St. Joe Island is 21 mile long by about 5 mile wide island separated from Matagorda Island to the north by Cedar Bayou. The Aransas Pass channel separates it from Mustang Island to the south. It is a barrier island, protecting the Aransas Bay and Rockport/Fulton from tidal surges and storms on the Gulf of Mexico.
The French claimed the island in 1712 and 1718 and Spanish explorer Jose de Escandon, who established colonies from the Rio Grande to the San Antonio River, reclaimed the barrier islands for Spain in 1766. St. Joe stayed relatively deserted until the early 19th Century when it was a headquarters for the pirate Lafitte; after his demise it lay virtually unknown until July 23, 1845 when Brigadier General Zachary Taylor landed in Texas to wait until the Texas Convention accepted the annexation resolution of the U.S. Congress. On July 25, the Alabama dropped anchor off St. Joseph Island and by the following evening, a small U.S. flag was flying from the top of the dunes.
For a period of time, the port city of Aransas Wharves flourished on St. Joe Island, but when the Confederacy used its port to ship cotton, beef, seafood, and supplies to troops, Union troops burned the houses, stores, warehouses, piers, docks and wharf on St. Joe Island to the ground.
Texas oil man Sid Richardson purchased the island in the 40’s. Richardson built a beautiful home, barge dock, and airstrip on the island. He died in 1959, but the house remains in his family. That’s how I came to know about St. Joe Island.
Not that I would ever know the family, but I worked for a contractor who did some work for Richardson’s nephew, Perry Bass, who ultimately inherited the property. We cleaned sand off the runway and helped an electrician install runway lights. In the process, I got to take a helicopter ride over the island. When work started, I rode the barge with our heavy equipment. I also got to see the inside of Richardson’s home and spent the next few weeks dreaming of the Charles Russell paintings, Remington sculptures, and the view of the Gulf of Mexico.
Last Saturday, I rode the ferry to St. Joe Island with GE and family, Claire, and Bob. The ferry boat leaves Fisherman’s Wharf in Port Aransas and makes 12 trips to the island starting at 6:30 a.m. The cost is $12/adult and $6/children under 12. If you miss the 8 p.m. return trip, you get to spend the night on the beach. And there’s nothing in the way of food, water, shelter, or facilities.
We rented a beach cart and toted bait, boogy boards, food, and drinks. It is an amazing place to be. It seems like most of the riders on our boat were going as far as the jetties to fish. There weren’t many beach visitors. It was a perfect beach day: not too hot or too windy. GE had brought a giant beach umbrella which we set up to provide shade.
The lack of beachcombers made shell hunting easy. We started getting picky about the sand dollars we found. They were plentiful enough that we left the near perfect ones on the ground. I want to go back and walk further down the beach, do a little more exploring.
You know that it is a great day when the conversations on the boat back start with “The next time we come…” We heard that all around us. It was a long day, but we were full of plans for “the next time.”
For some aerial views of St. Joe Island over the past 40 years or so, go to http://texascoastgeology.com/passes/cedarbayou.html
Art Leatherwood, “ST. JOSEPH ISLAND,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/rrs09), accessed May 07, 2012. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.