and Canada.

Volunteers are plentiful enough, and audiences are regular enough to have supported the construction of a new building for the Port Aransas Community Theatre. PACT offers productions year round, but enjoys its most enthusiastic audiences when the Winter Texans are here.

Art center

Port Aransas also is home of the thriving Port Aransas Art Center, created by artists from Mustang and Padre islands. The non-profit center offers classes and seminars and sells art by its member artists. First Friday receptions honor artists whose work is featured for the month. Corporate sponsors help sustain the center.

After several years of efforts, Port Aransas Art Center officials broke ground for new headquarters in August of 2016.

A street dance to celebrate the completion of the 4,000-square-foot, one-story building is planned for Sept. 30 (Check weekly editions of the South Jetty for details on that).

The new headquarters is where the Sportsman’s Lodge once operated at 104 N. Alister St. A main house and all of the lodge’s cottages were demolished to make way for the new building.

The art center organization purchased the property for the new headquarters for $495,000. The group has raised about $400,000 in donations – mostly small ones – and grants toward the cost of paying for the property and the building.

The art center is a non-profit organization, and all donations are tax deductible. Checks can be made out to the art center and mailed to: Port Aransas Art Center, P.O. Box 1175, Port Aransas, TX. 78373.

Golf course

Also, the city’s first 18-hole golf course opened in September 2008.The privately owned Palmilla Beach Resort & Golf Club is an Arnold Palmer Signature course operated by Troon, the world’s largest golf course management company.

Construction is underway on several homes at the golf course where a full-service hotel is expected in the not-too-distant future.

In addition to the Palmilla project, Cinnamon Shore announced in January 2016 an expansion to its subdivision on State Highway 361 that will bring 1,000 more housing units over the next 15 years that is estimated to be a $1 billion project.


Thanks to the Port Aransas Preservation and Historical Association (PAPHA), formed in November 2002, the history of Port Aransas is being preserved.

The Port Aransas Museum, a historical museum, opened in December 2008. It is housed in a home known as the Mercer house, and now rests adjacent to the Community Center on Alister Street. Port Aransas historic memorabilia, photos and more are displayed there.

The museum serves as a beacon to remind all who pass through that the history and ambiance of what once was a small fishing village will be preserved.

In October 2010,the community held a celebration to mark the centennial. It featured activities and a picnic at Roberts Point Park, and the unveiling of a historic plaque at the Community Center – museum complex, as well as story-telling by old-timers. Old Town Festival continues on an annual basis each October.

The efforts of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Bureau to bring nature tourism and families to the community were reaping benefits, and the amenities mentioned previously are among the results of those efforts.


The story of Port Aransas is told on a weekly basis by the community’s weekly newspaper, the Port Aransas South Jetty. The newspaper, which has won awards on the regional, state and national levels, has moved into the digital age. The South Jetty hosts an online edition that is a replica of its print edition, has a Facebook page and Twitter account, so no matter where you are in the world, you can connect with Port Aransas via the South Jetty.


Also in 2014, the city approved a zoning ordinance to prohibit heavy industrial activity on Harbor Island to preserve the ambiance of one of the two ways of entering Port Aransas. Most of the land is owned by the Port Authority of Corpus Christi.

The city also approved a limit on how large a single retail business could be in an effort to keep “big box” stores out of Port Aransas and to support independently owned businesses.

With record numbers of visitors flocking to Port Aransas, city officials are pondering how to deal with the increased traffic, including a proliferation of slow-moving golf carts on city streets, and to balance serving the needs of visitors while preserving and enhancing the quality of life for permanent residents.

One recent answer to that was the expansion of State Highway 361 from Avenue G south to Beach Access Road 1A. That project was expanded to take in the stretch of highway from 1A to Beach Access Road 1, which is currently under construction. Passing lanes for about 8 miles south of Beach Access Road 1 also are under construction.

The increase in tourism has made home prices out of reach for the many employees who are the engines that drive restaurants, retail businesses, entertainment venues and lodging facilities. It is a challenge for which the city and the school district continue to work to find solutions.

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