Strand Chronicles - Chapter 6
Jul 01, 2019 08:55PM
“When I see the sea once more
will the sea have seen or not seen me?” –Pablo Neruda
As the century marker ticked over to twenty, optimism reigned supreme in the opulent Island city.
By 1900, the sandbar in the harbor had been removed and the port had finally acquired deep water status, an achievement long awaited and much coveted by businessmen on the Strand who viewed it as the panacea that would eternally inscribe the city’s desirability onto the ranks of domestic ports.
The 1900 census reported Galveston’s population as 37,789, a gain of nearly thirty percent from 1890 and an undeniable indicator that the perceived, intangible growth of the population’s pride was on par with the city's accomplishments on paper. Its expansion rate was among the highest of all Southern cities.
The 1900 International Yearbook ranked Galveston the 5th most important port in the country, citing export numbers that in total surpassed $85 million ($2 billion today). In 1900 the city was ranked the second wealthiest (per capita) in the nation.
And in the year 1900, every last resident of Galveston was faced with one of only two fates: they would either perish, or they would bear witness to a level of death and destruction that is unimaginable and unparalleled.
It was business as usual on the Saturday morning of September 8, 1900, despite the fact that warnings had been given about an approaching storm. But this was not the first time Galveston had been in the path of tumultuous weather and it had never been of any consequence.
Hundreds of people went to the beach to marvel at the tempestuous sea and still more went about their work. The Strand never took a day off, and by late morning it was abustle with activity. No one could conceive the true magnitude of the impending storm, even if they had so desired.
Just after noon, the rain started to fall. As the day wore on, the winds began to increase in velocity, and water began to rise in the streets. At 3pm, the wind was blowing 44 miles per hour. By 5pm, the anemometer blew off the roof of the Galveston branch of the United States Weather Bureau, right after it registered a gust of 100 miles per hour.
Around that time an account was recorded of a servant girl who worked at a house on Broadway Avenue, which was at the time the topographic “spine” of the island. She was incredibly confused when she inadvertently realized that the water encroaching upon the yard was salty—rainwater is not salty. What she had unknowingly witnessed was the moment that Galveston Bay to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south had converged at the center of the island. The water continued to rise, and by 6pm the city of Galveston was the sea bottom.
Among the first casualties of the storm was a group of men taking shelter in Ritter’s Café, located on the first floor of the Clara Lang Building at 2109 Strand. The ornate brick façade unfortunately gave only an illusion of safety.
A young man named Henry Bettencourt was taking shelter inside Hendley Row across the street about a block to the east. His firsthand account tells of “a wooden building across the street that had a restaurant downstairs, and it had one of those tin roofs that were pinched together. At 5 o’clock that evening that roof rose up from both gutters…and blew off.”
Shortly after, the fourth floor caved in and the wall facing the alley began to crumble, then the third floor, then the second like dominoes, trapping the men under an immovable weight of wooden beams and brick right as the harbor was beginning to swallow the Strand. The storm surge would reach an unfathomable fifteen feet deep.
Homes on the southern (beach) side of the island were obliterated by the wind, imploding upon themselves, and as the Gulf waters invaded the wreckage was picked up and corralled into a twenty foot-high, three mile-long wall of debris that encircled downtown. Everything south of the wall was gone, scraped clean. But Neptune subsequently checked himself, and the monstrous pile of debris ultimately served as a breakwater that protected downtown and its commercial district on the opposite side of the island.
All of the palatial buildings along the Strand and the vast majority of their smaller counterparts were left standing, although none were completely immune to the damage, mainly in the form of a thick, black sludge washed in by the storm that blanketed everything in the lower fifteen feet of downtown. The wind was not nearly as kind.
Immediately adjacent to Ritter’s Café was the second investment property of Ms. Clara Lang, the Brown building at 2111, which lost its roof and lower levels in a similar fashion to 2109. By the end of it all, the only thing left from the pair were two stories worth of the connected brick façade facing Strand Street. Next door at 2115 the Opperman building fared much better but it did lose the entirety of its decorative cornice at the top, as did the Greenleve & Block building at 2310-2314.
By far the most notable damage was suffered by two of the most prominent men on the Strand. Nicholas Clayton built a monumental structure at the northwest corner of 22nd and Strand for Colonel W.L. Moody. With four stories and an elaborate cornice, it towered over the rest of the Strand, but during the storm with no buffer at all from the wind, the entire fourth floor was sheared off. Although Clayton did oversee extensive repairs to the building, the fourth floor was never replaced.
The entirety of the wharf that stretched along the harbor side from 10th Street to 40th Street was decimated, and the harbor was full of furniture, timber, and bodies.
Three temporary morgues were immediately established downtown, one of which was inside the Mensing Brothers building on the northeast corner of 23rd and Strand.
“They were bringing them into Mensing’s and stacking them on the floor,” wrote storm survivor Hyman Block. “[A man] had to guard them because there had been a number of cases, and it was proven that people with rings on their fingers were losing them. Most of them were naked. There was a horrible stench.”
This system seemed orderly at first when the death toll was estimated to be in the hundreds—most were initially unaware of the extent of the damage and this estimation was already considered an atrocity. The intent was to offer survivors a chance to identify their loved ones, but when the body count began to multiply into the thousands, bodies were first buried and then burned on site.
The most compelling part of the story of The Great Storm, however, is not the death or the destruction, it is the determination of the people who survived and stayed. The ones who hauled corpses and dismantled piles of debris; the ones who rebuilt homes that still stand today.
Downtown, the invincibility of the Strand served as encouragement to those who were steadfast in their vision for the future of Galveston. When George Sealy, a leading figure of Galveston commerce, arrived on the scene from business in Maine, he was not at all daunted by the task of resurrecting the city.
“The fact that many of our buildings withstood the storm and came out without injury proves that we can build a city that will stand,” he said in a statement to the Galveston Daily News. He continued with grand optimism, “The wharves are not much damaged and are ready for business. They will be restored to good repair just as rapidly as it is possible to do the work. In a month from now the business district of the city will carry no evidences that there has been a storm, and in a year from now the city will be rebuilt and we will be a better and bigger city than before.”
He was not wrong.