1875 - MIGHTY HURRICANE DESTROYS TEXAS PORT CITY
Written by James W. Hatch, San Antonio, Texas
From Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, October, 1925
In September, 1875, district court was being held at Indianola, the county seat of Calhoun county. There were two murder trials on the docket at this term of court, first that of William Taylor, charged with the killing of Gabriel Slaughter on board a Morgan steamship laying at the dock at Indianola, and the other being Joe Blackburn, charged with stage robbery and first degree murder. Most of the men of Calhoun, county had been summoned as jurors to sit on one or the other of these cases, but being under age I escaped summons. My brother, D. W. Hatch had been summoned and drawn as a juror.
Calhoun county, which is a peninsula, takes in an of Salura Island and a part of Matagorda Peninsula. Indianola, in 1875, was the leading seaport of the Gulf Coast, and supplied all the country adjacent.
Court had been called and jurors sworn for the term. Without warning, a West India tornado struck the place, but as there had been other storms of similar nature in the past, the people did not get frightened until it was too late to escape to the prairie and mainland. The county jail was located in the courthouse yard, and when water to the depth of several feet rolled in great seas through Main Street it was believed the prisoners in the jail would drown in.their cells if left there, so Sheriff Busch brought them into the courthouse and his deputies stood guard over them. Soon the great wharves and large timbers from the shipways began floating through the city. Waves mountain high formed before a wind having a velocity of one hundred miles an hour, and the heavy floating timbers acted as battering rams against the houes, knocking them to pieces as though they were but cardboard.
Of those stationed at the courthouse, the two first degree murder prisoners, William Taylor and Joe Blackburn, proved most heroic. Each of these men repeatedly sprang through the courthouse window and swam to the aid of some drowning man or woman, and each time succeeded in bringing the victim up to the window where willing hands on the inside pulled them through,
During this awful storm many courageous rescues were effected. For ten hours D. W. Hatch, Jr., stood lashed in an open window of the second story of the Dr. David Lewis home and with a rope lassoed struggling people as they floated past. It is said that he dragged between twenty and thirty through the window to comparative safety. Floating ship spars and heavy timbers were the constant menace to buildings not already demolished, but the Lewis building withstood the storm. After the storm had blown from the east for eighteen or twenty hours, the wind suddenly shifted to the north, and the high waters of the different bays now took a mad rush back to the Gulf. The Matagorda Peninsula lay in its way, and fifteen miles of this peninsula was carried into the Gulf, with many homes and families, among them being three pilots of Pass Cahallo, Captains Thomas and Elijah Decroe, together with their families. Higher up on the Peninsula lived two sons-in-law of Captain Thomas Decroe, John Humphries and Henry Pearserley. When the storm was over John Humphries was the sole survivor of his family, all the others having been swept from a raft on which they had taken refuge. Henry Pearserley had also built a raft, and luckily his raft was quickly carried to the mainland, where, beyond the hardship they had already endured, they were unhurt and found refuge.
At the home of Captain Billie Nichols, his wife was desperately ill. Dr. John Leake was in attendance. At the height of the storm Mrs. Nichols had given birth to an infant. As the water raised higher in the house the bed on which she lay was repeatedly raised higher and higher to keep the sick woman and infant dry if possible. Realizing the peril that threatened, Captain Nichols and his son, Henry Nichols, began the construction of a strong raft, and when it was completed it was anchored in the lea of the house. When the raging waters continued to rise Captain, Nichols begged his son, Henry, to take Miss Dot Decroe and the young doctor on the raft and save themselves, but young Nichols refused to leave his mother, the doctor refused to leave his patient and Miss Decroe elected to remain with her friends and all die together. The sick mother added her entreaties to those of her husband, that her son try to save the life of the young lady who had so heroically stood by her through illness, and it was not until Captain Nichols, aided by Doctor Leake, placed Miss Decroe on the raft and then with united strength placed young Nichols on it and before he could jump off they cut the cable and set it afloat, that they could be started to safety. How long the Nichols home stood will never be known. That part of the peninsula where the house stood was carried into the Gulf by the receding tidal wave. When the wind changed to the north those drowned on the Matagorda Peninsula were carried into the Gulf and their bodies were never recovered. Those who were saved took rafts while the wind blew from the east and were carried to bay shores and lodged there. It is estimated that Henry Nichols and Miss Dot Decroe were afloat on the raft and then with united strength the raft was finally thrown out on the beach of Lavaca Bay they were both too exhausted to rise to their feet, and every vestige of clothing had been torn from their bodies. That they were living was due to the two brave men who had cut the raft loose. Captain Nichols had wisely placed rope loops on the raft for them to hold to in order to prevent being washed overboard.
Elijah Decroe, Jr., a nephew of Captain Thomas Decroe, living further up the peninsula, had saved himself and family by means of a raft. Those who remained of these peninsula people later moved in a bunch to Williamson county, near Georgetown. Miss Dot Decroe was later married to Dr. Paige of Georgetown.
At our home all was excitement. We were out of danger, but one of the family, D. W. Hatch was at Indianola, and we believed the place had been destroyed by the unprecedented storm. We realized it was impossible to go to aid of the storm victims until the wind shifted and carried the waters back to the Gulf. We secured every available barrel and loaded them into farm wagons and filled them with rainwater to be started to Indianola as soon as the storm ceased. This was done at the suggestion of Captain Sylvanus Hatch, who said if all of the people of Indianola were not drowned, the salt water from the Gulf would enter all tanks and cisterns there and ruin the drinking water. As soon as the wind shifted to the north I mounted my horse and started for Indianola. The wind was directly at my back, else my horse could not have kept his footing. When I reached the stricken city a sad spectacle greeted me. People who had not perished were excitedly looking for missing members of their families. My brother, D. W. Hatch, was calmly directing search and giving orders for relief. I informed him that our father would soon arrive with two wagon loads of water, and when it came, guards were placed over it and it was distributed equally to the needy. As soon as the wagons were unloaded they were sent back to the Hatch ranch for more water. I gave my brother my horse and returned to the ranch in one of the wagons. At the beginning of the storm three sailboats were at Port Lavaca, and they had been run under bare poles up into the Navidad river and escaped injury. When the storm was over, the owners of the boats ran down to Port Lavaca to collect every empty barrel from the four stores of that place, and returning to the river they filled the barrels with fresh water and carried it to Indianola. Our ranch wagons brought in about twenty or thirty women and children to the ranch. I secured another horse and returned to Indianola. There were only three horses that survived the Indianola storm, and they belonged to Sheriff Busch and two draymen. These horses had been saved by leading them up a stairway to the second floor of a building. On my return I joined my brother's crowd to search over the prairie of the flooded distrIct for people living or dead who had been carried there on floating wreckage. We buried the bodies where we found them without coffins. If the body could be identified by anyone in the party the name was written on the headboard. A fence picket was driven at the head and foot of each grave. These bodies were later disinterred, placed in coffins and properly buried in the Indianola cemetery. The bodies of the drowned persons were invariably found nude.
On the arrival of Sheriff Busch at the courthouse after the storm, Joe Blackburn: and William Taylor were standing in the crowd in the courthouse yard. All thought of the deputies to take any precautions with these men had been abandoned. Sheriff Busch was talking to the crowd and describing how he had saved his favorite horse, when Joe Blackburn snatched the sheriff's pistol from its scabbard and turning the gun on the chief deputy he ordered him to unbuckle his pistol belt and let it fall to the floor. William Taylor secured the gun and got the sheriff's horse while Blackburn kept the crowd covered until they could mount and leave. A mile from town they met Guy Michot, a negro, and forced him to dismount and give his horse to Taylor. The negro lost no time in complying with their demands. Taylor then gave the negro a ten dollar bill and told him to inform Sheriff Busch that they appreciated his kind treatment of them while they were in jail and that in two or three days they would return the guns and horses. According to promise the horses and guns were duly returned, with a liberal present for the negro. Taylor and Blackburn made good their escape and were never again apprehended. William Taylor was probably one of the three men who killed Ruben Brown at Waco later.
It can never be known exactly how many people were drowned at Indianola, Matagorda Peninsula, Salura and other Gulf shore islands. Indianola was filled with strangers from the interior of the state who had come to the coast to bathe and fish. Identification of the dead bodies was made possible through rings and earrings as the bodies were disinterred and placed in coffins. Relatives were required to make oath to the jewelry.
Although Indianola was partially rebuilt after the storm of 1875, the people's confidence in the safety of the place was gone, and capital could not be invested there. The reason the place was not wholly abandoned in 1875 was because of the beef shipping industry over the Harrison Morgan Steamship line. A few southern men rallied around this industry, the steamship and railroad companies repaired the cattle wharfs, and the railroad company kept its machine shops and turntable there.
In 1886 Indianola was the scene of a second storm which, though it did not last as long as the storm of 1875, exceeded it in violence. Railroad rails were picked up from the roadbed with ties attached and blown through the air a full quarter of a mile and landed on end in Powder Horn Lake, where they stand to this day as mute evidence of the velocity of the cyclone of 1886. There were fewer casualties in this later storm as there were fewer people to become victims. Those who lived through the second storm decided to abandon the place for all time, with the exception of one old negro man called Uncle Peyton, and Port Lavaca once more became the county seat.