• History

History of South Padre Island

South Padre’s rich history reads like an adventure novel. Recorded history begins in 1519 with a Spanish ship bound for the Gulf of Mexico. When passing South Padre Island the sailors called it Isla Blanca or White Island. Back then, the island was inhabited by the Karankawa Indians, tall people rumored to be cannibals.

After the Aztec people of Mexico were conquered by the Spanish, the numerous galleons headed for Mexican treasure found their way to the Gulf of Mexico. Several ships were lost to sand bars and storms, and three ships were sunk in 1553. The survivors of these three wrecks reportedly swam to the Padre shore where they were greeted by Indian arrows. Only two of the 300 surviving passengers made it to a safe haven in Mexico to tell their tales. Over the years, many of their coins and treasures have been recovered off Padre’s shores. Treasure hunters still search for the lost riches. We know that Jean Lafitte, the pirate noted for his role in the War of 1812, explored the South Padre territory. A well in Laguna Vista bears his name, and legend says he dug the well and returned often for fresh water.

The island is named after a Catholic missionary priest - Padre Jose Nicolas Balli. He founded a settlement here in 1804 and ranched in the area. The statue in Isla Blanca Park, which welcomes fisherman and seaman safely home, is in his image. The Mexican government eventually gave title of the island to the priest.

John Singer, brother of the famous Singer Sewing machine inventor, took up residence on South Padre in 1847 when his ship was lost off the coast. Documents tell us that the family buried thousands in coins and jewelry before they fled during the Civil War. Their fortune was lost to the shifting dunes and remains somewhere on the island to this day.

Important historical battles took place in the area during both the Texas struggle for independence and the Civil War. The last battle was in May 1865. After this battle, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant very near the Rio Grande Valley.

In the mid 1950’s a man named John Tompkins idealized “Padre Beach” as a thriving seaside community. His efforts brought early development to the island in the early 60’s. The island in those days was accessed by ferry and was largely a fishing village. That changed in 1974 with the completion of the Queen Isabella Causeway. At two and a half miles long, it is the longest bridge in Texas. After the September 15, 2001 bridge collapse due to a wayward barge, the causeway was repaired and renamed the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge in memory of the nine people who lost their lives that day.

The first homes, constructed in the late 60’s and early 70’s, are what locals refer to as “beach houses.” They were frequently built by World War II vets who had seen the Bali Ha’i building style of the South pacific. Most were painted brightly with left-over paint and were built on wood pilings. These homes still stand as a testament to their construction and rugged storm smart style.

The earliest properties in the island include, the Tiki Resort, The Padre South Hotel, and a few other wood frame hotels and condos on the beachfront. The majority of our resort and condo complexes were built in the early to mid 80’s when there was a surge in development. That great time of progress stopped suddenly when the peso devalued and the savings and loan scandal upset the Texas economy.

Now the growth on South Padre Island is occurring at a solid and healthy pace. As the north island territory opens up, a new era of master planned communities and upscale development is anticipated.

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