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First-hand account of the Indianola hurricane

By Myra Lee Adams Goff

New Braunfels loves to celebrate anniversaries, but this date, Friday August 20 in 1886, we can commemorate but not celebrate. It was on this day one hundred thirty years ago (as of yesterday) that a hurricane hit the Gulf Coast. It was so strong that it destroyed the town of Indianola. Traveling with inland winds of 70 miles an hour, it wrecked everything in its path as far as San Antonio. New Braunfels was not spared.

A letter written by Sen. George Pfeuffer to his wife, Susan Gravis Pfeuffer, who had remained in Austin was recently discovered by John Rightmire at an estate sale. The letter was written in New Braunfels by Pfeuffer immediately after the storm hit the town. A letter like this one is a primary source and to have someone at the location at the time of the event provides primary proof. A good example of primary sources are the letters written home to relatives in Germany giving accounts of what was going on and what things looked like back here in Texas. Rightmire’s “find” provides us with a description of what effect the hurricane had on New Braunfels.

George Pfeuffer was a prominent person in New Braunfels and Texas, having established a merchandise store here, and a lumber yard in NB and two other towns. He was politically active. He was a county judge and president of the board of directors of Texas A&M College. He led the fight to obtain state funds for schools as a senator from 1882 to 1884. When he died, the Granite Association of Texas put up a giant obelisk in his memory in the Comal Cemetery. It is made of pink granite, the same as the capitol. He was responsible for the use of the pink granite.

This is information from his letter: At 3:30 in the afternoon on this day, George Pfeuffer took to the streets around Main Plaza. He wrote to his wife that half of the tin covering of their home was gone and that the frame of the new floor addition was also gone. This house was on the corner of San Antonio St. and Comal Ave. facing Comal Ave. where the law office of Brazle and Pfeuffer is now located. (The older home was torn down in 1910 and the bricks used to build the home in the same location but facing San Antonio St. Somers Valentine Pfeuffer, son of George, built this house.)

Next to the Pfeuffer home was the Carl Floege Store on the corner now owned by the New Braunfels Utilities and it was also badly damaged. This building had been the location of the first district court in 1846.

Pfeuffer walked to where his lumber yard was located. That is where the present City Hall is on Castell Ave. The lumber sheds were knocked down as well as the nearby freight depot. Bob Pfeuffer, g-grandson of the senator says that this depot was close to the railroad track behind the lumber yard. Besides the personal loss at the lumber yard, he noticed that most of the roofs in town were gone.

He walked to the Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church and discovered that the steeple of the roof was sticking in the roof, but wrong-side up. Nearly every tree in town had fared badly. He walked by Heinrich Ludwig’s Hotel behind the Phoenix Saloon and saw that it lost its tin roof and bricks from chimneys were scattered everywhere. Pfeuffer described the damage scene at Voelcker’s on Castell Ave. like this: “The entire front looks like the result of a mule’s heels on the dash board of a light wagon.” It could have been the Voelcker Drug Store (Red Stag) or the Voelcker home also on Castell Ave.

Down Seguin Ave. Forke’s Store was gone as was Seele’s tin roof on the new building and the cotton gin roof was gone. The Forke Store building was given to Conservation Plaza much later. He mentions other buildings that were damaged, Bench’s Hall, Podewils, and Rennerts. The building that we know the most about is the already dilapidated building on Sophienburg Hill, once the headquarters of Prince Carl. It finally bit the dust as a result of this hurricane.

Pfeuffer wrote to his wife that he would not be in Austin anytime soon as he had to tend to the damage caused by the storm on the house, the lumber yard, and the store building, although it withstood the “puff,” it needs to be “recommenced.” The letterhead on which the letter was written gives an idea of what the Pfeuffer Store was all about. It was located on the corner of San Antonio St. and Castell Ave. where the Antique Mall is now located. He and his son, S.V. Pfeuffer, dealt in general merchandise, dry goods, groceries, crockery, tobacco, cigars and hardware. Also farm implements, wagons, carriages and they were buyers of cotton, grain and country produce.

As for Indianola, the town itself was created as a direct result of the German emigrants who were brought to the Republic of Texas by the Adelsverein. It was their port of entry after landing in Galveston beginning in 1844. The death of Indianola occurred as a result of its near sea level location on Matagorda Bay. There were two hurricanes, one in 1875 and the big one eleven years later in 1886. In 1886, as a result of a severe drought in Texas, an unusual wind became the subject of discussion and a hurricane had passed south of Key West and into the Gulf of Mexico. The quickly moving hurricane inundated the town with the exception of two buildings, one being the Court House. The once important port city was ultimately destroyed.

Indianola was the home of many beautiful, large homes built by prominent citizens. After the hurricane of 1886, some of these homes were moved to be reconstructed because they were in salvageable condition. Two were moved to Cuero. The Emil Reiffert home was dismantled, numbered and re-assembled. Also in Cuero is the Sheppard home that is now the De Witt County Historical Museum. Three buildings were moved to Victoria, the William Frobese home is now the rectory of Grace Episcopal Church. The home of Henry Huck was dismantled, transported by rail and reassembled. Finally, the D.H. Regan residence was also moved by rail.

Familiarity with storms was not new to the George Pfeuffer family. George Pfeuffer’s father, Johann Georg Pfeuffer, had been a successful tanner in Germany in the 1830s. For some unknown reason in 1845, he sold his businesses and signed on with the German Emigration Co. to leave for Texas. The parents and six children were among the second group to come to Texas. They arrived in Galveston in November 1845. From there they took a schooner to Indianola.

A near tragedy occurred when the schooner was overloaded and sank in the bay outside of Indianola. The family was saved but they lost all of their possessions. They were stuck on the coast along with hundreds of other immigrants waiting for transportation inland. They did not reach New Braunfels until 1848.

Only 26 days after his letter was written, George Pfeuffer died on September 15, 1886. His letter now joins other letters written by early citizens that help us understand our past.

The Newer Pfeuffer home facing San Antonio St. and the early home that faced Comal Ave.

The Newer Pfeuffer home facing San Antonio St. and the early home that faced Comal Ave.