Approaching from the Gulf of Mexico in 1900, Galveston, Texas looked like an American Venice. At only 8 feet above sea level, hotels, mansions, and docks rose from the placid waters as if Atlantis itself. Its long harbor and cotton warehouses made it a more important port than even 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 railroads. The shallow waters of the Gulf allowed sunbathers to wade out dozens of yards, enjoying the calm, clear waters. The popular beachfront boasted numerous bathhouses, restaurants and shops along its famous Midway.
As far back as locals could remember, it had been spared the arrival of any major hurricane, or Cyclone as they called them back then. Only two 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 cyclones. Talks of building a sea wall were discussed, then tossed aside as sheer folly. In the meantime, the bustling city continued to fill and grow. The protective dunes were destroyed and their sand used to fill in wetlands for new construction.
Saturday 8 September 1900 began with few hint of impending disaster. The U.S. Weather Bureau knew a storm has passed Cuba two day earlier, but thought it turned to the north. In the days before satellites, eye witnesses and telegraphs had to suffice. Isaac Cline, Galveston meteorologist, reported partly cloudy skies with only “unusually high swells in the gulf.” Other than the raising of a storm warning flag, there would be no possibility of evacuation. By lunch time, dark clouds, heavy rain and an unusually high tide hit the streets nearest the beach. Families had but two options, head downtown to slightly higher ground, or ride out the storm in the upper floors of their wooden homes.
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. Two hours later, the Eye plowed over the city, punching it with 140 mile per hour wind gusts. In the dark of night, street after street was crushed, lifted and tossed into the next. Residents were quite literally thrown into the heart of the cyclone to survive or die. St. Mary’s Orphanage sat directly on the Gulf. Its dormitories collapsed with 80 children and 10 members of the Sisters of Charity inside … only three boys survived. 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.
Galveston learned its lesson, oh yes it certainly did. The Gulf was dredged and the entire city raised up 17 feet with a massive seawall constructed. It has since been hit many more times, 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 like their ancestors.
The 1900 Storm is the setting of a thriller novel I am currently writing, entitled CYCLONE. Check back regularly for updates on its publication. For a similar early American disaster tale, click here to checkout my novella SWEPT AWAY about the terrible 1889 Johnstown, PA Flood.