On this day in 1882, two expeditions, one from the United States Naval Observatory and one from the Belgian Royal Obervatory, came to San Antonio to observe the transit of Venus. Such transits are very rare events that offer an opportunity of determining the distance of the earth from the sun by mounting expeditions to widely scattered sites over the earth, from which different tracks of the planet across the sun can be observed. On previous occasions the exact moments when the disk of Venus was just fully on the edge of the solar disk were unknown because of a distortion of the planet's image known as the "black drop effect." For the 1882 event many nations sent expeditions to a variety of sites; San Antonio was considered the best observing station in North America. The Belgian expedition produced many drawings of the black drop effect, both at San Antonio and at the companion station in Chile, but these led again to an uncertain estimate of the earth-sun distance. The American results were equally disappointing, not least because the funds allocated by Congress were cut off.
On this day in 1851, the contract to construct the Port Isabel lighthouse was let by the United States government. The brick lighthouse stands near State Highway 100 in southeastern Cameron County. It is fifty-seven feet high, and projects eighty-two feet above sea level. The original light was visible for fifteen miles. The tower has been used mainly for observation, first during the Cortina War, then during the Civil War and both world wars. It received a state historic marker in 1936. The site is managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. In the 1990s the tower with its mercury-vapor light was still marked on sea charts as an aid to navigation.
On this day in 1949, blues pioneer Huddie Ledbetter, popularly known as “Leadbelly,” died in New York City. Born in 1888, the son of a black sharecropper, Leadbelly grew up in Louisiana and East Texas before striking out on his own in 1901 to live the life of a musician. He eventually made his way to Dallas, where he met songster Blind Lemon Jefferson playing on the streets of Deep Ellum, the town’s notorious black district. In 1918 Leadbelly was sentenced to thirty years in the Texas penitentiary for murder, but Gov. Pat Neff pardoned him in 1925 after the blues player wrote a song in his honor. In 1930, however, Leadbelly was imprisoned again, this time in Angola, Louisiana, on an assault charge. It was here where pioneer recording archivists John Avery Lomax and his son Alan discovered the blues guitarist and recorded his songs for posterity. Leadbelly was soon released as a result of their appeals and eventually toured the country, thus bringing his work songs and spirituals to a wider audience and influencing new generations of songwriters and guitarists. In 1988 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
On this day in 1889, Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederate States of America, died in New Orleans. Davis, born in Kentucky in 1808 but later a senator from Mississippi, was first in Texas as an army officer during the Mexican War in 1847 with Zachary Taylor's force on the Rio Grande. In 1854, while Davis was United States secretary of war, he recommended the Texas or thirty-second-parallel route for construction of a railroad to the Pacific Ocean, and in 1856 he sent camels to Camp Verde to test the animals' suitability as military transportation. After Reconstruction a movement was launched in Dallas to purchase a homestead for Davis and invite him to move to Texas. In 1875 he was offered the presidency of the newly established Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas. In declining the appointment, he wrote of his hopes of revisiting Texas, but he never did so.