Galveston County - San Leon

A lonely, unincorporated peninsula on the way to nowhere is home to the next stop along our journey of discovery through Galveston's towns.  San Leon, a community so small that the US Census doesn't even keep data for it, has a longer history that many of the other mainland cities within the county.  An estimated 4,970 people live there, but nobody seems to have an official count.  Surrounded by Galveston Bay to the east, Trinity Bay to the north, and Dickinson Bay to the south, the town that barely reaches 10' above sea level in elevation has successfully resisted incorporating themselves or being drawn into neighboring Bacliff or Texas City for years. 

Jean Lafitte, the famous pirate who frequented the waters surrounding Galveston Island, was an early European visitor to San Leon, but by that time the area was already popular with the nomadic Karankawa Indian tribes.  One of the many legends of the natives involved a group of specialized warriors who used the Red Fish Bar, a reef made from oyster shells that extended northeast from San Leon, to hunt and kill sharks.  The chief of the CoCo Tribe who used the nearby camp was even given the name Haia Wai, meaning "shark killer".  Lafitte himself was said to have buried some of his treasure along the extreme northeastern point of San Leon, and some evidence of this rumor was provided in the early 20th century when a skeleton was dug up along the beach with several Spanish coins.  But pirates weren't the only bones being found in the area - no fewer than three separate mammoth skeletons were discovered and excavated in San Leon during the time between World Wars I and II.  

Early Mexican law dictated that only individuals of Spanish or Mexican descent had access to coastal lands in Texas, but Stephen F. Austin was eventually able to get permission to colonize the area around Galveston Bay.  Amos Edwards, the wealthy Kentucky-born brother of the empresario of Nacogdoches named Hayden, purchased a league of land on what had become known as Davis Point for ranching purposes in 1830.  His family established an estate and renamed the land Edwards Point, but the threat of war caused Amos to move his wife to Mississippi.  He drowned in Galveston Bay while returning to visit his daughter and son-in-law, which eventually caused the land to be split up.  Initially a town named Powhaten was planned, but a hurricane in 1837 destroyed it along with several other coastal settlements.  By 1838, a group of investors created the San Leon Company to build a new town on Edwards Point, and it began to grow and prosper after Texas gained independence.

For one reason or another, San Leon disappeared after Texas became part of the United States.  Interestingly, the Red Fish Bar was one of the primary reasons that Galveston remained the primary deep-water port along the coast, as it was shallow enough to allow foot traffic across the bay and created a shipping hazard for vessels attempting to approach Houston.  In the wake of the Civil War, Galveston residents developed a plan to ensure that Houston would not overtake them as a transportation center.  The idea was to connect Edwards Point to the eastern edge of the bay by rail, following the Red Fish Bar to where it reached Smith Point, the nearby peninsula on the opposite side.  This would not only bypass Houston as a rail center, but it would block them off from being able to develop a shipping presence.  The additional land that Galveston needed to become a major industrial center were found in the planned towns that would be named North Galveston (former site of San Leon), South Galveston, and West Galveston.  By 1890 a network of rail lines had been laid connect Galveston to Edwards Point, the streets of North Galveston were laid out to resemble their "mother city" on the island as both residents and industry began to move in, and Galveston was on its way to securing its status as the most important coastal city west of New Orleans.

On September 8, 1900, everything changed.  The hurricane that decimated Galveston Island also destroyed North Galveston's community of some 2,000 people, wiping it off the map to the degree that it was known only for fig and citrus crops for years afterwards.  In 1910, two events happened that changed Edwards Point forever: Congress authorized the Houston Ship Channel project that would end the Galveston monopoly by dredging up Red Fish Bar and other impediments, and a lawyer named Joe Henry Eagle purchased the land formerly known as North Galveston to plan a city with its historic name of San Leon.  He renovated a large hotel and began construction on a drawbridge and a school, but population growth was slow as yet another major hurricane hit in 1915 and the hotel burned down in 1921.  Eventually the community began to transition from agriculture to fishing and recreation, but conflicting title issues has prevented many businesses from attempting to enter the area.  Local lore tells of a newspaper raffling off San Leon lots to subscribers, only to give away land to someone else when the subscription ended...without removing the previous owner's name from the official record.  As such, very few businesses now exist that aren't run by residents, but the citizens of the town wouldn't seem to have it any other way.  The tight-knit community is proud of their laid-back corner of the world and is content to not become part of anything bigger.  Today the town's economy is primarily supported by the fishing industry, a locally-owned distillery, a poultry farm, several RV parks, and no fewer than a dozen dive bars.

If you'd like to learn more about the town's rich history and are interested in pictures of how it has changed through the years, I'd highly recommend looking up and checking out The History of San Leon, Volume 1 by Alecya Gallaway.


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