Although Matagorda Island is currently uninhabited, it wasn’t always that way. Historians believe the Karankawas may have lived on the 38-mile-long barrier island because of the Matagorda’s proximity to their native region.
The Texas State Historical Association notes that the first European to see Matagorda Island was most likely Alonso Alvarez de Pineda in 1519. French explorer La Salle led colonists to the area in 1685 after their supply ship ran aground attempting to enter Matagorda Bay through Pass Cavallo. Many later ships sailed through this passageway with ease, but the land remained unsettled until the Texas government approved the unsuccessful construction of the town of Calhoun in 1839.
In 1847 the government built the town of Saluria on the northwest corner of Matagorda Island, where they also constructed a lighthouse. Captain James E. Cummins first lit the cast iron, 91-foot tower in 1852, and in her book Indianola and Matagorda Island, 1837-1887, Linda Wolff states that the “Matagorda Island Lighthouse was the first to be lit on the Texas Gulf Coast.”
When the Civil War began, Saluria still thrived. In 1862, Confederate soldiers buried the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens in sand to prevent Union soldiers from using the light. Researchers never found the lens, but the prism-like glass from an 1873 renovation now sits in the Calhoun County Museum in Port Lavaca. Sadly, the storms of 1875 destroyed Saluria. The tombstone of town cofounder Hugh W. Hawes still rests in a cemetery on Matagorda Island.
From 1939 until the 1970s, the island was used as an Army Air Corps and later as an Air Force Base and practice bombing field. The last lighthouse keeper, Port O’Connor resident Arthur Barr, left in 1956. In 1977 the Coast Guard removed the lens of the lighthouse and tried to close it. Following objection from the Port O’Connor community, the Coast Guard instead installed a modern lens that operated for almost 20 more years. Commemoratively lit in 1999, the lighthouse is now dark. Visitors to Matagorda Island today find one of the only beaches in Texas without commercial development, a secluded escape, and an opportunity to completely surround themselves with nature.
From the June 2012 issue.