Bay City, Texas A Place In History
To find out how Bay City became such a livable community, take a trip back in time to its founding in 1894 by visiting the Matagorda County Museum and Children’s Museum. Here history comes alive in exhibits that include artifacts from the Karankawa Indians (the area’s native inhabitants), a cannon from 17th-century French explorer LaSalle’s ship La Belle and Stephen Austin’s colonization of the area. The Children’s Museum is a recreation of an early 20th-century Texas town where kids can “shop” at an old-fashioned general store, dress up in period costume and interact with the past in other entertaining and educational ways.
Visitors to the museum learn that Bay City is actually named for its location on Bay Prairie, between the bottomlands of the Colorado River and Caney Creek. It was established when Matagorda County citizens voted to move the county seat from the little town of Matagorda to Bay City – even though Bay City did not actually exist yet. Betting that an area about 25 miles inland from the Gulf would make a better setting for the county seat, a group of developers had purchased 650 acres and set aside one square mile for the town site. Once the voters decided to move the county seat, the group began selling lots and promoting the town.
It didn’t take long to attract people who wanted to live in the new county seat and do business here. Soon Bay City was bustling with residents and retail, manufacturing and service businesses. Bay City Rice Mills built its rice warehouse in 1901 and the next year opened the town’s first mill. Rice is still the top crop in the county today. Other businesses at that time included groceries, feed and farm implement stores, butcher and barber shops, confectioneries and drug and dry goods stores. There was also a brick-making plant, broom factory, cotton gin and lumberyard.
In 1901 the railroad reached Bay City, adding to the economic boom. In fact, by 1914, just 20 years after it was founded, Bay City had 3,156 residents enjoying the good life in a thriving community at the center of the largest rice producing area in the nation. Bay City had newspapers, churches, schools, banks, a public library and a municipal waterworks. The town attracted dentists, doctors, bankers, lawyers and other professionals.
Bay City continued to grow steadily through the first half of the 20th century. The 1960s and 1970s brought an airport to the area, and the man-made port of Bay City was completed. New technologies brought new industries including the Celanese Chemical Company, the South Texas Project and Occidental Chemical Company. The 1980s and 1990s were also a time of growth and the city now covered more than 6 square miles. By 2000, Bay City’s population was 18,667 with 890 businesses. That growth continues at a steady pace today.
A much older piece of Bay City’s history is explored at the Matagorda County Museum in exhibits about LaSalle’s expedition to the area over 300 years ago. A fleet of four small ships under the leadership of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, set out from France with 300 colonists in 1684. Their goal was the mouth of the Mississippi River where their settlement would strengthen France’s claim to western North America.
Bad luck haunted the expedition from the start. Even before reaching America, pirates took one ship. The other three ships continued on – but landed on the Texas Gulf Coast several hundred miles west of the Mississippi.
La Salle lost a second ship when it ran aground in the shallow Gulf waters. With it sank supplies needed by the colonists to survive. Some colonists rebelled and returned to France on a remaining ship, leaving 180 colonists to explore the wild Texas coast in a single vessel, the La Belle. Early in 1686, La Belle sank in Matagorda Bay. Then La Salle was murdered by his own men near present-day Navasota, Texas.
Fast forward 300 years to 1995, when a diver from the Texas Historical Commission discovered a bronze cannon on the floor of Matagorda Bay. More divers were brought in and they found the remains of La Belle.
The discovery made international headlines, and the historical commission embarked on a massive operation to recover the oldest French shipwreck in the western hemisphere. The story continues today at the Matagorda County Museum where artifacts from the wreck are on display, along with a diorama of a portion of the ship, showing it under excavation from the bottom of the sea.
Along with its historical exhibits, the county museum features paintings by Bay City’s most famous artist, Forrest Bess (1911-1977). Bess was a contemporary of the renowned abstract artist Jackson Pollack and exhibited at the same New York City gallery in the 1950s. Many art critics think Bess might have become as famous as Pollack had not mental illness taken its toll and forced him to return to Bay City, where he lived and worked in seclusion until his death. Today, an authentic Bess painting can sell for five figures and his works continue to rise in value. Bess made national news a few years ago when the Matagorda County Museum decided to have an auction on eBay of a group of paintings that may have been created by the artist. The operative word is “may,” because the paintings came to the museum from a collector known to deal in forgeries, and no one could authenticate the paintings. Real or not, the paintings offered on eBay sold out, and the auction was written about in the Los Angeles Times, Texas Highways and Art & Antiques.