Aransas Pass, across Redfish Bay from Port Aransas in Aransas, San Patricio, and Nueces counties, is named for the pass between Mustang and St. Joseph's islands. The town's early developers wanted to found a great deepwater port city on the Gulf of Mexico. The first attempts to develop the area were made by Pryor Lea, who founded the Aransas Road Company to link the coast with San Antonio by means of both a railroad and a turnpike. The enterprise, however, was a failure. Lea succeeded in building only a short distance of road, and the railroad never advanced beyond the planning stage. In the late 1850s the Central Transit Company, backed by English investors, sought to turn Lea's dream into reality by financing construction of a harbor and the railroad. But with the outbreak of the Civil War the work was interrupted and funding dried up.
Efforts at making the port also began before the Civil War. The United States Army Corps of Engineers studied the possibility of a deepwater port at Aransas Pass harbor in 1853. But it was not until 1879, when a group from Rockport raised $10,000 for the project, that work began in earnest. Congress passed a resolution in 1879 authorizing the deepening of Aransas Pass. Samuel M. Mansfield worked unsuccessfully on this project from May of 1880 to 1885.
The Texas Homestead and Farmers Association (renamed Aransas Pass Land Company in 1888) took out a charter in 1882 with the intention of purchasing and subdividing land. In 1890 the Aransas Pass Harbor Company and the Aransas Harbor City and Improvement Company were chartered by largely the same people. The harbor company planned to dig a channel from the Gulf to the site where the Harbor City Company proposed to develop Harbor City. Russell B. Harrison, son of the late president William Henry Harrison, and Thomas Benton Wheeler, former lieutenant governor of Texas, were two of the key organizers.
Nationwide publicity generated interest from all over the United States. The three-story Hoyt Hotel (later renamed Bay View) was opened in 1893 to accommodate and impress the flood of prospects who flocked in by rail and sea to inspect the new port city. The so-called Terminal Railroad that would link Aransas Pass to the mainland began in 1891. Rock for the planned jetty was shipped in on the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway, transferred to the Terminal Railroad, and then off-loaded to barges to be taken to the pass.
A double-barreled blow ended the dream. The panic of 1893 dried up funds, and the channel-deepening project turned out to be a failure. People who had flocked into Aransas Pass now vanished just as fast. The promoters eventually offered to turn their $401,554 channel-deeping project over to the federal government at no charge, and in 1899 the United States Corps of Engineers was authorized to tackle the project. By 1907 a second jetty had been installed, and a deepwater channel had been extended to Harbor Island. Deep water had finally arrived after a fifty-year struggle.
Wheeler, who had remained faithfully committed to Aransas Pass, now interested real estate developers in the site. The developers negotiated a deal with Mary McCampbell for 12,000 acres of land, and the stage was set for one of the biggest land sales ever held in South Texas. Six thousand land-lottery tickets were sold for $100 each to people in the Midwest. Each ticket guaranteed the holder one city lot and a chance at three giant prizes. The sale was a huge success, despite the fact that postal inspectors stepped in and forced competitive bidding rather than the agreed-on price of $100.
While the dredging was underway on the pass and Harbor Island, the developers dug a channel 100 feet wide and 8½ feet deep from the mainland to Harbor Island. The dredged material was thrown to one side, forming a roadbed for the Terminal Railroad, which was extended from Harbor Island to the mainland to join the Southern Pacific main line. Oceangoing vessels began to call regularly, and on September 7, 1912, a week-long celebration was staged with the ocean liner Brinkburn as the centerpiece. Records show that in the two weeks ending on September 13, 1912, 47,093 bales of cotton were shipped.
W. H. Vernor was elected mayor in April 1910, when the city was incorporated; commission government was approved in 1952. Harbor City and Aransas Pass were just settling into routine shipping when the hurricane of 1916 struck. Damage was heavy, but repairs were completed within two months, and business was back to normal. In September 1919 a second hurricane did tremendous damage to the town of Aransas Pass and the shipping facilities. Visions that Aransas Pass had for becoming the deepwater port for the lower Gulf coast were smashed on June 5, 1920, when the Corps of Engineers announced that Corpus Christi had been chosen over Aransas Pass and Rockport. Aransas Pass sought funds to dig its own channel through a countywide bond issue, but the measure failed. Harbor Island continued as an oil terminal, but for all practical purposes no further cargo shipments were made in and out of Harbor Island after the port of Corpus Christi opened for business in 1926. Eventually the channel dredged by the Aransas Pass Channel and Dock Company in 1909–10 was taken over by the Corps of Engineers.
Although development of Aransas Pass has been primarily centered around the harbor, the town grew on all fronts. The school system originated in 1892 when local Methodists erected a combination church and school building. In 1911 a two-story brick building was constructed, and in 1988 it was still used as the central office for the school district. The first post office was opened in 1892 with Charles T. Black as the postmaster.
After the hurricane of 1919 a seawall was built, and steady growth of the shrimping and fishing fleet brought business into Aransas Pass. Shrimp canneries opened, and later, when quick freezing techniques were developed, packing plants were built on the harbor. With the improvements to Conn Brown Harbor after World War II, the shrimping fleet grew to be the largest on the Gulf coast. Allied industries have grown up on the port and in the city. In the 1980s Aransas Pass had an estimated population of over 7,000. In 1990 the population was 7,180. By 2000 the population grew to 8,138.