Texas Historical Commission Turns the Lights Back On at Port Isabel Lighthouse

Texas Historical Commission Turns the Lights Back On at Port Isabel Lighthouse

THC turns the lights back on at the Port Isabel Lighthouse
Photo courtesy Port Isabel Lighthouse

The Texas Historical Commission (THC) celebrated the relighting of the Port Isabel Lighthouse for the first time in 117 years with a free community-wide event on December 9th. THC funded and coordinated the reproduction of a third-order Fresnel lens that was placed in the lighthouse room atop the Port Isabel Lighthouse, a state historic site.

“The Port Isabel Lighthouse is a major heritage attraction for visitors, providing a glimpse into the community’s past and its maritime history,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of THC. “Thanks to the support of the Texas Legislature and our statewide leaders, visitors will now see the lighthouse as it would have appeared more than a century ago.”

Port Isabel Lighthouse
Port Isabel Lighthouse Dedication Ceremony

The dedication of the reconstruction was organized by THC and the City of Port Isabel. As part of the free community event, admission fees are waived for the lighthouse and Keeper’s Cottage 9–10 December. Refreshments were also served after the dedication ceremony.

Port Isabel City Manager Jared Hockema, Mayor Martin Cantu Jr. and THC executive director Mark Wolfe were keynote speakers for the event, culminating in a countdown to the official lighting of the Port Isabel Lighthouse.

The Fresnel lens saved countless lives

The Fresnel lens changed the world and saved countless lives – the new technology was a monumental step forward in lighthouse lighting technology and maritime safety. The lenses could produce an unlimited number of flashing combinations and intensify the light so that it could be seen at greater distances, allowing sailors greater safety in their near-shore navigations.

THC turns on the lights at the Port Isabel Lighthouse
Fresnel lens photo by Valerie Bates

At the Port Isabel Lighthouse State Historic Site, Dan Spinella and the team at ArtWorks Florida reproduced a working Fresnel lens, pedestal and lamp, based on a 19th-century plan showing the site-specific lens design.

There are a number of Fresnel lenses that work inside seeds, but you can also find them inside thousands of everyday items: magnifying glasses, cameras, traffic lights, solar panels, modern VR technology, and many other applications.

Port Isabel Lighthouse

Operated by the City of Port Isabel, the Port Isabel Lighthouse is a Texas Historical Commission State Historic Site. It was built in 1852 to protect marine traffic in the Santiago Brazos Pass. The Point Isabel Lighthouse (later changed to “Port Isabel”) was active and lit until it was decommissioned in 1905. As the last Texas lighthouse open to the public, visitors can explore exhibits in the reconstructed Keeper’s Cottage before climb to 72 -Fari on foot and enjoy the beautiful coastal views.

The 1888 lens was removed from its position and the tower was darkened until it became a Texas state park in 1952. For the past several decades, the lighthouse has been decoratively illuminated, continuing its service as a beacon for travelers and the natives.

Texas Historical Commission

In 2019, the property was transferred from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to the Texas Historical Commission. The THC quickly set to work to secure funding and support the retrofitting of the lighthouse room with a historically accurate reproduction of a third-order Fresnel lens, guaranteeing an authentic and welcoming environment for anyone wishing to explore the tower and observe the Coast of the Gulf from an extraordinary vantage point ..

THC manages 34 state historic sites, the Texas Heritage Trails Program, the Texas Main Street Program, and many other heritage tourism and historic preservation initiatives throughout the state. For information visit Thc.texas.gov.

Port Isabel Lighthouse
Holt photo

The Port Isabel Lighthouse was built in 1852 and retired in 1905. Constructed of bricks brought from New Orleans on staves, the lighthouse’s 16-mile string of lights guided ships into the harbor and up the Rio Grande, bringing trade to Southwest Texas. Blacked out during the Civil War, it was used as a lookout by Union and Confederate forces, and again during World War I.

Port Isabel is one of the oldest towns in extreme south Texas, claimed in 1519 by Spanish explorer Alonzo de Pineda and located 2.6 miles from South Padre Island and the best beaches on the Gulf Coast. There are stories of pirate treasures still buried there. Visit the Port Isabel Historical Museum and Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage for more about the history of the Laguna Madre area. Visit PortIsabel-Texas.com.

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