Known as the “Queen City of the Gulf,” Galveston, Texas was an affluent city on the rise at the turn of the 20th century. But a massive hurricane that swept ashore on Sept. 8, 1900, devastated much of the island community, killing thousands, and altered the city’s future.
Galveston, with a population of about 37,000, was the first in Texas to use telephones and electricity. It was the second richest urban area in the country in terms of pre-capita income. Mansions dotted the main street alongside concert halls and elegant hotels.
Servicing over 1,000 ships, Galveston had the nation’s third busiest port. Seventy percent of the nation’s cotton passed through the city.
“[Galveston] was the entrepot of Texas,” according to Elizabeth Hayes Turner, co-author of “Galveston and the 1900 Storm.”
Built on a sandbar, Galveston was seen as vulnerable by some. In the 1858 book “Information about Texas,” the city is described as “a waif in the ocean … liable at any moment.”
“Galveston was a barrier island, at the time, and the highest point of land was just over 8 feet,” said Bill Read, a meteorologist at the Houston/Galveston bureau of the National Weather Service.
Although lacking sophisticated tracking systems, there were some indicators that the deadly storm was brewing. In late August 1900, two different ships in the east Caribbean noted severe weather disturbances. As the hurricane moved toward Cuba and deposited heavy rain on the island nation, one weather station reported 17 inches of rain in 36 hours on Sept. 3.
“[The Weather Service] knew there was a hurricane in the Gulf, but that was about it,” said Read.
On Sept. 7, Isaac Cline, the chief of the Galveston Weather Bureau, raised a warning flag atop the levee building. These warnings were common and often ignored, despite the frequent high winds and flooding of streets.
Tourists and locals lingered on the beach the following day and marveled at the roaring waves and unusually high tide.
When the Category 4 storm crashed ashore on Sept. 8 with 120 to 135 mph winds, it destroyed more than three-quarters of Galveston, leveled about 3,600 buildings and left between 7,000 and 8,000 people dead.
One survivor, 8-year-old Sarah Helen Littlejohn, wrote in an essay one month after the storm that the 14 blocks between her home and the beach were destroyed. “It is just a clean sweep, nothing but desolation,” she wrote.
The damage, measured in 2005 dollars, was estimated from $540 million to $1.1 billion.
Thousands of human and animal corpses littered the island for days.
“[The response] did not take place very rapidly,” said Turner. “In fact, it was days before there was sufficient communication between the mainland and the island.”
Clara Barton and the American Red Cross helped with medical aid; the National Guard handled the task of removing the debris and bodies. Donations came in from around the world. Basic services — mail, water and telegraph — were restored within a week, with electricity returning soon after.
The hurricane forced Galveston officials to come up with a way to protect its community from future storms. Galveston commissioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to supervise two extensive and unprecedented projects. The first, building a 17-foot high seawall, is considered an impressive feat even by modern engineering standards. Started in 1902 and finished two years later, the wall was more than three miles long. It has since been extended another seven miles westward.
The Army Corps of Engineers also embarked on plan to raise the entire city an average of 8 feet by pumping 11 million pounds of sand beneath the city.
“Port dredges dug a canal through east end of city,” said Casey Greene of the Rosenberg Library in Galveston. “Two to 3,000 buildings were raised and were propped up on stilts by using jack screws. The dredges brought in slurry [a mixture of sand and water] brought up from eastern end of Galveston island, and discharged the slurry underneath 1-foot-deep dikes. The water ran off, all that was left was sand.”
When a Category 4 hurricane the island in 1915, the death toll was only 275. The seawall held the storm surge.
Despite efforts to rebuild, the effects of the storm would permanently change the economics of Galveston. At the turn of the century, the city and Houston, 30 miles further inland, were vying to become the dominant port city of Texas.
On Jan. 10, 1901, a 100-foot tall oil stream gushed out of what became known as the Spindletop oil field. Situated near Beaumont, Texas, the discovery brought thousands of land speculators to the area.
By 1902, there were over 500 companies in the region surrounding the oil field, including the firms that would come to dominate the industry like Texaco, Magnolia Petroleum Company (later Mobil,) Gulf Oil Corp. and Humble (later Exxon.)
Because Galveston was still struggling to recover from the 1900 hurricane, the oil companies brought their shipping business to Houston.
Houston dredged a deep-water port in 1914, clearing the way for cross-Atlantic barges to make their way to an inland port, more secure from hurricanes.
Although Galveston would not recover its role as the center of Texas shipping, it was far from dead. With 1,500 historic buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and a large historic district known as the Strand acting as a draw, Galveston eventually became a tourism-based city.
Galveston is known as a resting spot for birds on their migration routes, which has spurred bird viewing events in the spring and fall. It also is a popular convention spot and port-of-call for cruise ships. The city of 57,000 is home to the University of Texas Medical Branch.