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The Galveston Hurricane of 1900

A professor of history at the University of North Texas and co-author of the book "Galveston and the 1900 Storm" discusses the devastating hurricane in 1900 that nearly wiped Galveston, Texas off the map.

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  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    September 8, 1900: The day a Category 4 storm hit Galveston, then a city of about 38,000, and one the most prosperous in Texas. After the storm, between six and ten thousand people were dead, and more than three quarters of the city were completely destroyed. Elizabeth Hayes Turner wrote about it all as co-author of "Galveston and the 1900 Storm." She's a professor of history at the University of North Texas, and joins us from Dallas.

    Professor Turner, we just saw the citizens of Galveston today have warnings. They have evacuations underway. What was it like for people back then as that storm approached?

  • ELIZABETH HAYES TURNER:

    It was very different. Isaac Cline was chief of the weather bureau at Galveston. And his only contact was by telephone or by telegraph with the U.S. Weather Service in Washington D.C. And at that time, there was no ship-to-shore communication. So they had to rely on land reports coming from Cuba.

    The earliest reports came about September 4, and they weren't very seriously taken from Cubans who gave a devastating report of what was happening on their island. So the U.S. Weather Bureau reported to Cline that we see a tropical storm commencing and it's coming your way. But it wasn't until September 7 that it started to look worrisome.

    The way warnings were communicated in 1900 was by the weather bureau chief putting a flag up on top of the levee building indicating that a serious storm was about to approach. Isaac Cline claimed in his later reports that he went along the beach and he warned people to leave the island. But he of course would have to stay because he was responsible for seeing it through the storm.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So a lot has changed in that way.

  • ELIZABETH HAYES TURNER:

    Absolutely.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Give us a picture of Galveston then before the storm, this prosperous town.

  • ELIZABETH HAYES TURNER:

    It was the entrepot of Texas. It was the main port through which the commerce of Texas came and went. There were beautiful mansions created by wealthy citizens who had made their money out of either cotton exporting or cotton pressing and shipping, of course.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Tell us then what happened with the storm. Give us — if you could, paint us a picture of the devastation.

  • ELIZABETH HAYES TURNER:

    The storm began to surge around noon on Saturday, September 8. And it was at that point that residents closest to the shore began to panic, not panic exactly but get out of their homes, move to safer, higher grounds and safer structures. Now higher ground wasn't very high. It was only nine feet high at the highest point on the island. But those that did not leave their homes, who felt that their homes were seaworthy enough, sadly many of those died because the storm surge was 15 feet and the winds were probably in the neighborhood of 130 miles per hour.

    The houses closest to the shore were demolished first by the waves and the wind and they served as battering rams to the houses behind them until finally, a whole 1500-acre stretch of land near the coast was absolutely wiped clean of homes. And those structures then ended up in a 30-foot, three-mile pile of debris down the middle of the island. That pile of debris actually protected parts of the interior of the city, the part where many of the wealthier homes were. And so what emerged out of the storm was then a civic elite who could lead the city into its recovery.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well let's talk — or tell us a little bit about that recovery. How quickly could it take place? And what was different about the Galveston that was built?

  • ELIZABETH HAYES TURNER:

    It did not take place very rapidly. In fact, it was days before there was sufficient communication between the mainland and the island. All of the means of communication were gone. The railroad bridges were washed away. So people had to cross the bay in boats. The rescue efforts began as soon as they heard the news on very early Monday morning. And Houstonians brought in about 100,000 gallons of water first in car trains as well as supplies and a volunteer force of about 250 rescuers to come to the island.

    By Sept. 13, it was clear that martial law had to be declared on the island because of looting and because of civilians killing each other over the aspect of looting. So the mayor brought in the Texas militia. Martial law was declared. The militia men arrived. They set up tents for the homeless along the beach.

    A couple of days later, September 17, Clara Barton arrived with the Red Cross and with eight members of her team began to set up a distribution and warehouse center in the commercial district. I would like to say that Clara Barton's influence on the recovery was very great. There were several things that she could do for the catastrophe. One, she served as a magnet. People sent money and goods in kind to Clara Barton because they trusted her and they knew her work.

    The second thing that she did was to elevate middle class white women on the island to official roles within the emergency civic structure. She demanded that they become co-chairs of all the wards where relief was given out because she said these women had been doing these relief efforts anyway for years. Why not make it official? So white women were elevated to the role of political entities at that point.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Professor, just briefly because we only have a few seconds left here. But I just want to ask you in the long term, Galveston, I gather, missed out on the oil boom that was taking place and was really never quite the same that it had been before?

  • ELIZABETH HAYES TURNER:

    Spindle Top was a phenomenon in 1901. Galveston was in its recovery stage at that point. And the wharfage on the island is limited so the oil refining business ended up in Houston. And after 1914 Houston dredged a deep water port giving access to sea going ships. And they bypassed Galveston so its recovery — in its recovery it missed the oil boom.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Okay. Elizabeth Hayes Turner, thank you very much.

  • ELIZABETH HAYES TURNER:

    Thank you.