Galveston Island & the Storm of a Century

Galveston Island is a barrier island just off the coast south of Houston. Initially little more than a sandbar full of wildlife and more oysters than settlers could eat, it was inhabited by the Karankawa Indians before being settled in the early 1800's. The City of Galveston was founded in 1836, though it didn't begin to prosper until the late 1870's when the Port of Galveston took over as the leading cotton exporter of the southern United States. As the port grew, so did the island until the city was known as the Queen of the Gulf and, by the turn of the century, was the third wealthiest city in the country.

Remnants of the island's late-Victorian wealth are easily seen today with a quick drive down Broadway. Mansions tower over the streets with lavish interiors and boast scars from the massive storms that have continued to pound the island for more than a century. Well-known families, such as the Rosenbergs and Moodys, financed a great deal of the island's constructions and have left behind their marks on Victorian-era homes, downtown offices, and the culture of modern-day Galveston.

 

This sense of living history intensifies the connection that visitors and locals alike experience with the island. At its height of industry, Galveston attracted businessmen looking to found their fortunes along with the working class who simply needed steady pay and the promise of work, garnering the nickname Wall Street of the South thanks to its consistent growth. However, as the city considered expanding its ship channel yet again to accommodate even larger freight ships and take on its competition port in New Orleans, nature stepped in and altered the island's future with little warning. On September 8, 1900, tides began to rise, producing unusual undulations in the wave patterns that signaled something was on the horizon. As the winds picked up and the water began flooding the shore, Dr. Isaac Cline, the chief climatologist of Galveston Island, sounded the storm warning and attempted to bring people in from the beaches. It was too late for the majority of the island to evacuate, however, and a Category 4 hurricane made landfall later that evening. The underdevelopment of the young science of meteorology coupled with the false belief that Galveston's location and landscape would protect it from a deadly storm surge, the island was unprepared for such an event. 

The Great Storm of 1900 remains to this day the greatest loss of life on American soil, resulting in over 6,000 deaths, with some estimates as high as 8.000 deaths. In the wake of the tragedy, the island was rebuilt and physically raised as high as 17 feet in some areas to protect it from future hurricanes, proving successful when Hurricane Ike struck in 2008. The damage to the island's industrial power, however, was unrecoverable and its

prominence as a leader in the shipping business quickly faltered. Houston, already a competitor with its developing port, grew into a sustainable replacement and surpassed Galveston as the main destination for ships coming into Texas.

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Pearland, Texas

© 2019 by Whitney Vandiver