This small fishing community is growing, but its salty, self-sufficient spirit remains
Legend has it famous pirate Jean Laffite, who maintained a headquarters in Galveston in the early 19th century, created an outpost on the San Leon peninsula.
This unincorporated community in north Galveston County, once called Edward’s Point, is where Laffite maintained a stronghold, according to historians. The community still embraces its pirate history. Despite some growth, San Leon at its core remains a small, close-knit fishing community.
“It’s like a small drinking village with a fishing problem,” said Raz Halili, repeating the community’s unofficial motto. “That’s what most people say.”
San Leon residents are laid-back and self-sufficient people, he said.
“Everybody minds their own business, does their own thing,” Halili said. “People like their own peace and harmony.”
Halili grew up in San Leon and is the vice president of Prestige Oysters, a Gulf oyster company his family founded and owns. Last year, he opened Pier 6 Seafood & Oyster House,
113 Sixth St., to strong reviews.
The 5,000-acre peninsula community had about 2,000 residents by the late 1800s, when it boasted a hotel, railroad, wool-processing plant, bank, church and dance hall, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
Today, San Leon is an eclectic mix of veterans, anglers, working-class people and owners of million-dollar homes, said Kelly Railean, owner of Railean Distillery and Buccaneer Bar.
Railean opened the distillery, 341 Fifth St., in 2007 when the popularity of independent alcohol brands was rising.
“People wanted stuff they couldn’t find in the grocery store,” Railean said. “People want something handcrafted and local.”
Railean planted the pirate-themed distillery in the community she loved and where she had fond memories. The theme partly was inspired by a once-favorite pastime of boating around Clear Lake on dinghies with friends, she said.
“We’d get dressed up as pirates and go bar hopping on Clear Lake,” Railean said. “We’d have a pirate dinghy rally.”
That’s partly the inspiration for the distillery’s buccaneer theme. Smelling of sweet rum, the inside of Railean Distillery is decked with eyepatches, swords and pictures of swashbuckling pirates.
Railean also sees traces of the pirate lifestyle in San Leon, she said.
“Look at all the boaters,” Railean said. “We’re one of the largest ports for pleasure boaters.”
There is something different about living on the water, Halili said.
“When you grow up on an oyster dock, it’s so different,” Halili said. “It’s rural. It’s gritty and it’s raw. It kind of molds you and it becomes part of you as you grow up.”
Working on the water was hard, he said. Sometimes, it was blistering hot and other times painfully cold.
But the water also is calming and beautiful, he said.
“On a nice, calm spring or fall day, and you see the sun rise and see some of the dolphins swimming in front of the boat, it’s a very cool feeling,” Halili said. “It’s something special.”
Halili opened Pier 6 Seafood & Oyster House with the intention of capturing those beautiful bayside views, he said.
The restaurant is on property that once was the site of an ice house, the Buccaneer, beloved by Railean and the source of a years-long treasure hunt.
The Buccaneer was destroyed during Hurricane Ike in 2008, but Railean wanted to preserve the ice house’s big wooden sign featuring a pirate’s face.
For years, Railean asked new owners of the site to look for the sign at the property and warehouses, but it was lost with former owners. Railean had almost given up on ever finding it until San Leon resident John McCracken, who lives next door to the property, came upon it.
When a Pier 6 employee stumbled on the sign, he took it to McCracken, a retired U.S. Coast Guard veteran. McCracken gave the sign to Railean.
The conclusion of the treasure hunt was a matter of the right person stumbling across the sign, said Railean, who hung the sign in the distillery’s bar.
McCracken has been in San Leon decades. The area has changed and grown over the years, he said.
“It was all fishermen in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” McCracken said. “I’ve always been on the water all my life.”
Now, more people, or “yankees,” as McCracken calls anyone from north of Interstate 10, have moved to San Leon.
What hasn’t changed is how accepting the community is, Kenna Cotton said.
Cotton moved to San Leon with her wife, Lisa Spinks, in 1998. The couple at first were worried about how the community would treat them.
But on their first night at a local bar, people welcomed them, Cotton said.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do,” Cotton said. “Everybody’s just friendly out here. We wouldn’t move from here for anything.”
The community has seen its share of hardships. Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017 badly damaged the peninsula.
But people pulled through and helped each other, Railean said.
“There’s million-dollars houses next to shacks,” Railean said. “People out here, they don’t care. People look out for each other.”