The Killer Storm of August 12, 1880

The recollection of Judge Pierce, of Brownsville, of a storm that took the lives of two people as recalled 30 years later. Boats were ripped from wharves, high winds and rains forced a search for better shelter and higher ground. Survivors ate pumpkins soaked in Vermouth while waiting for help to get back to Port Isabel.

Transcribed from the files of a private collection.

THE KILLER STORM OF AUG. 12, 1880
Relation of Judge Pierce

Judge Pierce of this City has kindly prepared the following graphic description of the great storm which visited this region some thirty years ago today. The Judge, as will be seen, not only saw the storm, but he saw it close at hand and was intimately connected with some of its thrilling episodes.

Just thirty seven years ago today on August 12, 1880 we experienced our most violent storm, perhaps not so severe in Brownsville as that of October 7, 1867 when the Episcopel Church and part of the old jail were destroyed, and many other buildings in town somewhat damaged, but undoubtedly the worst we had suffered at Brazos Island and Padre Island.

The lighter schooner Braisted and pilot boat Agnes had been hauled up on provisional blockings on Brazos Island just northeast of what is now known as Yturria’s wharf. They were being overhauled and recoppered and there were thirty seven persons living on the wharf. All more or less participating in the work, except Mrs. James Baker, the old pilot’s wife and her daughters, Nellie and Katy, afterwards Mrs. Thorsell, who were there spending a couple of months with Captain Jim.

At about three p.m. August 11th it was first noticed that the tide was swelling more than usual and that the waters of the gulf were gradually encroaching upon and covering the island. Captain Jim, whose life had been spent on the seas began to grunt about a certain rheumatic pain in his left left, and predicted a severe gale. Old Bill Lightbourne, who had just assumed charge of the new Life Saving Station had a slight touch of the same pain and at about five o’clock p.m. hustled his wife and children into a boat and sailed the to Point Isabel.

By nine p.m. the water covered the Island two feet and washed the blocking from under the boats.

At four pm. the bark Maria Teresa, which had been in the offing for more than two months lightering her cargo, suddenly hoisted full sail and headed straight for the beach and destruction, her Captain afterwards explaining that his barometer fell so rapidly and the wind from the east had become so severe, he realized the storm was upon them and unable to tack out to sea believed beaching to the the only safe course. She struck the beach on Padre Island a little east of where the present bath house is located. Eight of us sailed over there and tho’ the island was already covered with water, succeeded in getting a line to shore and safely bringing the crew to land. One of the men was so drunk and abusive and resisted so much that we were finally compelled to leave him there at the Quarantine Station, a long low one story building. We afterwards found this man near Palmetto Hill close to Oriye’s ranch on the Rio Grande, he having floated there on wreckage, and having spent a terrible night in the sea.

At three a.m. a regular gale was blowing. At seven a.m. Pat Hagan, an Irish sailor, Basilio Castro, a Malay, the writer and seven Mexicans headed by the old Grandote, undertook to wade and swim from the wharf to the Life Saving Station. The three first mentioned succeeded in swimming over a little sluice about forty feet wide, but as some of the Mexicans could not swim they retraced their steps to the wharf.

Hagen, Castro and I continued and finally arrived at the Station, which by that hour was surrounded by six feet of water. The building was locked so we broke in the door, entered, equipped the Life Boat with oars, rope, blankets and provisions, and after two hours’ work opened the big doors which faced the beach and rolled the boat out. The minute the wind had a full sweep at it, raised it in the air as tho’ it were a feather and carrying it bodily some one hundred feet, let it fall on its bow, shivering the keep planks so as to render it useless. Hagan remained at the Station, and Basilio and I waded and swam to Dyers Island. Twice the water was too deep for me and the undertow so strong that my feet could not touch earth, but old Basilio came to my rescue and piloted me across.

On Dyers Island we found Mrs. Josephine Mielke (at present postmistress at Point Isabel) and her daughter (now Mrs. Lillie Johnson) then a little child, Eugene and Eddie Keller, old man Ireland, and two Mexicans, Tomas Hinojosa and Leal. The former was spending the summer there. The Mexicans had thirty head of selected horses which they were pasturing there preparatory to shipping from the Brazos wharf. These persons were sheltered in a little eight by ten foot house but had a barrel of water and some food.

At ten p.m. August 12, 1880 the gulf was spread out all over the Island from three to four feet, and at one a.m. August 13, it had risen so high in the house that we had to hasten out to our last resort, a little knoll upon which a solitary mesquite bush grew. Around this the water was three or four inches deep, and by prostrating ourselves face down and clinging to the trunk of the bush managed to pull through.

At three a.m. the wind ceased and a dead calm settled over us. We started to our feet and headed for the house, but old basilio pulled us back, saying the worst is still to come. Within twenty minutes the calm had given way to the most severe wind I have ever felt. We were unable to remain in a kneeling posture. But it lasted but fifteen minutes and the storm disappeared.

At daylight we saw the schooner Laura Lewis, drawing seven and a half feet, high on Clark’s Island; and over on the point of Padre a piece of the hull describes vividly the fate of the Maria Teresa.

Retracing our steps to the Life Saving Station we found Hagan safe and sound but the water had completely gutted the building and had so warped the floor that it was touching the ceiling.

At the wharf we found the carpenters and workmen crazy for fresh water. They had lashed themselves to the wharf pilings and thus saved themselves. The Braisted had disappeared. The Agnes had shifted quarters and with both masts chopped a foot from the deck was calmly reposing three hundred feet from the wharf at the customary anchorage, the storm having guided her there. Mrs. Baker and the children were on board safe. None of our party were lost.

We waded and swam to the Laura Lewis, Basilio, John Hill and I. The Captain and his men dressed our wounds and then we pulled for Point Isabel in the Captain’s dory.

There we found the Sellers sunken at the south side of the wharf; a large schooner at the rest near the present site of the Buck hotel; the cars all upset, and ruin and devastation everywhere.

The Maria Teresa was a total loss and wreck and her cargo had washed ashore, a great quantity of wine in casks, liquor in cases, canned goods and valuable cargoes being afterwards found by us seven miles east of Brownsville.

We footed it to the line of debris which had washed from the intervening prairie and then headed for the river where we were marooned for five days on a diet of prickly pear stew and coffee, as regular, and plain pumpkin for desert. The prairie was full of pumpkins washed from the river farms. We of course served the pumpkin on the regular menu, some meals steeped in Vermouth, and then Claret, Cognac, or to suit our taste. We found the wreckage of the quarantine Station and constructed a raft, paddled and poled it through the water to Point Isabel.

There were but two lives lost at Point Isabel, but more than eleven boats were wrecked along Padre Island, and everything washed away as far back as La Burrita Hill on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande.

But what impressed me most of all, was the sight of the Maria Teresa as she came to her destruction, riding on top of the billows, mountain high, plunging into the valleys and swales, at one time displaying her entire keep and at another her entire deck. She naturally wore cross-arms and with full sail stretched, her appearance was grand.

If today while at Padre you will walk southward to the point, at the foot of the low sandhills you may see what remains of the hull.

The waters were so high that they not only splashed against but actually damaged the roof of the iron-stilted Lighthouse at Padre.

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