History of MoPI

The Museums of Port Isabel… Port Isabel has so much history~
It Takes THREE Museums To Tell It!

The Museums of Port Isabel is comprised of three unique museums that interpret the history of Port Isabel and the Laguna Madre area in three uniquely different ways. The museums complex includes: the Port Isabel Historical Museum; the Treasures of the Gulf Museum; and the Point Isabel Lighthouse and Keeper’s Cottage.

The Port Isabel Historical Museum which is housed in the historic Charles Champion building opened its doors in 1997 and chronicles the history of Port Isabel and South Padre Island from the time of the Coahuilitican Indians to the glory days of the Shrimp Industry. This two-story museum showcases artifacts, videos and hands-on displays for a well rounded walk through history. The Historical Museum also houses one of the largest collections of Mexican military artifacts from the U.S. Mexican War in the world.

The Treasures of the Gulf Museum opened in 2000 and is located adjacent to the Historical Museum in the former Merchant Marine Bank building. Treasures interprets the 1554 shipwreck which were excavated in the 1960s, 30 miles from Port Isabel on the Port Mansfield Cut. Silver coins, plates, cannons, murals and a Children’s Discovery area tell the story of the ill-fated fleet that was washed ashore during an April storm in 1554.

The Point Isabel Lighthouse, which was restored to its 1880s appearance in 2000, continues to lure tourists to stroll the 75 steps to the top to enjoy a breathtaking 16 mile view in any direction. Originally constructed in 1852, the Point Isabel Lighthouse has outlived the U.S. Mexican War, the U.S. Civil War, during which time both Union and Confederate forces used the lighthouse as a lookout, and two World Wars before finally undergoing its first restoration in 1952.

The lighthouse was then gifted to Port Isabel and opened to the public. A dichotomy, the Point Isabel Lighthouse is the second smallest state park in Texas, but also one of the tallest and is also one of the very few lighthouses open to the public.

BEGINNINGS

The roots of the Museums of Port Isabel system began in 1981 with the development of the Laguna Madre Museum Foundation (LMMF), an organization made up of concerned citizens interested in the preservation of the history of the Laguna Madre area. As an incorporated organization, LMMF sponsored fundraisers and partnered with the City of Port Isabel through its Public Library which designated a room in the library for the Museum’s usage. LMMF also restored the Lady Bea shrimp boat into a fishing industry exhibit. Displayed on the Buelah Lee Park grounds in Port Isabel, the Lady Bea drew thousands of visitors, who climbed the stairs to walk the deck and peer in the windows of the cabin.

In 1995, the Rio Grande Valley Empowerment Zone, a federal program focused on creating economic development in rural areas, awarded Port Isabel and other designated communities in the Valley over $40 million dollars. These funds were shared and used to create innovative ways to promote economic development in each of the participating communities.

Port Isabel city official realized that one of the City’s strong points was its rich history and used part of these funds to establish a museum system that would attract not only tourists but also business to the area. Statistically, the Point Isabel Lighthouse was attracting over 30,000 visitors a year and the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDot) estimated 400,000 vehicles were crossing the Queen Isabella Causeway per month. Bearing this in mind, it was decided the creation of additional attractions would benefit from the high traffic numbers and in turn benefit local business and the Museums were created. 

The Lighthouse Keepers Cottage was built in 1995 from original 1850s blueprints and now houses an exhibit featuring the history of the Port Isabel Lighthouse. It also serves as the offices of the Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce and as a Tourist Information Center for the City of Port Isabel. Several times during the year, including the fall and spring, the Lighthouse Park is the site for several festivals such as the Queen Isabella and Lighthouse Market Days and future plans are set to use the grounds and the lighthouse to host the Lighthouse Establishment’s debut showing of “Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow” as the first of six shows are kicked off.

The project evolved into a community effort as individuals, businesses, corporations and foundations assisted the City’s efforts both financially and through thousands of volunteer hours. The Port Isabel Economic Development Corporation purchased the former Merchant Marine Bank building and the property south of it for future Museum expansion. The City passed an ordinance to develop the Department of Historical Preservation and hired a professional museum director to oversee the Museums and historical districts in the city.

TODAY

The Museums of Port Isabel continue to offer tours and enhance the heritage experience of the Laguna Madre with seasonal exhibits and programs. One of the programs featured is “Telling Our Stories”, a popular oral history project that started four years ago. Speakers, including historians, naturalists, and the public are invited to present topics that interpret the history of our area. The presentations are recorded and placed in the Museum archives for future study. The program is free and is held on the last Thursday of each month at 7:00 p.m. at the Treasures of the Gulf Museum.

Our seasonal exhibits and events showcase Hispanic Month, Veteran’s Day, Day of the Dead and the Christmas holiday. The Museum also takes presentations to the classroom and to organizations upon request. Various topics concerning local history and museum operations are presented. The Museum’s collection is used by scholars and students researching local and regional history.

The Museums also markets the area through its Community Gallery. Located on Highway 100 in front of the Treasures of the Gulf Museum, the Community Gallery is a 24 hour display that showcases the history of the Texas International Fishing Tournament (T.I.F.T.), the Museums, area festivals, the Queen Isabella Causeway, and the El Paseo de Santa Isabella Hike and Bike Trail project.

The Museum offers membership and volunteer programs, hosts fundraisers throughout the year including the Taste of the Tropics Fundraiser in February, and the Queen Isabella and Lighthouse Market Days in April and October.One of our newest projects is the Lighthouse Establishment Cinema (LHEC) which premiered on July 1, 2005. The event is free to the public who are invited to bring blankets and folding chairs and enjoy a movie under the stars.

The Museum also serves as the main office for the Cameron County Historical Commission, a branch of the Texas Historical Commission. Information on the history of Cameron County communities and cemeteries are on file as well as information about Texas Historical Marker designations. For more information about the Museums logon to www.portisabelmuseums.com or call (956) 943-7602 or email museumdirector@copitx.com.