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Galveston Monthly

Chapter 5 - The Seawall Chronicles

Jun 02, 2019 11:51PM

The summer of 1904 was a season of change for the island of Galveston, when beach activities had little to do with sunning and swimming and more to do with forever altering the economic landscape of the prominent port city.

  On July 29th the Seawall as designed by the Board of Engineers was officially complete, and almost immediately construction commenced on what would become the first of several extensions, authorized by the United States Congress in order to protect the Fort Crockett military reservation established in 1903. Finished in 1905, this first addition extended the Seawall westward another 4,395 feet, or just under a mile.

  Meanwhile, the wall had already become an instant attraction to both visitors and residents, as people were wildly fascinated by this sidewalk on the sea. Looking south from atop the wall they could see out over the beach and into an infinite Gulf horizon, and to their north were the sights and sounds of a dredge cutting a canal across the island. Not only did this two-sided panorama mark the beginning of the seven-year grade raising, the excavated fill from the canal formed the foundation that would turn a sidewalk into a sensation. 

  Being as the original boulevard spanned only 100 feet from the edge of the canal to the Seawall, and as the first causeway to accommodate cars was not built until 1914, the early days of Seawall Boulevard were more reminiscent of a boardwalk than the motorway it is today, limited primarily to foot traffic.

  This is arguably why city directories did not recognize it as a proper street, and instead labeled each of the first businesses on the beachfront with an address of the street that bordered their northern property lines. Such is the case with the very first arrival to the boulevard, an entertainment hall called the Galveston Auditorium, listed with an address of ‘27th & Q.’

  The directories also reveal that commercial development on the Seawall began near and around the intersection of 25th Street and initially moved eastward, presumably because 25th was both a main thoroughfare that connected downtown to the beach via streetcar and the location of a pedestrian drawbridge that spanned the grade-raising canal.

  In 1905 the first hotel sprang up at 2228 Avenue Q called the Snug Harbor Hotel, but in just a few short years it would become only one on a list of many waterfront accommodations. The demand for lodging was in essence manufactured, albeit wisely, in an effort by interested parties to claim Galveston as the “Coney Island of the South” by way of creative enterprises and a whole lot of lights.

  The theory was that if the city could entice visitors to stay until after dark, they would be more likely to stay overnight. Thus they generated this allure by way of that cutting-edge technology called electricity, and the spectacular spectacle called Electric Park opened in May of 1906 on the block of Seawall Boulevard between 23rd and 24th Streets.

  As the sun sank below the horizon its light was replaced with the glow of thousands of incandescent bulbs that studded a massive sign at the entrance to the park, an aerial swing, a roller coaster called the Figure Eight, and a carousel. Other attractions included a live theatre, shooting galleries, an early movie theater named Hale’s Tours of the World, a ride called the Cave of Winds, and the Crab Pavilion which was built in 1905 and then incorporated into the park.

  The following summer boasted another amusement extravaganza in the way of Chutes Park, which opened on May 12th on the lot adjacent to Electric Park. Its main attraction, the Mystic Rill, was a water ride that traversed over one thousand feet of manmade estuaries, traveled up an incline, and then propelled riders down a watery chute. Chutes Park also had a German garden with dining tables and refreshments, vaudeville performances, an Illusion Theatre that hosted magic shows, and another early motion picture theatre named The Palace of Wonders.

  By 1909 Seawall Boulevard included six hotels within a two block stretch and yet a third amusement park situated at the intersection of 32nd Street called Surf Park, as well as cigar shops, purveyors of seashells and souvenirs, ice cream parlors, and restaurants that lined the brick-paved promenade. 

  That same year would also sharply examine the viability of the Seawall when a hurricane struck on July 21st, but the wall proved worthy of the task for which is was built. The majority of the city remained unscathed after the storm, and the only severe damage was along the Gulf side, where remnants of decimated bathhouses and fishing piers that had once stood on the beach now consumed the Boulevard.

  This sparked a heated debate over the notion of prohibiting construction on the south side of the Seawall, a debate that still wages today despite a procession of legislation, both for and against, over the past century.

  North of the wall, most of the structures on the boulevard fared relatively well in the storm of 1909, even the amusement parks, with both Electric Park and Chutes Park sustaining minimal damage. However the storm did encourage city officials to ultimately extend the embankment behind the wall from 100 feet to 200 feet, and after the summer of 1910 both parks were demolished to ease the process of filling in the grade-raising canal and widening the boulevard.

  Although Galveston’s location on the Gulf and its salubrious climate were innately a draw to out of town visitors from the city’s inception, before the Seawall and subsequent boulevard its status as a resort town was not one widely heralded or promoted. Today most onlookers assume that The Great Storm of 1900 annihilated the city’s prospects as a commercial port, but nothing could be further from the truth.

  In 1908 it was reported that Galveston had advanced more rapidly than any other Gulf port in the last decade, with commercial revenues up 140% from 1898 and 360% from 1894. The total value of exports was up $28 million from the previous year, and Galveston held the world record for the amount of cotton received in a port in one day.

  In 1910 the City Directory read, “Galveston is essentially a city of commercial pursuits,” and then in noting the development along the Seawall, added, “The future of the city in this respect is as bright as its commercial future… As a resort Galveston is fast taking an important place in the South.”

  Thus it must be surmised that it was not the storm of 1900, but the Seawall itself, that began to shift Galveston in the direction of a resort town. And it was a shift that began just in time, for the next decade would see the illustrious port city succumb to the disadvantages of its geography, and powerless to stop a changing economic tide.


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