The Haunted Halls of the Old Nueces County Courthouse
Abandoned to a future of uncertainty, this historical building is a century old, slightly more, perhaps, than the lost spirits who walk her halls.
Once the primary landmark to grace the Corpus Christi bayfront, the stately Nueces County Courthouse was a crowning architectural achievement of the early 1900s, a symbol of law and justice in a wild and woolly coastal frontier with a history of rough and tough times down through the years.
The city itself, said to be founded by pirates who came ashore to camp and hunt and in so doing ushered in an era of exploration and discovery in a new world, has played an important role as a frontier, in the birth of first a Republic and then as a significant and strategic Gulf seaport that helped to form the State of Texas and a nation.
It shouldn’t seem surprising then that history has a way of lingering. It lingers well in text books and more so from leftover stories and tales from the days of ancient cliff dwellers, curious conquistadors, uncertain settlers, cattle barons, cowboys, soldiers and their famous generals, prophetic preachers, poets, hurricane survivors and Indian Chiefs.
But like a voice in the wilderness, some tales can be heard in hushed and shadowed tones more than they can be visualized, for they have no physical form. But like a brief puff of formless cloud or a wavering reflection seen behind us as we stand before a mirror, they speak to places deeply hidden inside each of us and tell myriad tales of spirits lost and gone but fluttering gently just out of sight, hinting at the ghostly imprinted memories of days long past somewhere deep in the recesses of our imaginative minds.
Completed in 1914, the now abandoned courthouse was not the first for Nueces County. Corpus Christi, founded around 1838 as a trading post, has a rich history associated with its coastal geography – and a rough and rowdy one as well. In its earliest days, it was a mustering spot for Texas forces in their fight for Independence against Mexican General and dictator Santa Ana, and later the reception camp for U.S. General and future-President Zachary Taylor and his American invasion forces at the build up of the Mexican-American War. The strategic location of the Gulf port city has influenced both its growth and success, from the early days when immigrants from around the world filtered into the Texas frontier to the later oil boom days of the 20th century that brought fame and prosperity to the city that was and remains a player in the emerging oil/energy industry.
Once wild with frequent raids from organized and renegade Comanche, brazen outlaws and Mexican bandidos from the adjacent South Texas frontier, life in Corpus Christi was in need of a driving force of law and order and found it through a number of brave and bold lawmen including local sheriffs and famous Texas Rangers who helped to finally win a lasting peace. Partnering in their contribution to law and order was a solid foundation made possible by a strong and determined local court system, and by the late 1840s and early 1850s plans were underway to construct the first of four county courthouses that have served the county.
But in spite of a more modern courthouse that now serves the community, the standing symbol of justice for many on the coastal frontier remains the older, stoic building which is now nearly in ruins. It dominates the background view of a modern bayfront drive that fronts the city’s beautiful skyline.
Completely surrounded by a chain link fence more to keep people away from the falling down six story building than to constrain its historical memories, the former courthouse sits a few blocks off the city’s seawall, shadowed now by the freeway bridge that crosses over the ship channel behind it and fronted by a modern federal courthouse facility that graces the water front to the east. Nearby and in contrast however is a growing section of the city’s ‘old town’, Heritage Park, a four square-block area where some of the oldest homes of the city have been restored and turned into a public gathering area for events and festivals.
A few more blocks away is the bustling port facility, a modern convention center and performing arts theater, and art, science and history museums and a public water garden.
Yet it is this numbing mix of the old and the new that provides the unique yet stark contrast to the northern reach of the downtown area, a park-like zone that seems out of place in the same neighborhood as the crumbling, deteriorating state of a building that not so long ago closed its doors to local history to become a fading memory of the past. With its ghostly and fading physical structure, it looks like a shadow on a bright day that generates its own form of shade and mystery that seem to ever lurk there strangely in a world where it no longer belongs.
On a quite night, while standing in the neighborhood that surrounds the ghostly building, you can hear it, that former history, through the rustle of the wind through the tall palm trees overhead or the eerie whistling of the bay breeze wrapping its way around the old and fragmented concrete corners of the lost and lonely building.
The old courthouse was officially retired in 1977 with the completion of the new facility a few miles away. But because of a rich local history, the community and its many leaders since have been faced with the controversy of what to do about the old building. So rich in history yet in need of so many costly improvements just to remain a sound and stable building, it has suffered from disuse and abandonment and is in desperate need of capital improvements beyond financial practicality. In spite of local efforts, those funds will not come.
Troubled in the pursuing years as an area where the homeless would congregate until the city’s emphasis on reconstruction and improvement were launched a few years back, the area had become an eerie block of a neverland quality where only the daring wandered on a moonlit night or on a day when a rare north wind brought in the ominous clouds of the north.
Inside the old courthouse still stand the gallows built in two cells on the top floor, never used but long a reminder of the strong arm of law and justice for those who dared challenge the civility of a growing community. Executions were performed on prisoners convicted in the courthouse, but by the state who had traded its gallows for electric chairs at the prison in Huntsville farther up the coast.
In the basement of the old courthouse however, tragedy struck early in the years of the building when a powerful hurricane stormed the Texas coast in 1919, leaving the city in shambles. So many were the bodies of the unliving victims of the wind and rain that they were piled in the basement until flood waters receded. It is said that hundreds of residents across the city who converged on the city’s tallest and strongest building shared the space with the dead under the most horrid conditions of survival.
But it wasn’t the only tragic deaths associated with the city and its former courthouses. One of the worst to assail the community was the widespread death and devastation brought on by yellow fever that swept through the streets. More than once earlier courthouses and public buildings were emptied and abandoned because of tribulation. During the yellow fever years it was the sickness and disease that shuttered the doors, but earlier it was because of a U.S. Naval bombardment of the city that wrecked havoc during the tumultuous days of the Civil War.
For now, as the old building waits for destruction, it is simply an eerie place. There are stories that abound of chilling voices and screams that can be heard from the street below, of faces peering between planks of boarded windows and the glimmer of ghostly lights that can be seen sometimes late at night.
On numerous occasions, the South Texas Paranormal Society has been allowed access to the abandoned building under careful guard, and their research has uncovered a number of ghostly experiences. You can read more from the STPS here.
Today, on the very spot where explorers and pirates once camped, the abandoned and crumbling courthouse is called by many a constant and outdated eyesore while others, more enriched and entrenched in the origins of the unique community charge it is a bastion of local history, a dying landmark that has little hope of surviving the economic limitations and progress of the vibrant city.
For the time being, however, especially in the fall of the year when relief from the summer tropics reaches the central coast of Texas, the eeriness of the old courthouse can still be experienced with a drive by or walk by, especially just past sunset as the darkness of night glides across the shoreline from across the bay, or when an ill wind blows from the north.
If you can not see the spirits of the past roam the halls and lawns of the old courthouse in Corpus Christi, surely the chill that you feel could be a sign of their presence or passing.
Old courthouse stories
Nueces County was six years old in 1853 when county commissioners decided to build a courthouse. They had been meeting in each other’s homes.
The job of designing a building was given to Felix von Blucher, a surveyor. The courthouse was built of shellcrete, a cross between adobe and concrete, on three lots on Mesquite Street bought from H. L. Kinney.
The courthouse took three years to build and cost $4,000. But the plans that called for a jail were left out. The sheriff, with no jail for prisoners, put them up in a boarding house, at his own expense, or let them go.
The lack of a jail became an issue when Mat Nolan was sheriff and his brother Tom was deputy. On Aug. 4, 1860, a storekeeper got drunk, started a fight, and was arrested by Sheriff Nolan, who took the man to his home to sleep it off. But the drunk returned to the La Retama Saloon, where he knifed the owner, and in a shootout killed Tom Nolan. The drunk was chased down by townspeople and shot to death.
The Corpus Christi Ranchero wrote that “Nueces County stands in need of one of those institutions known as a jail.” A jail bond issue was passed, by five votes, but the Civil War intervened.
Meetings on whether Nueces should vote to secede were held in the courthouse. A leading spokesman against secession was the fiery red-whiskered judge, Edmund J. Davis, who would become the most hated governor in Texas history. The county voted 142 to 42 in favor of secession.
At the onset of war, a ceremony was held on the steps of the courthouse. A Confederate flag, made of silk and sewn by young ladies in town, was presented to the Corpus Christi Light Infantry by Mary Woessner, called the prettiest girl in town. She would later marry the officer who accepted the flag, William Wrather.
When Union gunboats shelled the city, the courthouse sat deserted. County officials had evacuated to Santa Margarita, a ferry crossing on the Nueces River near today’s Calallen.
After the war, when a the yellow fever epidemic hit in 1867, the courthouse became the only center of local government for the county and the city. A majority of City Council members died of the fever, which led county commissioners to assume control of city affairs. Their first act was to try to improve the terrible condition of city streets. They divided the town into five districts and appointed a road overseer in charge of each district. Able-bodied men were forced to work as “road hands” under the overseers.
What was called a “jail” but was really an iron-lockup was added to the upper floor of the courthouse. It was needed in those violent days. In May, 1874, four men were killed in a raid on a one-store community called Penascal, on Baffin Bay.
Two of the men caught by a posse were brought to Corpus Christi for trial. They were convicted of the crime and hanged on Friday, August 7. The gallows were built extending out from the second-floor balcony of the courthouse. These were the first officially sanctioned hangings in Nueces County.
The county in the 1870s outgrew its first courthouse. A new courthouse was built of concrete blocks, with a wooden front, next to the old structure. It was called the “Hollub Courthouse,” named after the engineer who designed it.
The Hollub Courthouse, finished in 1875, cost $15,000. The old and new courthouses stood side by side on the north end of courthouse block, facing east on Mesquite, with Belden Street to the north. The old courthouse was used as a jury room and offices for county officials.
In the middle of the Ropes Boom, in 1892, the county built a fancy new jail next to the first courthouse. A scaffold was erected behind the jail for hangings.
After more than three decades, the Hollub Courthouse was too small for the growing county. In 1913, voters approved a $250,000 bond issue for a new courthouse. County officials traveled the state looking at courthouses before they settled on a design.
The county’s third courthouse was built south of the three older structures, which were torn down.
The 1914 courthouse, six stories high and built of brick and stone, was meant to create a sense of awe. It became a showpiece of South Texas; people came from all over to look at it. It was an ultra-modern building in every way; the county even switched to typewriters to record official records.
Two cells with gallows and a trap door for hangings were built in the 1914 courthouse, but they were never used; the state took over the responsibility of carrying out executions.
Five years after it was built, the most dramatic event in the history of this building occurred when the 1919 storm hit. The courthouse became a refuge for those caught between the safety of the high bluff and the raging storm surge crashing in from the Gulf.
As the tidal wave flooded downtown Corpus Christi, carrying away houses and stores, people tried to make it to the courthouse for refuge. As wind-driven rain stung their faces, men at the courthouse formed a human chain that stretched across Belden Street, where people were trying to swim to the courthouse for safety. Some 2,500 people rode out the storm on the upper floors of the building.
Morgue in basement
After the storm waters subsided, the basement of the courthouse became a morgue.
Lucy Caldwell, a teacher from Terrell, wrote an account of the storm in a letter to her mother. She visited the courthouse basement where bodies were lined up in rows. “. . . And, oh, the condition they were in. Arms and legs and heads almost severed, all the hair gone, swollen beyond description, and black from oil, hair entangled with seaweed, and bodies so mutilated that identification was impossible.”
If spirits of the dead should hover around scenes of great tragedy, what a horde of restless spirits must wander the vacant corridors of the old courthouse.
Before the storm, the 1914 courthouse dominated the north end of town. After the storm, it stood virtually alone in a scene of desolation all around it. It was clearly built to last.
Like the people it sheltered during the city’s worst storm in history, this massive old building is a survivor.
Story: Corpus Christi History by Murphy Givens
Old Nueces County Courthouse
Lawlessness in Nueces County, which stretched from Corpus Christi to the Mexican border, prompted the building of the first county courthouse on this block in 1853. Henry Lawrence Kinney, the founder of Corpus Christi, sold three lots for $300. (1814-1865). In the mid-1870s, a second courthouse was built next to the first. This neo-classical structure was completed in 1914 at a cost of $250,000 under the administration of county Judge Walter F. Timon (1872-1952). Harvey L. Page (1859-1934), a Washington, D.C.-based architect, designed the International and Great Northern Railroad station in San Antonio as well as Laguna Gloria in Austin, which was home to former Corpus Christi resident Clara Driscoll. The buildings were expanded in the 1930s and 1960s. The first four floors housed courtrooms and offices. The jail was located on the top two floors of the building, separated from the rest of the structure by an air space to eliminate noise. Apartments were provided for the jailer and other county officials in addition to government offices until the 1950s. Hundreds of refugees sought refuge here during storms that nearly leveled the city. County offices were relocated to a new courthouse building in 1977.