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Galveston Monthly

Chapter 1 - The Seawall Chronicles

Jun 02, 2019 11:28PM

"Protection from storms is not only required for the preservation of life and property, but also, and in hardly les degree, to give confidence to the people of Galveston, and to others who may be drawn here by business interests, in the absolute certainty of the safety of the city against the re-occurrence of such catastrophe as the one of 1900."  —  Board of Engineers Official Report.

   Galveston was among the first of prominent, wealthy cities in the United States. Incorporated in 1838, this small island town off the coast of Texas took full advantage of its easily accessible port and attractive beaches, and was home to a diverse, open-minded, and ever-expanding population during the dawn of a conservative Victorian Era. At one point, it surpassed Ellis Island as the largest center for immigration in America, and as a fierce entrepreneurial spirit invaded Galveston in the 19th century so did the influences of cultures from around the world.

  The cotton trade lined the pockets of local businessmen, and Galveston became the second wealthiest city per capita in the nation, second only to Newport, Rhode Island, home of the Vanderbilts. Stunning architecture, palatial homes, and all of the most modern of technologies were commonplace. Visitors enjoyed the finest European restaurants, luxurious accommodations, the calm and tepid waters of the Gulf and countless amenities.

  The city seemed invincible but precarious was her perch in the Gulf of Mexico, and her defiant stance against the powers of nature would be severely examined on Sept. 8, 1900. A hurricane with estimated 120 mile per hour winds and a storm surge that reached a documented 15.7 feet struck the unsuspecting Island community, and the Wall Street of the South was brought to her knees. Thousands of bodies lay buried under debris and strewn about the city, lives spent as sacrificial offerings to the unrelenting Neptune.

  Moving water is the most powerful force on the face of the planet, and as the Gulf plowed its way in from the beach it laid to waste over 3,000 buildings and homes, tearing them from their foundations and pushing them into a 20-foot high, three mile long wall of rubble that encircled downtown. Nearly two-thirds of the Island was scraped clean.

  Even before The Great Storm, the local government was in a state of disarray. The mayor at the time of the disaster, Walter C. Jones, although not entirely inept and ineffective in his duties, certainly had the reputation of being so.

  City financial records were practically nonexistent, and many landowners and city officials used this knowledge to their advantage and rarely paid their taxes. The city was bankrupt, her bonds were depreciated, and there was no hope, especially in the current state of things, to release more no matter how desperately the city needed to finance its recovery.

  This mass governmental chaos was seen by some as the perfect opportunity for the change Galveston so desperately needed. I.H. Kempner, affectionately known as "Ike," was an outspoken advocate for change at the city level. Prompting the town to wholeheartedly believe in what he coined, "The Spirit of Galveston," he also stoked the fire under his peers and they joined with him in his efforts to reform the city government. They petitioned the state government to annul the current city charter and set in place the New City Charter, a progressive, all-encompassing approach to rebuilding the city.

  The New City Charter changed the structure of the governing body to a commission form of government, which not surprisingly resembled that of a business governed by a board of directors. But it also dealt directly with recovery efforts, setting forth precedents for the fortification of the Island.

  The authors and purveyors of the New City Charter were adamant and persistent that all means and monies possible should be expended to forever prevent the horrors of September 8th from ever happening again, even if it put the financial welfare of the city at risk.

  The commonality of suffering and symbiotic heartache that still resonated within the survivors of that day had given rise to a steely determination. Many outsiders who witnessed the level of destruction in Galveston said affirmatively and without hesitation that the city would never be rebuilt. But the Islanders thought differently.

  One of the first actions taken by the newly elected Board of Commissioners under the New City Charter was to appoint a Board of Engineers, a collection of three of the best and brightest civil engineering minds in the country. Assigned to this board was the distinct task of examining the current geological profile of the Island, and to suggest ways to protect it from future storms.

  Gen. Henry Robert, H.C. Ripley and Alfred Noble were appointed by the Commissioners on Nov. 22, 1901. The three men readily accepted, as they were all enticed not only by the stature and prominence of the Island city, but also by the sheer magnificence of the challenge before them.

  Per the charter, the duty of the Board of Engineers was to report "plans and specifications with estimates of the costs," for the safest and most efficient ways to protect Galveston from the insurgence of the Gulf. The three members met continuously over the course of two months, and released their report on Jan. 25, 1902.

  It amazed everyone.

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