28. January 2011 · Comments Off on Ghost Town on the Gulf · Categories: Uncategorized

Once there was a town on the Texas Gulf Coast, which during its hey-day— which lasted barely a half-century from start to finish—rivaled Galveston, a hundred and fifty miles east. It started as a stretch of beach along Matagorda Bay called Indian Point, and selected for no other reason than it was not Galveston by a German nobleman with plans to settle a large colony of German immigrants. Prince Karl Solms-Braunfels was a leading light of what was called the Mainzer Adelsverein; a company of well-meaning nobles whose ambitions exceeded their business sense at least three to one. They had secured— or thought they had secured — a large tract of land between the Llano and Colorado rivers approximately a hundred miles west of Austin, but the truth of it was, all they had secured was the right to induce people to come and settle on it. So many settlers farming so many acres, and the backers of the Adelsverein would profit through being entitled to so many acres for themselves.

That this tract of land was unfit for traditional farming, and moreover was the stomping grounds of the Comanche and Apache tribes, peoples not generally noted in the 19th century for devotion to multi-cultural tolerance and desire to live in peace with their neighbors seems to have been overlooked in all the excitement. These factors seem to have struck Prince Karl as a mere bagatelle, an afterthought, a petty little detail that other people would take care of. The Adelsverein would earn a tidy profit by inducing people to settle on such lands as they held a license for, so no fair for other entrepreneurs to poach their immigrants, as they passed through the fleshpots of Galveston. With a fair bit of the old Teutonic spirit of organization, Prince Karl decided that the Adelsverein settlers, who had signed contracts, and sailed on Adelsverein chartered-ships would not be contaminated by crass mercantile interests or distractions. Best to come straight off the trans-Atlantic transport, through a port of his own choosing, comfortably close to the most direct route north, and the way-station he had himself established to feed settlers into the Adelsverein land grant… and so it was, that his choice fell on Indian Point, soon to be christened “Karlshaven”.

Three years later, it was called Indianola, the major deep-water port and entry-point for thousands of European immigrants to Texas, as well as a couple of shipments of camels (that is another story entirely). Indianola was also the major port for supplying… among other concerns, the US Army in the West. A great road, called the Cart Road ran towards San Antonio, and south of the contentious border, to Chihuahua, Mexico supplying the interior mercantile needs of two nations . By the mid 1850s, the town relocated to a location slightly lower in elevation, but one which would let it take advantage of deeper water and a navigation route which would favor major maritime traffic. The Morgan Lines established regular service to Indianola, which boasted two long wharves, with the Morgan ticket-office at the very end of one of them. It was called the “Queen City of the West”, shipping— among other things— rice to Europe. In the cattle glut after the Civil War, mercantile interests also experimented with shipping refrigerated beef and canned oysters. For a few decades, Indianola gave Galveston and New Orleans a run for the money. It changed hands a couple times during the Civil War, when life turned out to be a lot more interesting than most inhabitants of Texas had bargained for. Upon the end of that unpleasantness, Indianola looked fair to taking a rightful place in the list of great ports of the world.

But in September of 1875,  a great hurricane slammed Indianola, and it’s low-laying situation left it vulnerable to storm surge. All the water piled up in the bayous in back of the town, and when the  first edge of the storm passed over, it all rushed forth, carrying a large portion of the lower town into Matagorda Bay. Still, there were enough left standing on higher ground, and it was a fine deep-water port and a good strategic location; not something to be casually abandoned. The city stalwarts rebuilt in the spirit of optimism. Eleven years later, Indianola was slammed again, by another massive hurricane. To add to the horror of the second storm strike,  at the very height of the hurricane, an upset oil lamp set fire to the structure it was in and a number of people taking shelter in that building were horribly burned to death. Several nearby structures also burned. The rebuilt town was obliterated; the remnants of those long docks built for the Morgan Lines are still lying at the bottom of the bay. The city fathers sadly accepted the inevitable. There is still a bit of Indianola left; a few summer homes on very tall stilts, but mostly monuments and relics, bottles and doll heads, doorknobs and Minie balls, sad tattered reminders of what was once the Queen City of the West. Galveston inherited that place, with energy and enthusiasm,  but only for a couple of decades, until that city itself took the full force of another hurricane, after the turn of the new century.

Indianola features rather prominently the “Adelsverein Trilogy” – since the Steinmetz and Richter families are among those left to fend for themselves on the bare shell-sand shore in Book One.  In Book Two, it is the city where Hansi Richter and his sister-in-law, Magda Vogel Becker come to purchase goods for the general store that they have opened, following the end of the Civil War In the final volume, it is the prosperous city from which they depart on a visit to Germany –  thirty years after arriving as nearly penniless immigrants.

One amusing thing I discovered, in doing research on life and times in 19th century Texas – by the 1850s, Indianola had a huge ice-house, to store ice shipped from New England in specially-built ships… and it was possible to enjoy iced drinks and ice-cream, well before the Civil War. Imagine that – out on the frontier, people ate salt-pork and beans, cooked over a wood fire while dodging Indian arrows… and three hundred miles away, you could sit in an ice-cream parlor, and sip cold lemonade.

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