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Bolivar Peninsula

by Christopher Dow


If you’re like most people who drive to Galveston down I-45, you either linger on the Strand or on Seawall Boulevard, or you head for the beaches. Or maybe the fishing piers. But next time, try turning left at the the end of Broadway Avenue, going about a third of a mile, and following the signs for the Bolivar Peninsula ferry. The nice thing about visiting Bolivar Peninsula is there’s something to do even if it’s not summer. The ferry is free and operates every twenty-minutes during daylight hours, but during summer months, the line is long and the wait, particularly coming back, can be an hour or more.


The water the ferry crosses is the mouth of Galveston Bay, which consists of four major areas. The northernmost, Trinity Bay, where the Trinity River empties into Galveston Bay, is the largest expanse. Buffalo Bayou/the Houston Ship Channel empties into the northwest quadrant of Trinity Bay. Just south of Trinity Bay and north of the City of Galveston lies Galveston Bay proper. This is the water you’ll see while riding the ferry. Southwest of that, sandwiched between the coast and the backside of Galveston Island is West Bay. And East Bay extends to the northeast, between the backside of Bolivar Peninsula and the spike of land called Smith Point, which juts into Galveston Bay, separating East Bay from Trinity Bay.


Out on the water, you’ll see all sorts of craft. The largest are oil tankers visiting the refineries in Texas City and Houston, cargo ships bringing goods in through the Port of Houston, and barges loaded with bulk cargo. Commercial fishing boats and small pleasure craft move and dart in the open spaces.


While you’re aboard the ferry, get out and enjoy the scenery during the twenty-minute ride. Don’t forget to bring some bread to feed the flock of seagulls that habitually follow the ferry, and if you’re lucky, you might even see porpoises frolicking in the bay or jellyfish the size of soccer balls floating in the water.


On the gulf side of the ferry lies the regional Coast Guard installation, which also houses facilities for the Army Corp of Engineers and the Marine Corp Reserves. After the ferry passes that, move quickly to the other side of the deck.


There, in addition to a water-side view of Pelican Island and Seawolf Park, you can catch a glimpse of the ruins of the S.S. Selma, an oil tanker constructed of cement. At 7,500 tons, it was the largest of twelve such ships built in Mobile, Alabama in 1919. The unusual construction material was tried due to steel shortages caused by World War I. In May 1920, a reef in Tampico, Mexico, tore a sixty-foot hole in the Selma’s hull. The ship was sailed to Galveston for repairs, which were ineffective. Since the Selma was no longer seaworthy and could not be broken down for scrap, officials scuttled the ship in its present location in a 1,500-foot trench dredged for the purpose. Today, this artificial reef draws fishermen and scientists who continue to study the ship's concrete structure.


Soon after passing the Selma, in the distance, you can see the end of the Texas City Dike jutting into the bay. It's visible on the aerial image as a long, thin line pointing directly at the mouth of Galveston Bay  from Texas City, which is on the mainland just north of Galveston


The dike, which is more than five miles long, is a levee built in the mid 1930s from granite blocks topped with rubble, soil, and a paved road. Its initial purpose was to help prevent sediment build up in lower Galveston Bay, but it also serves to give Texas City, some measure of protection from storm surge. In mid-September 2008, Hurricane Ike overtopped the dike with an eleven-foot surge that seriously damaged it and cleared it of all structures. Two years of repairs were required before the dike could reopen to the public. Often called “the longest fishing pier in the world,” it remains a popular place for fishermen, picnickers, and folks looking for interesting views.


After you exit the ferry, drive northeast on Highway 87. This coastal road runs about thirty miles to High Island, a small community at the base of Bolivar Peninsula. The road used to run all the way to the Texas–Louisiana border at the Sabine River and the town of Sabine Pass, but a series of hurricanes in the 2000s washed away the thirty-mile stretch beyond High Island. Since there wasn’t anything up that way but the gulf border of the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, the road was never rebuilt.


The first thing you’ll notice after exiting the ferry is the Bolivar lighthouse. The 117-foot-tall structure was built in 1872 of brick encased in cast-iron plating. It once was painted with black and white stripes but has long since rusted black. Operational for sixty-one years, the lighthouse boasted a 52,000-candle-power kerosene burner. The two houses at the lighthouse’s base were built for the lighthouse keeper and his assistants. The lighthouse was the setting for the 1970 movie My Sweet Charlie, starring Patty Duke and Al Freeman Jr. and based on a novel by Texas writer David Westheimer, best-known for Von Ryan’s Express. The Bolivar Lighthouse has been privately owned since 1947 and is not open to the public, but you’ll want to pull over and snap some pictures.


Half a mile farther on, on the right, is Fort Travis Seashore Park. It has about it an aura of age and mystery, and the old bunkers and fortifications are like the bones of enormous ancient creatures protruding from the earth.


Fort Travis it wasn’t the first fort built on this site, and no wonder. It’s a perfect location that commands a full view of the mouth of Galveston Bay. The site’s history goes back to 1816, when the first people to build a fort there were Spanish military explorers under the command of Francisco Xavier Mina. They built the small earthwork and timber fortification primarily to protect them from the local Karankawa Indians, who were quite hostile to the European invaders—and just about everybody else, for that matter. That same year, the first permanent settlement that would become the city of Galveston was constructed across the mouth of Galveston Bay by the pirate Louis-Michel Aury, who supported Mexico’s rebellion against Spain. Aury left for an unsuccessful raid only to return and find the nascent Galveston taken over by the pirate Jean Lafitte, who had organized it into a pirate kingdom, with Lafitte at the head of government.


With Lafitte’s rise to the top of the local food chain, the Spanish abandoned the fortification, and the site remained fallow until 1819, when it was occupied by a man named James Long. With him were his young wife, Jane, their two children, and a young black servant girl. James named his new but hastily built home Fort Las Casas, but he didn’t occupy it for long. Right after he finished the fort, he ran off to become a filibuster. Filibusters were men who set off on expeditions into Spanish Texas with the goal of seizing control. He left Jane, then twenty-three and pregnant, at the fort, her only company her two children and the servant girl. Long’s filibuster was unsuccessful, and in 1821, he was captured by the Spanish and later executed.


While inhabiting the fort, Jane shot off a small cannon every day to let the people in Galveston know she was still alive. Finally, in December, with her food supplies nearly gone, the servant girl delirious with fever, and a freezing winter storm raging outside, Jane delivered her own child, Mary Long, generally considered the first person born in Texas to English-speaking parents. Because of that, Jane is known as the “Mother of Texas” despite her young age at the time of the ordeal. Jane later lived in Fort Bend County and died late in 1880.

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During the Civil War, the Confederate Fort Green occupied the site, and in 1898, the federal government bought the site and, in conjunction with the development of the Port of Galveston, began constructing the fortifications that are now there. Just two years later, however, Galveston was nearly wiped off the map by Isaac’s Storm, the infamously deadly and destructive hurricane of 1900. After the storm, as with Galveston, a seawall was built at Fort Travis to protect the site from future storms.


Between then and 1943, more fortifications were added, particularly at the outsets of WWI and WWII, to protect the mouth of Galveston Bay from incursions by German submarines since, by then, the Port of Houston and the Houston Ship Channel, with its many petrochemical plants, had become vital national resources. The fortifications eventually mounted a number of large and small artillery pieces, including anti-aircraft weapons and sixteen-inch long-range guns. During WWII, the fort also housed some German prisoners of war. At its peak, the garrison numbered twenty-five hundred troops.


Fort Travis was decommissioned in 1943 and the property sold. For a time, its southwest end served as the Bolivar landing for the Galveston–Bolivar ferry, the remains of which can be seen in Figure ??. But after a dedicated ferry terminal was constructed a mile or so away, the fort was abandoned to time and the elements. It did, though, have one final fling as a fortress in 1962 when, during the assault of Hurricane Carla, many Bolivar residents hid from the storm’s fury in the safety of the old bunkers. After that, the fort lay ignored until 1973, when the site was purchased by the Galveston County Commissioners to serve as a public park, though development of the park wasn’t completed until 1976.


Today the sixty-acre park’s old bunkers and fortifications are separated by grassy fields dotted with picnic areas, playgrounds, and campgrounds, and its seawall is topped with a spacious brick walkway. At the northeast edge of the seawall, a stairway leads down to the beach, so visitors can go for a swim in the summer. Fort Travis Seashore Park is open every day. Day admission is free, but campers have to pay a modest fee. Call 409-766-2411 (684-1333) for information and permits.

Driving northeast, past Fort Travis, you’ll pass a series of small communities, the largest of which is Crystal Beach. Gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants, and other business dominate the inland side of the road, while beach houses fill the margin between it and the water. Every so often, roads provide beach access for day-trippers. This scenery predominates until Rollover Pass, which these days is a breakthrough between East Bay and the Gulf of Mexico at Bolivar Peninsula’s narrowest point, just a few miles from the bay’s tail end.


This breakthrough earned its name during Prohibition. At that time, it was merely a shallow spot where water from the gulf washed into East Bay, and bootleggers quickly took advantage of it. Far from the prying eyes of Federal authorities in Galveston, the crews of large boats bringing in casks of bootleg liquor would roll the casks through the pass’s shallow water to the bay side. There, crews of smaller boats would load the illicit cargo and take it inland via Galveston Bay’s estuaries—most predominantly to Houston. These days, Rollover Pass, widened by dredging and hurricanes, is spanned by a bridge and provides local access for small boats between East Bay and the gulf.


The presence of Rollover Pass, even in its natural state, is an indication of the volatility of the Gulf Coast. Is Bolivar a peninsula or an island? Or something in between? With variations in sea levels over the millennia, the barrier islands stringing the Texas coast often were peninsulas before changes in sea level, storms, or the wear and tear of the tides and waves severed their weak ends from the land.

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Out in the water, sometimes out of sight of land, the Texas coast is partly lined with submerged reefs that were barrier islands during the last Ice Age, when sea levels were more than 250 feet lower than they are today. Some, like a couple off the coast of Rockport, still poke barren sandy heads above the surface. If you know where to find them, you can spend a very successful night floundering in the shallow water surrounding them. As a testament to the coast’s drastic alterations over the millennia, consider this: At the end of the last ice age, what we know as Galveston Bay was actually a 250-foot-deep canyon carved principally by the Trinity River as it descended from Texas’ northern plains to the sea. Other contributors were several waterways—often now bayous—that drained the local area. As sea levels rose, the canyon gradually silted in, leaving us with Galveston Bay, who’s average depth now is only about eight feet.


The town of Gilchrist, which lies around Rollover Pass, is the last town before High Island, another half-dozen miles farther on. There, TX 87 ends, the thirty-mile stretch beyond washed out, though hearty souls searching for fishing spots or private places to swim—and with adequate vehicles—can drive some distance down the road’s crumbling remains. All others must either turn around here if they intend to return to Galveston or turn left onto County Road 124, which heads roughly north. Since this is a day trip, let's do that.


Our destinations are Smith Point and the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, both of which lie on the northern side of East Bay. Drive north on County Road 124 for about ten miles until you reach White’s Ranch Road/County Road 1985, to the left. Go down White’s Ranch Road/1985. At about eleven miles, you’ll pass the entrance to Anahuac, but don’t turn in yet. We’ll go to Smith Point first, then visit Anahuac, which deserves a couple of hours at least, on our way back. In fact, you might pack a picnic lunch because it’ll be about that time when you get there. But first, Smith Point.

Four miles after passing the entrance to Anahuac, you’ll reach the intersection with Smith Point Road/County Road 562. Follow that until it terminates at the tip of Smith Point. The terrain you cross is mostly given over to fishing villages and cattle ranches. At the end of Smith’s Point is a turnaround there where you can park, get out, and walk along the rubble seawall there and stare out across Galveston Bay. The closest land across the water is the town of San Leon, almost directly west about nine miles. Ten miles southwest is Texas City, and fourteen miles due south is the City of Galveston.


Smith Point is vaguely hook-shaped at the end, and the tip of the hook, which is called Morgan Point, has a public boat ramp for folks who like to fish in the bay. The ramp isn’t concrete but is basically a low place along the shore where boat trailers can be back down to the water. Off to the right is a large RV park. The views from here are interesting, too.

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About the Photographs

Satellite images courtesy of Google Earth.

All other photos are by the author and were taken prior to Hurricane Ike.

After leaving Smith Point, drive back along Smith Point Road to Whites Ranch Road/1985 until you reach the entrance for Anahuac and turn in. The road meanders for about three miles across the coastal prairie to the refuge’s headquarters.


Comprising about 34,000 acres, Anahuac Wildlife Refuge was created in 1963, and is one of ten coastal wetland wildlife refuges and parks along the Texas Gulf Coast. Outdoor activities at Anahuac include fishing, waterfowl hunting, and canoeing, but one of the refuge’s most popular is birdwatching. Anahuac is a part of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, a network of trails and wildlife viewing sites established by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Annual bird migrations bring throngs of avians from more than three hundred species to the refuge, with several varieties being highly sought after by birdwatchers. The refuge also is home to alligators and bobcats, among many other animals, and is noted for its more than sixty species of butterflies, many of which can be seen along the trail through the butterfly garden.


From the refuge headquarters, you can take one of several drives across the marshy terrain, all of which are paved loops and can be done in a couple of easy hours. The southernmost loop will take you to the refuge’s southern tip. From here, the land you can see about a mile and a half across the water is where Rollover Pass cuts through Bolivar Peninsula’s narrowest point.


After you drive around and take in Anahuac’s beautifully empty scenery, fresh sea breeze, and expansive feeling, it’s time to go back the way you came. If you didn’t bring a picnic lunch, you can eat at one of the restaurants along the TX 87 or wait until you get to Galveston to dine someplace fancier.


This brings our Bolivar Peninsula day trip to a close, but there is a postscript. Or perhaps not a postscript but a prologue. During the first two weeks of September 2008, Hurricane Ike devastated the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast, and large swaths of Houston. On the last day of that time, Ike swept directly over Bolivar Peninsula, which bore the full brunt of the storm’s Category 4 fury. All those who’d been foolish enough to try to shelter on Bolivar Peninsula were missing and presumed dead, and every one of the towns along the peninsula were literally leveled—blown down and washed away.


On December 31, less than four months after the storm, a friend and I decided to drive around Galveston Bay to view the damage. The consequences of the storm were not terribly drastic along the western and northern shores of the bay, much of which is industrialized, but once we got around to the northeastern quadrant and headed southward, the story was quite different. On Smith’s Point, we drove through one poor fishing village I was familiar with and that had consisted of a couple of hundred small frame houses built in clearings cut out of the scrubby coastal forest.


No more. The houses in every one of the clearings had been reduced to scattered rubble—if that much. Some of the inhabitants were attempting to rebuild, but most were simply living in camper trailers and tents. And many of the homesites were devoid of inhabitants, some having been killed and others refusing to return. On the main road from there down to the tip of Smith’s Point, there once stood a number of brick ranch-style homes on the ranches, but no more. Not a single one remained. All that was left were foundation slabs and scattered debris blown across fields and strewn up against tree lines. All the cattle were gone. A number of large, old summer homes on stilts had stood along the tip of Smith’s Point, facing Galveston Bay, but only a couple were still there. Everywhere we looked was devastation.


On the north shore of the tip of Smith’s point, at the boat ramp, we walked around a little, though not much seemed changed here other than the absence of the nearby RV park. I noticed a Texas Parks and Wildlife pickup parked close to the boat ramp. A ranger was inside, and curious, I went over and asked what she was doing. She was taking a census from fishermen of the types of fish they’d caught and where they’d caught them to help determine how the storm had affected the aquatic life in the bay.


I asked if she lived near there, and she said yes. Then I asked how high the storm surge had been. Where we were was some ten miles inland, a couple of miles of which were the land of Bolivar Peninsula and the rest the waters of East Bay. She said that at the spot we were standing, the surge had reached a height of eighteen feet. That’s significantly higher than the highest place on Smith’s Point. The fishing village and all the ranch houses were not just blown apart, but their remains were washed away by violent currents.


We came down the peninsula from the northeast end at High Island. Though not actually an island, the town and its environs are somewhat higher than the area around and thickly covered with trees, so it didn’t suffer as terribly from wind damage and storm surge as had much of Smith Point. But as soon as we started down the coastal road, TX 87, we quickly saw the first hint of just how unforgiving Ike had been to Bolivar. Along the northern end of the peninsula, the low sand dunes and beach that had once existed on the gulf side of the road were gone, and the water, once a quarter of a mile away, now often encroached practically on the road’s edge.


The real destruction began at Rollover Pass, We were entering the area where Ike made landfall, and it had borne the storm’s full and direct impact. The Rollover Pass bridge had been washed away, and a temporary bridge spanned the gap, which was wider than I’d ever seen it. Past Rollover Pass, the distance from the road to the water widened, so the coastal erosion wasn’t so evident, but the destruction in human terms was jaw-dropping.


The drive from High Island to the end of the road at the Galveston–Bolivar Ferry is about thirty miles. The five or so small towns along this distance were almost completely wiped out. The peninsula’s big brick high school and a few of the other civic buildings that had been sturdily built, remained, as did a row of houses built on stilts some twenty-five or thirty feet off the ground and a rare few other buildings. But all else was utterly destroyed.


Just beyond Rollover Pass, was the beginning of a rough, scarred swath in the sandy soil perhaps thirty feet wide and running down the road’s inland shoulder for as far as we could see. More frequently than once a mile, we saw cars and pickups so deeply embedded in the sand of the shoulder that only the barest glimpses showed above the surface. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of them held bodies.


The reason for the scarred swath along the shoulder was not apparent at first, but after driving about ten miles, we saw what had caused it. It was the scar left after the removal of a pile of debris some thirty feet thick at the base and fifteen to twenty feet tall, consisting of the remnants of homes, stores, restaurants, water storage tanks, vehicles, and trees and brush—any and everything that had once stood in service of the people inhabiting the peninsula. Amazingly, that pile continued to line the road all the way from there until we reached the ferry landing some twenty miles farther on, so originally it had been thirty miles long. There are no words to describe the feeling of seeing that much human effort reduced to that kind of rubble overnight.


Large shovel excavators with toothed scoops were eating away at the end of the pile and loading the debris into a waiting line of big dump trucks. About half-way to the ferry landing, the trucks turned off on a road going to the bay side of the peninsula. I guess there was a huge dumping place back there where they unloaded what was left of the towns and beach communities into one tremendous pile of refuse.


I wanted to visit Fort Travis to see how it had fared during the storm, but the park was closed, so we drove on to the ferry and rode across to Galveston. There, the damage was much less severe since Galveston had been on the southwest, and thus milder side, of the hurricane. I later asked a geology professor I knew who studied the Texas Gulf Coast, about the erosion on Bolivar. He told me that Ike had reduced Bolivar’s average elevation from nine feet to three.


But despite the destruction, we saw people rebuilding, and that rebuilding continues to this day. Vacation communities once again bask in the sun. Some might disparage such futile efforts, for eventually another hurricane will wipe out all this, too. But humans are as resilient as they are foolishness, and the Bolivar vacation communities will continue to thrive as long as there is a Bolivar Peninsula to call home.

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