Excerpt from Texas Coast
The long, languid coastline of Texas takes her own sweet time seducing the senses. Lacking the immediate drama of an initial encounter with California’s Big Sur, where the Pacific crashes against craggy cliffs and rugged outcroppings, or the soothing tropical ambience of the Florida Keys, she is not a stunner at first sight. But give her time, and that fine line where Texas meets the sea will steal your heart.
The Texas coast is the essence of the shore: sun, sand, surf, dunes, flats, wetlands, bays, estuaries, islands, and peninsulas. On the whole, it is a complex soup rich in marine life, shorebirds, and waterfowl. Industry is abundant along the same coastline for different reasons, mainly the easy access to the Gulf and the world beyond. Many of the more scenic parts of the coast have been obscured by resorts, condos, homes, and businesses. But even with those distractions and diversions, the Texas coast, that precise point at which sand, sky, and water converge, nourishes the soul like no other physical place on Earth.
The Texas coast emerges out of the murky swamps of southwest Louisiana at Sabine Pass and makes a near perfect crescent for 377 miles all the way to the dry, desiccated flats of Boca Chica, where the Rio Grande enters the Gulf of Mexico. Along that path, the story of a state, its people, and the natural world surrounding them unfolds.
The Gulf of Mexico is the most American of all waters, encompassing 596,000 square miles. It is the ninth-largest body of water in the world. Five states including Texas, five states in Mexico, and the island nation of Cuba share its waters, utilizing it as a source of sustenance and a means of getting around.
The Gulf is the primary supplier of water vapor that brings rain to the central and eastern United States. It produces a quarter of the United States’ commercial fish and shrimp catch. Nine-tenths of the country’s offshore oil and gas production comes from the Gulf. In return, it receives sediment and pollution from two-thirds of the United States, mostly from the Mississippi River.
The Texas coast plays a critical role in this productivity. Most migrating birds traveling the eastern and midwestern flyways leave and reenter the country via the Texas coast. Seventy-five percent of the migratory fowl in the United States depend on the wetlands of the Texas coast. So do the nation’s automobiles and trucks—two-thirds of the country’s petrochemical refineries are located near the Texas coastline.
Seven major bays, some as much as thirty-five miles in length or breadth, define the landmass behind the beaches along the Texas coast. Except during storm events, the Gulf’s waves are relatively insignificant, though constant enough to work like a washboard to form three sets of sandbars off the shore.
The actual beginning of the Texas coast is an ill-defined spit of salt marsh called Texas Point, on the west side of Sabine Pass, where the Sabine River, separating Texas from Louisiana, meets the Gulf. Land’s end is most easily reached by boat. A small two-lane bridge spans the river several miles above the pass, linking Louisiana Highway 82 to downtown Port Arthur, where it intersects Texas Highway 87. Highway 87 cuts through a major refinery zone before reaching open land and the town of Sabine Pass. Dowling Road and Jetty Road lead past a collection of rock pilings and mud flats to the pass proper, where the old lighthouse on the Louisiana side is the most prominent landmark. Sabine Pass Battleground State Park, upriver, is where Lieutenant Dick Dowling and a band of forty-six tough Irish dockhands from Galveston on behalf of the Confederacy used six cannons to destroy four Union gunboats in a notorious Civil War battle back in 1863. Sabine Pass was initially envisioned as a major port, but its exposure to hurricanes ultimately made Port Arthur (farther inland) the port of preference. The town of Sabine Pass later became famous for a messy culinary specialty called barbecued crab. (Blue crab is one of the culinary delicacies of the Texas coast, exported to restaurants around Chesapeake Bay when the local fare there is out of season.)
The upper Texas coast goes underappreciated, in no small part because of its steadily eroding shoreline. Highway 87, which once hugged the beach from Sabine Pass to the Port Bolivar (pronounced BALL-iver) Lighthouse and the Galveston ferry, no longer exists along a twenty-mile stretch. High Island, where the road resumes, marks the beginning of the Bolivar Peninsula, a slim sandbar twenty-seven miles long and no more than three miles wide, the first in a succession of offshore barrier islands that define the coast. The communities of High Island, Port Bolivar, Crystal Beach, Gilchrist, and Caplen aren’t real towns so much as scattered clusters of beach homes and fishing businesses. Bolivar is renowned for its fishing, crabbing, hunting, and, increasingly, its birding. High Island is directly across the Gulf from the Yucatán Peninsula, which explains its world-class reputation for observing the spring and fall migrations. The biggest landowner on the peninsula is the Houston Audubon Society.
Bolivar’s illustrious past is not evident. The Karankawa and Orcoquisa Indians lived on the peninsula as far back as 10,000 years ago, and it served as the gateway to Galveston Island for tribes from East Texas. Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who provided the first written descriptions of Texas, walked around Bolivar after washing ashore on Galveston Island in November of 1528. Rebels waging a private war against Spanish rule and pirates used Bolivar as a base of operations. The French-Creole pirate Jean Lafitte, who headquartered in Galveston after fighting on behalf of the United States in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, used the peninsula to move African slave traffic via slave runners, including Jim Bowie, from Galveston to the Sabine River, where Louisiana sugar planters paid one dollar a pound for the human cargo. Cotton, cattle, oysters, and watermelon have been mainstays of the peninsula’s economy at one time or another. The salt dome of High Island and other nearby domes store the bulk of the United States’ strategic oil reserves.
The Port Bolivar Ferry to the island is the longest ferry ride in Texas linking public roadways. It takes eighteen minutes to travel 2.7 miles across the maw of busy Galveston Bay. It’s the best free ride in the state, passing Civil War bunkers and the black cast-iron Bolivar lighthouse, a parade of shipping traffic, and Sea Wolf Park.
In Galveston, you’re somebody if you’re BOI—Born on the Island—especially if you’re a Moody, a Kempner, or a Maceo. Galveston is old Texas, and those families are old Galveston money.
Galveston used to be the state’s biggest port until the Houston Ship Channel became a deepwater port in 1919. The city was once upon a time synonymous with high times and high rolling until May 30, 1957, when new sheriff Paul Hopkins raided the Balinese Room, a storied nightclub on stilts that extended several hundred feet into the Gulf, where illegal gambling was a long-tolerated tradition. The gift shop and museum that now occupy the space capitalize on those faded memories.
This is a real port town, the most urban beach resort in Texas, and a cloudy dream version of a New Orleans that hardly exists even in New Orleans anymore. Cruise down Broadway under the elderly palms, by the streetcar line flanked by elegant mansions, and you could just as well be on St. Charles Avenue. Galveston is where cutting-edge research is conducted on biological terrorism at a University of Texas lab and where marine science is studied at Texas A&M facilities.
Galveston bore the brunt of the Great Storm of 1900, a stealth hurricane that drowned the island and killed six thousand people, more than any other disaster in Texas history. Galveston is the Seawall, the location of the original spring break, Alpha weekend, Stewart Beach, the tall ship Elissa and the Texas Seaport Museum, and the Flagship Pier. Galveston is the biggest Mardi Gras this side of the Crescent City and the Moody Gardens rain-forest-under-glass, IMAX included.
Enough remnants of the past survive to qualify the city as Texas’s most historic, though San Antonians might quibble with that brag. The Hotel Galvez is still a grande dame. The Strand, several city blocks of sturdy red-brick and cast-iron structures, has been gussied up and now bustles more than it has since it was the Wall Street of the South back at the close of the nineteenth century. But there’s still just enough funk between the city’s toes, such as the Poop Deck, “Where the Elite Meet in Their Bare Feet,” and the stepped-up rice and turnip greens at Leon’s World’s Finest In and Out B-B-Q House, to keep the place honest, just as the jalousies of the weathered French provincial homes on the back streets keep the Bishop’s Palace, perhaps the most majestic edifice in Texas, and the ancient Rosenberg Library in perspective.