By the time 1900 rolled around, Galveston was the undisputed cultural and recreational center of this part of the country. Almost 500 bars and 50 brothels put it on par with the historically raucous New Orleans, and it ranked 2nd in the country for cotton exports and 3rd in wheat. Dredging ensured a constant flow of vessels in its deep water port and beautiful mansions lined Broadway, which at 9 feet of elevation was the highest street at the time.
Brothers Isaac and Joseph Cline ran the Galveston office of the National Weather Service and did their best to warn people of the upcoming storm, although they did not have the early detection systems we enjoy today. With only three ways off the island, 3 railroad bridges and one wagon bridge, it would have made little difference anyway.
We all know the story, or at least parts of it. On September 8th the island was battered by 120 mile winds and a storm surge of 15.7 feet. Isaac’s wife took refuge in the Cline house with a crowd and a streetcar came loose in the floodwaters and demolished the house. Her body wasn’t found for two weeks. The first six blocks on the beach side was completely cleared of buildings. 90 orphans and 10 nuns died when the roof of the St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum collapsed. Over 6,000 people died on the island, and the total death toll was around 10,000 as the big storm lumbered all the way up to Canada. The morning after the storm many of those who survived had been clinging to floating wreckage for hours as they watched loved ones crushed and mangled all around them throughout the night. At first light they found a 30 block pile of debris comprised of parts of houses, businesses, as well as animal and human carcasses. Bodies were collected, weighted down, and sent off on rafts. They then floated back days later, bloated and almost unrecognizable. The task of burning the thousands of bodies was assigned to African American workers, often at gunpoint, which no doubt added to the increasing racial tension during this era of Jim Crow.
But, somehow we recovered. With the help of volunteers from Houston, the Red Cross, US Army, and Salvation Army, we cleaned up and started rebuilding. A new commission-style municipal government got things done. We built the first section of the seawall, raising parts of the island as high as 17 feet, deposited 500 city blocks of landfill, built a two mile concrete causeway, and made numerous improvements to the wharves.
At the recent kickoff for the large beach re-nourishment projects, Jerry Patterson described Galvestonians as being “resilient”. It’s hard to imagine us doing something of the magnitude of our forefathers. Often we seem to argue more than build. This project is, however, very encouraging. I wonder if this is a portent.
With the 1900 storm as our shared mythology and a beacon to what potential we as Galvestonians possess, who knows what we’re capable of?
Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress