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Published on September 14, 2021

Grand days of Freeport and the Tarpon Inn

By Janice R. Edwards
The Bulletin

As the sea fog rolls into Freeport harbor at Park Avenue and Second Street in downtown Freeport, I can envision how things used to be when sulphur ruled the area, and the legendary Tarpon Inn was the beehive of activity.

It all started in 1912 and ended in 1956. In between, the inn played a prominent role in the city’s history. Whispers of the inn’s former prominence emerge from the vacant land as one can almost hear the strains of a five-piece orchestra play, while the perfume of ladies’ gardenia corsages attending Friday night dances lingers in the breeze.

The inn’s mascot, a stray yellow cat, “Old Sulphur,” might perhaps still troll the inn in this scenario. The tangy scent of sulphur mingles with the aroma of delectable local seafood cooking in the kitchen, and the trace of cigar smoke of the never-ending Saturday poker games in Parlor 14 fills the air.

Though demolished in 1956, the Grand Dame of Freeport inns, the Tarpon Inn survives in bits and pieces in old newspaper clippings and photographs.

It also lives on in Dan Kessner’s model of the inn, its aged lobby chandelier at the Freeport Museum Library and the memories of those lucky enough to have experienced its hospitality.

The Tarpon Inn’s story is intertwined with the life of Freeport, and perhaps neither would have existed without the discovery of sulphur at Bryan Mound. The inn’s 42-year fate was dictated by the fate of industry. It began its life housing employees for the Freeport Sulphur Co. and ended its life housing employees of Dow Chemical Co.

The story began when J.M. Duffy Petroleum Co. drilled two exploratory wells into Bryan Mound in 1901. They found no oil but discovered huge amounts of sulphur. Perhaps the Tarpon’s life would have ended then before it even began were it not for Francis R. Pemberton, an industrialist, taking the discovery to several investors.

One investor was Eric P. Swenson, vice-president of National City Bank in New York and native Texan with strong ranching and financial holdings in Texas. Swenson was intrigued, so in 1911 he made some exploratory trips to Texas.

During a visit to the Bryan Mound area, he realized that sulphur deposits were not his only investment opportunity. He could also develop a duty-free port at the mouth of the Brazos that would rival Galveston and Corpus Christi.

Swenson returned to New York, formed the Vanderlip-Swenson-Tilghman Syndicate and raised $700,000. He and the Tilghman Syndicate purchased Bryan Mound and surrounding area and obtained an option for 10,000 acres along the Brazos River.

On July 12, 1911, the Freeport Sulphur Company was incorporated, and the Tilghman Syndicate from New York acquired 1,700 acres on the south bank of the Brazos to build living accommodations.

A pivotal year for Freeport and The Tarpon Inn was 1912. Steamship service between Freeport and New York City was established. W. A. Randle (later with the Brazos River Harbor Navigation District) began the survey of Tilgham Syndicate’s acreage for a new city to be named Freeport and staked out the Tarpon Inn.

The first building in Freeport, the office of the town site company, was built at the corner of Cherry and Broad streets.

Construction on the Tarpon Inn began in August 1912. It was the second edifice in the new city. Though not complete, it was housing Freeport Sulphur Co. employees by October 1912.

On Nov. 11, 1912, Dave Austin brought the first wagonload of sulphur produced at Bryan Mound to display in front of the Tarpon. Texas Gov. Oscar C. Colquitt dedicated Freeport from the porch of the Tarpon Inn the next day.

It didn’t take long before people became excited over buying a piece of Freeport. They gathered on the porch and grounds of the Tarpon Inn on Nov. 20. 1912, to purchase lots in the new city, and the sale went on for hours. The lots were purchased on a first-come, first-served basis and were sold at a nominal price to encourage the new city’s growth.

The Tarpon, initially named Freeport Inn, was built by Flouree Construction Co. of Kansas City. It was made mostly of wood, covered in cream-colored cement stucco and trimmed in dark wood in the Mission/Tudor style.

It was modeled after a Swenson–owned hotel operating in Spur, Texas, where he had extensive ranch holdings.

The inn featured 30 guest rooms, many with private baths. In addition, it had public baths on each floor, steam heat, electricity, hot and cold running water, guest parlors, a large dining room capable of seating 100 people and a streamlined kitchen.

The dining room and kitchen were separated from the main structure by a breezeway. The hallways were wide, and the ceilings throughout were high.

One room on the lower level was set aside for baggage, and there was a structure at the rear of the hotel for employees. The Freeport Sulphur Co. always kept a staff room.

Early in its existence, a large mounted Tarpon was hung over the lobby desk. Large oleanders of all colors lined the horseshoe driveway, and rocking chairs lined the porch. The inn kept a yacht, the Skylark, for transportation across the Brazos River to the sulphur mines and for recreational purposes. (The only way to reach the deposits was by ferry across the Brazos.)

Several acres adjoining the inn were retained for recreational events.

(To be continued: The jewel of Freeport held its own for many years, but time took its toll.)

(Write Jan in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)