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Remembering Indianola on the 125th anniversary of its destruction

Aug. 19, 2011 at 3:19 a.m.

The people of Indianola gathered at the train station. When the second hurricane struck in 1886, the town was effectively wiped out. Photos provided courtesy of the Calhoun County Museum.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Indianola retrospective for 125th Anniversary of 1886 hurricane that destroyed the town

WHEN: 9 a.m. Saturday

WHERE: La Salle monument overlooking Matagorda Bay. Activities continue at 11:15 a.m. at the Bauer Community Center, 2300 N. state Highway 35.

FEATURES: Booths, Tommy Garrison reciting a poem about Indianola and music by Brian Burns.

INDIANOLA - If you follow the road signs placed alongside the gently curving roads that lead to Indianola, you won't find much.

The water from Matagorda Bay slaps lazily at the edge of the shore, while a crane skims the water, emitting a thin squawk, and palm trees rustle in the wind. There's not a trace of human noise.

It wasn't always this way. This was once "The Queen City of the West."

"Indianola could have been so much. It could have been like Corpus Christi or Galveston. Back then it was actually larger than Galveston. If it hadn't been washed away, there's no telling what it could have been," George Ann Cormier, the director of the Calhoun County Museum, said.

Cormier moved to Indianola in 1994. Walking the quiet roads at night, the place seemed alive with energy, with the lives lived there before.

"You can feel it, you can feel the history, what might have been," she said.

Once, more than 100 years ago, Indianola was a bustling town, bursting with life and the promise of growth. In the 1860s, it was larger than Galveston, a port that supplied West Texas with provisions.

The quickest route west was through Indianola. Once, Indianola was a town that was going to become a city. They had a deep sea port. They had docks that jutted half a mile out into the Gulf. Elegant houses looked out on the water, businesses lined Main Street, and trade was booming.

The town was the county seat of Calhoun. There was even a courthouse, built of crushed oyster shells, burnt wood and lime.

The railroad stopped there. Thousands of tons of silver, beef and other supplies went up the rails to be dispersed across Texas. On windy days, sails were attached to the cars pulling them up and down the tracks.

Indianola was a town that was going to be something grand.

Hurricanes ended all of that.

The first hurricane struck in September 1875, roaring in from the Gulf. Indianola, low-lying and surrounded by water on both sides, was flooded with high waters and torn apart by howling winds. The town lay in shambles in the storm's wake.

The town's population shrank, but some stayed and tried to rebuild, clearing their houses of the muck and debris or building new ones, resuming life.

The houses, the buildings looked permanent, and listening to the reassuring clip-clop of horse hooves as wagons rattled down Main Street it might have been easy to believe man's handiwork was here to stay, that Indianola would be a place their children and grandchildren would live in.

But the water lapping sedately in Matagorda Bay carried an implicit threat - all it needed was a storm.

On Aug. 20, 1886, another storm was unleashed on the town, wielding gale force winds as waves crashed into the city.

John Munn, a Victoria attorney, was in Indianola the day the second hurricane arrived.

Munn arrived on Aug. 19, the morning before the storm rolled in.

The day was cloudy, Munn recounted in his story for the Jackson County Progress, published Aug. 27, 1886, but "boats road at anchor on the smooth surface of the bayou, and business men were smiling and prosperous in their well-filled stores."

The wind picked up and rain began to fall in the early morning hours on Friday, Aug. 20.

The house Munn was staying in creaked and groaned as water from the streets flooded into the downstairs.

He escaped, making his way down the street as buildings tottered and wreckage floated by.

He got to the U.S. signal station, an early type of weather station, where a man named Capt. Reed was in charge. Reed was crouched over his weather instruments, recording data on the wind speed and pressure. The winds clocked at more than 70 mph before the machine that measured velocity broke.

"The barometer is still falling," Reed told Munn.

The storm was stronger than the one in 1875, the Victoria Advocate reported Aug. 28, 1886, and buildings that withstood the first storm crumbled in the face of the second.

Reed, intent on monitoring the storm, was caught and killed by rubble as the building crumbled, Munn recalled.

A lamp in the station exploded as the building fell. A fire started and spread, fanned by the winds.

The hurricane was already a blow to Indianola, but the fire destroyed any hope of recovery.

Fire rained from the sky, and the wind filled the air with flames and embers, according to a story published Aug. 21, 1933, in the San Antonio Express.

Some thought it was the end of the world, and survivors told of scores of people who stopped struggling to save themselves, praying instead.

A servant named Mary Webb was heard calling, "Children, it's the judgement day, pray, pray! The Lord is coming! It's raining fire, pray, pray!"

Little did they know, it wasn't the end of the world, but it was the end of Indianola.

In the aftermath of the storm, the survivors gave up their dream of the city by the sea and abandoned the town.

The houses that survived the storm, distinguished wooden affairs with expansive porches that wrapped around the front, were disassembled, numbered board by board and loaded onto rail cars.

They used what was left of the train tracks and oxcarts to move the houses farther in from the coast, to the relative safety of Victoria and Cuero. Many of the homes stand today, settled on green grassy lawns, aging gracefully.

"There were those that tried to rebuild, but it just wasn't meant to be. A town can only take so much," Cormier said.

Some, like Cormier, choose to remain in Indianola.

"It's beautiful there. When you can get up in the morning and watch the sun come up over the water, or watch the moon rise at night, it's worth the risk to be there," Cormier said.

Over the years, the spot has been steadily worn away as water reclaims the land, shrinking the coastline. Someday another hurricane will come, wiping away any trace of civilization. Cormier knows this, she said they all do, but that's the price they pay to live there.

"You know there's going to be a hurricane, and that it will be devastating, but you just enjoy it the best way you can until that happens."

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