Coastal Bend History


Sam Wilson and his tower

Posted at 5:27 PM, Aug 31, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-31 18:27:24-04

I'm sure that everyone who grew up in Corpus Christi would recognize the name Ada Wilson. She was one of those "larger than life" personalities, whose name was in the headlines for decades.

But, this story is about her husband, Sam Wilson.

Sam and Ada married in 1921 when he was an oil lease broker in Arkansas. He had tried his hand at drilling oil wells, but never seemed to have much luck until they moved to Corpus Christi in 1936. That's when his luck changed.

At one point, he struck oil with 44 consecutive wells, even one in his own backyard on Shell Road!

The wealth came pouring in faster than he could drill the next well.

By the mid-1940s, he ventured into real estate, buying the Nixon Building (the city’s first “skyscraper” and all of Mustang Island (except the city of Port A).

In 1951, he constructed the 21-story Wilson Tower, complete with a legendary penthouse on the top 4 stories.

The building’s architect was Walter W. Ahischlager, who also designed the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.

As a kid, the Wilson Tower was the most fascinating skyscraper in the city...especially with its huge, lighted, revolving "W" on the top. It was the first thing that I looked for when coming over the Harbor Bridge at night. The thing was huge....25 feet tall! It duplicated the colors and brand of Sam Wilson's horse racing enterprise. He ran his horses in the Kentucky Derby numerous times. He never won the Derby, but his 1951 entry, "Royal Mustang", finished second. Wilson was said to be the biggest bettor at Churchill Downs in the 1950s.

Not only did the Wilson Tower have a huge W on top, it also was equipped with 4 large speakers, each facing a different direction. In the morning, at noon, and in the late afternoon, a carillon system would broadcast organ, bell, or chime music. When first tested, there were numerous complaints from people in surrounding buildings. However, there was widespread praise from others who heard it from uptown to downtown.

Sam Wilson seemed to be the very definition of the rich Texas oilman....a J. R. Ewing if ever there was one. He had friends in high places and played the part superbly. (However, Ada Wilson said in a 1976 interview that SHE was the brains in their oil business).

Whatever the case, for over 20 years, Sam E. Wilson was a force to be reckoned with in Corpus Christi.

Sam was involved in the civic life of Corpus Christi in just about every way possible. He was a member of the Downtown Lions Club, the American Legion, Coastal Bend Shrine Club, and the Elks Lodge. He was also a 32nd-degree Mason and a lifetime member of the United States Chess Club.

On February 17, 1957, Sam Wilson suffered a fatal heart attack while vacationing in New Orleans. He was only 58 years old.

In tribute to Sam and his life, the oil industry took out a full-page ad in the Caller-Times, proclaiming him "a great Corpus Christian, a great South Texan, a great American, and a great humanitarian."

His body was returned to Corpus Christi and his funeral service took place at the First Methodist church. Internment was at Seaside cemetery in a plot directly across the street from my parents' plot.

Ada Wilson passed away in 1977 and is buried beside him. The markers of Sam and Ada Wilson dwarf all those nearby....fitting for one of those "larger than life" Corpus Christi couples.

By the way, that iconic “W” on top of the Wilson Tower was taken down in 1980, and to me, the building has never been the same.

Robert Parks is a special contributor to KRIS 6 News. Parks was a history teacher at Carroll High School for 19 years and is now retired. His knowledge of Corpus Christi history makes him a unique expert in the subject.