When most people think of Texas, they think of cowboys and oil barons, but what about pirates, Frenchmen, and South American liberators?
The Point Bolivar Lighthouse on the eponymous Bolivar Peninsula is one of the first things to greet sailors and travelers when they make the crossing from Galveston Island. Black from years of battling the elements, it stands as the tallest lighthouse in Texas and only one of two remaining iron lighthouses in the state. It is also one of the few remaining lighthouses from the nineteenth century in the entire Gulf region. This lighthouse essentially guided the way to Galveston Port—the busiest port in Texas during the nineteenth century and a jumping point to much of the Gulf Region.
It is perhaps fitting that the Bolivar Lighthouse is named after one of the leaders of the South American Independence movement, for the lighthouse symbolizes for many Texans the intrepid nature of pioneering, grit in the face of danger and disaster, and living by one’s own set of laws.
So why is a lighthouse in Texas named after Simon Bolivar, the “George Washington” of Latin American history? Although Bolivar’s influence on the surge of Latin American independence from Spain cannot be denied, his list of countries include Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Panama. Mexico is conspicuously absent from this list. Furthermore, the government of Texas named this region (and lighthouse) after gaining independence from Mexico.
Texans have always valued their independence as a state, and as the liberator of five countries from colonial rule, Simon Bolivar has much in common with the mindsets of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston. Although his impact on South American history is undeniable, the connection with Texas is a little more obscure, involving pirates and patronage.
Louis-Michel de Aury was a French privateer in the 1800s, and when he was not roaming the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, he was based in Galveston where he was appointed resident commissioner in 1816. He was a contemporary of Bolivar and looking to establish a privateering base in the Gulf region. As was often the case, men who received land grants from their generous patrons named the land after their donors; in this case, historians believe that Bolivar was one such patron.
The government of the United States, having annexed Texas, decided to build the lighthouse in 1852 and dedicated $15,000 to the project. However, the 65-foot lighthouse, being built of iron, would not last long with the Civil War fomenting between the Northern and Southern states. In 1861, Texas joined the Confederacy, and the lighthouse was completely dismantled to forge cannonballs, plating for ships, and other military armaments.
The lighthouse was rebuilt in 1872, this time 117 feet high, with brick and cast-iron plates riveted together. Upon its unveiling, the banded black-and-white stripes must have gleamed in the sunlight; however, after 150 years, the iron has rusted, giving it an eerie black tone (and giving Texans plenty of fodder for ghost stories—one urban legend is that a ghost turned it completely black). One hundred thirty-seven iron steps led the way to an enormous 52,000-candle beacon. Eight rays of light were produced every fifteen seconds.
A 3rd order Fresnel lens sufficed until mariners complained about the dimness of the light, upon which a 2nd order lens was installed in 1882. After that, light could be seen up to 17 miles away. In 1933, the 3rd order Fresnel lens was donated to the Smithsonian as an excellent example of the optics technology of the time.
However, its real contribution to the nation would come in the early twentieth century. In 1900, the deadliest storm in U.S. history (and fifth deadliest Atlantic storm overall) would devastate Galveston Island, killing at least 6,000 people and damaging every single public building. The Category 4 hurricane brought a storm surge of 15 feet, nine inches of rainfall, and 100mph winds to Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island. The hurricane was so powerful that it completely destroyed 3600 homes and every bridge connecting Galveston to the mainland. One in four people in Galveston were left homeless after the raging storm subsided.
It is then remarkable that the Point Bolivar Lighthouse withstood the fury of the September 8th storm. One hundred twenty-five people sought refuge in its tower, with Harry Claiborne as its keeper. This included people from a passenger train coming from Beaumont, Texas.
“Imagine the decision you have to make. The hurricane is coming, it looks really bad; there’s a lighthouse you can stay in, or you can try to make it back to Beaumont,” says Mark Boyt, current owner of the Point Bolivar Lighthouse.
They huddled two to a step on the staircase, huddled against the thrashing winds and howling rain. The storm was so bad that when they used a bucket to catch rainwater for drinking, it was salty, meaning that even at the top of the lighthouse, the rain was mixed with seawater. All of the refugees inside the lighthouse survived the storm. When the “Night of Horrors” finally broke and the flood receded, Claiborne fed the crowd with the stored lighthouse rations.
“The lighthouse keepers used all the food and fresh water to feed everyone. In the morning, there were dead people in the yard who didn’t make it,” says Boyt.
Houses and churches lay demolished, but the lighthouse still stood against a watery sky. “It was in top condition, because it was excellently maintained by the U.S. Lighthouse Service. They took immaculate care of it.”
But the Point Bolivar Lighthouse was no one-trick pony. It would face the wrath of a deadly hurricane again, barely fifteen years later. In 1915, it would save 61 souls seeking refuge inside the tower. The winds were so strong during the second storm that the top swayed 12 inches from side to side. A contemporary report said that the wind and rain shook the tower so much that the lens couldn’t rotate, so James Brooks, the assistant lighthouse keeper, then kept turning the crank by hand until the vibrations of the tower were so heavy that it became impossible to move it at all. Water rose at the base of the tower to “neck level,” but that did not stop Brooks from wading through the dangerous mire to close the tower door that had blown open.
The damage to the lighthouse from the second storm was more profound than the first, with the assistant keeper’s living area completely swept away, along with the outbuildings, fences, and a rear portion of the lighthouse.
Only two years later, the Point Bolivar Lighthouse would sustain more damage during target practice from Fort San Jacinto. Through an unfortunate combination of dense fog and miscalculation, on November 15, 1917, three-inch guns blasted missiles that struck the tower. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but shelled artillery ripped a hole approximately 25 feet above the base.
But it was neither the storms nor the overly ambitious target practice that would finally close down the tower for good. Although new technology in the 1930s would make the kerosene-lit tower obsolete, a public outcry kept the lighthouse running for a few more years. Finally, during the depths of the Great Depression, the government extinguished its light on May 23, 1933.
However, even beyond its tumultuous past, the most damage inflicted to the lighthouse was in 1947 with the Texas City Disaster, the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history. The blast was so powerful that it blew out all of the glass in the lighthouse, as well as punching a hole in the interior wall near the base.
After being auctioned in 1947 to Elmer V. Boyt, the Bolivar Point Lighthouse has remained in the Boyt family under private ownership. It is not currently open to the public, and it requires extensive restoration. The top of the lighthouse must be completely removed and rebuilt, and some of the masonry needs to be replastered in some areas.
“Structurally and foundationally, the lighthouse looks good. A lot of the masonry is good, given how old it is, but work still needs to be done. Long term goals are making it safe enough to have an open house and have the general public come in,” says Boyt.
But even in modern times, the lighthouse continues to interact with Texans and the world-at-large. In 1968, the movie “My Sweet Charlie” was filmed at Point Bolivar, and the lighthouse provides the symbolic backdrop for Patty Duke as she wanders up the marshy plains.
Now, the lighthouse serves as a reminder to Texans of their shared history with Mexico, the Gulf Region, and with the wider world-at-large. Life at the lighthouse, like most of life during the pioneering days of the early white colonial settlers, was hard, and at times tedious and lonely. The lighthouse keepers had to face loneliness at the edge of the settlement to ensure that they lit the way for traveling mariners. The lighthouse has been defined from its foundation as seeking freedom and liberty. Just as Simon Bolivar wanted to free Spanish colonies from their continental rulers, early Texans sought freedom and found it under the light of the Point Bolivar Lighthouse.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2021 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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