Six months before the German brig Johann Dethardt dropped anchor in Matagorda Bay, leaving its complement of immigrant passengers to fend for themselves, Samuel Morse was in Washington, D.C., sending the first public telegraph message to Alfred Vail, in Baltimore.
The message, chosen for Morse by Annie Ellsworth, daughter of the Governor of Connecticut, read, “What hath God wrought?” It was a question residents of Indianola surely would ask themselves, before it all was over.
Even as Indian Point changed its name to Indianola, and Indianola’s growth as a commercial port brought it into direct competition with Galveston, Morse’s technology was spreading across the nation. Introduced in 1844, the telegraph quickly was adopted by the developing railroads, the military, and commerce.
It certainly caught the attention of weather forecasters. The possibility of collecting, plotting and analyzing weather observations in a central location led Joseph Henry, Secretary of the newly-established Smithsonian Institution, to suggest “a system of observation which shall extend as far as possible over the North American continent.”
The plan was approved in 1848. By the end of 1849, 150 volunteers across America were telegraphing weather observations to the Smithsonian By 1860, five hundred stations furnished daily reports to the Washington Evening Star.
At 7:35 a.m. on November 1, 1870, reports taken by observers at 24 stations were transmitted simultaneously to the central office in Washington. It was the beginning of the Signal Service, the precursor to todays National Weather Service.
Signal Service Office in Washington, D.C., which served from 1870-1887 as headquarters for meteorological operations.
By 1878, Signal Service field stations had increased to 284, and a routine had been established.
Three times daily (usually 7:35 a.m., 4:35 p.m., and 11:35 p.m.), each station telegraphed an observation to Washington, D.C. These observations consisted of:
Barometric pressure and its change since the last report
Temperature and its 24-hour change
Pressure of the wind in pounds per square foot
Amount of clouds
State of the weather
In the late 1800s, weather-related proverbs and folk sayings hadn’t yet been displaced by scientific observation when it came to forecasting. A list of useful bits of folk wisdom compiled by Signal Service officers omitted one of the most useful (Run from water; hide from wind) but the list does include several whose truth coastal Texans still recognize:
A red sun has water in his eye.
When the walls are more than unusually damp, rain is expected.
Anvil-shaped clouds are very likely to be followed by a gale of wind.
If rain falls during an east wind, it will continue a full day.
A light yellow sky at sunset presages wind. A pale yellow sky at sunset presages rain.
The new Signal Service also published specific guidelines for its various stations. The guidance offered for Indianola, Texas in the late 1800s would do just as well today:
“Northers” are preceded by protracted southeast winds, rapid rise of barometer from four to six hours in advance of storm, high humidity, with cirrus clouds moving from the west.
In time, Signal Service forecasts gained accuracy and acceptance: so much so that a strong supporter of the Service expressed remarkable confidence in their usefulness.
While scientists cannot tell at what hours to carry an umbrella, they can tell when great storms and waves of intense heat or cold are coming, so as to be of great value to all the industries of the land.
All the discomforts of the weather cannot be avoided, but the great disasters can be anticipated and obviated.
Except, of course, when they can’t.
Browsing through Brownson Malsch’s Indianola: The Mother of Western Texas, or David Roth’s National Weather Service compilation, “Texas Hurricane History,“ reminds any reader that naming Indianola by combining the Indian of Indian Point with ola, the Spanish word for wave, was apt. Every town clinging to life along the shores of Matagorda Bay was buffeted by the forces of nature, but wind and waves affected Indianola disproportionately.
It began early. On June 27th, 1850, a “severe squall” caused damage to ships anchored near Indianola. The Palmetto was torn from her anchorage and driven aground; the lighter Jerry Smith suffered extensive damage.
The following year, in 1851, a hurricane contaminated the water supply at Saluria with salt, and destroyed every wharf in Port Lavaca. The government wharf and bayfront buildings at Indianola suffered wave damage, but effects from the storm surge were negligible, and residents became even more confident that building their town on the lowest spit of land for the sake of convenience had been reasonable.
Three years later, that confidence was tested. In September, 1854, wind, waves, and storm surge leveled the town of Matagorda, destroyed every vessel and wharf on Matagorda Bay, and deepened the channel by two feet. Due to significant flooding, yellow fever took hold at Indianola, then spread to surrounding towns.
Helmut Holtz’s “View of Indianola” ~ Looking west, with the Morgan Wharf on the left (1860)
Even after an 1869 hurricane demolished Indianola’s Episcopal church, tore the roofs from several buildings, capsized boats along the waterfront, and sent a foot-deep storm surge through the town, confidence remained high. Townspeople congratulated themselves on “the obvious security of [their] little city,” apparently willing to believe, along with at least one supporter of the Signal Service, that:
All the discomforts of the weather cannot be avoided, but the great disasters can be anticipated and obviated.
Except, of course, when they can’t.
On September 29, 1875, just two weeks after yet another devastating storm, Eliza Fisher wrote to her son, Samuel Fisher, recounting the storm’s effects in Matagorda.
No pen can describe all the horrors of such a storm & I will not attempt it. I little expected to live to go through another storm such as we had in 1854, but I have done so – for though we have not lost our house – my sufferings mentally were greater. Having passed through one, I knew what to expect – hour after hour, we faced death, not knowing what moment would be our last..
…About 9 o’clock at night, we went out & faced the pitiless storm. We could not keep our feet, but by holding to each other, were blown along & managed to get over to the next house & found a number huddled together in the kitchen. We only staid a few minutes there, when the windows & doors of the main house blew in & we had to go out again.
Fred & Nettie were afraid to go into another house & more over it blew & rained so awfully that we could not walk against it, so we decided to come into our own yard again & go into the chicken house. So 14 of us, seven grown persons & seven little children, crowded into it. We had hardly gotten out of that house when the whole side to the north east was blown off.
What horrors we can go through & yet live! It makes me shudder even to write about it, & yet dear son our sufferings & danger was nothing compared to those on the Peninsula & at Indianola, where they had the water to contend with; whole families drowned & hundreds getting off with only their lives, every thing they owned lost!
Whatever Mrs. Fisher knew or imagined about the state of things at Indianola, the reality was far worse. A news account published in Galveston on September 21 made clear the scope of the disaster:
The steamship Harlan came into port this morning with her colors at half-mast. A large crowd gathered on the wharf to learn the fate of Indianola. The destruction there was almost complete… [and] the following note has been received:
(Indianola, September 20) To the Editors of The News:
We are destitute. The town is gone. One quarter of the people are gone. Dead bodies are strewn for twenty miles along the bay. Nine-tenths of the houses are destroyed. Send us help, for God’s sake.
(signed) D.W. Crain, District Attorney
Two days later, an account published by The New-Orleans Times provided additional information, gleaned from eyewitnesses to the storm:
The storm began on Wednesday evening and increased in violence until Thursday morning, when the gale burst upon the town with all its fury, the water in the bay rising rapidly, but did not create and general feeling of alarm until late Thursday morning, when it began to swell rapidly, rising Over Six Feet in Two Hours and rapidly neared the flood mark of 1867.
And yet the horror stricken people, almost paralysed with fear, did not seem to realize their danger, none of them making efforts to escape. In fact they could hardly have done so as the wind was then blowing a hurricane.
An hour later the water rose above the flood mark, and at four o’clock that afternoon the wind was driving it through the streets at the rate of Twelve or Fifteen Miles an Hour, the velocity of the wind, at the same time being eighty-eight miles an hour named.
It was then that the citizens of the place saw that there was no means of escape, for back of the city was a large open plain covered with water for three or four miles and to the depth of from Four to Eight Feet, and huge breakers washing from the bay inland as far as the eye could see…
The gale, said our informants, seemed to increase during the night, the barometer at one time falling to 28:95, and on the following morning a scene presented itself that beggars description. In every direction could be seen houses, some crushed entirely, while others had been carried by the Wind and Waves blocks away.
Others too were moved across the street and lay careened and half-full of sand, their occupants having either been drowned in their dwellings or had sought safety in the waves, and seized shutters, doors, or pieces of furniture, and were carried by the heavy seas against the houses, in which way many were killed, while again others torn and bruised, were carried out of the city into the plain, only to meet death by drowning.
General Adolphus Washington Greely, Chief Signal Officer of the Weather Bureau and Signal Corps, visited Indianola six months after the storm. Writing in the November, 1900 issue of National Geographic, he affirmed the impressions offered in earlier reports:
The hurricane began by a northeasterly gale, which set in on the 15th. The wind increased steadily in force with a falling barometer, until 5 p.m. of the 16th, when it stood at 28.90. The northeast wind of 82 miles per hour rose to a velocity of 88 miles at 5:15 p.m., but later, as it steadily increased, its velocity at midnight must have reached 100 miles per hour.
Signal Officer Sargeant C. A. Smith continued the narrative in his official report:
Soon after midnight, a change in the tide was noticed. It rose several inches for a few minutes, and then began setting seaward rapidly [while] the wind gradually backed to the north and northwest.
The tide now swept out toward the bay with terrific force, the wind having but slightly abated. It was at this time that the greatest destruction of life and property occurred. The buildings remaining had been so loosened and racked by northeast wind and tide that the moment the tremendous force was changed in a cross-direction, dozens of them toppled in ruins and were swept into the bay.
It is a noteworthy fact that the immense volume of water, which for eighteen hours poured over the beach at Matagorda Bay, until for twenty miles the back country of prairie was an open sea, occupied but the short space of six hours to completely recede on the wind changing to the northwest.
Despite the terrible devastation, the deaths, and the decision of some townspeople to head inland, away from coastal storms and surges, the people of Indianola were not to be denied their place in history. They began to rebuild.
The fifth hurricane of the 1886 Atlantic hurricane season made landfall at Indianola on August 20. One of the most intense hurricanes ever to hit the United States, and the strongest to strike between 1851 and 1910, it carried maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour and a fifteen foot storm surge.
Though shorter in duration than the 1875 storm, its intensity was greater. By the time it moved inland and dissipated, much of Indianola had been swept away in its flood. More than lumber, cattle, houses and wharves were washed into the sea by that terrible surge. A town’s dreams of recovering, rebuilding, and reclaiming the hopes of early settlers were swept away as well: never to be recovered.
At the height of the storm, the Signal Station office collapsed and several people, including Signal Service officer Captain Isaac A. Reed, were killed. In the midst of the chaos, a falling lantern ignited the collapsed wooden structure. Despite the rain and because of the winds, the fire spread, engulfing a large portion of the town.
The August Frank warehouse, which survived the 1886 hurricane and fire
After the 1886 storm, no one attempted to rebuild. Most survivors moved away, taking with them any houses that could be salvaged. Disassembled board by board, numbered, and loaded onto wagons, the homes and their residents traveled inland to towns like Victoria and Cuero, hoping to start anew.
Three months after the storm, residents voted to return the county seat to Port Lavaca, from whence it had come. In May of 1887, the post office closed. A month later the last passenger train departed. One of the most hopeful, and most harrowing, chapters in Texas history was over.
Remains of the Calhoun County Courthouse, on the shores of Matagorda Bay
Though the courthouse ruins lie beneath the bay, this marker remains. It reads: “Calhoun County Courthouse, Edward Beaumont, Artchitect, 1859. During the storms of 1875 and 1886, precious lives were saved within its walls of shell, concrete and lime. Abandoned, 1886.”
So, Indianola, has it been with thee,
Thou once fair city by the moonlit sea!
Thy fame is ended and thy beauty fled –
Bleak memory calls thee from the silent dead.
Thy streets are nameless, and the sea-weeds grow
Along thy walks where life was wont to flow.
Forever dead! fore’er thy dream is o’er!
Thou liv’st alone on Memory’s barren shore.
The sun that sets, yet sets to rise again,
Will smile the same, yet smile on thee in vain;
While moonbeams dancing as the billows roar,
Will seem as bright, yet dance on thee no more.
On a cloudless day, washed with sunlight and soothed by breezes wayward as the drifting sand, the rise and fall of bay tides continues: effortless as breath. Memories tumble along the edge of consciousness, drifting fragments of the past delicate as any shell.
Lulled to inattention, the shore-bound hardly notice the water’s gentle rise. Silently, inexorably it moves: up the beach, toward the road, over the bayou banks, into the pasture, swirling its warning for those who remember, those who have seen, those who have learned the hard lessons of the coast.
And for those who fail to remember; those who have not yet learned; those who refuse to acknowledge the powers that surround them? For them, there whispers a voice from the past, a whispered warning that dares recall an ages-old exhortation born of experience and pain.
Run from water; hide from wind.