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If you approached Galveston, Texas from the Gulf of Mexico in 1900, it looked like an American Venice. At only 8 feet above sea level, hotels, mansions, and docks rose from the placid waters as if it were Atlantis itself. Its long harbor and numerous cotton warehouses made it a more important port than its poorer cousin, Houston. Over 1,000 steam ships docked at the harbor every year. It was called the Ellis Island of the West, with its business district dubbed the ‘Wall Street of the West.’ Over 37,000 souls crowded into the picturesque barrier island, linked to the mainland by no less than 3 railroad bridges. The shallow waters of the Gulf allowed sunbathers to wade out dozens of yards, enjoying the calm, clear sea. The popular, flat beachfront boasted numerous bathhouses, restaurants and shops along its famous Midway.
As far back as locals could remember, Galveston had been spared the arrival of any major hurricane, or ‘Cyclones’ as they called them back then. Only 2 tropical storms had hit Texas in recent memory, but much farther south. Galvestonians considered them freak incidents and that a major hurricane would NEVER breach the Florida Straits, let alone hit Texas. Why even the U.S. Weather Bureau agreed the shallow Gulf waters made it virtually immune to hurricanes. Talks of building a sea wall were discussed by city leaders, then tossed aside as sheer folly. Why bother? In the meantime, the bustling city continued to fill up and grow. The protective dunes were destroyed and their sand used to fill in wetlands for new construction and even more souls on the island.
Saturday, September 8th, 1900 began with few hints of impending doom.
The U.S. Weather Bureau knew a tropical storm has passed Cuba two day earlier, but thought it turned to the north and was heading for Florida. In the days before satellites, eye witnesses and telegraphs had to suffice … and they were not enough. Isaac Cline, Galveston’s meteorologist, went to the beach that morning and reported partly cloudy skies with only “unusually high swells in the gulf.” There was not the brick-red dawn usually associated with foul weather. There was not the brick-red dawn usually associated with impending foul weather. Other than the raising of a storm warning flag atop the weather bureau building downtown, there would be no call for evacuation. By that time it was too late anyway.
By the lunch hour, dark clouds brought heavy rains and crashing waves. They were fed by an unusually high tide, flooding all streets nearest the beach hip-deep and destroying the beloved Midway. By four o’clock, winds were blowing at hurricane strength, flipping slate shingles off roof tops, sending them flying through the air like scimitars. Rising waters were already chest-deep in the streets. Families realized they had but two options now, risk wading downtown to slightly higher ground (a mere 8 feet above sea level), or ride out the storm in the upper floors of their wooden homes. Isaac Cline had watched his barometer drop all day to a record low and ran home to his family.
By 6 o’clock that night, what we today call a Category 4 Hurricane hit an unsuspecting Galveston.
A 15 FOOT STORM SURGE rose in a matter of minutes, flooding the island from beach to bay. All the bridges leaving the island were destroyed. Two hours later, the Eye itself plowed over the city, punching it with 140 mile per hour winds. In the dark of night, street after street was crushed by the massive storm surge, lifting broken homes off their foundations and tossing them, crashed into the next street, only to repeat the destruction. Residents who were not killed instantly were quite literally thrown into the heart of the cyclone’s swirling waters, to either survive clinging to wreckage, or die.
St. Mary’s Orphanage sat on prime property, directly on the Gulf, just outside the city limits. The Sisters of Charity gathered the terrified children into the upper floors to escape the rising storm surge. They sang Mary, Queen of the Waves to pray and calm the orphans. The sisters even tied themselves to the children with ropes so they’d not be separated if blown out into the storm. Its two dormitories eventually collapsed with 80 young children and 10 nuns inside … only three teenage boys managed to survive.
By dawn, the killer storm has passed. The dazed and lucky survivors crawled from the wreckage to find their city flattened and littered with corpses. Due to the large number of bodies washed out to sea, it will never be known exactly how many truly died in the Galveston Hurricane. 3,600 buildings were completely destroyed and up to 8,000 lives lost. Isaac Cline managed to save his 3 daughters when their home collapsed, but lost his wife. The bodies of the dead were first loaded onto barges and dumped in the Gulf of Mexico, but the Gulf dumped them back on the beach the next day. Funeral pyres became the only way to dispose of so many dead.
Galveston learned its lesson, oh yes, it certainly did.
In the years to come, the Gulf of Mexico sand was dredged and the entire city raised up 17 FEET. Then a massive curved concrete seawall constructed. Galveston has since been hit many more times by tropical storms, most recently a direct hit by Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Though given ample days to evacuate from Ike, over 100,000 residents chose to stay on the skinny barrier island and ride out the storm … just like their ancestors. Given the uncertainty around the global climate crisis, we can only assume Hurricane Ike will not be the last cyclone to attack the vulnerable Texas coast.
The 1900 Galveston Storm is the setting of a historical thriller novel I am currently writing, entitled CYCLONE CITY. For a similar early-American disaster tale, checkout my young adult, historical novel SWEPT AWAY about the terrible 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania Flood.
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