"North Beach was one of the city’s finest residential areas. After the storm, all but one of the great mansions were destroyed and what had been a growing development was leveled.[x]".
The new Harbor Bridge opened to traffic on Oct. 23, 1959. It was a big day for the city, like the port opening celebration 33 years before. The first car across was driven by Eleanor Tarrant, a 46-year-old housewife whose name was pulled in a drawing. The cars in the official motorcade, led by Mrs. Tarrant, crossed over the old bascule bridge to North Beach so they could make the return trip, heading into the city, over the new Harbor Bridge. The old bascule bridge was sold for scrap. A few hated to see it go. In its early days, it was a symbol of the city's growth and prosperity, before it became a bottleneck. In a way, it straddled not only the port entrance, but old and new Corpus Christi.[i]
The Harbor Bridge loomed over North Beach. Two major events —bookends around the decade of the 1950s—had profound consequences for North Beach, known as the “Playground of the South.” The first event was the construction of the new causeway to Padre Island. When it opened in 1950, it gave Corpus Christi a new playground of surf and sun to compete with North Beach’s carnival attractions and the eroding bayside beach. The second event at the end of the decade was the construction of the Harbor Bridge.
Even before the bridge was built, North Beach was in decline. The amusement park that once made it a center of fun closed in 1957, two years before Harbor Bridge opened. The often long waits to cross the bascule bridge hurt, but traffic was funneled through North Beach. The lanes of the new Harbor Bridge rushed traffic away. You didn’t go to North Beach except on purpose. North Beach was bypassed and isolated. The merchants on North Beach could look at the traffic exiting Harbor Bridge, whizzing by thick and fast, and remember how nice it used to be when all the cars streamed past their front doors.
The strip of land that juts between Corpus Christi and Nueces Bays, a peninsula of 310 acres, was once called Rincon. Later in the 19th Century it was known as Brooklyn. By the 1890s, it was called North Beach. The official name now is Corpus Christi Beach, although many call it North Beach and it is North Beach in the institutional and collective memory of the city.[ii]
The history of North Beach is the city’s history. Henry Kinney had a mustang pen on the Rincon where his workers slaughtered mustang horses for their hides. Once in the 1840s Kinney’s wranglers hid in a mesquite thicket and watched Comanche warriors, on a horse-stealing raid, throw buffalo robes into the shallow end of the mud slough so their horses wouldn’t bog down in the mud. This was the area where Zachary Taylor’s troops landed in the summer of 1845 and beat off the buzzing rattlesnakes as they set up their tent encampment that stretched from North Beach to the area around today’s Artesian Square.[iii]
Twenty years later, a large beef packing house was located on the salt flats of the Rincon. Hall’s Packery was built by John Hall, a former Union soldier and immigrant from England. Hall’s Bayou,* was the mud slough, or tidal inlet, leading to the packery.
Between the north end at Rincon Point and Indian Point across the bay, was the reef road, a raised oyster bed that divided Nueces Bay from Corpus Christi Bay. The reef provided an underwater bridge, which the Indians had long used to cross the bay. Nueces County for decades maintained signposts in the water showing its location, which zig-zagged across the bay. If a rider or wagon driver tried to take a short cut, he ran the risk of drowning his horses. The Caller reported in March, 1896: “R.K. Reed of Portland visits Corpus Christi and reports that a wagon belonging to D.C. Rachal is stuck in the reef, the driver taking the wrong side of the stakes in crossing Nueces Bay. . .”[iv]
During the Ropes’ boom in the 1890s, local people put up money to build a resort hotel on North Beach. The Miramar Hotel opened in May, 1891. Three months later it burned to the ground. In 1895, heavyweight champion “Blacksmith” Bob Fitzsimmons opened a camp on North Beach to train for his fight with “Gentleman” Jim Corbett. A man who came with the Fitzsimmons entourage, F.E. Ring, built a group of tourist cottages to capitalize on the popularity of the heavyweight boxer’s presence. The Ring Villa tourist courts were the first in Corpus Christi.[v] Beginning in 1905, and lasting for a decade, North Beach was the scene each August of a summer Methodist encampment and revival called Epworth-By-The-Sea (see Chapter 11).[vi]
Spohn Sanitarium was built in 1905 on the site of the old Miramar Hotel. Before the hospital was built, the town’s doctors operated on their patients in the homes of the patients, with bad lighting, untreated water from a cistern, and the kitchen or dining room table used for the operation. Dr. Arthur Spohn led efforts to raise money to build a hospital. A tract of land was bought on North Beach, fronting the bay, and a two-story building erected. Dr. Alfred Heaney admitted the first patient to Spohn Sanitarium. In March 1905, the hospital was turned over to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word to operate.[vii]
President William Howard Taft delivered the dedication speech at the opening of Corpus Christi’s first country club. The date was Oct. 22, 1909. The clubhouse, painted dark green with white trim, was a wooden building with a veranda on four sides. A 9-hole golf course was laid out across Timon Boulevard from the clubhouse.[viii] The clubhouse was sold in 1914 to local businessmen who turned it into a bathhouse. In 1912, John Dickenson built the Beach Hotel. The hotel was converted into an army convalescent hospital for soldiers recovering from wounds in the fighting in France in World War I. The top floor of the hospital became a refuge during the 1919 storm.[ix]
The most momentous event happened on Sept. 14, 1919 when a fierce storm surge swept across and inundated North Beach. Like the city proper, the history of North Beach is clearly divided between before and after the great storm. On the Monday morning after the storm, only three of hundreds of structures remained: the McDonald home, the Spohn Sanitarium, and the Army convalescent hospital. Before the storm, North Beach was one of the city’s finest residential areas. After the storm, all but one of the great mansions were destroyed and what had been a growing development was leveled.[x]
The North Beach Bath House (the former Country Club clubhouse) was rebuilt the year after the storm by Bruce Collins, whose family owned theaters in town. Collins and his cousin, John Mosser, spearheaded the revival of North Beach. They built the North Beach Pleasure Park, the Saltwater Pool, and in 1927 Collins purchased an old wooden sailing ship abandoned in the port turning basin, moved it to North Beach and sank it in the sand to keep it stable. The side of the ship was painted in large letters, “Dance On The Ship.” Dancing on the deck under the stars, with an evening breeze blowing off the bay, was made the ship a popular venue for a Saturday night. When the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides”, came to visit Corpus Christi in 1932, its escort of destroyers created a wake that lifted the dance ship from its sand base and it broke free of its moorings. The vessel was finally returned to its berth at the pier. It was destroyed the following year by a hurricane in 1933.[xi]
The old Beach Hotel, turned army convalescent hospital, was rebuilt and renamed The Breakers. Its Spanish village ballroom, designed to resemble a rose garden in moonlight, was famous. North Beach was the place to be, a place of perpetual summer, with a carnival every day, the smell of salt air, the lapping waves and feel of warm sand. Tourists crowded the waterfront, which stretched from the port entrance, the old Hall’s Bayou, to the Nueces Bay Causeway, about a mile in length. The Crystal Beach Park Ballroom and pier were built south of the bathhouse in 1929. The following year, a dance marathon contest was staged by Harold J. Ross in the Crystal Beach Pavilion. The marathon, which attracted large crowds, lasted for 31 days.[xii] In 1931, the Crystal Beach Park Ballroom and pier were sold, remodeled and renamed the Bayside Park and Ballroom.
A top attraction in the Bayside Park in the early 1930s was the Roll-A-Coaster, built south of the Breakers Hotel and near the pier for the Dance Ship. In 1931, a 13-year-old girl was killed; she stood up on a turn and was thrown out. In another fatal accident, a woman was killed when one of the cars jumped the track. The Roll-A-Coaster was closed and removed.[xiii]
A September storm in 1933 damaged the Nueces Bay Causeway; it was out of commission for several months. The storm tide resulted in floodwaters of five feet on North Beach. Tourist cabins were swept away, the pier and the Dance Ship were destroyed. The recently remodeled Bayside Park and Ballroom were destroyed, the timbers scattered for blocks along the beach.[xiv] The damaged structures of the North Beach attractions were rebuilt and North Beach remained the city’s playground. On an average weekend, the North Beach Amusement Park, the carnival midway, the Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and other rides would attract as many as 4,000 visitors. On a holiday weekend, the number could climb to 20,000 or more.[xv] The city’s boom years in the 1940s, when thousands of Navy cadets were in training at the Naval Air Station, were busy, crowded, prosperous days for North Beach.
The numbers of visitors began to drop, gradually, after the Padre Island Causeway opened Padre Island in 1950. The Saltwater Pool was closed and removed and, in 1957, the amusement park and boardwalk were closed and torn down. Bruce Collins blamed the bascule bridge for the declining number of visitors coming to North Beach.[xvi] In 1959, Collins and other beach property owners convinced the City Council to change the name from North Beach to Corpus Christi Beach, to emphasize that it was a part of the city.[xvii]
Maybe they were grasping at straws, but how the name change would have helped to revive North Beach’s flagging fortunes is beyond this writer to fathom. From the perspective of hindsight, it no doubt made a bad situation worse by severing North Beach from its historical associations. But changing the name would not change the reality. Whatever it was called, the little strip of land between Corpus Christi and Nueces Bays would never be what it once was in its glory days, “The Playground of the South.”[xviii]
* Hall’s Bayou would be under Harbor Bridge, the entrance to the Port of Corpus Christi.
[i] Ibid; Caller-Times, “Bridge Edition,” Oct. 23, 1959; Caller-Times, “Harbor Bridge” in “Light Of Other Days,” July 18, 1999.
[ii] Bill Walraven, “El Rincon: A History of Corpus Christi Beach,” p. 15.
[iv] Column by the author, May 24, 2000.
[v] Centennial History, p. 105.
[vii] Caller-Times, “Spohn Hospital’s History Covers Span of 56 Years,” Dec. 3, 1961.
[viii] Caller-Times, “Country Club Once on North Beach,” Jan. 18, 1959.
[ix] Book by the author and Jim Moloney, “1919 The Storm.”
[xi] Caller-Times, article, Jan. 1, 1950.
[xii] Marshall Anderson, “Local marathon broke the record in 1930,” Caller-Times, June 2, 1988.
[xiii] Walraven, p. 63.
[xiv] Ibid, p. 65.
[xv] Beach History Time Line, vertical file, Corpus Christi Central Library.
[xvi] Caller-Times, “City Losing Bayside Playground,” Sept. 15, 1957.
[xvii] Corpus Christi Caller, “Council Changes Name of Beach,” Feb. 26, 1959.
[xviii] Corpus Christi Caller, “Old ‘North Beach’ Spans 125 Years Of Varied History,” Dec. 8, 1969.