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Texas’ last public lighthouse shines for the first time in 117 years

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VERONICA G. CARDENAS
/
For TPR
People gathered after the dedication ceremony of the Third Order Fresnel Lens at the Port Isabel Lighthouse Historic Site in Port Isabel on Friday. The lighthouse was relit for the first time in 117 years. The Texas Historical Commission and the Port Isabel Lighthouse State Historic Site obtained a new lens for the lighthouse.

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At the southern tip of Texas, hundreds of people gathered around the last public lighthouse in the state on Friday.

No living person in Port Isabel or elsewhere had seen the city’s lighthouse’s beacon shine as it did in its heyday.

That changed on Friday, after the Texas Historical Commission lit Port Isabel’s lighthouse.

Residents gathered around the lighthouse in awe, viewing something that their forebears saw more than a hundred years ago.

“This truly is the beacon of Port Isabel,” Port Isabel mayor Martin Cantu Jr. told attendees shortly before the lighthouse’s newly installed lens was lit.

Cantu counted down from 10, the lens was lit, and the crowd cheered.

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VERONICA G. CARDENAS
/
For TPR
People listen to speakers during the dedication ceremony of a Third Order Fresnel Lens at the Port Isabel Lighthouse Historic Site in Port Isabel, Texas on Friday.

Cars driving off and onto the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway honked their horns.

The last time the lighthouse was lit was 117 years ago, in 1905.

The City of Port Isabel and the Texas Historical Commission (THC), which oversees the lighthouse, planned since 2019 to reinstall the structure’s lens.

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VERONICA G. CARDENAS
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For TPR
The view of the city from the lighthouse at the Port Isabel Lighthouse Historic Site.

THC Executive Director Mark Wolfe said he first approached the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., about installing an original lens in the lighthouse, but the logistics were too demanding.

Wolfe then said THC enlisted the help of Artworks Florida to design a replica Third Order Fresnel lens based on the lighthouse’s 1852 plans.

“I know it was a singular event, but I think it gives people another reason to visit the lighthouse,” Valerie Bates, marketing director for the City of Port Isabel and the lighthouse’s site keeper, told TPR.

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VERONICA G. CARDENAS
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For TPR
A person looks at the Third Order Fresnel Lens after it was relit at the Port Isabel Lighthouse Historic Site on Friday.

The lighthouse’s origins date back to the Mexican War of 1846. The U.S. Army built a supply base in Port Isabel, known as “Point Isabel,” where the lighthouse currently stands.

The Army left the base, named Fort Polk, in 1850.

Afterwards, the U.S. Treasury took over the area and ordered a lighthouse to be built to guide ships in the still-operating supply base.

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VERONICA G. CARDENAS
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For TPR
The Third Order Fresnel Lens was relit at the Port Isabel Lighthouse Historic Site in Port Isabel, Texas on Friday.

Construction began on the lighthouse in 1852 and was completed the next year.

The lighthouse helped ships carrying supplies through the Brazos Santiago pass, the channel of water between South Padre Island and Brownsville’s Boca Chica beach.

Once rail lines were built through Brownsville, fewer ships came through for the lighthouse to guide.

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VERONICA G. CARDENAS
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For TPR
Members of the U.S. Coast Guard present colors during the dedication ceremony of a Third Order Fresnel Lens at the Port Isabel Lighthouse Historic Site in Port Isabel, Texas on Friday.

In 1904, a new rail line opened between Corpus Christi and Brownsville, connecting the area to a faster supply line.

With no shipping traffic to guide, Port Isabel decommissioned its lighthouse in 1905.

In 1952, the lighthouse became a monument and state park overseen by Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD). The agency transferred the lighthouse to the Texas Historical Commission in 2019.

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VERONICA G. CARDENAS
/
For TPR
Elizabeth Pedroza, 9, goes downstairs after seeing The Third Order Fresnel Lens up close after it was relit at the Port Isabel Lighthouse Historic Site on Friday.

Along with the native Tarpon fish, the lighthouse is part of Port Isabel’s iconography. Its likeness is ubiquitous on logos for the city, school districts and local businesses.

The new light will now be added to the iconography, Bates said.

The City of Port Isabel estimates more than 50,000 people visit the lighthouse every year. The new lens won’t change the lighthouse’s accessibility for visitors, however.

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VERONICA G. CARDENAS
/
For TPR
People gather around the lighthouse after the dedication ceremony of a Third Order Fresnel Lens after being relit at the Port Isabel Lighthouse Historic Site on Friday.

In terms of how frequent the lens will be lit, there are still some logistics to work out, Bates said.

The city and the THC are working with the U.S. Coast Guard and ships out at sea to see how far the beacon can be seen.

The light won’t be rotating regularly, Bates said, but will instead sit fixed at a lower wattage.

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Gaige Davila is a reporter for Texas Public Radio's Border and Immigration Desk, working from his hometown, Port Isabel, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley.