May 24, 2012 - If there was ever a Texas town that could be said to have a great future behind it, Indianola is -- or was -- that town. That has been true for a long time. The furies and extremes of Texas Gulf Coast weather were fully realized, twice , in a short amount of time at Indianola. The first edition of the "Handbook of Texas" sums it up pretty well: "Of the many ghost town of Texas, none lived longer, none throve better, and none died as tragic a death."
Originally called Karlshaven in honor of Prince Karl of Solms-Braunfels, who brought German immigrants to the state by the boatload, the U.S. Army established a base at Indianola because it was the nearest port to San Antonio, where the state's military operations were based. The state's first camels were shipped to Indianola in 1856, as part of an experiment to see if camels, rather than mules and horses, might be utilized as beasts of burden in the desert.
The Civil War came to Indianola twice and stayed a while the second time. First, the Union bombarded, captured and looted the town in 1862. The troops left after a month but they came back a year later and occupied the city for the better part of another year. Indianola emerged on the other side of the war with a population of around 6,000, which ranked it as the second largest Texas port city behind Galveston.
The Texas Almanac noted the opening of the Stabler Patent Beef-Packing Co. in Indianola in 1867. The Almanac described the process, which utilized salt and carbonic acid gas and airtight canning techniques, and correctly opined: "This will eventually have the effect to make stock-raising one of the most profitable branches of our home industry." The first shipment of frozen beef in American history, sort of an early version of freeze dried beef, left Indianola for New Orleans in 1869.
Freight not leaving by boat left the city via the Indianola Railroad, one of the few broad-gauge railroads in the state. As a standard gauge railroad, it became the Gulf, Western Texas and Pacific. Whether by ship, train or camel, Indianola was, for a time, the perfect illustration of commerce and free enterprise in motion.
Indianola was also the site of a sensational trial, one of several "trials of the century," in 1875. This trial involved various participants of the bloody Taylor-Sutton feud. Indianola was even more packed than usual when a hurricane blew ashore on Sept. 15, sweeping with it massive amounts of water from Matagorda Bay. The town was destroyed and between 150 and 300 people died in the storm surge.
Down the coast in Galveston, the storm created tides 13 feet above normal, but it seemed to prove a point that Galveston boosters had been making for a long time: a storm surge was only devastating when it hit a solid object like the mainland. Galveston was going to be okay. They might have thought this was as bad as it got, but they were wrong.
Another hurricane struck Indianola in 1886, this one stronger than the first one. The damage wasn't as great because there wasn't nearly as much to damage as there was in 1875. Indianola was already losing considerable rail business to Galveston when the second storm hit and took away all the town was and all it would ever be.
The 1886 storm that finished Indianola blew off some roofs in Galveston and flattened some fences, and that was about it. It was obvious that hurricanes were going to hit the Texas coast every few years and so there was some discussion of building a seawall in Galveston, but nothing came of it. Most people thought they had seen the worst of it, but that wasn't the case.
The1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston in the same manner that Indianola had been obliterated, but on a much grander scale, remains the worst natural disaster in American history. Eight thousand people, maybe as many as 12,000, were killed. Like Indianola, Galveston now had a great future behind it, but Galveston also had a grand, rebuilt future ahead of it.
Indianola was already history.