Padre Island National Seashore, the longest seashore in the National Parks System, encompasses a portion of the largest barrier beach in the United States. It was dedicated on April 8, 1968, by Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson before a crowd of nearly 10,000. Attending were state and national officials, eighty American and foreign journalists, and leaders of various civic, garden, and environmental groups. The national seashore includes a 67.5-mile-long portion of the barrier island, which is 130 miles long, and some of the island's backwaters the Laguna Madre. The seashore comprises 130,355 acres in Kleberg, Willacy, and Kenedy counties, bounded by Mustang Island on the north and the Port Mansfield Channel on the south.
Efforts to establish a state park on Padre Island began in 1936 when D. E. Colp, State Parks Board chairman, proposed a park halfway between Port Isabel and Corpus Christi. In 1936 the movement was revived when an eighty-mile state park was suggested. A year later Rep. W. E. Pope of Corpus Christi introduced a bill in the Texas legislature for a park. After the bill passed both state chambers, Governor James Allred vetoed the measure, believing that the state already held some legal title to the island. State courts subsequently upheld private ownership. As a result of this court ruling, the first thorough land survey of the island-Boyle's survey-was undertaken in 1941. Investment, real estate speculation, and commercial development on the island escalated during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1955 the United States Park Service issued a publication, The Vanishing Shoreline, on the loss of America's natural shorelines. A year later a ten-year plan entitled Mission 66 was unveiled by Conrad Wirth, the park director, who wanted to establish more national parks and seashores.
In 1958 newly elected Texas senator Ralph W. Yarborough introduced a bill to establish a national park on Padre Island. A year later the bill was reintroduced, and committee hearings were held in December 1959 and August 1960. Texas citizens favored the establishment of a park but were opposed by developers and land investors. Though a similar bill proposing a smaller forty-mile park was introduced, Senator Yarborough was able to guide his bill through Congress, and it passed in 1962. On September 23, 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed the measure into law. Five years of condemnation proceedings were required before Padre Island National Seashore was dedicated. Separate civil suits at Corpus Christi in 1965 and Brownsville in 1966 resulted in larger settlements than had previously been expected. The island's surface lands were finally purchased at a cost of nearly $23 million, compared to the initial estimate of $4.5 million. Subsoil and mineral rights still belong to private owners. Shorter sections at each end of the island were not included in the national seashore. Small county parks and commercial developments already existed there when the Padre Island National Seashore bill was passed by Congress and the Texas legislature. Nueces County has a park at the northern end of the island and Cameron County maintains another at the southern end. Areas between the county parks and the national seashore remain under private or corporate ownership.
The chief attraction of Padre Island is its wide eastern beach of fine sand and shell fragments that slopes gently into the Gulf of Mexico, making it ideal for swimming, surf fishing, and strand-line play. This is the longest beach of its kind in the United States. Along the beach is a belt of sand dunes that rise to thirty-five feet. In the interior of the island there are numerous deflated basins that become ponds and lakes in wet periods. In addition to these basins there are extensive dune fields of great scenic beauty, particularly early or late in the day. The National Park Service plans to alter the landscape as little as possible, so that visitors can experience the wind, sand, sea, and sky with minimal distraction. Only a few small land animals live on the island. The most common mammal is probably the kangaroo rat. On the other hand, shore birds and migratory waterfowl abound along the beach and around the interior ponds and lakes. The Gulf shore is a beachcomber's paradise. In places the variety of seashells is phenomenal, and everywhere innumerable natural and man-made objects are cast ashore, especially after storms. The island has always been a lonely place because few people, including the Indians, have been able to live there permanently. Like many such sparsely occupied areas, Padre Island has a rich folklore, which is based mainly on pirates, treasure-laden wrecked ships, and Indian conflict. Its status as a national park is designed to keep most of it free from further settlement and commercial development. A new complex with visitor center, observation deck, snack bar, gift shop, showers, and changing area was completed in 1989. Padre Island National Seashore attracted 849,873 visitors in 1992.