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Galveston Monthly

Chapter 7 - The Seawall Chronicles

Jun 02, 2019 11:53PM

January 17th of 1920 marked the official commencement of Prohibition in the United States. An attempt to assuage so-called societal ills, the Eighteenth Amendment sent into effect a nationwide, constitutional ban on the sale of alcohol as well as its production and importation. Galveston County had actually been dry since 1918 when it endorsed the proposed amendment even before it was ratified.

  To their loyal customers at the barbershop, Sam and Rose Maceo began giving gifts of cheap wine that they were able to smuggle in, and as the nation became more intent on eradicating alcohol people became more interested in acquiring it. Thus gradually, the Maceos became more serious bootleggers and their continued foray into an economy of vice would propel Galveston into an economic boon that would last for nigh four decades.

  Meanwhile, another ambitious young man by the name of William E. Roe was working tirelessly on behalf of the city to expand the allure of the Seawall and Galveston as a destination. He devised an official opening day to the beach and swimming season, called Aquatic Day. It began in 1920 and brought with it the first Bathing Girl Revue.

  More of a costume contest than a beauty contest initially, the Bathing Girl Revue was an attempt to raise the profile of Galveston via fashion, and to “get away from one-piece suits and encourage fair bathers hereabouts to adopt the fancy and more modest attire effected by frequenters of Venice, Newport, Atlantic City, and other fashionable resorts. (Galveston Tribune, May 24, 1920).”

  Prizes were given for the artistry and originality of the bathing costumes. Judging was held on the roof of the Crystal Palace, followed by a vehicle parade of contestants down the Seawall. Out of seventeen contestants, Reba Dick of Galveston was crowned the first winner of the Bathing Girl Revue.

  As the first eastward extension of the Seawall toward Fort San Jacinto neared completion in March of 1921, the construction of the Mountain Speedway was well underway. Opened the following summer along the block of 22nd Street, the monstrous roller coaster was described by an advertisement in the Galveston Daily News as “Deep Canyons of Real Joy,” and was said to provide “all the thrills of ice skating, skiing, or high diving.”

  By 1923, the Maceo brothers had garnered the funding and business expertise to acquire a piece of property over the water on the south side of the Seawall at 23rd Street. Previously a fishing pier, then a Mexican restaurant, and then an outdoor park, Sam and Rose’s purchase of the pier led to the opening of their first restaurant on the site, called Chop Suey. Three years later in 1926, the restaurant metamorphosed into a dancing and dining club called The Grotto, and the extracurricular activities that it provided marked the brothers’ entrance into the world of gambling and gaming.

  The year 1926 was also a pinnacle of Galveston’s development of the Seawall both structurally and economically. A second eastward extension of the Seawall that elongated the barrier another 2,860 feet was completed that year, also authorized by the United States Congress to traverse the entire length of the Fort San Jacinto Reservation. Immediately following its completion, a westward extension that measured 2,800 feet was initiated by Galveston County.

  Also in 1926 came an idea from William Roe that would garner worldwide attention and influence the nation forever. His Aquatic Day had been a hit, although not so much the name, and it was changed to Splash Day, but an even bigger draw was the Bathing Girl Revue.

  Year after year it was gaining in popularity, and on the year of the 7th Annual competition he devised a plan to turn it into an international pageant. Dubbed the First Annual International Pageant of Pulchritude, Roe solicited beauties from all over the world to compete on the roof of the Crystal Palace.

  Now officially a beauty pageant, contestants vied for the title of “Beauty Queen of the Universe” via three competition categories: sports costume, bathing costume, and evening costume. By 1929 representatives from eleven countries traveled to Galveston to compete for an astounding $2,000 prize, coming all the way from England, France, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Spain, Romania, Cuba, Belgium, and Iceland.

  The event became a wild success, drawing as many as 200,000 visitors who flanked the Seawall and watched as the girls paraded down the seaside promenade, standing on platforms built atop moving convertibles and secured only by holding onto a rope tied to the vehicle below.

  The outlandish influx of visitors to the Galveston Seawall every spring and summer season was also spurred on by the rising popularity and accessibility of automobiles, and license plates at the time, numbered by city, revealed that people were flocking to the Island from all over the state. This of course proved troublesome for a motorway with no traffic control, and the motorway was incessantly congested.

  In 1924 city authorities installed a traffic tower with a signal in the middle of the 23rd Street intersection, but it was deemed a traffic hazard by the Galveston Automobile Protective Association, created to represent local motorists, and was eventually removed.

  On one day in August of 1929, the Boulevard was closed between 22nd and 25th Streets and vehicles were forced to detour down Avenue Q. This prompted the idea of establishing an “amusement district” along the corridor to eliminate the “clamor of automobile horns, the odor of exhaust fumes, and the very hazardous adventure of crossing from one side of the Boulevard to the other” (GDN August 6, 1929­), but the idea never culminated into reality.

  Aside from the ruckus of tourists, beachgoers, and bootleggers, the city was also entrenched in deciding how to proceed with the East End Flats, the section of land that lay between the old Seawall that ran down 6th Street and the newest eastward extension that stretched all the way to the South Jetty at the eastern tip of the Island. In May of 1929 residents voted to approve a $75,000 bond proposal that would result in the first major filling since the Grade Raising.

   As 1929 drew to a close, the nation was again struck with a crippling blow to its societal norms, although the crash of the stock market on October 29th, 1929 was undeniably felt much more than the ban of alcohol. In a single day known as “Black Tuesday,” the world was violently ushered into The Great Depression.

  But as unemployment skyrocketed and income plummeted throughout the country, the Maceos were just getting started, and their enigmatic yet palpable approach to protecting the city’s economy would provide a much-needed buffer to the woes of the outside world.


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