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Port Isabel Lighthouse a beacon in the Gulf of Mexico

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It is among the most iconic of structures, its distinctive outline a symbol of hope and safe harbor, a welcome sight to seafarers returning home. Benjamin Franklin understood the life-and-death worth of its steadfast beacon, saying, "Lighthouses are more helpful than churches."

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In Texas, no lighthouse is more famous than the one in Port Isabel on the Gulf Coast, mainly because it is the only one in the state open to the public. In fact, many know this tiny coastal community (pop. 5064) only as "where the lighthouse is," followed by tales of climbing the 75-step spiral staircase to the top of the 62-foot structure to enjoy the 16-mile view. But what many don't know -- until they get there, that is -- is that the lighthouse is part of a complex known as the Museums of Port Isabel, comprised of the famous structure and and pair of lesser known but equally fascinating buildings housing exhibits that surprise and inform visitors. All three are adjacent to each other and easy to take in in a couple of hours.

Port Isabel Historical Museum

"The lighthouse is the one that everybody is fascinated with," says Jeannie Marie A. Flores, museum administrator. "That's the main attraction. But then they discover the museums and realize how much more there is to see."

The first of these is the Port Isabel Historical Museum, opened in 1997 in a state-of-the-art facility located in the Charles Champion building. Built as a dry goods store and residence in 1899, it's now home to one of the largest collections of Mexican artifacts from the U.S.-Mexican War (Port Isabel was an important port during both that war and the Civil War). Chronicling the history of Port Isabel from the Coahuilitican Indians to the shrimp industry, the two-story museum features artifacts, videos, and hands-on displays. Don't miss the famous fish mural painted by a local fisherman in 1906.

Treasures of the Gulf

The second structure, the Treasures of the Gulf museum, opened in 2000 and spotlights three 16th-century Spanish shipwrecks excavated in the 1960s from their watery grave, their story now told through murals, interactive displayes, and artifacts such as silver coins, plates, and cannons. Check out the Children's Discovery Lab, theatre, and gift shop.

The shining star

And then there's the shining star itself -- the lighthouse. Built in 1852 to guide and protect ships through Brazos Santiago Pass and the barrier islands, the Port Isabel Lighthouse was opened as a state park in 1952 and restored to its 1880s appearance in 2000.

The Lighthouse Keeper's Cottage -- built in 1995 from original 1850s blueprints -- is on the same grounds, also open to the public and home to the Chamber of Commerce and the Port Isabel Visitors Center. It features the history of the lighthouse.

Modern times

The Port Isabel Lighthouse keeps up with the times, serving as a community gathering place for residents and visitors. There's the summer Movies at the Lighthouse series that runs from June through October, the annual Day of the Dead festival in October, and guest speakers and oral historians who speak during the compelling "Telling Our Stories" series, which revives the forgotten history of the area. Lively fall and spring festivals are held in Lighthouse Park, including Queen Isabella (April) and Lighthouse Market Days (October).

If you go:

Museums of Port Isabel, 317 E. Railroad Avenue, Port Isabel, TX. 956-943-7602, portisabelmuseums.com. Individual and combination tickets are available, ranging from $2-$7.

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