by Christopher Dow
A fort that is easily accessible by folks from Houston is Fort Travis Seashore Park, located on Bolivar Peninsula, only about a mile from the Galveston-Bolivar ferry landing. The fort, which overlooks the mouth of Galveston Bay, 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 occupied 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 hastily built a new fort that he named 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 here young age at the time of the ordeal. Jane later lived in Fort Bend County and died late in 1880.
During the Civil War, the Confederate’s Fort Green occupied the site, and in 1898, the federal government bought the site and began constructing the fortifications that are now there in conjunction with the development of the Port of Galveston. Just two years later, however, Galveston was nearly wiped off the map by Isaac’s Storm, the infamous 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 south end served as the Bolivar landing for the Galveston–Bolivar ferry, the remains of which can be seen in the bottom photo in the left column. But after a dedicated ferry terminal was constructed a mile or so away, the site 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 north 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, there is a modest fee for camping, and cabanas are available. Call 409-766-2411 for information and permits.