The Matagorda Maddens

Chapter 1

"Uncle Willie"

On this particular night in September 1961 a warm breeze could be felt blowing off the gulf. As on other occasions the residents of the small south Texas fishing village of Port O’Connor could hear classical violin music coming from one of the little islands across the Intracoastal Waterway.  The little islands were formed when the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers created the inland waterway by dredging up the sands to provide protection along the Texas coast for the many barges making their way from Brownsville in the south to Carrabelle, Florida, a total distance of 1,050 miles. The waterway here is 125 feet across with a depth a constant 12 feet, so it can easily be traversed by a skiff at any time.

The violin music that the Port O’Connor residents heard was not the fiddle music played at the dances in the big pavilions along the Texas gulf coast at the time, nor the music played at the local barn dances like Turkey in the Straw and Waltzing Matilda. It was music unfamiliar to most of the residents- the music of Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart. Although Willie could play fiddle music on his violin, he preferred to play the classics when he was alone in his cabin across the waterway from town.

Uncle Willie lived in a tiny cabin that he built on the little island. It had one room with a bed on one side and a table and a chair on the other. He had no modern conveniences and lit the cabin with a kerosene lamp. The cabin was only about 25 to 30 yards from the water’s edge where he had built a ramp for hoisting his skiff out of the water when he needed to leave his little island. He spent much of his time making a little money by catching fish, shrimp, crabs and oysters from the bay and selling them to the many fish houses in the town across the water. Willie is remembered as being a reclusive person and very soft spoken. When he came to town he was always very clean and neat, unlike the other fishermen from the area. In addition to playing his violin he was an avid reader and people who visited him would always bring him books along with other supplies.

The residents of Port O’Connor were not surprised about the origin of the music they heard from across the waterway.  They had heard it many times in the past when the wind was just right gently blowing off the gulf.  Where Uncle William Archie “Willie” Madden learned to play that kind of music is not known, but he came from a musical family in which playing an instrument was not unusual.  His daddy William “Willie” Hanna Madden and his brother, Frederick John Madden both played violin music as well, but unlike Uncle Willie they only played the popular kind of “fiddle music” of the day.

Although this Wednesday, September 3rd 1961 evening was quiet and calm on the Texas coast, something was going on in the warm waters off the West Indies.  All storms that time of year started as an area of low pressure causing the air to circulate around the center or eye and is called a tropical depression. By September 5th this system was upgraded to Tropical Storm Carla. In just twenty-four hours the storm had another name, Hurricane Carla. By the afternoon of the following day Carla had entered the Gulf of Mexico and by Friday, September 8th the approaching storm was affecting winds and tides of the eastern Texas and western Louisiana coast. The U.S. Weather Bureau was warning that Carla was not an ordinary storm.  A mandatory evacuation was ordered for all of the low-lying areas from western Louisiana to Corpus Christi, Texas.

In Texas hundreds of thousands of people moved out of the coastal areas to higher ground further inland. Shelters were set up in public buildings in the larger cities away from the coast. The tides were beginning to rise five to six feet above normal and water was beginning to swamp the lower lying areas of the coast.

On Monday, September 11th , the storm was upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane with winds reaching 175 mph. The surge tide ahead of the storm reached 22 feet and made landfall near Port O’Connor. The town was obliterated. Nothing was spared from destruction. What the hurricane winds and surge tides didn’t destroy the many tornadoes spawned within the hurricane did. Only a few buildings in the entire town remained and those had suffered severe damage.

But where was Uncle Willie? Almost all of the town’s residents had evacuated. Willie certainly could not have survived the storm as it crossed his little island home.  He had moved to the island sometime after November 1940 when he, his father and all of the residents of Matagorda Island were forcibly evacuated by the U.S. government.

Matagorda Island is a sand barrier island averaging two miles wide and about fifty miles long. It was designated by the U.S. government in World War II to become a training base for the U.S. Army and in 1943 a bombing and gunnery range was constructed on the north end of the island. After World War II the range was deactivated and then reactivated for the Strategic Air Command from 1949 until 1975. Today it is the Matagorda Island Wildlife Management Area and is managed jointly by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as a sanctuary for migratory bird species.

Back to Uncle Willie. After the storm search crews were sent into the area to look for people who had tried to ride out the storm or had been killed. There was no sign of Uncle Willie. An article in the Calhoun County Times on October 24th, 1961 stated that Willie had been listed as missing during the storm, but had taken refuge aboard a tugboat and had reached Port Aransas. So Willie’s name was taken off the missing list. No such luck!

Over a month after the storm hit, a ranch rider from the La Salle Ranch found Uncle Willie’s body about five miles from Port O’Connor.  Willie had been washed up in a grove of scrub live oaks and had a big gash on his forehead. His skiff was found about a mile away from his body. Willie had chosen to stay when most others evacuated. Realizing that he was not going to survive the hurricane on his little island, he dressed in his hip boots, got in his skiff and put out a sea anchor. No doubt he was hoping he could ride above the waves to safety. It was not to be. Some think Willie’s plan worked. But the gash on his forehead indicates that he was hit hard with some debris which was the probable cause his demise. When Uncle Willie was found he had $2,000 sewed into his pants. This money was later used for his burial in the Seadrift Cemetery. The date of September 11, 1961 was used as the date of death.

I knew only a little about my Uncle Willie and was determined to find out more about his life. Who were the people around him? Did he have a family, a wife, and children? Why did he move to the little island in the first place?

With this story and these questions I began to search for my family’ s beginnings in Texas. This project is about that search.