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Galveston Monthly

Strand Chronicles - Chapter 7

Jul 01, 2019 09:07PM

In 1976 Galveston applied to the United States Department of the Interior for recognition of the Strand District on the National Register of Historic Places. On the nomination form in the “Statement of Significance,” Architectural Historian Carolyn Pitts of the National Park Service wrote, “The hurricane of 1900 caused much destruction along The Strand, but it was the development of the Houston Ship Channel and the lack of development in Galveston’s harbor which brought an end to both Galveston’s prosperity and the prominence of The Strand.”

  Somehow over the last forty years that narrative has been lost, and modern historians explain the discrepancy between 19th Century Galveston and 21st Century Galveston by perpetuating the myth that The Great Storm annihilated the city’s commercial prospects. This inaccuracy also carries with it the assumption that Galveston has always been the resort town that it is today, when in reality tourism was not perfunctory but rather a slow and unplanned transition prompted by the construction of the Seawall and its subsequent Boulevard. Fortunately even though history can sometimes lie, numbers never do.

  Property damage from the storm both public and private was estimated at over $30 million. The Central Relief Committee was formed the day after the storm and oversaw citywide recovery efforts and fundraising. Their final report listed gross receipts of only $1.2 million in donations. The people of Galveston helped themselves, led by the insatiable tenacity of the city’s commercial enterprises and their monumental buildings on the Strand that stood stoically among the rubble of the battered city.

  Although every building on the Strand was at the very least recognizable in the aftermath of the storm, the first levels had been completely submerged by the storm surge that emptied them of their contents and left behind a black slimy sludge that coated the walls and floors. Many of them were gutted completely and debris was piled up along the street. Wagons rode by piled with bodies, stark reminders that were also motivation to keep moving.

   The storm decimated the rail bridge over the bay, the only connection between Galveston and the mainland, but it was completely repaired in eleven days. The port was open for commerce in two weeks. On October 15th, five weeks after the storm, it set a record for the most bales of cotton shipped out of the harbor in one day—30,000. Within three months, the twenty-foot high, three-mile long wall of debris was completely gone by way of either dismantling or fire.

   Business alliances had formed among Galveston’s elite in the late 19th Century that cooperatively spearheaded efforts to sway legislative and professional interests toward Galveston and the port. After the storm, the Deep Water Committee, the Wharf Board, and the Cotton Exchange worked incessantly to expand the port and wielded the kind of determination only found in tragedy. They did not only aim to maintain consistent increases in cotton, but also desired to expand the port’s portfolio of exports. Grains from the Midwest, lumber from the Southwest, minerals from Colorado, Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas, flour from the north, oil—if it was west of Texas they wanted it.

  The complete destruction of the wharf made way for a complete re-design that sprawled sixty acres along the harbor. Entirely covered, with docking areas for up to ninety ships, the incredibly efficient wharf incorporated electricity into every available aspect of the loading and unloading process. Electric conveyors would feed directly onto ships from the grain elevator; a large vessel could be loaded in under an hour. Rail cars with electric motors took cargo from the wharf to the rail yard along a labyrinth of tracks controlled by electric switches.

  When business closed for the 1902 fiscal year, the port of Galveston accounted a new record in foreign export value with $99 million. The next year they topped that by an additional $5 million and were the only port in the nation to exceed their previous high; the $400 million total value of  freight handled in 1903 also shattered its previous record.

  By 1908, Galveston had advanced more quickly than any other Gulf port over the last decade—total revenue had increased 140% from 1898 and 360% from 1894. Galveston also held the world record for the amount of cotton received in a port in one day. By 1912, combined imports and exports of the port of Galveston were $300 million, second only to the unreachable New York and nearly $40 million more than New Orleans.

  All the while, this commercial success permeated the civic aspects of the city and at times outright persuaded municipalities to invest in improvements. Determined to forever withstand any future storms and prevent another disaster, the Seawall was built between 1902 and 1904, followed by the seven year long grade-raising. Streets were repaved and a causeway was completed in 1912 that allowed automobiles to travel to the island for the first time ever. The sum total of all of these improvements registered nearly $8 million, and much of it was financed by bonds purchased by Galveston residents.

  While the entrepreneurial minds within the city can certainly be credited with the resplendent rise of Galveston in the early 1900s, logistically much of it was just geography. Galveston was the closest port to the western half of the United States by 400 miles; the city’s success merely proved the necessity of a well-developed Texas port. The only location that had any chance of truly competing with Galveston was Houston, but their spattering of residents had spent the last forty years quarreling over the idea of dredging the natural waterway to the Gulf to make a ship channel.

  But Houston steadily continued its slow maturation while Galveston was preoccupied with the building of a seventeen-foot high Seawall and elevating 500 city blocks to protect them from future obliteration, until 1910 when Houston finally found itself up to the task and voted to approve the $1.25 million needed to dredge the channel. Four years later on November 10, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the Houston Ship Channel open. Galveston would never be the same, and neither would The Strand.

   Prior to 1914, city directories began with a lofty introduction of pages upon pages lauding Galveston’s prosperity, prospects, and potential. Later the directory merely read, “In presenting the 1919 edition of the Galveston City Directory the publishers feel that no more appropriate introduction can be offered than the assurance that nothing has been omitted on their part to insure accuracy and completeness. The Directory contains 592 pages.” The directories also reveal the source of this severely deflated confidence—every third listing along Strand Street reads “Vacant,” and the occupied addresses portray a downtown resembling that of a sleepy country town. Grocers and produce houses were accompanied by one or two remaining cotton factors, a bank, and miscellaneous retailers.

  As Galveston took its respite, the nation found itself entrenched in an ongoing battle over the perils of alcohol and a powerful movement took hold that aimed to enact a nationwide ban. Galveston County moved to support the movement and went dry in 1918 to show solidarity with the cause. Two years later Prohibition was passed, and the slumbering Strand would awaken to a renewed purpose when alternate enterprises would once again find an efficient use for buildings snuggled up to a friendly, international harbor.


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