Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Five Myths about Corpus Christi

What U.S. state has the most tall tales and great American legends? Of course Texans would say Texas, with our colorful history full of personalities like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie at the Alamo, but often myths and legends need the tempering of history to get to the truth. We asked Professor Alan Lessoff to draw from his new book Where Texas Meets the Sea: Corpus Christi and Its History to dispel some of the myths about Corpus Christi.

Five Myths about Corpus Christi
by Alan Lessoff, author of Where Texas Meets the Sea: Corpus Christi and Its History

I subtitled my book Corpus Christi and Its History because I was less interested in recounting the city in a narrative and detached way than I was in understanding the many
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ways that Corpus Christians write, talk, and argue about their history and how those varied perspectives shape the city now. Sophisticated historians know that their job is not merely to use facts to disprove myths, though one has to do that sometimes. Myths are themselves historical forces that require study, since they serve as vehicles through which people express their identity, values, and goals. Anyone who has taken a halfway decent sophomore humanities class knows that true stories take on mythic qualities when people wrap them in epic grandeur. Much of Corpus Christi’s significance to Texas history starts from its having been a place where Texas’s two largest true myths came against one another: the south-to-north Hispanic Texan epic of explorers and empresarios and the east-to-west Anglo Texan lore of the frontier, ranchers, rangers, and town boosters. Within the context of those two epics, numerous other stories have appeared, some of which veered into myths in the sense of misconceptions that need clearing up. Where Texas Meets the Sea treats each of these misconceptions respectfully, because they meant a lot to the people who adhered to them and revealed much about them and their city:


Explorer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda named Corpus Christi Bay on Corpus Christi Day in 1519. This story, which one still sometimes finds in tourist publications, is believable only if one discards all normal rules of historical evidence. No written record of the Álvarez de Pineda expedition has survived. The first Spanish document that refers to the bay by name dates from the 1740s, and that document assigns it another name. The earliest documented use of “Corpus Christi Bay” dates from 1766, in connection to the colonizing expedition that finally set up a continuous Spanish presence in the vicinity. In a 2011 article, the Corpus Christi librarian and historian Herb Canales summarized the evidence pointing to the reasonable conclusion that someone in that 1760s expedition named the bay. On top of all that, before the 1920s, local accounts sometimes claimed that members of France’s ill-fated LaSalle expedition named the bay on Corpus Christi Day in 1685, a provenance only slightly more plausible than Álvarez de Pineda. As my book recounts, Anglo promoters, in keeping with the early twentieth-century fashion for Spanish colonial romance, spread the Álvarez de Pineda story in the 1920s and 1930s. Decades later, Hispanic heritage activists became the story’s guardians, in part as a vehicle for expressing ethnic pride and dramatizing Hispanics’ prior claim upon the region. In print—and on the Pineda monument in Westside Corpus Christi—supporters have usually been careful to label the story a “legend,” but through the 1990s, people would tell one in conversation that they believed it.


Henry Lawrence Kinney, who founded the town in 1839, was nothing but a swindler and rogue. Plenty of double-dealing went into the “Hustler of the Wilderness” acquiring a reputation as a “loyal Texan, within the limits of his own code.” One understands why the Republic of Texas once put the Pennsylvania native on trial for treason, while the Mexicans for their part jailed him briefly as a spy. Kinney does seem to have set up his town in disputed territory just south of the Nueces River in order to engage in smuggling beyond the effective jurisdiction of either the Texans or the Mexicans. But Kinney also served in the 1845 constitutional convention and then for four terms in the Texas state senate. With a background in land dealing in Illinois before coming to Texas, Kinney undertook persistent efforts to develop Corpus Christi, in keeping with standard contemporary town-building practices. The best-remembered of his booster ventures was the 1852 Lone Star Fair, Texas’s first state fair, a financial disaster that added $50,000 to his debts while underscoring how distant and inaccessible Corpus Christi still was from most settled portions of Texas, not yet an inviting place for settlement or development. His 1855 filibustering expedition to Central America, which sealed his reputation, was in part a desperate move to rebuild his finances, which he was still scheming to recover until March 1862, when he was shot in Matamoras, probably by his lover’s husband. With his turbulent life, this “most original and fearless of Texans” becomes a local example of the ambivalent heroes one commonly finds in Anglo-Texan lore, starting with Sam Houston and his larger-than-life flaws as well as virtues. He appeals to Corpus Christians because he certainly was an unscrupulous manipulator, but not simply that. He also a substantive, if premature builder of South Texas.


Corpus Christi Bay affords a fine natural harbor. A perceptive nineteenth-century town promoter would right away have noticed that Corpus Christi Bay extended far inland and was protected by barrier islands. This along with the high bluff a few hundred yards behind the shore creates a relatively inviting site for a port along the storm-prone Gulf Coast. But Kinney and his associates also noticed that the bay was shallow—thirteen feet at most—and prone to sandbars. He and successors such as the New Jersey promoter Elihu H. Ropes in the 1890s came to grief in part through a series of failed efforts to dredge the bay for ocean-going vessels. For such reasons, one of the working titles of my book was “The Least Bad Place.” American town promoters marketed the places on which they had staked their fortunes as destined to greatness by the laws of geography, as “natural” hubs for commerce and transportation. But why not Rockport or Aransas Pass or even Harbor Island? Why not construct a protected harbor along the coast, as the Army Corps plausibly asked during the late 1800s and early 1900s, rather than commit the country to the endless expense of dredging to bring ships inland?

The Gulf Coast city marketed to migrants in the 1940s
as the Port of Play and Profit in a chamber of commerce brochure

No ports are really natural. They all require the engineering of land and water to support the type of commerce envisioned for them. Careful historians know that something like the Houston Ship Channel would eventually have been authorized, even without Galveston’s horrific storm of 1900. The same goes for the Port of Corpus Christi, opened in 1926 and expanded and deepened in phases since. The dredging of a channel into Galveston Bay in the 1890s—along with modernization of its waterfront—enabled Galveston to thrive as the “natural” shipping point for Texas cotton, a function that recovered quickly after the 1900 storm supposedly ruined Galveston forever. However, when one starts thinking about the large-scale, mechanized processing, storage, and shipping of commodities as well as manufactured goods and oil and petrochemicals, a new calculation emerges. It starts seeming sensible to set aside huge expanses of coastal plain for freight yards, warehouses, refineries, chemical plants, agricultural processing plants, mechanized elevators, networks of gas and water mains, and eventually container terminals. Under modern conditions, it turns out to be easier and cheaper to bring ships to the railyards, oil tanks, and factories than the reverse. As at Houston two decades earlier, backers used the deadly South Texas hurricane of 1919 as an argument for investing in Corpus Christi as opposed to sites closer to the gulf. But they also emphasized that three railroads already converged at Corpus Christi, which afforded “ample room for the construction of all necessary piers, docks and slips and railway switches and terminals,” along with “an unlimited quantity of fresh water.” This last claim of course illustrates the wishful thinking one associates with Texas and Western boosterism. For good reason, the Port of Corpus Christi Authority is the Coastal Bend’s most powerful and contested institution. Its job is to keep reengineering the environment so that Corpus Christi will continue to seem a natural place to do business.


The Coastal Bend’s Tejano rights movement was above all a story of small towns and migrant labor camps and only secondarily one of urban barrios. The best-remembered incident in South Texas’s Mexican American rights movement occurred in 1949, when the Corpus Christi physician, Hector P. García, used the refusal of a funeral home in Three Rivers, Texas, to hold a wake for Private Felix Longoria, killed in action toward the end of the Pacific War, to draw international attention to the bigotry that Tejanos faced throughout the region. García followed this up with a series of thoroughly researched and sharply written studies of the deplorable conditions in which Tejanos lived, worked, and went to school across South Texas. Ever since, much of the story of the Mexican American rights 
Hector Garcia Plaza at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi.
The university library’s Special Collectionsand Archives,
which houses the massive García Collection,
is on the second story in the background.
Photo by Kenny Braun, 2014.

movement has centered on small towns and on workers on farms and ranches, even though organizations such as García’s American G.I. Forum and the League of United Latin American Citizens, both founded in Corpus Christi, had their headquarters and strongholds in South Texas’s cities. Perhaps even more than Anglos, Tejanos have over time expressed a regional understanding that wove together, rather than separated, South Texas’s cities with its small towns, farms, and ranches. García’s generation of urban-based professionals, businesspeople, and labor activists— usually first or second-generation migrants from the countryside or from Mexico, with direct or family experience of the conditions they attacked—understood themselves and their cause as interdependent and bound up with their small town compatriots and their rural fellow activists. The campaigns they waged across the region were necessary for their own sake and for mobilization and publicity. But at times such campaigns drew attention from simultaneous and equally intense campaigns for better health and housing conditions, for improved schools and working conditions, and for a more open politics in Corpus Christi itself. Even after he became a national figure in the 1960s and 1970s, García remained enmeshed in the life of Westside Corpus Christi and in the city’s politics. Often behind the scenes, he used his prestige and connections to promote candidates, shape appointments to city and county offices, and influence infrastructure, services, and development. The same was true for personalities such as the three Bonilla brothers, all of whom became national presidents of LULAC, and for the union organizers behind both the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and the long-running Cisneros case, concerning Corpus Christi’s schools. This last is the best-known episode in the Hispanic rights movement centered in Corpus Christi itself.


Corpus Christians are philistines with regard to their own history. Corpus Christians often chastise one another for alleged negligence where it comes to their own history and especially with regard to preserving and reusing physical manifestations of that history in the form of historic buildings, places, and neighborhoods. During a rancorous dispute over Memorial Coliseum—demolished in 2010, the last remnant of a modernist bayfront civic center designed in the early 1950s by acclaimed local architect Richard Colley—proponents of preservation filled the press with statements along the lines of: “If the Alamo had been in Corpus Christi, it would not be standing today.” Supporters of heritage activities, preservation, historic districts, and so on look with envy upon San Antonio or Galveston. By comparison, Corpus Christi’s accomplishments are indeed meager and its disappointments numerous. My book explains that both those cities are exceptions that prove the rule, Galveston because its stagnation after the 1910s left it with much evidence of its Gilded Age heyday that it learned how to market; San Antonio because of its vivid and also marketable association with the Spanish and Mexican periods, the Texas Revolution, and the Texas Republic. Preservationist attitudes and agendas began to appear in Corpus Christi in the mid-1960s, about the same time as in most midsized U.S. cities and about the time that 1966 National Historic Preservation Act established the National Register while codifying criteria and procedures.

The Greek Revival Nueces County Courthouse as a showcase for urbanity in the decades after its 1914 opening
and as an abandoned, decayed embarrassment in the early 2000s. 
Photo by Kenny Braun, 2014.
The primary evidence for lamentations over Corpus Christi’s “backwater” approach to history is the 1914 Nueces County Courthouse, the city’s first National Register building, a prominently located, crumbling embarrassment since the county moved in the mid-1970s to its drab, new courthouse in Uptown beyond the Corpus Christi Bluff. The distressing failure of the decades-long movement to restore the old courthouse results, I found, as much from a cascade of bad luck as from negligence or ill-will. One consequence of this and other failures in preserving historical buildings and sites and in using heritage to promote central-city revitalization and tourism is that the city and county governments have become reluctant, to say the least, to act assertively on behalf of a cause that they concede to be worthy as a theoretical proposition. The struggles of the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, recounted in an excerpt from my book published in the January 2015 Texas Observer, illustrate the pattern from another angle. Until the last twenty years or so, perhaps the biggest obstacle to an appreciation of Corpus Christi as a city full of history stemmed from the fact that the city’s great burst of growth came in the thirty years after the opening of the deepwater port in 1926. Preoccupied with the lore and drama of Texas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, modern Texans have been slow to recognize the twentieth century as historic. This held until recently in much of the state, even though urbanization, of which Corpus Christi is a significant manifestation, amounts to a new Texas epic as grand and dramatic as the familiar saga of ranchers and rangers.

Alan Lessoff is Professor of History at Illinois State University. A specialist in U.S. and comparative urban history, he has written, cowritten, or edited five previous books, most recently, Fractured Modernity: America Confronts Modern Times, 1890s to 1940s, edited with Thomas Welskopp.

Alan Lessoff will be in Corpus Christi this week for the Texas State Historical Association's annual meeting. Here's where he will be appearing:

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