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Galveston Monthly

Strand Chronicles - Chapter 3

Jul 01, 2019 07:59PM

  After twenty years of working to prove its viability as a port of commerce, Galveston finally had railroad access to the interior. But the celebration of this triumph was almost immediately thwarted by talk of war. The United States was nigh a century old, yet it was already on trial at the court of its ultimate destiny, and the exuberant outlook upon Galveston’s future justifiably acquiesced to fear and worry as the fragile threads of the young nation began to unravel.

  At first the residents and businessmen of Galveston were mostly complacent about the onset of civil war in the United States. “The Island paused scarcely at all in the conduct of its normal business [and] made only minimal defensive preparations. (Kelly, p. 26)” Shippers and merchants on the Strand balked at the idea that anything could dampen the seemingly inevitable growth of Galveston, even after President Lincoln ordered an embargo of all secessionist ports on April 19, 1861.

  Soon, however, the stark reality of war reared its head. The Confederacy’s predominant military strategy was defense, their priority being to protect major territories. In Texas, this meant that the burden of conflict was effectively transferred onto the outlying and coastal communities. Galveston in particular was deemed even more crucial because it was the closest major port to Mexico, an ally of the Confederacy.

  On July 2, 1861, the peaceful clearance of federal ships into the Port of Galveston ceased outright with the contested arrival of the naval vessel the South Carolina. The island was officially a war zone, and for the next five years Galveston’s sole purpose for existence would be the defense of its precarious positioning, a plight that would forever alter the entrepreneurial hierarchy of the Strand.

  The first upset of Galveston’s upper society came at the hands of an evacuating population that abandoned their island homes to take refuge further inland. Soon after came the casualties of war, as many prominent Galveston citizens had taken up arms to defend the South. The ones who did survive their military service chose to close their businesses until the end of the war.

  Such was the case with several members of the Trueheart family, tax assessors and collectors who would eventually open the first real estate firm in Texas, located just off the Strand. Many other businesses, such as the Galveston Daily News, relocated temporarily to Houston. Some businessmen, such as J.C. Kuhn, simply abandoned the island completely. In 1861 Kuhn sold three brick buildings on the Strand, his wharf, and his home; he never returned.

  Many high-profile businessmen did remain in Galveston, but in staying true to the cause they used their assets and connections in service of the Confederacy rather than private commerce. William Pitt Ballinger, a lawyer with offices on the Strand, abandoned his practice to work as a Confederate Receiver on the island, and still others used their commercial contacts and resources to work as purchasing agents and blockade runners for the South’s cause.

   Ebenezer B. Nichols purchased 2023 Strand (across from Hendley Row) from Kuhn’s fire sale and relocated his commission house. During the war The Nichols Building was used by the Confederate general Paul O. Hebert as his headquarters, while Nichols himself went out and recruited over eight-hundred men for the Confederacy.

  Deprived of its commercial pursuits, the Strand had become a battlefield. Hendley Row, the tallest building in the city at the time, was repurposed as a military watch tower as it provided an excellent view of the federal blockade. Then because of the building’s size and fortitude, it was adopted as military headquarters, housing soldiers and also becoming the pinnacle of perceived power. If a regiment wanted control of Galveston, they first had to control Hendley Row.

  Its position along the harbor also made it an easy target, however. The alley and harbor shoreline had yet to be filled in, and at one time a Union gun boat sailed right up to the north side of the building and blasted a cannon ball through its thick brick walls. The scar from that blast remained on the building for many years and was only recently repaired. 

  In late 1862 the island was seized by the Union with little fanfare, and the Confederate forces that once occupied Galveston vanished, seemingly as uninterested in returning as their commercial counterparts.

  Then, just after midnight on January 1st of 1963, in what is known as the Battle of Galveston, Confederate troops under the leadership of General “Prince” John MacGruder launched a surprise attack and reclaimed control of the island. After that, the island remained in Confederate control until the end of the war—it was one of only two Gulf coast ports left waving the rebel flag at the conclusion of the Civil War.

   In April of 1865, Generals Lee and Johnston surrendered their efforts to the Union, and Galveston officially surrendered a few months later on June 3. A month following, the federal blockade was at last rescinded and after four years of meager shipments eking in through the maritime barrier, Galveston was once again free to resume commerce.

  The years of conflict on the Strand had taken its toll and the merciless hands of war had nearly annihilated the city with its destructive grip. Many of the wooden buildings in the commercial district had burned or been badly damaged in the battles, as had the wharf. Some buildings had been torn apart for firewood; homes and businesses were looted bare—sometimes for supplies, sometimes for fun; Hendley Row had a gaping hole in its side. Union troops now occupied the island, the price of redemption known as Reconstruction.

  Nevertheless the city somehow managed to stay focused on resurrecting its status as the commercial center of the southwest, even to the point of graciously ignoring the presence of the federal military. Even residents who found themselves on opposing sides just months ago managed to choose civility and tolerance for the sake of Galveston’s future. Anti-Union sympathies were considered uncouth and inappropriate to the current cause. Galveston could not save the Confederacy, but they could still save themselves.

 

  For the fiscal year that ended on August 31, 1866, Galveston’s port handled 375,000 tons of cargo. The Strand slowly began to resemble itself pre-war, lined predominantly with wooden buildings. The few brick structures that survived the war were repaired, but among all of the returns to its 1850s appearance, a new trend in architecture began to emerge that would establish the Strand’s now-famous aesthetic. 

  The Jockusch building, located on the southeast corner of 21st and Strand, was built just after the war ended and has a façade built of iron due to the lack of raw building materials at the time. John Jockusch had been a resident of Galveston since 1840 and served as the Prussian Consul to the Republic of Texas. Twentieth century renovations of his building covered over the original brick and iron with stucco, giving it a more modern appearance.

  In 1866 the McMahan Bank was constructed on the southeast corner of 22nd Street. A beautiful three-story brick building, it housed the enterprises of Thompson H. McMahan who had been a prominent banker and merchant in Galveston since the 1850s. It was destroyed by fire in 1877 and replaced by the First National Bank Building which still stands today. 

  The largest of all of the new structures was the P.J. Willis & Brothers wholesale grocery house, cotton factory, and commission house. The massive three-story structure built in 1869 took up the entire block of 24th Street north of the Strand. P.J. and R.S. Willis were from Maryland and came to Galveston in 1837 where they secured a niche within the realm of affordable food and clothing products. All that remains today of their structure is the first floor which has been segmented into several spaces occupied by the Mediterranean Chef, Crow’s Southwest Cantina, and Brews Brothers.

  In addition to new buildings, new faces arrived after the war as well. Colonel W.L. Moody, whose name would reverberate through Galveston for generations, saw not the destruction of Galveston but its potential for wealth and opportunity.

  As the decade drew to a close, the Strand commercial district would bear the brunt of yet another foe, although this time it was the forces of nature. Two major fires broke out on the street in 1869 that all but eliminated every wooden building west of 22nd Street. The Moro Castle Saloon fire originated in one of the first buildings on the Strand, leveling it and the entire southern block of the Strand between 23rd and 24th Streets. This included the original Merchants Mutual Insurance Company Building at 2317 Strand, a replica of which was constructed in 1870 and still stands.

  But as Galveston had already proven once, and would prove again, it would take much more than physical destruction to dampen its commercial endeavors. With the antiquated wooden structures gone, the Strand was now poised to become a symbol of the city’s outlandish prosperity, and to take its place in the portals of history as an enduring architectural marvel.


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