THE HISTORY OF GALVESTON AND THE 1900 STORM
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Galveston was a thriving, sophisticated community. Its deep-water harbor and port, the only one of its kind in Texas, was the leading exporter of a number of commodities, especially cotton. The booming economy funded fanciful, elaborate architecture, grand social events, and the most up-to-date conveniences available. The oncoming 1900 Storm would change that.
The struggle to live continued through one of the darkest of nights with only an occasional flash of lightening which revealed the terrible carnage about us. In order to avoid being killed by flying timbers, we placed the children in front of us, turned out backs to the wind and held planks, taken from the floating wreckage, to our backs to distribute and lighten the blows which the wind driven debris was showering upon us continually…we could hear houses crashing under the impact of the wreckage hurled forward by the wind and storm tide, but this did not blot out the screams of the injured and dying. – Recollection of Isaac Cline. After his house collapsed, he and his three daughter plus his brother, Joseph, rode out the storm on a raft hastily pulled together from debris.
For all its advantages, the island city was in a precarious position. It was extremely vulnerable to the ocean waters. Before 1900, the highest point of elevation was not quite nine feet above sea level. Despite the obvious danger, Galvestonians had grown complacent in their city. It had been many years since a severe storm ravaged the city. The rising tides, known locally as “overflows,” provided excitement rather than fear.
SEPTEMBER 8, 1900
The morning of September 8 dawned with little fanfare in Galveston. Families went about their daily business, paying little attention to the downpours falling over the city. The heavy rains were part of a hurricane, but most Galvestonians were not alarmed. Tropical storms struck fairly regularly, although it had been many years since an intense storm had struck the island city.
PHOTOS OF THE AFTERMATH
The might of this particular storm proved to be dangerous and deadly. By early afternoon, citizens grew nervous about the weather. The tide rose rapidly, and the wind increased at an alarming rate. By mid-afternoon, much of the city was underwater. From the early evening until midnight, the city of Galveston bore the brunt of the hurricane. It is estimated that winds reached more than 120 mph, with a storm surge of almost sixteen feet, reducing 3,600 structures to rubble. In the neighborhoods located closest to the beach, entire blocks were swept clean.
The following morning, survivors woke to a calm, beautiful sea, giving little evidence of the havoc wrought hours earlier. The damage was massive. Almost every family was touched by the loss of a loved one or friend. Most victims drowned in the waters or were pinned under debris. At least 6,000 people perished from a pre-storm population of 37,700. Financial losses were estimated at a staggering $30,000,000. In terms of loss of life, the 1900 Storm is the worst natural disaster experienced in the United States to date.
In the days following the storm, the citizens of Galveston began the formidable undertaking of cleaning up and rebuilding their city. A particularly horrible task was the disposal of thousands of bodies of those who had perished. After burial at sea failed and bodies began returning to shore, the citizenry resorted to cremating bodies in pyres located throughout the city.
GRADE-RAISING AND THE SEAWALL
A 17-foot seawall was built to protect Galveston from future devastating storm surges. As a further precaution, the level of the city was raised to protect the city from flooding. The construction of the Seawall is the largest civil-engineering project in U.S. history. The Seawall proved its worth when the 1915 hurricane struck. Although it, too, caused a great deal of destruction, only 11 people perished within the city limits. The development of the Seawall would eventually lead to a renewed focus of beachside tourism that Galveston would become synonymous with since.
The 1900 Storm has endured as one of Galveston’s most defining moments and has inspired numerous songs, books, and personal connections through family history.
ABOUT GALVESTON HISTORICAL FOUNDATION
Galveston Historical Foundation (GHF) was formed as the Galveston Historical Society in 1871 and merged with a new organization formed in 1954 as a non-profit entity devoted to historic preservation and history in Galveston County. Over the last sixty years, GHF has expanded its mission to encompass community redevelopment, historic preservation advocacy, maritime preservation, coastal resiliency and stewardship of historic properties. GHF embraces a broader vision of history and architecture that encompasses advancements in environmental and natural sciences and their intersection with historic buildings and coastal life and conceives of history as an engaging story of individual lives and experiences on Galveston Island from the 19th century to the present day.
My grandmother’s family survived the storm of 1900. Her father, Julius Boehme, and his secretary, rode out the storm downtown at his factory, and all that was left afterwards was one wall they hid behind.
My Aunt Antoinette “Netta” O”Shaughnessy, age 5, drowned on this day, 1900 in The Storm. My grandparents had her buried in Calvary Cemetery, off Seawall, in the O ‘Shaughnessy/Brown area. She was buried next to her cousin, a fireman, Charles Brown, who had died before The Storm. She was a beautiful little girl. The family got into a boat when the water rose to the top of their home. The boat overturned. Seven family members survived. Netta was the second youngest. Her sister, Katie, was saved by a man pulling her out of the water by her hair. She lived to be 101. Margie, the youngest, had a son who won the British Amateur Golf Tournament in the 1950’s. Patrick, fought in three Wars for the U.S. Army. Mary, the oldest, married one of the first chiropractors in Texas and was a Suffragette. The Storm changed so much. It is still the largest Natural Disaster in the United States. It changed so many lives and changed so much. We need to remember The Storm and we need to remember all those people affected by it. I will always remember and honor my dear little Aunt “Netta”. The original monument my grandparents placed for her disappeared, but she has a new monument now. Many thanks to Mr. Albrecht and my sister for helping to place the new one. Rest in peace, Netta.
My grandma survived that awful day in history. Her and her parents and brother were able to help those that lost everything. Her father Frank Jones was a contractor that helped build the Galvez and other buildings before they moved to Houston. Grandma loved to go back and visit the island as well as all of us…..