It’s weathered war, hurricanes, and abandonment, but the Aransas Pass Light Station-also known as Lydia Ann Light and St. Joe Light-survives in fine condition today thanks to the concern of a Texas businessman, Charles Butt. Also prominent in the recent history of the station are Rick and Cameron Pratt, who served as caretakers and de facto keepers for 20 years.
Aransas Pass is a direct route to the busy port of Corpus Christi on the Texas Gulf Coast. Shipping through the passage was menaced by dangerous shoals, leading Congress to appropriate $12,500 for a lighthouse in 1851. An early plan for a screwpile lighthouse designed by engineer I.W.P. Lewis and the suggestion of a lightship were both rejected. A brick tower and keeper’s house, built on Harbor Island on the north side of Aransas Pass, were the first permanent structures in the vicinity.
The light went into operation in early 1857. On Christmas Day in 1862, Confederate troops set off a charge inside the lighthouse so Union forces couldn’t use it, destroying the upper third of the tower along with much of the interior. Following the war, the lighthouse was repaired and returned to service.
Frank Stephenson became a keeper at the station in 1897. A former local boat pilot, he also built the original Tarpon Inn in Port Aransas (then known as Tarpon) using surplus lumber from Civil War barracks. Stephenson and his wife, Mary (Mercer), had a daughter, Lydia Ann, whose name was eventually applied to a channel that passes close by the station and to the lighthouse itself.
The Stephensons were living at the station when a devastating hurricane struck in 1916, sweeping away the keeper’s house and outbuildings. Stephenson was commended for keeping the light burning despite the chaos around him. A new one-story dwelling was soon completed. Stephenson retired as keeper in 1918 at the age of 79.
By the early 1950s, the forces of nature had shifted Aransas Pass until it was more than a mile south of the lighthouse. The light was discontinued in 1954, and the property passed into private hands. It languished until 1973, when Charles Butt, owner of the HEB grocery store chain, purchased it. He hired renowned lighthouse author F. Ross Holland Jr. to research the station’s history, and in 1984 he hired Rick and Cameron Pratt as caretakers. The light’s comeback culminated in its July 4, 1989, relighting as a privately owned aid to navigation. The 68-foot-tall lighthouse "had a purpose again,” says Rick Pratt.
Rick Pratt, former director of the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, typically worked 12-hour days during his years as lighthouse caretaker, maintaining two boats and boardwalks on the island in addition to the light station buildings. “It’s a very hostile environment,” Rick told the Corpus Christi Caller Times in 2001. “We’re surrounded by a corrosive fluid: salt water. Literally, the sea is underneath the houses on high tides. It’s very tough.”
Cameron Pratt, a biologist, said, “You’re a part of nature, living out here,” she said in 2001. “It’s wilderness. Nothing’s here that isn’t supposed to be here. Everything’s indigenous. It’s just gorgeous.” Cameron called storms on the island “scary fun.”
Sometimes dolphins would herd fish into the creek near the light station. The dolphins would roll in the water, creating waves that washed the small fish onto the bank. As the fish flopped back to the water, the dolphins would gobble them up. “It’s a feeding strategy I never heard of,” said Rick.
Since retiring as caretaker in 2004, Rick Pratt has been writing his memoirs. “Walking in our new world, “ he writes, “a tough sport at first, taught us quickly which creeks were open and likely to have fish or oysters, and which were silting in and would drag you down like quicksand.”
Pratt once witnessed a memorable battle between a mature great blue heron that had patrolled the area for five years and a young upstart. “The two large birds came together in the air hard, squawking in fierce combat. Leaping, stabbing, thrashing, and clawing, they slammed each other repeatedly.” The upstart won the battle and claimed the territory as its own.
The Pratts retain many vivid memories of their years at the lighthouse. “There’s never been an ugly sunset,” Rick says of the view from the island. “There’s a special peace to this place.”
The Aransas Pass Light Station remains the only Texas Gulf Coast lighthouse with live-in caretakers.
This story appeared in the
May 2007 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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