Stephen F. Austin State University

The 1886 Hurricane and the Sabine Pass Lighthouse (June 2015)

By Judith W. Linsley

In October of 1886, a large hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico rolled westward along the Gulf Coast, striking Mississippi and Louisiana before moving into Texas. On October 12 it hit Sabine Pass, killing 86 residents and destroying or heavily damaging 75 of the town's 77 structures.

Two days later, the revenue cutter Penrose, with a Galveston News correspondent aboard, left Galveston for Sabine Pass, to assist survivors and recover bodies. The reporter later described reaching the Sabine Pass lighthouse and finding it intact, but the keeper's brick house nearby was "crumbled to pieces on the ground." The destruction was a frightening indicator of the immense power of the storm surge.

When the Penrose crew hailed the lighthouse, four people came down from the tower: Gustave Hummeland, the keeper; Mr. and Mrs. Henry Plummer; and a fourth person described only as "a lady friend." The article reported that Hummeland was "badly broken up, but grit to the last." The four had started riding out the storm in the keeper's house, but as the water rose higher and higher, they wisely moved to the lighthouse.

Ultimately, the 20-foot storm surge sent waves crashing against the tower; water splashed through a window over 50 feet high. The four went to the very top of the tower and climbed through an iron trap door into the room where the light was located. The wind was so strong that several times it lifted up the 100-pound door, and the keeper had "to hold it down with his own weight and that of five gallons of oil on top of it."

Once the storm was over, the four were stranded in the lighthouse without food, water, fire, or dry clothing for 48 hours before a relief boat reached them.

For years the fourth survivor, the "lady friend," was unknown. On July 13, 1940, however, the Port Arthur News ran an obituary for a Miss Clara Marty of Sabine Pass. She had lived through the hurricanes of 1886, 1900, and 1915, and in 1886 had been "caught in the Sabine Pass lighthouse and was marooned in the tower until rescued by a boat."

That's only one of many stories about the Sabine Pass lighthouse, one of the oldest structures on the Gulf Coast. Built in 1857, technically on Louisiana soil, Texans nevertheless considered it a Texas landmark. Since 1915, it has survived more storms-Hurricane Audrey in 1957 (its centennial year), Hurricane Rita in 2005, and Hurricane Ike in 2008 (when it was over 150 years old). The eye of Hurricane Rita passed directly over it, bringing the storm's roughest winds, but the old structure stood firm.

The Sabine Pass lighthouse was turned off for good in 1952 and in 1982 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's now owned by the Cameron Preservation Alliance, a non-profit organization formed to save the lighthouse. It's to be hoped that they are able to do so; the lighthouse is a survivor, and a fine reminder of our past-that deserves to be saved.

Sabine Pass Lighthouse