Tradition meets tragedy in the chilling local lore of the Rio Grande Valley. Hidden in the dense brush and around oxbow lakes wait sinister secrets, unnerving vestiges of the past and wraiths of those claimed by the winding river. The spirit of a murdered student in Brownsville paces the locker room where she met her end. Tortured souls of patients lost in the Harlingen Insane Asylum refuse to be forgotten. Guests at the LaBorde Hotel in Rio Grande City report visions of the Red Lady, who was spurned by the soldier she loved and driven to suicide. Author David Bowles explores these and more of the most harrowing ghost stories from Fort Brown to Fort Ringgold and all the haunted hotels, chapels and ruins in between.
About the Author
South Texas native David Bowles is an award-winning author and professor at the University of Texas. Bowles is the author of several other titles, including the Pura Belpré Honor Book, The Smoking Mirror and Border Lore: Folktales and Legends of South Texas. His writing has appeared in Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Asymptote, Rattle, Axolotl, Huizache, Concho River Review, Border Senses, Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas and more.
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PORT ISABEL LIGHTHOUSE
A picturesque town sits at the easternmost edge of Cameron County, where Texas State Highways 48 and 100 converge near the Laguna Madre, an extensive though shallow hypersaline lagoon that stretches between the Texas coast and Padre Island. Often treated as a mere gateway to the more tourist-frequented South Padre Island, this community — Port Isabel — is a treasure horde of history and legend.
There are many haunted locations in the city of Port Isabel, residents affirm. The Historic Queen Isabel Inn, opened by railroad magnate Caesar Kleberg in 1906 as the Point Isabel Tarpon and Fishing Club, served as the only local hotel for two decades, becoming the focal point for some of the area's most important events, like President Warren G. Harding's last vacation before his swearing in and the yearly Rio Grande Valley Fishing Rodeo. Though several hurricanes did their best to put the hotel out of commission, it remained standing, and those who visit its stately rooms report hearing the footsteps of the dead echoing down its halls.
Those same storms sent many ships to their doom before the construction of the lighthouse. If you look out across the bay under the right sort of moonlight, the old folks will tell you, you might just see ghost ships plying the gentle waves before being lost in the early morning mist.
In 1926, the Yacht Club Hotel was built to serve the needs of the Rio Grande Valley's elite, men like land baron John Shary. The ritzy spot hosted visitors as legendary as Amelia Earhart and Al Capone; it also witnessed great tragedy, such as when a yacht burned to cinders nearby, killing a well-to-do couple visiting from New England. But like many spots along the U.S.-Mexican border, the hotel absorbed some glimmer of their souls. For to this day, visitors swear they see a young man and woman decked out in the gaudy clothes of the 1920s, chatting and laughing before fading just as one approaches to meet them.
Indeed, Port Isabel has a long and variegated history. Brazos Island, just south of South Padre Island, was first settled in the eighteenth century as a series of wharves along the bay — facilitating the transportation of goods upriver past the sandbars at the mouth of the Rio Grande. The inhabitants, striking out for fresh water, found themselves in the area of present-day Port Isabel. In fact, legend has it that pirate Jean Lafitte established a fifteenfoot well just northwest of there in the early 1800s to better provide for his privateering ventures.
By the 1830s, a small community had sprung up around these water sources. It called itself El Frontón de Santa Isabel, but that name would change multiple times over the next quarter century: Punta de Santa Isabel for most of the Mexican-American War, Point Isabel with the establishment of a post office, Brazos Santiago when the Oblates of Mary Immaculate established the chapel of Our Lady by the Sea and finally — after a horrible cholera epidemic — to Port Isabel.
With the Mexican War over, Fort Polk — which had stood at the heart of Port Isabel, providing medical care and provisions to the army — was abandoned in favor of a stronger garrison at Fort Brown to the south. By 1853, upon a mound where the fort had stood, the Port Isabel Lighthouse had been erected at last as a beacon to guide ships safely to harbor. Commerce boomed as a result, with $10 million worth of cotton passing annually through the port, even during the early years of the Civil War, when the area became a refuge for blockade runners. Such Confederate efforts shifted south to the Mexican town of Bagdad after Union forces seized or destroyed every last ship in the harbor in May 1863.
During the remainder of the war, the lighthouse was occupied intermittently by soldiers from both sides to serve as a lookout, and fresh battles were waged around its broad base. Even a month after General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Union and Confederate troops strove with one another at Palmito Ranch, not far from the lighthouse, in the very last battle of the war. Hundreds of men had died during the long years of the conflict, joining the many others who had succumbed less than two decades earlier during the Mexican-American War. Locals whispered rumors of bodies lying in unmarked graves nearby. By the time the Rio Grande Valley Railway had connected Port Isabel to Brownsville, people were ready to turn away from the technology of the past and the deaths associated with fort, lagoon and sea.
Despite some structural improvements in the waning years of the nineteenth century, the town let the gleam of the lighthouse flicker out forever in 1905. Its crown darkened, its stone walls growing moldy with age, the tower waited unused for forty-five somber years. Then the one-acre plot on which it stands was donated to the state in 1950 as a historic site by Mr. and Mrs. Lon C. Hill Jr. and the Port Isabel Realty Company. After two years of extensive renovation, the lighthouse opened to the public. Tourists and locals alike delight in the giant of white stone, working their way up the seventy-five steps of the winding stair to peer out over the bay from the highest vantage point in the area.
For the better part of a century, locals and visitors have claimed to see the ghosts of soldiers or victims of cholera wandering around the area at dusk. Some speculate that the inadequacy of their burials in times of conflict and despair may have kept these souls from their eternal rest.
Perhaps more fascinating are the multiple sightings of an incorporeal being known as the Lighthouse Angel. The stories of this ethereal guide go back to the nineteenth century, when ships would occasionally approach the harbor in the midst of powerful storms. The swirling winds, experts say, created vortices on either side of the tower, which were lit up by its powerful lamp. The light was also refracted by rain above the cupola to create the illusion of a halo. The overall effect, sailors insisted, was that a massive angel stood on shore, casting a miraculous glow into the tempests.
Despite the surety of modern science about the source of this optical effect, there is reason to believe that the Lighthouse Angel is more than just the interplay of light and rain and wind. To this day, stories persist about the warnings the angel sometimes whispers to tourists as they ascend the spiraling stair, cautionary words that have even saved lives.
Among those attracted to the Port Isabel Lighthouse are couples wanting to exchange vows at the top. Many insist on tying the knot this way despite the growing body of testimony about disembodied souls that cling to the site.
Elena González and Oscar Dresch were not ignorant of these tales when they arranged for a short civil ceremony beneath the glittering glass dome at the lighthouse's summit. But getting married there and spending a honeymoon in Mexico City were part of Elena's dream, so Oscar set aside his superstitious bent to please his fiancée.
Elena's parents had come to the United States as part of the old Bracero Program, and by dint of their hard work and united spirit, they had constructed a happy, healthy life for their children. Elena had never had the chance to return to their motherland; when she had met Oscar at Pan American College and the two had fallen in love, she had shared her dream of visiting every major city in Mexico. A political science major fascinated with that country himself, Oscar had enthusiastically seconded that plan not long after proposing to her.
As agreed upon in advance, the justice of the peace was waiting for them on the grassy knoll when they drove up, an employee from the visitor center beside him to serve as a witness. Elena waited for Oscar to open the door for her, and then she stepped out of the car into the lovely September morning sunlight, almost ethereal in her beauty, draped in a simple white sundress. For Oscar, she had picked a matching guayabera and chinos. She wanted to remember the moment as pure and transformative, a decisively beautiful time in her life.
"Great choice," the judge said in greeting, gesturing at the lighthouse. "Up nearer to heaven. The weather's perfect, too. María here will snap a couple of Polaroids. Feel free to take one."
Oscar nodded, turning to Elena as the four of them headed toward the entrance. "Are you ready, love?"
"More than ready. Ecstatic."
They began to climb to the top, Oscar bringing up the rear. He was in a sort of reverie, stunned by his magnificent luck at convincing such a beautiful woman to marry him. Even the lighthouse, which had filled his dreams with formless specters for several weeks, was altered utterly, made paradisiacal before his enamored eyes.
But then, halfway up, he felt a wave of unexpected cold pass through him, like the chill northern wind on a late January evening, snatching at meager Valley coats. As he stopped and shivered, a voice whispered in his ear.
"Don't go. Don't go."
Swiveling his head around, Oscar sought out the source of the plea. No one was there beyond the other three, whom he had already lost sight of.
Tentatively, he asked aloud, "Don't go where?"
"Mexico City," came the reply, fading as if the speaker were receding in the distance. "Danger there. Don't go."
There was nothing more.
After a moment, Elena called his name from above, and Oscar shook off his confused paralysis. Smiling, he joined the others at the railing, the sun glinting off glass and metal to transform the small space into an almost celestial chamber.
It was not until later, after rings and vows had been exchanged and the couple found themselves driving back to their hotel, that Oscar mentioned the incident to his new bride.
"Are you sure?" she asked, her expression souring. "I mean, you are a little susceptible to suggestion and superstition, Oscar."
"Yes, I'm sure. I really think we should cancel the flight. Or change it. What about Acapulco? You've always wanted to go there, too. We can spend a few days out on the beach. Doesn't that sound fun?"
Elena was not happy about having her careful plans ruined. But she saw how upset Oscar was by the supposed warning, and she did not want their marriage to get off to a rocky start.
The following day — September 18, 1985 — their plane touched down in Acapulco, and they had a lovely evening at the water's edge, dining as they watched the sun plunge into the Pacific, then walking hand in hand along the beach, the stars breathtakingly brilliant above them.
It was the perfect end to their first full day as man and wife.
Oscar started awake the next morning. It was 7:00 a.m.
"Did you feel that?" he asked Elena. "Like the bed just moved."
He got dressed and went down to reception. Everyone was gathered around a television in the lobby, silent as the newscasters spoke in somber tones. There had been a horrible earthquake, one of the strongest on record. The tremors were felt as far away as Houston and Los Angeles.
Mexico City was in ruins. More than five thousand people perished.
Once more, the Lighthouse Angel had saved those she could from the perils of the world.CHAPTER 2
THE PHANTOMS OF FORT BROWN
About thirty minutes southwest of Port Isabel, at the juncture of Highways 48 and 281, the city of Brownsville sprawls at the very tip of Texas.
Though explorers had swept through the area in the seventeenth century, no real attempt was made to settle until late in the eighteenth. San Juan de los Esteros, which would become the modern city of Matamoros, was founded in 1765 on the south bank. Sixteen years later, the Spanish crown granted fifty-nine leagues of land to José Salvador de la Garza, a vast swatch of land north of the river that included the site of the future town of Brownsville. De la Garza established a ranch there, and gradually a handful of herders and farmers were drawn to his property.
Rising tensions between the newly independent Mexico and the even newer state of Texas prompted the U.S. government to build a fort on the lower end of the Rio Grande Valley. Before it could be completed, however, Fort Texas found itself under siege in the first active campaign of the Mexican-American War in May 1846. General Zachary Taylor led his forces to their aid, but he was intercepted by Mexican troops, and their military engagement, the Battle of Palo Alto, officially launched the war just five miles from what would become the heart of Brownsville. After another battle, Taylor reached Fort Texas and discovered that its commander, Major Jacob Brown, had been killed during the siege. The fort was renamed in his honor.
When the war came to an end at the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a city bearing the major's name was founded by Charles Stillman, who had bought a sizeable piece of de la Garza's grant from the first wife of José Narciso Cavazos, heir to the ranch's holdings. The problem was that Cavazos had remarried, and the children of his second wife, principally Juan Nepomuceno "Cheno" Cortina, were the actual holders of the property's deed. The legal struggle between Cortina and the Anglo founders of Brownsville would stretch on for years and result in considerable bloodshed before the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of Stillman in 1879.
Despite the disputes, Brownsville became the county seat of the Cameron County on January 13, 1849, with official incorporation from the state coming a year later.
It did not take long for the population to swell to more than one thousand souls, many of them immigrants crossing from Matamoros or would-be miners stopping over before heading to find gold farther west. A cholera epidemic struck in the spring of 1959, killing close to five hundred men, women and children. Yet the boom continued, and Brownsville gradually displaced Matamoros as the center of trade in the region.
On July 13, 1859, after ten years of tension between Cheno Cortina and the Anglo ruling class, the situation in Brownsville took a startling turn for the worse. Cortina, a businessman who had transformed himself into a champion of the rights of Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley, took over Brownsville with a contingent of rebels after abuses by local law enforcement. The town was temporarily evacuated, and several armed conflicts ensued. Eventually, Cortina found himself retreating up the river, pursued by Texas Rangers under the command of Colonel John Salmon "Rip" Ford. At Rio Grande City, he and his supporters were pushed into Mexico.
Arguably, Brownsville's involvement in injustice continued long past these engagements. During the Civil War, the town help bust Union blockades, transporting Confederate goods into Mexico, especially cotton grown and harvested with slave labor, which was then smuggled to European ships waiting at the Mexican port of Bagdad. In this nefarious work, the town was aided by Fort Brown, under Confederate command, until Union troops landed at Port Isabel and marched for Brownsville in November 1863 to put a halt to the illicit trading. During the Battle of Brownsville that followed, Confederate forces withdrew from the fort, blowing it up as they fled. But they were back in 1864, occupying Brownsville under the leadership of Rip Ford.
Confederate hold on the lower Rio Grande Valley was tenacious. On May 15, 1865, a full month after the South had surrendered at Appomattox, the Battle of Palmito Ranch was fought and won by soldiers in gray.
In the aftermath of the war, Fort Brown was rebuilt and strengthened. A post hospital was completed in 1871, and a decade later, it found itself in the midst of a regional outbreak of yellow fever.
To this struggling hospital arrived William Crawford Gorgas, a twenty-seven-year-old doctor whose experiences in the Valley would prompt him to combat the disease for three decades until he finally found a cure. When he showed up at Fort Brown in 1882, the epidemic was devastating the local population, overpowering its victims with body aches, fever and nausea that caused them to vomit black bile. In order to keep up with the mind-boggling mortality rate, fresh graves — dug daily by the doctors themselves — waited gaping and hungry for another victim.
The panic nationally was palpable. The disease had elsewhere wiped out entire armies and thousands of civilians in other similarly tropical climates. Gorgas, intent on finding a solution to the burgeoning problem, began dissecting bodies in the morgue, known informally as the "dead house." Because of the commander's fears of losing a valuable physician, Gorgas was ordered to stay away from patients. He refused and was briefly arrested before he managed to convince his superiors of the need for research.
Gorgas became symptomatic, suffering for weeks through the debilitating ravages of yellow fever. But he emerged from the illness at the end, now permanently immune and more eager than ever to work with patients. One day, he was approached by another doctor as they both stood above an open grave at the Brownsville National Cemetery on a nearby island. The doctor requested Gorgas read a burial service for Marie Cook Doughty, a nurse whose drawn-out, fifteen-day illness suggested she was about to die.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ghosts of the Rio Grande Valley"
Copyright © 2016 David Bowles.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Port Isabel Lighthouse,
2. The Phantoms of Fort Brown,
3. The Haunting of the Colonial Hotel,
4. The Wailing Woman of San Benito,
5. The Harlingen Insane Asylum,
6. San Perlita and the Devil's Lagoon,
7. The Lonely Ghost of Lyford,
8. Willacy County Courthouse,
9. The Revenants of Llano Grande,
10. Old Hidalgo County Jail,
11. The Wraiths of the San Juan Hotel,
12. McAllen's Casa de Palmas Hotel,
13. La Lomita Chapel,
14. Shary Mansion,
15. Fort Ringgold,
16. LaBorde House,
17. The Woman in White at Roma,
About the Author,