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

THC turns lights back on at Port Isabel Lighthouse
Photo Courtesy Port Isabel Lighthouse

The Texas Historical Commission (THC) celebrated the relighting of Port Isabel Lighthouse for the first time in 117 years with a free community-wide event on Dec. 9. THC funded and coordinated the reproduction of a 3rd Order Fresnel Lens that was fitted into the lantern room at the top of the Port Isabel Lighthouse, a State Historic Site.

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

Port Isabel Lighthouse
Port Isabel Lighthouse Dedication Ceremony

The relighting dedication was organized by THC and the City of Port Isabel. As part of the free community event, admission fees were waived for the lighthouse and the Keeper’s Cottage Dec. 9–10. Refreshments were also provided 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.

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 lens could produce an unlimited number of flashing combinations and intensified the light so it could be seen at greater distances, allowing mariners a greater deal of safety in their navigations near shore.

THC turns lights on at 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 replicated a functional Fresnel lens, pedestal, and lamp, based on a 19th century plan showing the design of the lens specific to the site.

There are a number of Fresnel lenses operating inside lighthouses, but you can also find them inside tons of everyday items: magnifying glass, cameras, traffic lights, solar panels, modern VR technology, and many more 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 maritime traffic in the Brazos Santiago Pass. The Point Isabel Lighthouse (later changed to “Port Isabel”) was active off and on until it was decommissioned in 1905. As the last Texas lighthouse open to the public, visitors can explore the exhibits in the reconstructed Keeper’s Cottage before climbing up the 72-foot lighthouse and enjoying beautiful coastal views.

The 1888 lens was removed from its perch and the tower sat darkened until it became a Texas State Park in 1952. For the past several decades, the lighthouse has been ornamentally illuminated, continuing its service as a beacon for travelers and locals.

Texas Historical Commission

In 2019, the property was transferred from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to the Texas Historical Commission. The THC quickly began work to source funds and support refitting the lantern room with a historically accurate reproduction of a 3rd Order Fresnel Lens, guaranteeing an authentic and welcoming environment to anyone who wishes to explore the tower and observe the Gulf Coast from an extraordinary vantage point..

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

Port Isabel Lighthouse
Holt Photo

Port Isabel Lighthouse was built in 1852, and retired in 1905. Built of brick brought from New Orleans by schooner, the beacon’s 16 mile range guided ships into the harbor and to the Rio Grande, bringing commerce to SW Texas. Darkened during the Civil War, it was used as a lookout by both Union and Confederate forces, and again during World War 1.

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

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Jo Ann Holt
Jo Ann Holt is an award-winning journalist with 40+ years of experience as a writer and editor. She loves live performances, from country music concerts to Broadway musicals to community theatre productions. Holt also enjoys art and cultural festivals, and good food and wine. She’s toured Amsterdam, London, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and various cities in Mexico but looks forward to visiting even more countries. She has traveled by boat, plane, and train, but especially likes taking long road trips across the U.S. with her husband, retired history professor Durhl Caussey. They enjoy meeting friendly people, learning about different cultures, and visiting historic sites wherever they go.