Saturday, September 16, 2006

Save the Old Fish Camps

My sense of local history is still growing, but it wasn’t until the 1930’s and 1940’s that people started coming out South Padre Island in any large numbers. Most folks went to Boca Chica, which was really the king of the local beach scene until the Hurricane of 1933. After then, especially with the first causeway constructed in the 1940’s, South Padre took over. So I’m doing some research and my point is that maybe we need to preserve some of the cultural history of South Padre Island: the fish camps.

My suspicion is that the commercial fishermen kept a few stilt houses and wharves on the bayside of South Padre, such as for gear, salt, nets, and the occasional tarpon fisherman or as a ferry landing for the few locals and ranchers. I will check with local historians such as Ron Bates and Steve Hathcock.

It wasn’t until a guy named Jim Ghilain bought some property from John Tompkins that things really took off – we know this place as Jim’s Pier. That area between Fisherman’s and Louie’s was I suspect where the old time commercial fishermen camped. In fact, one photograph I saw of the first Jim’s Pier looked like, well, a fish camp and a small pier.

I wish I had some photographs taken of the area before and after Jim Ghilain started, with updates as he expanded or had to rebuild after another hurricane. For all of you that may want to contribute any photos on this theme, my email address is

Anyway, Hurricane Beulah blew through in 1967 and after that a major rebuilding occurred in the 1970’s, with bulkheads being put in so as to prevent the loss of sand. Today, it is a hard sight to imagine the old fish camps, since things have changed so much. But those old fish camps are still there, their wooden bones deep in the sand and muck, such as hearty oak and cypress.

My purpose in writing is to not only elevate the history of South Padre Island, which included not only the nicely appointed hotels down by Dolphin Cove but the fish camps down by Jim’s, too. Soon, these lands may be converted into huge condominiums due to escalating land prices.

Folks, this doesn’t have to happen. If there is some semblance of a waterfront heritage, just like Maine is so proud of its, well, now you know the exact places. Put that together with some historical pictures, a vision for a comprehensive plan, and work with (and not against) the developers and I think it can be done. It is your call.


Libby said...

One afternoon I was lucky enough to sit with Jim and Jan and hear their stories of starting Jim's Pier. I always tried to imagine what the island looked like then and the guts Jim had to start a business on a sandbar.

Ex-Manissean said...

Worked at a hotel in Islamorada, Florida Keys, a couple times in the '80s. It, like several other hotels started out as fish camps in the 30s and 40s and grew into the fancy high rises they are today. I used to look at the black and white pictures and imagine how nice it must have been.

Sam said...

I appreciate the comments and Libby, you are blessed to hear their story.

If you all see any old pictures on this topic, please let me know.


Pedro said...

Seems the city admin could car less about fishermen. They could have taken the $300,000 they wasted on NASCAR and built a decent boat ramp or something. But, we all know the city admin is a NASCAR fan and not a fishermen...

Sam said...

Hey Pedro, I thing we all learned something from failed campaigns such as the Nas-Truck and the "Who's Your Padre" bombers. I think we also learned a bunch about the people who sponsored that crap. Enuff said.

Why can't we do something for us for a change?

Pedro said...

That's the problema; you are going to need fundamental change. Enuff said. History always follows the money. And that's what is happening. I don't know if there are any preventative measures, or if it is too late. We can only manage change. And, the manager sets the agenda. Wouldn't it be great if there were fish camps again on SPI?

othernancy said...

don't forget what ex alderman pushed that nascar stuff until the board caved!! Maybe some old timers can find out if there are fish camps left up "north" on the island and if there are, maybe we can do something to save that heritage.