Built in 1847, the Matagorda Island Light is managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. The Matagorda Island State Park and Wildlife Management Area occupies 43,893 acres on the northern two-thirds of thirty-eight-mile-long Matagorda Island. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages 11,500 acres on the southwestern tip of the island. The only way to get to the state park and the light is via the boat, which can be arranged via the Port O'Connor Chamber of Commerce. (The Matagorda Island Ferry, operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, burned in 2003.)
Tours of the light and the adjacent cemetery (burial grounds for former lighthouse keepers and their families) are available as part of a history tour, which covers the origins of Matagorda Island five thousand years ago through the beginning of World War II.
In 1845 the Congress of the Republic of Texas authorized the construction of a light to guide sea-going vessels into Matagorda Bay through Pass Cavallo. Two years later Congress authorized $15,090 to build the light, but legislative red tape (surrounding the Lighthouse Service's purchasing of land and attainment of jurisdiction of it from the state of Texas) would prevent construction until 1851. The fifty-five-foot cast iron light, painted with horizontal black, red, and white horizontal stripes for visibility, became functional in 1852. During the Civil War, Matagorda Island was the scene of military action; Confederate troops tried unsuccessfully to demolish the light (to prevent it from falling into Union hands), breaking several of the cast iron plates and burying the lenses in the sand. Even so, the light sustained severe damage. In 1873 the light was repaired, but Gulf of Mexico storms and beach erosion forced the U.S. Coast Guard to have it rebuilt on higher ground. The light tower was raised 24 feet (7.3 m) to enable the beam to be seen from a greater distance. A residence for a keeper and his family was also built nearby.
Over 100 years later, in 1956, the U.S. Coast Guard automated the light beam (when commercial electricity finally reached the island), making it the first time the tower was not operated by a human keeper. The light went dormant in 1995, but was taken over by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in 1999. The commission raised $1.23 million to refurbish the light in time for a relighting on New Year's Eve 1999, to celebrate the millennium.
The Matagorda Island Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the nature and history of the island and adjacent waters, currently maintains the light and raises funds for its continued restoration. Future plans call for the re-creation of the keeper's quarters, creation of hiking/biking trails on the island, and the construction of a visitors' center. The original Fresnal lens and the lighthouse station's logbook can be seen at the Calhoun County Museum in Port Lavaca.
Budgetary and other concerns have inspired the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to focus primarily on the spot as a wildlife management area, leaving the lighthouse reconstruction and maintenance under the jurisdiction of the Matagorda Island Foundation. Today the public has access to the island’s entire east end, including the old Texas Parks and Wildlife Department campsite, but there are no services—just deer, alligator, 325 species of birds, and mangroves among which visitors can fish and kayak. Matagorda Island Wildlife Management Area is kept close to its natural state, so there is no electricity or drinking water. In addition, no motorized vehicles are allowed, but mountain biking and hiking are encouraged. Only some island visitors choose to camp, for all supplies must be brought along and there are no restrooms or shelter available.