St. Mary’s of Aransas was a town whose star shined swiftly and brightly, dimmed quickly but never completely went out.
St. Mary’s was founded on Aransas Bay (now Copano Bay) in 1857, the vision principally of one person, Joseph F. Smith.
His vision was to create a town by giving land to entrepreneurs and settlers who would bring something useful to the community.
In the first year, he got Thomas T. Williamson to build a warehouse and a thousand-foot wharf. The first two-story mercantile house was completed the same year and a three-story hotel two years later.
St. Mary’s became the major port for three-masted schooners bringing long-leaf pine lumber from Florida into central and west Texas.
St. Mary’s suffered, as did all of Texas, during the Union blockade of the Civil War but survived Reconstruction to reach its zenith in 1875, less than 20 years after its birth. Then a series of disasters put it into decline.
Joseph Smith had his idea for a port town on Copano Bay in 1839, soon after the founding of the Republic of Texas.
He chose a beautiful stretch of coastline on a bluff, extolled by the visiting William Bollaert in 1842. But the land was already held in a Mexican empresario grant by James Power.
After an exhausting and bitter series of suits and counter suits in the courts, the Texas Supreme Court finally decided in Smith’s favor in 1857.
Smith had been developing his plans and partners in those years, and he was in a hurry. He had the bay surveyed to locate the best “channel” to the future town site.
Although Copano Bay was nowhere deep, it was possible for ocean-going vessels to dock at the end of St. Mary’s long wharf and offload to a mule-powered rail car.
The Morgan Steamship Line also began to make regular stops at St. Mary’s from Houston and New Orleans.
Smith tried unsuccessfully to lobby the U.S. Army to adopt St. Mary’s as a depot for military supplies in place of Indianola.
Due to Smith’s indefatigability, St. Mary’s flourished and reached a population around 4,000 by 1870.
The business directory in 1870 would have listed: three hotels (of two- and three-stories), five medical doctors, one dentist, a drug store, eight lawyers, five general merchants, four dry good stores, three lumber yards, three blacksmiths, two brick yards, two grist mills, a newspaper, a salt works, a restaurant, a jewelry store, a photographic gallery and a tailor shop.
There were two colleges: St. Mary’s College and Western Texas Institute, the latter modeled on West Point.
The five church denominations shared the same building as the public school, with private schools for music, dancing and domestic science.
Oh yes, there were two saloons for liquor and gambling. St. Mary’s reputation attracted gamblers from all over Texas, including Sally Scull and John Wesley Hardin.
In all, there were some 200 buildings in St. Mary’s, the largest town in Refugio County. Still there were storm clouds on the horizon, both literally and figuratively.
St. Mary’s was struck by a disastrous series of hurricanes: 1869, 1875, two in 1886 and the last in 1887. Rebuilding occurred up until the storm of 1887.
This was also the same set of hurricanes that destroyed Indianola.
In addition to the natural disasters, the new railroad bypassed St. Mary’s in favor of Beeville in 1886 and Rockport in 1890.
In 1886, Beeville received its first shipment of lumber and furniture by rail, goods that would have gone through St. Mary’s.
Rockport was being developed as a better deep-water port than St. Mary’s. This combination of events caused an exodus from St. Mary’s to Rockport, Refugio and Beeville.
The telegraph office and the last store in St. Mary’s closed in 1890. Still about 20 families continued to live in St. Mary’s and in 1942, three of the original buildings (or remnants of them) were still occupied.
Today, only the Wood Mansion and the St. Mary’s Cemetery mark the location of St. Mary’s, now incorporated into Bayside.
The serene beauty of the site has also endured.
Herndon Williams is affiliated with the Bayside Historical Society and the Refugio County Historical Commission. He is the author of the book, “Texas Gulf Coast Stories”, published in December 2010 by The History Press. His second book, “Eight Centuries on the Texas Frontier”, was published in May 2013. His third book, “Luju and the Curious Wolf Cub” was published in 2019.