9.9.11

Isle of Doom

Friday, 12 June 1896 - Galveston, Texas, USA

For years the University of Texas has been begging me to go back and record the city of Galveston at it’s zenith. I didn’t feel I could put them off any longer. You may wonder why I balked at visiting this beautiful Victorian boomtown. I will explain, but first let me tell you something of this remarkable city.

Galveston Island is a barrier island off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. It is twenty-seven miles long and only three miles long at it’s widest spot. It is really little more than a sand bar.

Although discovered by Amerindians millennia ago, the Island was officially discovered by the Spanish explorer Juan de Grijalva, when he ran aground on it in 1528. He named it "Isla de Malhado" ("Isle of Doom").

Apparently, it wasn’t until 1785 that anyone looked behind the island and found a huge bay there. In a well thought out career move, José de Evia named it after the Count of Gálvez, the viceroy of New Spain.

Jean Lafitte the pirate & "founding father"
(at least historians think this is Lafitte)
The first European settlement here was built in 1816 by pirates. Jean Lafitte had been sent by the US military to Galveston to spy on the Spanish. Instead Lafitte started his own colony of 100 to 200 buccaneers, until the US Navy booted everyone off in 1821.

By 1825, the island was no longer Spain’s but Mexico’s, who established the Port of Galveston and built a custom’s house. Then Texas revolted against Mexico, taking over the island and making it the port of the Republic of Texas’s navy.

Finally in 1830, the city of modern Galveston was founded by Michael Menard, a Canadian. It started out as an international city. Galveston is known as the “Ellis Island of the West.” Most immigrants from Europe heading for the western states come here instead of New York City. Many go no further than Galveston, not because they are poor and can’t afford train fare, but because they smell opportunity. A large portion of the newcomers are middle class.

downtown Galveston in the 1890s
Galveston is currently the busiest port in the Gulf of Mexico, surpassing even New Orleans. Indeed the only port in the US bigger is New York City. It is one of the largest cotton processors and shippers. It is the largest city in Texas and it‘s cultural center. Texas’s first telephone, gas lights, electric lights, opera house, post office, orphanage, Masonic Lodge, medical college, cotton compress, naval base, etc. were all in Galveston.

The population in 1890 was 23,000. By 1900 it will be 37,789. Galveston is a booming commercial center where the future is limitless. There is a great optimism in the air. Victorian mansions are springing up all around, attesting to the city’s prosperity. And it will all be swept away in one night.

As I said, Galveston is little more than a sandbar. It’s highest point is only eight feet above sea level. There is currently no seawall. Even if they had built one, it would probably not be high enough.

On 8 September 1900, Galveston will hunker down for a tropical storm. Too late they learn it is in fact a category four hurricane with winds estimated at 125 miles per hour. (We don’t know the actual speed. The anemometer will be blown off the local U.S. Weather Bureau building.)

What the winds don’t knock down, the 15-foot-high storm-surge waves will. The entire city will be flooded, as people cling to floating debris. It is estimated that 6,000 to 12,000 people will die (8,000 is the official number), making it the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history!

Galveston after the 1900 hurricane
Why did it outdo stronger hurricanes? It’s 1900. There are no satellites to follow the storm. There isn’t even ship to shore radio for captains caught in hurricanes to warn those on land. Even though Isaac Cline, one of the top weathermen in the country, lives in Galveston, he only has Victorian technology to aid him. By the time Galveston realized what was coming, it was too late to evacuate the island. And outside of multi-story buildings that may or may not standup, there is no high ground to run to. Few buildings will even be left standing.

Despite this, Galveston will arise from the ashes, just as a much smaller phoenix. She will become a resort town, evoking her pirate roots during prohibition with boot-leg alcohol and prostitution. It won’t be until the 1950s before she gets cleaned up. Hardly the future her citizens now see for this shining city.

And that is why I have been putting off this project. It’s hard to look into the eyes of someone knowing they will die soon and not be able to warn them of the hurricane. It’s part of being a Temporal Anthropologist and knowing what the future brings. I will be walking about this city unable to warn anyone. Would they even listen to me if I was allowed to tell them?

University of Texas wanted me to come here in the summer of 1900, but that was too close. I gave myself a four year buffer. Instead of looking in every face and knowing that a horrible fate awaits him, I can console myself that he has at least four years of happiness and maybe won’t be here in 1900.

Still I will be looking up some of the more famous citizens, knowing their terrible future. This will not be an easy assignment.


Days after the event, Thomas Edison's film studio recorded some of the clean-up, making this some of the world's first "newsreels." video

An excellent documentary on the 1900 Galveston Hurricane:
Isaac's Storm

Although done in good taste, it is about a horrific event. You may not wish to watch.
(And yes, I know the last bit is missing on part 8.)

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