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The Storm of 1919 Revisited

The first Texas game wardens to die in the line of duty were trying to save people during a hurricane.

By Steve Lightfoot

On Sunday, Sept. 14, 1919, a time before hurricanes were named, a Category 4 storm hit Corpus Christi with winds of more than 110 miles an hour and a 16-foot storm surge. The storm sank more than 10 major vessels and killed hundreds of people, making it the fourth deadliest hurricane of the 20th century. The official death toll for the Corpus Christ area was 287, but realistic estimates put the total at between 600 and 1,000.

The 108 broken and battered bodies that washed up on North Beach the next day were coated in heavy black crude oil leaked from wrecked tankers, making identification of the dead nearly impossible. Those spared by the onslaught were also painted by the smelly gunk, which unintentionally served as a protective barrier against disease and infection.

Two of the oil-covered corpses recovered at North Beach were those of employees of the Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission. Captain Joe Williams and Engineer Harry Raymond were the first game wardens in Texas to lose their lives in the line of duty.

Joe Williams knew the Texas Coastal Bend well. He was born on Matagorda Island in 1869 and spent most of his life between Port Lavaca and Corpus Christi, building a career on the water as a ship’s carpenter, a boatman and eventually as a licensed captain.

During the early 1900s, the Texas Coastal Bend region was blossoming into a premier resort destination. Local leaders envisioned Corpus Christi as a potential deepwater port — an economic coup ,if they could pull it off.

By the end of World War I, there was no shortage of jobs to be had along the coast. There was cotton to be picked and fish to be caught. Tourists had demands that needed to be met as well.

So it likely came as no surprise to those who knew Williams when he accepted a deputy game warden commission in January 1919, at the age of 49. Who more capable of patrolling the passes between the barrier islands for illegal netters and poachers than a man who’d spent his entire life on these shallow flats?

Harry Raymond, on the other hand, had a legacy of sorts to guide him. His father, George Raymond, was also a game warden in Port Lavaca, according to the 1900 U.S. Census Report. He became Williams’ assistant and partner.

Despite being new to the profession, the two quickly built a reputation as hard-nosed game wardens committed to enforcing the law — no small task, considering the state’s conservation efforts were still in their infancy. Illegal commercial netting along the coast was having a major impact on the resource even back then, and it was up to a handful of game wardens to fix things.

In a letter to Williams dated March 8, 1919, Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commissioner William Sterrett noted:

“(I) am particularly pleased with what you are doing at the (Aransas) Pass. I want this Pass kept clean and want no unlawful nets in it; should you find any, destroy them at once. You tell those people that if you catch a boat of unlawful fishermen, you are directed to burn the boat together with the nets. You will notify all of the fishermen that they must be American citizens and also have a license from the State in order to fish, should you catch anyone fishing without license, or one who is not a citizen, arrest him and take him to Corpus Christi at once.”

For his efforts, Williams was paid all of $75 a month. Sterrett tried unsuccessfully to get captains a $25-a-month salary increase from the state legislature, according to a letter to Williams from a coworker in Austin. But Sterrett did manage to secure him a raise to $1,000 a year effective Sept. 1. He would not live long enough to cash that first big paycheck.

To earn that extra $8.33 per month, Williams was probably working longer hours the week of Sept. 8, 1919. It was the last week of the summer tourist season, which meant more fishermen on the bays, and for some strange reason, the fish were feeding like mad near the water’s surface. Some people reported being able to load the boat just by dipping a net over the side.

Early in the week, word from the National Weather Service’s New Orleans office of a severe storm off the Florida coast had drawn little attention around Corpus Christi. The resort town had a reputation as the safest place on the coast, shielded from storm threats by the barrier islands: Mustang and St. Joe’s. The bluffs overlooking Nueces Bay rose 40 feet above the beach, offering an added buffer in the event of a flood. Three years earlier, many local residents had ridden out a sizable storm and took comfort in the city’s reputation as being stormproof. Even as late as Saturday, September 13, they ignored warnings that the Florida hurricane was wandering somewhere in the Gulf and could reach Texas.

Meteorologists of the time relied on reports from ships at sea to pinpoint the location of storms, but because most vessels had left the area or were already caught up in the hurricane, the weather service was left in the dark. Regardless of the lack of information, the consensus on the Texas Coastal Bend seemed to be that the storm would more than likely curve up into Louisiana.

Despite unseasonably strong winds out of the north, Saturday in Corpus Christi was sunny and 92 degrees, and the beaches were packed. By sundown, the winds calmed and shifted to the southeast. Storm warning flags were lowered.

Late Saturday night, the winds picked back up again, topping 45 mph and driving a steady rain. Around midnight, a weather observer in Aransas Pass telegraphed Corpus Christi that the rains were coming down hard and the tide was so high his feet were getting wet. By 8 a.m. Sunday, September 14, the barometric pressure had fallen to 29.40 and the tides had begun to rise steadily. Ninety minutes later, the local meteorologist finally issued an official statement urging people to leave low-lying areas.

After getting word of the approaching storm, Williams and Raymond left the docks at Corpus Christi and headed for their patrol boat Reliant, moored on a reef some 2 miles out, to put out additional anchors and help get folks off the water. According to Williams’ grandson, Joe Boyd Williams, “I was told growing up that they were rescuing people drowning and stayed out until the last person left. A big wave swept them overboard, and they drowned.”

Despite the rain, wind and rising tide, many people continued about their Sunday routines. One Czech family on a remote farm 30 miles west of Corpus Christi waited until the kolaches finished baking before seeking shelter. They survived. Others who waited until after the Sunday fried-chicken dinner were not as fortunate.

Sometime after noon, the eye of the storm made landfall about 25 miles south of Corpus Christi, which put the city and the resort communities to the north directly in the path of the hurricane’s deadly right-front quadrant. Winds along this section of the storm topped 110 mph before data recording equipment was swept away.

Although much of a hurricane’s reputation is gauged by wind speed, most of the damage is inflicted by its storm surge. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a storm surge is created when strong winds at sea push water into a huge mound. Unlike a tidal wave, which is created by a disturbance such as an earthquake, storm surges do not come as one big wall of water. They are more like fast-rising tides topped by fierce, 5-to-10 feet high, wind-driven waves that act as powerful battering rams.

The storm surge destroyed the causeway connecting Portland with Corpus Christi, effectively cutting off any escape from the North Beach area. To make matters worse, the surge ruptured oil storage tankers anchored in Aransas Bay, sending a slick of heavy crude across Corpus Christi Bay.

Although the city had planned to construct seawalls required to gain federal funding for a deepwater port, it had none in place to help block the storm surge. Once the surge scoured its way across the barrier islands, nothing could impede its roll. Rising 5 feet in less than an hour, the surge eventually topped 11 feet as it moved through downtown Corpus Christi, crushing buildings and destroying everything in its path. Fourteen hundred bales of cotton awaiting shipment littered the streets.

By early afternoon, buildings on North Beach began to break up. Those who chose to stay sought safety by climbing onto rooftops, which provided a temporary respite until the storm surge inundated everything. Floating timber became life preservers as well as deadly projectiles, carrying some to safety while crushing others. Those not killed by the storm endured it in total darkness as it raged throughout the night. In 12 hours, the storm dumped 14 inches of rain.

On Monday morning, Sept. 15, the cleanup began. The West Portland schoolhouse and a one-room schoolhouse on the Rachal Ranch at White Point bluff, about a mile inland from North Beach, became the focal points for the recovery effort.

Bodies entangled in the wreckage and debris were hauled from the beach in mule-drawn carts up to the schoolhouses, where morticians from a Corpus Christi funeral home and other volunteers meticulously catalogued the dead. Another group provided comfort and aid to the living. The morgue workers recorded physical descriptions for each body, noting distinguishable clothing or jewelry, assigned it a number and buried it in mass grave to minimize the stench and the spread of disease.

More than 30 separate graves were dug from Indian Point near Portland to a spot about 20 miles up Nueces Bay. Some of the larger graves measured 1,400 feet wide and 3,200 feet long. Williams and Raymond were among 51 bodies buried together in one of the larger sites, known as the “Big Grave.” Unlike most of the dead recovered off North Beach, both were positively identified.

About a month later, all the bodies were removed from the mass graves and interred at the Rose Hill Cemetery in Corpus Christi or other graveyards.

Eighty-five years after the Corpus Christi hurricane of 1919, a field of milo covers the site of the mass graves and a Texas Historical Marker serves as the reminder of one of the worst coastal disasters in Texas history.

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