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Haunted by Hurricanes
The 1919 Hurricane in Corpus Christi and the Ghost that Remains.
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I was living in Corpus Christi before my wedding and had no idea what to do for a bachelorette party. Never much of a drinker, the idea of bar hopping or a trip to Vegas didn’t appeal to me. I read books and poked around cemeteries and historical buildings for fun. My friend, Joe Pena, suggested a ghost tour. He worked for the Corpus Christi Parks department and offered us a private ghost tour of Heritage Park, a city park that overlooks the bay and is comprised of several Victorian homes from the area. It’s like a neighborhood of a time gone by. These houses survived hurricanes, floods and the ravages of time and, according to many, the spirits of previous inhabitants have survived as well.
The Merriman-Bobys House served as hospital during the Civil War, and it is said that former patients still linger in spirit. The Galvan House, the centerpiece of the park, is said to be haunted by the police officer who originally built the house, and a ghostly little girl is often seen looking out the front window of the first floor. The Sidbury house (pictured below) is the spookiest house to most visitors. It has a child ghost that frightens people by throwing toys. This ghost has frightened employees working in the other houses, who would look out their office windows to see him staring back at them. Some quit their jobs, unable to work with a spectral child staring at them each time they looked up.
During my bachelorette party, a loud boom occurred as we opened the door to the Sidbury house, like the sound of a large object hitting the floor directly in front of us. We hid behind my tallest friend, craning our necks behind her to see what exactly hit the floor, but nothing was there.
“We won’t bother you,” my friend called out before we entered the house. “If you don’t want us here, let us know.”
We waited and entered only after the silence invited us in.
Spooky children have always frightened me more than any other horror trope when reading a book or watching a movie. The Sidbury house, with its child ghost and the loud crashing of an invisible object, should have frightened me most, but it’s the history of the Ward-McCampbell house and the spirit of Mary Alice Ward-McCampbell that haunts me still.
The house was built in 1908 on a beach front spot, high on the bluff, a few blocks from where it now stands. The seawall, built to protect the city from hurricanes and floods, did not yet exist. For eleven years, that didn’t matter.
People question why Mary never left her home that faced the water before the storm hit, but this question disregards why so many still choose not to evacuate before a hurricane. Hurricane Harvey flooded over four hundred miles of east Texas. To put this in perspective, San Antonio is 120 miles from Corpus Christi and is home base for most evacuees fleeing Corpus before a storm. With 400 miles of flooding and devastation, evacuation during Harvey was almost irrelevant. Consider also the evacuation disaster of Houstonians fleeing during Hurricane Rita. All routes out of town were so gridlocked that people were forced to ride out the storm in their cars, unable to move off a crammed highway full of desperate people. Before hurricane Rita even arrived, approximately one hundred people died during the evacuation from the extreme heat or hypothermia. These are the results when we have sophisticated meteorological technology and transportation. Imagine preparing for an oncoming storm in 1919.
Mary Alice Ward-McCampbell and her sons readied the house for a fading storm that had already crossed over Florida and was rumored to have made landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi. Winds were expected to be no more than forty miles per hour, strong but not catastrophic. Corpus Christi was also deemed one of the safest places to live along the Texas coast because of the barrier islands and the high bluff. No one prepared for the ferocity of the Category 4 storm that swept through south Texas with 110 mile an hour winds and a storm surge of sixteen feet.
Mary stood on her second-floor balcony and watched it all roll in.
Waters started to rise. Dark clouds and heavy winds charged forward over the bay. Though her sons tried to beckon her inside, she remained on her balcony, staring the storm down in a defiant challenge despite the rains already pouring down on her. As the first floor flooded, her sons sought refuge on the second floor. There they all stayed for days, waiting for help.
Death tolls were reported at figures close to 300 people, but more realistic estimates by Texas Parks and Wildlife say the numbers were between 600-1000. At least ten major sea vessels sank, including oil tankers. Thick, black crude oil coated the bodies of 108 people that washed up on North Beach, making identification of the dead nearly impossible. Survivors from the wreckage actually benefited from the oil coating as it created a barrier protecting them against disease and infection.
Morgues worked fast. They wrote detailed descriptions of bodies as they were found, assigned them a number and then buried them in one of thirty mass graves to prevent against stench and disease. Most victims were never positively identified.
A month later, they dug up the bodies and moved them from the mass graves to area graveyards, most at Rose Hill Cemetery.
Though Mary and her sons survived, she bore witness to the oil covered bodies, the mass graves and the devastation suffered on her city, all from her second story balcony. In the end, she couldn’t beat the storm. Pneumonia lingered in her lungs and she died a few months later in early 1920.
Today, Mary still stands watch. School tours are not told that Mary haunts the house, yet children have fled her bedroom in terror claiming that they saw a scary lady appear in the mirror.
Mary spared me and my party guests as we listened to my friend, Joe, tell us her story. She chose not to appear that night. Perhaps she could sense my admiration as I found myself looking, not through her windows to catch sight of a ghost, but out at the waves crashing beneath the light of a midnight moon. I would be getting married soon, sure to face my own storms. Like Mary, I felt sure that I could face whatever came barreling down on me and I had no doubt that I was making the right choice. While the storm may have been too much for Mary, I can say that, almost ten years later, I remain standing…and very happily married.
Author’s Note: Many homes in Heritage Park have since been emptied by the organizations occupying the homes when Corpus Christi Parks and Recreation took full control of the park, and many buildings are now in disrepair. I hope that they can be restored and out of the hands of CCPR, which has a history of these problems throughout the city.
This is the Galvan House, the centerpiece home of the park. We are not even allowed to walk on the porch anymore for safety reasons.
“Corpus Christi's 1919 hurricane brought destruction, but reshaped the city for the future,” by Allison Ehrlich, Corpus Christi Caller Times, September 13, 2019
“The Storm of 1919 Revisited,” Texas Parks and Wildlife, 2004
“Hurricanes of the Past: 1919 Corpus Christi” KZTV Action 10 News
“Corpus Christi reflects on 1919 hurricane with commemoration events” KRIS-TV, September 15, 2019
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