Strand Chronicles - Chapter 2
Jul 01, 2019 07:51PM
The establishment of Galveston as a port in the early days of Texas was inevitable given its geography, but around the same time several other inlets along the Texas coast like Sabine Pass and Matagorda were also set up as outposts and centers of trade with seemingly as much potential as the island city. Nevertheless, Galveston claimed priority on an ever-expanding list of shippers, merchants, and growers throughout the state and beyond.
The harbor was untouchable in the natural facilities it provided, but otherwise the island was rather deficient in agriculture or industry. This meant that commerce was Galveston’s only path to prominence, and it was relentlessly pursued by some of the brightest entrepreneurial minds in the country at the time, who found in the island city a lucrative outlet for their endeavors. The Strand is where their fortunes were made, and where their legacies remain.
Already replete with an array of wooden commercial buildings, the Strand and its neighboring wharf saw a marked growth within just the first few years of the 1850s, as observed by an impartial visitor. Having visited the port only once before, a Mr. Bartlett remarked in his journal on January 9, 1953 that the city “had greatly increased since August, 1850, when we stopped here. Its commerce, too, judging from the number of ships and steamers, must have augmented in proportion.”
One notable investor in the city’s early commerce was Robert Mills, who owned several large cotton plantations and was considered by many the richest man in Texas. By the time he set up Mills & Company of Galveston as the primary exporter of his Texas harvests, he was already a member of other wholesaling firms in New York and New Orleans. Paper money had yet to be regarded as legal currency in Texas, but that did not prevent an estimated $300,000 in paper notes called “Mills money,” solidly backed by Mills’ firm, from making its way all over the south.
Another of the city’s first prominent businessmen was J.C. Kuhn, who held a variety of real estate interests including the construction of several brick buildings on the Strand later in the decade. He was also the proprietor of Kuhn’s Wharf, one of the first established wharfs along the harbor that together managed the flow of commercial vessels on and off the island. Initially, the Galveston City Company had placed the waterfront properties in the hands of various shipping companies and warehouse owners, but in 1854 all of that changed.
On February 4th a group of businessmen officially received a charter for the Galveston Wharf and Cotton Press Company and within six short years the affiliation would acquire seven of the ten operating wharves along the harbor. Their purpose was to maintain and upgrade the port facilities, establish uniform services for employees, and set the service fees.
But perhaps the duty taken most seriously by the company was the attraction of new business and exports. Tenacious in their pursuits, the Galveston Wharf Company’s insatiable desire to secure lines of trade from as far away as the Midwest and California would eventually earn Galveston the unsavory nickname, “The Octopus of the Gulf.”
1854 also marked the arrival of business partners Henry Hutchings and John Sealy, two of Galveston’s most enduring names. The pair had operated a thriving insurance business together since 1837, but once on the island they turned their interests to banking after combining forces with George Ball.
In 1857, the first Ball, Hutchings, and Sealy building was erected on the northeast corner of 24th and Strand; its eventual replacement still stands today, making it the first of only two buildings to ever occupy the site.
The year prior a man by the name of E.B. Nichols made his way to Galveston. Soon after, he would become one of the pioneering merchants of the Strand as well as another lasting namesake. His firm, E.B. Nichols & Co., contributed extensively to the cotton trading business as the agents of several shipping lines between Boston, New York, and Galveston, and he eventually went on to serve as president of the Galveston Wharf Company.
Nichols’ first office was in a wood-framed building on the southeast corner 20th and Strand. A few years later, after Nichols relocated one block west, the building became a waterfront boarding house called the Union Hotel. His second location, just east of 21st Street on the south side of the Strand, was one of J.C. Kuhn’s brick buildings which Nichols purchased in 1861. Known today as the Nichols Building, it is one of only three buildings to survive from this decade.
The other two structures still standing were both constructed between 1858 and 1859. The original E.S. Wood Building still sits on the south side of the Strand between 22nd and 23rd, although it is unrecognizable today because of its incorporation into Old Galveston Square during a 20th century restoration. Appropriately, the space that was the E.S. Wood building is currently occupied by Galveston Historical Foundation’s 1891 bookstore. The other is Hendley Row, considered the oldest building on the Strand today.
The wholesale firm of Hendley & Co., led by brothers Joseph and William Hendley, John L. Sleight, and Noah N. John, was one of the first in Galveston and originally occupied a two-story wooden structure on the Strand. Hendley Row was constructed on the adjacent block to the east of this first location, between 20th and 21st Streets, in partnership with Thomas M. League and a Mr. Guilbonu. The elder Hendley brother William supervised the construction from granite, brick, cement, and lime that was shipped to Galveston from the north.
Actually four separate, three-story buildings with a façade that makes them appear as one, Hendley Row was the largest commercial structure in the state of Texas when it was completed in 1859.
By the end of the decade, Galveston’s population had swelled to over nine thousand and the port was exporting nearly 150,000 bales of cotton per year to both European and domestic ports, all of which was compressed in Galveston. Gross exports and imports for the 1859-1860 season surpassed over $15 million, which meant that the largest city in the state also had the wealthiest population, many of whom boasted associates and interests in Europe, the Indies, Mexico, England, Havana, New Orleans, and even cities all over the east coast including New York.
Merchants, bankers, shippers, transportation enterprises, politicians, newspaper publishers, and attorneys composed an upper echelon of Galveston society that was lavish in both their expenditures and philanthropies, also aided by generous tax relief. “Probably in proportion to its population, in 1860 there was no more prosperous community in the United States than that of Galveston” (Galveston Daily News, 26 March 1911).
This prosperity assisted Galveston in reaching its goal of being a permanent destination on the routes of many well-established transit lines like the Morgan Star Line and Mallory Line, and Galveston was also the beneficiary of fast-advancing technologies that made marine transportation incredibly more efficient. But the crown in its watery cap came in 1859 with approval of bonds for the construction of a $100,000 rail bridge that would link the island to the mainland and bring the railroad to Galveston for the very first time.
Completed in January of 1860, the development of the Galveston, Houston, and Henderson Railroad was an enormous asset to a city that was already thriving despite the odds wagered by its isolation from the interior. Thus it was wholeheartedly supported and promoted by both residents of Galveston and the elite businessmen, as the growth of the city was inextricably linked to the success of its commercial pursuits.
The first GHHR Board of Directors was practically a directory to the 1850s Strand, including names such as E.B. Nichols, J.C. Kuhn, Thomas M. League, and George Ball. The connection of Galveston to the rest of the country via rail opened up endless possibilities and visions of a bountiful new decade, but soon the resolve of Galveston, the longevity of the Strand, and the strength of a nation were all about to endure the ultimate examination.