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Galveston Monthly

Strand Chronicles - Chapter 8

Jul 02, 2019 06:53AM

In 1920, Galveston’s commercial district was still reeling from the formation of the Port of Houston that had abruptly diverted the island’s relevance northward, but for a while longer it did manage to hold on to its status as the top cotton port in the nation. Subsequently the Strand emitted but a glimpse of its former glory as the liaison between Galveston’s port and the rest of the world.

  Although still inhabited by grocers, cotton factors, and commission houses, the street had taken on an air of solemnity, and its newsworthy mentions were bleakly limited to the daily costs of produce. Sentiment refused to relinquish the Strand’s designation as a business district, but without business it became a street in exile, all but forgotten—the star player had been banished to the bench.

  However, the city itself was far from being undone, thanks to a government initiative that was meant to be restrictive but instead became paradoxically fortunate for Galveston. The Eighteenth Amendment went into effect on January 16, 1920, definitively outlawing both the sale and consumption of alcohol nationwide. Most people know it as Prohibition, but in the unsinkable island city it was seen as a prime opportunity.

  In fact, Galveston County had actually proclaimed itself dry in 1918 as a testament of support for the growing movement against alcohol. Which means that by the time the federal government got around to formally enacting the legislation, enterprising individuals in Galveston had already figured out how to smuggle it in.

  And just as the Galveston’s location had served the legitimate entrepreneurs of the 19th century, so did it also prove advantageous to the illicit ones. The booze-laden islands of Jamaica, Cuba, and the Bahamas were merely a Gulf of Mexico away, and schooners overloaded with as many as 20,000 cases of liquor began dropping anchor off the Galveston shore as early as 1919.


Customs agents confiscate a large amount of alcohol from a bootleggers boat

Thirty-five miles southwest of the island was a rendezvous point known as Rum Row. There, it was loaded onto smaller, more mobile crafts and delivered most often to points along the deserted beaches on the west end. On other occasions, more brazen operations took advantage of Galveston’s sleepy wharf, where they would manage to unload it onto an isolated pier along with some of the port’s few remaining imports.

 Although the beach landings were more discreet, the port deliveries had the advantage as far as expediently securing the cargo went. On the Strand, less than a block away from the docks, were a number of prime storage opportunities in the form of vacant buildings and empty upper levels with back alley doors and a desperate need for tenants. Although no documented paper trail exists for these agreements, Island lore maintains that the second floor of the James Fadden building at 2410-12 Strand was used as a warehouse by the Downtown Gang.

  

 Their territory was north of Broadway, while the area south of this center dividing line was controlled by the Beach Gang. Their territory included Seawall Boulevard, which happened to be where two Italian immigrants named Sam and Rose Maceo had secured employment as barbers—one inside the Hotel Galvez, the other inside Murdoch’s Bathhouse.

  After Rose Maceo provided a temporary hiding spot for a stash of liquor, the brothers became fast friends and business partners with Beach Gang leaders Dutch Voight and Ollie Quinn. Together they opened the Hollywood Dinner Club on 61st Street, revealing the city’s insatiable appetite for gambling and adding another vice to their list of endeavors.

  By the late 1920s, the upper echelon of the Galveston gangs had gone to the wayside via prison or impending prosecution, and the Maceo’s had garnered complete control of the city's underworld. But it was only the underworld in the context of the rest of the country—in Galveston, it was the economic stalwart.

  Visitors flocked to the island and the hotels were full, even in the wintertime. All methods of transportation to the island were taxed, especially the passenger trains. This led to the construction of a new depot and the placement of the final, decorative piece onto the Strand’s architectural showcase.


Postcard of Untion Station

  At the corner of 25th and Strand, where the rail yard ended and met the commercial district, a small, four story depot was constructed in 1914. With Galveston’s significant surge of growth due to its popularity as an entertainment destination, the station proved inadequate and in 1931, the east half of it was demolished to make way for a massive structure that consisted of one eleven-story tower sandwiched between two eight-story towers. Technically the new construction was an “addition” to the original building, but its resplendent profile justified no such technicality.

  The old depot was a modest, stone structure. The new one was embellished with a design that defines the Art Deco movement of the 1930s, and it became the headquarters of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad. Their offices were housed on the upper levels of the building, while the Union passenger train station on first floor was outfitted with marble floors, lofted ceilings, and mahogany benches.

  With its eastward facing entrance that conclusively halts the westward progress of Strand Street, it provides today a strangely fitting bookend to the veritable kaleidoscope of architecture, but at the time of its construction it was more noted for providing direct access to 25th Street, one of the main thoroughfares leading to Seawall Boulevard and its opulent hotels and casinos.

  Although just as feverish and lucrative, the economic climate of Galveston had certainly shifted. No longer did out-of-towers inquire about the port or cotton facilities, only of the casinos and speakeasies. When the 1930s brought the voracious return of prostitution after a brief hiatus during World War I, Galveston’s trifecta of vice was complete and it became the golden ticket of the southwest.

Automobiles parked outside the Hutchings-Sealty Building - circa 1925

   The Strand, unfortunately, saw the port lose its cotton ranking to Houston in 1931, and even though it gained it back the following year, that would forever be the last time Galveston’s port would grace the record books. Over the next two decades, it was the Maceos alone that would carry the financial well-being of the city. Even through the Great Depression and World War II, their underworld sustained the island and shielded it from the desperate circumstances that plagued the rest of the country.

  In 1951, Sam Maceo succumbed to cancer; less than two years later, Rose died as well. Their controlling interests had been passed to their nephews through marriage, the Fertitta brothers. But the 1950s created the perfect storm for the passing of an era. The trust and respect gleaned by the Maceos from the city and their clout with state officials could not be duplicated, in Nevada gaming was now legal and devoid of risk, and in Texas, the newly elected attorney general, Will Wilson, was determined to take down Galveston to advance his own career. In 1957, he finally succeeded.

Police officers and men stand outside the Hutchins-Seal & Co Building-circa 1930

   If what was left of Galveston after the Texas Rangers finished their raids was a ruined sense of identity and hopeless outlook for the future, what was left of the Strand was a hollowed out shell of significance. For thirty years, it had been passed over for the speakeasies on Market Street and the brothels of Postoffice, mere blocks away. Now, with not even guilt by association to speak of, the future seemed to be one of minimal mediocrity. But as with all things that are destined to be timeless, the Strand’s greatness could only be temporarily hidden.


Chapter 1 - 3 - 4 - 6 - 8 - 9 - 10 11 - 12