The fact that the city of Galveston exists today is the triumph of imagination, hope and determination over reality. Perched precariously on a sand-barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston is subject to the whims of inevitable hurricanes.
One of those hurricanes, dancing its deadly way across the Gulf of Mexico in early September 1900, came very close to dealing the city a fatal blow. An estimated 6,000 residents died, and most structures in the city were destroyed or badly damaged. In terms of human life, it remains the worst natural disaster in United States history.
Galveston's leaders took several major steps to recover from the storm and to prevent a recurrence of the devastation. First, they developed a new form of municipal government, one with strong centralized control to handle the economic recovery of the city. Next, they built a massive seawall to turn back storm-generated waves. Perhaps the most amazing step they took was to raise the level of the entire city, by more than 16 feet in some areas, in order to keep flooding at a minimum.
Early History of the Island and the City
Galveston Island, one and one-half to three miles wide and 27 miles long, was part of the Karankawa Indians' territory before Europeans arrived. The first European to see the island was probably Spanish explorer Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, who in 1519 surveyed the entire Gulf Coast from the Florida Keys to Veracruz for the Spanish government.
When Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked on a Gulf island that he called Isla de Malhado (Island of Misfortune) in 1528, he may have been on Galveston Island. Other Spanish visitors called it San Luís or Isla de Culebras (Island of Snakes).
In 1785, José Antonio de Evia charted the coastline, naming the bay between island and mainland for Bernardo de Gálvez Gallardo, the viceroy of Mexico. Map makers later also applied the name to the island.
In 1816, Frenchman Louis Michel Aury became the first European to inhabit the island, and he attempted to establish a government. He was displaced by French pirate Jean Lafitte in mid-1817; Lafitte hung around the island until about 1820.
Probably the primary attraction to pirates and to the settlers who followed them was that the eastern end of Galveston Island was the best natural port between New Orleans and Veracruz. The government of Mexico built a small customshouse on the island in 1825 to create a port of entry. The Texas revolutionaries used the port of Galveston during the Texas war for independence from Mexico in 1835-36. After that war, Michel B. Menard, the French-Canadian for whom Menard County was named, acquired more than 4,000 acres at the harbor for a town. Menard and his associates in the venture called the town "Galveston" and began selling lots on April 20, 1838.
Not surprisingly, Galveston's economy developed around shipping. Its wharves and warehouses moved cotton, sugar, molasses, cattle, pecans and hides from Texas to the rest of the world via New Orleans, New York and Great Britain. Galveston reported shipment of 82,000 bales of cotton in 1854. The importance of cotton to Galveston increased steadily, with Galveston ranking third among U.S. ports in cotton shipments in 1878.
Before the Civil War, small factories made iron parts, soap, furniture and rope. After the war, cottonseed oil, flour, ice and textiles were manufactured, and cotton compresses operated. There was virtually no major manufacturing at Galveston, however. Investors were reluctant to put their money into an area that was so vulnerable to destructive storms.
Realizing that the economic health of their shipping business depended on railroads to transport goods to and from the port, the City of Galveston financed the construction of a railroad bridge to the mainland in 1860. Shipworms ate much of it, and the remainder blew away in a storm in 1867. A replacement was built in 1868. Another followed in 1877, and a bridge for wagons was constructed in 1893. A third railroad bridge was completed in 1896.
Civil War Slows Economic Growth
At the outbreak of the Civil War, commerce halted for almost a year. When Union ships began shelling the island city, many residents abandoned their homes and businesses for safer temporary shelter inland.
The Union navy blockaded the port for most of the war. Blockade-runners sneaked through on a regular basis, however, transporting cotton to ports in Mexico and bringing in trade goods and munitions. The Confederates surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1865. Gen. Gordon Granger, the Union commander in charge of Texas, arrived in Galveston on June 19 to declare, "The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States 'all slaves are free.' " Because the news of emancipation did not reach Texas for more than two months past the end of the war, June 19 (called Juneteenth) is the date on which Texas blacks celebrate the end of slavery.
Recovering from the Civil War, Galveston surged ahead of other Texas cities in population in the 1870 federal census, with 13,818 residents, and remained on top in 1880, with 22,248.
Galveston's port had a chronic sandbar problem first noticed about 1843. In 1845, there were only 11 feet of water over the outer bar; by 1869, there were only eight feet. As ships became larger, they required deeper harbors. At Galveston, large ships had to anchor outside the bar and transfer their cargoes to shallow-draft barges, called "lighters," for transport to the wharves – a slow and expensive process. Since the port was essential to Galveston's economic development, it had to be able to accommodate deeper-draft ships. When the Reconstruction military officials refused to authorize a city tax for clearing the bar, the city's Board of Harbor Improvements sold city bonds to pay for the project. The firm hired to deepen the harbor sank three rows of cedar piles, which focused the current in a way that washed away the sand. The bar sank to 12 feet below the water's surface by 1873 and continued sinking.
The goal then became a 20-foot depth, but efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1874 and 1880 only made matters worse. Led by Col. William L. Moody – a Virginian by birth, a Texan since 1852 – the citizens of Galveston organized a Deep Water Committee in 1881. The DWC gathered information, formulated a plan and presented it to the U.S. Senate, which approved the Galveston Harbor Bill in 1890. The resulting jetties did their work as planned: In October 1896, the largest cargo ship in the world, drawing 21 feet, docked at Galveston wharves.
Imports increased 37 percent. Exports also improved. Before the harbor was deepened, Galveston shipped 22 percent of Texas cotton. In 1897-98, it shipped 64 percent. In 1900, more than 2 million bales of cotton were shipped from the port at Galveston.
By the time the 1900 census count was taken, however, San Antonio, with 53,321 residents, Houston, with 44,633, and Dallas, with 42,638, had left Galveston, with 37,789, in the population dust. The transcontinental railroad lines and growing manufacturing sectors of the three larger Texas cities by-passed hurricane-vulnerable Galveston.
Hurricanes struck Galveston at least 11 times during the 19th century. In 1818, the entire island was flooded to a depth of four feet, leaving only six buildings habitable.
After a storm inundated the city in 1837, a local carpenter, Joseph Ehlinger, suggested rebuilding the destroyed customshouse on four-foot pilings to raise it above the flood level. After that time, many structures in Galveston, residences included, were built on stilts. A storm in 1867 tore up all but one of the docks and flooded the business area.
One of the federal government's earliest weather stations was established in Galveston in 1871 for reporting local weather data to the national weather office.
The 1875 hurricane that heavily damaged the port town of Indianola, about 120 crow's-flight miles southwest, also hit Galveston. Following that storm, Galveston asked the state to construct a breakwater. The state refused. In 1878, the city planted salt cedars atop some of the sand dunes, hoping that the trees' root network would hold the dunes in place and create a natural breakwater. A little sand was brought in to raise some areas, but even after that, the highest point in the city was less than nine feet above sea level.
The hurricane that finished off Indianola in 1886 produced more discussions in Galveston of building a seawall, but no action.
The Storm of Sept. 8, 1900
On Sept. 4, 1900, the Galveston weather station received its first notice that a hurricane was moving northward from Cuba.
The barometric pressure at the Galveston weather station at 7:00 a.m. on Sept. 6 was 29.97 inches of mercury and slowly falling. The station's climatologist, Isaac M. Cline, was notified by telegraph that the hurricane had passed over central Florida. On the following day, Cline noted in his journal that the winds at Galveston were becoming stronger and the seas were rough, but he noticed none of the usual warning signs of an imminent hurricane.
On Saturday morning, Sept. 8, in a story datelined "Miami, Fla., Sept. 7," the Galveston Newsreported, "The tropical hurricane, which has done considerable damage on the islands of Jamaica and Cuba, struck the Florida coast Wednesday morning. No damage was done at Miami ... Telegraph wires were blown down and this part of the country was shut off from the outside world from Wednesday night until this evening." Telegraph lines were also down on the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, and Cline could not be notified of the direction of the storm's path.
In Galveston that Saturday morning, rain clouds were building up, the winds were much stronger. The weather forecast in the Galveston News for eastern Texas read, "Rain Saturday, with high northerly winds; Sunday rain, followed by clearing." Cline noticed that the tide was much higher than usual. When low-lying areas of the city began flooding, Cline became alarmed and hoisted hurricane-warning flags. Cline reported later that he had left the weather office in the care of his brother Joseph and a helper numerous times that day to warn residents closest to the beach that they should find safer shelter. However, many Galvestonians went about their day as usual. They had endured storms in the past, and they were not alarmed by yet another.
The rain gauge blew down from its perch atop the Levy Building about 2:30 p.m. The barometer began a rapid fall during the late afternoon. The anemometer blew away at 5:15 p.m., shortly after recording average wind speeds of 84 miles an hour and gusts of 100. Cline later estimated that the strongest winds were 120 miles per hour. However, many survivors reported seeing slate, timbers, bricks and other heavy debris being blown through the air almost horizontally, which could indicate much stronger winds.
The storm made match sticks out of frame buildings. Even those that had been carefully constructed to withstand the wind and rain of hurricanes were not able to resist battering by bridge trestles and other debris from already collapsed structures. Even "storm-proof" brick buildings fell under the onslaught. The collapsing buildings caught and held victims under water. Others were cut down by wave-tossed or wind-blown debris.
The entire island was covered by a storm surge of up to 15.7 feet of water; the previous record from the 1875 storm was 8.2 feet.
After the Storm
When the wind and rain stopped and the water receded, the survivors emerged from their shelters to a horrific sight. Bodies lay everywhere. Many victims were buried in the huge piles of rubble that covered the city; they were discovered only as the clean-up progressed. Structures in two-thirds of the city were totally destroyed. In the remaining one-third, most buildings were badly damaged.
The Galveston News published a stark single sheet on Sunday morning, headed, "Galveston News. Sunday Sept. 9, 1900. Following is list of dead as accurately as News men have been able to make it. Those who have lost relatives should report same at News office. This list will be corrected and added to as returns come in." There followed a two-column list of names.
There will probably never be a full accounting of all the people who perished in the 1900 storm. In the semitropical climate, the most urgent task was disposing of the remains of the victims for health reasons. Because of the powerful stench of decaying bodies, searchers wore handkerchiefs saturated with camphor over their noses, and many drank whiskey to dull the horror. When not enough volunteers could be found for this grisly task, men were rounded up at gunpoint or bayonet point to do it.
At first, the remains were transported on barges into the Gulf, weighted with heavy rocks, and dumped overboard. When some of the bodies began to float ashore several days later, funeral pyres were used to cremate the victims.
About 70 victims a day were found during the first month after the storm. The funeral fires burned into November. Not until Feb. 10, 1901, was the last body found. A final list of 4,263 dead was published in the Galveston News in early October, but many bodies were never identified. The best estimates give the number of dead as about 6,000 people in the city, while another 4,000-6,000 died elsewhere on the island and on the nearby mainland.
Besides the human toll, the value of damaged property was estimated at $30 million, including 3,600 homes destroyed. The wagon bridge had washed away, leaving railroads the only transportation to the mainland.
At a mass meeting the day after the storm, citizens elected a committee to direct recovery efforts: Galveston Mayor Walter C. Jones was named chairman of the Central Relief Committee; state senator R.V. Davidson was secretary of the committee; ship agent W.A. McVitie was chairman of relief services; banker John Sealy was in charge of finances; ship agent Daniel Ripley was placed in charge of hospitals; banker and businessman Morris Lasker was in charge of correspondence.
Also on the committee were financier I.H. Kempner; alderman Ben Levy; ship agent Jens Moller; banker Bertrand Adoue; Rabbi Henry Cohen of Congregation B'nai Israel; city recorder and attorney Noah Allen; and editor W.V. McConn.
The relief committee organized quickly to take care of the most urgent needs of the survivors. As the story of the city's tragedy spread, the world responded.
Clara Barton, the 78-year-old founder of the American Red Cross, arrived on Sept. 17 with a group of workers. The Central Relief Committee delegated to them the distribution of food and clothing until the Red Cross group left on Nov. 14. Donations poured in from cities around the United States and several foreign countries.
Money came from millionaires in New York, from black churches in Georgia, and from a little girl in Chicago, who sent 10 cents. Donations came from religious groups, labor and fraternal organizations and thousands of individuals. Relief funds were raised by an organ recital in Scranton, Pa., and by a baseball game in Anaconda, Mont. Money was sent by the German Turnverein of St. Louis, Mo., and the Rough and Ready Fire Company of Montrose, Pa. Sunday school classes sent their collections of pennies, nickels and dimes.
In all, donations exceeded $1.25 million. By far the most generous state was New York ($228,055), followed by Texas ($66,790), Illinois ($55,544), Massachusetts ($53,350) and Missouri ($52,116). Donations also arrived from foreign countries – among them, Canada, Mexico, France, Germany, England and South Africa.
Along with taking care of the immediate needs of clean-up, restoration of utilities, and feeding, clothing and sheltering the survivors of the storm, the Central Relief Committee paid for the building of 483 new houses, plus furnishing partial financial aid for the repair or rebuilding of 1,114 houses.
A New Form of Municipal Government
As discussion began on what should be done to prevent a recurrence of such a disaster, the old Deep Water Committee resurfaced.
The DWC members were the elite of Galveston's finance and business world. In his book, Galveston: A History, David G. McComb says, "Members of the committee and their associates directed the eight local banks, dominated 62 percent of the corporate capital, and controlled 75 percent of the valuable real estate."
Dissatisfaction with Galveston's municipal government had been building during the preceding several years, especially within the ranks of financial and commercial leaders. The sitting government was guilty not so much of malfeasance as of laxity and procrastination. Fiscal irregularities had been uncovered that were perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the official accountant did not know how to keep books. Galveston's financial situation was bleak.
The city operated under a mayor-council charter, which, since the mid-1890s, provided for 12 councilmen. They were elected at large but were required to live in the wards they represented. Two weeks after the storm, the council began discussing the need for a city government that could lead Galveston through the recovery period. The Deep Water Committee asserted that Galveston needed a stronger, more centralized, more efficient form of government to direct recovery efforts.
The DWC proposed a commission appointed by the governor and composed of a mayor-president and four commissioners. Each commissioner would administer a division of city government: finance and revenue, police and fire, waterworks and sewerage, and streets and public improvements. The committee further suggested that the state exempt Galveston from paying state and county taxes for two years and that the bonded debt be refinanced at a lower rate.
In 1900, any changes in city charters had to be approved by the legislature, so the DWC appealed directly to the state's governing body for enabling legislation for their ground-breaking charter.
The original plan called for all five commission members to be appointed. The legislature approved an amended version providing for the election of two commissioners and the appointment of three. In 1903, under the threat of court challenges to the constitutionality of the charter, the legislature required that all commissioners be elected. Galveston kept the commission form of city government, with modifications, until 1960.
The Recovery Plan
Recovery was, of course, the highest priority with the new commission, which appointed three engineers to develop a plan to protect Galveston from future storms.
The engineers presented a two-part project: To break the force of the waves, they recommended building a concrete seawall three miles long from the south jetty across the eastern edge of the city and down the beach. To protect the city from flooding, they proposed raising the level of the entire city by picking up most of the structures in the city and filling in beneath them with sand. Cost of the entire project was estimated to be $3.5 million.
The county agreed to pay for the seawall through a bond issue. Initially reluctant, the Texas Legislature finally agreed to a combination of tax abatement and sales of bonds to finance the grade elevation.
Construction of the Seawall
J.M. O'Rourke and Co. of Denver built the seawall in 50-foot interlocking sections. First, piles were driven 40 to 50 feet deep and set four feet apart. They were protected from undermining on the Gulf side by sheet piling sunk 26 feet into the sea floor. Concrete was poured over the pilings, reinforced with one-and-one-quarter-inch-diameter steel rods inserted every three feet. The crew poured about 100 feet of wall a day. The side of the seawall facing the Gulf was concave, to absorb shock and to turn the waves back on themselves.
Granite riprap three to four feet deep and extending 27 feet out from the wall added protection from erosion.
T. Lindsay Baker, in his book, Building the Lone Star, lists the materials used in constructing the seawall: 5,200 railway carloads of crushed granite, 1,800 carloads of sand, 1,000 carloads of cement, 1,200 carloads of round wooden pilings, 4,000 carloads of wooden sheet pilings, 3,700 carloads of stone riprap and five carloads of reinforcing steel.
When the wall was finished, it stood 17 feet above mean low tide, was 15 feet thick at the base, five feet thick at the top, and three-and-one-half miles long. A brick drive extended about 100 feet inland from the top.
The city's portion, begun on Oct. 27, 1902, and completed on July 29, 1904, cost within $326 of the contracted amount. Between December 1904 and October 1905, another section of seawall was built by the federal government to protect Fort Crockett Military Reservation. Additions and modifications to the seawall were made in 1918-1921, 1923, 1926, 1927 and 1950. Today the wall is 10.4 miles long.
Lifting an Entire City
Raising the grade of the city was more complicated.
The work began in December 1903 and was done in quarter-mile-square sections, each about 16 city blocks in size. Each section in turn was enclosed in a dike.
In addition to structures, utility lines within the dike – sewers, water and gas lines, streetcar tracks, fire hydrants and telephone and telegraph poles – had to be lifted. Fences, sidewalks and outbuildings also had to be repositioned.
Some frame structures had been built on stilts because of the city's periodic flooding. Many of them sat high enough to accommodate the increased height in ground level. All buildings that weren't already on stilts – about 2,000 buildings – were raised with jacks. Even the 3,000-ton St. Patrick's Church was lifted five feet with 700 jackscrews.
Sand for the fill was dredged out of an area between the jetties at the entrance to Galveston harbor, which had the benefit of deepening the approach to the harbor.
To transport the fill to the areas being raised, the contractor built a canal 20 feet deep, 200 feet wide and two-and-a-half miles long through the residential district. About 350 houses had to be temporarily relocated so that the canal could be dug.
A slurry of water and fill sand, dug out of the harbor channel by dredges, was sailed down the canal to discharge stations, from which the mixture was pumped into the area to the desired level. The water then drained away, leaving the sand behind. New foundations were constructed for the buildings on top of the fill, and the structures were fastened to their new bases.
While the work was being done, people walked about on catwalks as high as eight to ten feet in the air.
The area immediately behind the seawall was raised just over 16.5 feet, giving the seawall a solid support. The grade decreased one foot for every 1,500 feet west to Galveston Bay, so that the city's streets drained into the bay. A side benefit of the grade raising was that the city's sewer system, which had never worked right, finally had enough slope to enable it to operate properly.
When the job was finished in 1910, 500 city blocks had been raised from a few inches to more than 16 feet by the use of 16.3 million cubic yards of sand.
The Defenses are Tested
The first major test of the seawall came on August 16, 1915, when a large hurricane pushed the tide to three inches higher than in 1900. The storm destroyed 90 percent of the buildings outside the seawall and flooded the downtown area. However, only eight people lost their lives in Galveston, compared with 304 elsewhere.
Tornadoes accompanying Hurricane Carla in 1961 destroyed 120 buildings and killed six people, but the hurricane's wind, rain and tide were not devastating. In 1983, Hurricane Alicia spared the populace but damaged about $300 million worth of property.
Engineering technology appears to have saved Galveston from an encore of the devastation of 1900. But the city has never regained its former place in the shipping industry.
Today Galveston's economy is driven by three paramount areas: tourism, attracting visitors to its beach and its historic districts; the port, which now ranks 7th in shipments among the 13 major Texas ports; and The University of Texas Medical Branch, which has been an important part of the city since 1891.
— written by Mary G. Ramos, editor emerita, for the Texas Almanac 1998–1999.
• Link to Galveston town page.
Building the Lone Star: An Illustrated Guide to Historic Sites, by T. Lindsay Baker; Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1986.
Galveston: A History, by David G. McComb; University of Texas Press, Austin, 1986.
Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, edited by Clarence Ousley; Wm. C. Chase, Atlanta, 1900.
"Report of the Central Relief Committee for Galveston Storm Sufferers"; Galveston, May 2, 1902.
"The Galveston Plan of City Government by Commission: The Birth of a Progressive Idea" by Bradley R. Rice; Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 4; Texas State Historical Association, Austin, April 1975.
"The Galveston Storm of 1900" by John Edward Weems; Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 4; Texas State Historical Association, Austin, April 1958.