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Galveston Monthly

Galveston: The Spirit of the Island

Sep 02, 2019 09:51PM

At the bleakest moment in Galveston’s history, when the stench of death was covered only by the smoke of funeral pyres, when a 20-foot-high, 8-mile-long debris wall - all that remained of the southern half of the island - loomed over downtown, at a time when the joy of reuniting with a loved one was cruelly tempered by the loss of a dozen others, news outlets around the country were quick to proclaim that “Galveston was finished.” No city could survive the magnitude of the destruction left behind by that September storm.

  They had forgotten that Galveston was not a city of mere mortals, it was a city of dreamers, renegades, trailblazers, and die-hards. The naysayers neglected to realize that everything that had transpired upon the shores of the island city since its 1839 inception was not mere luck nor chance, but rather, an outpouring of an unexplainable, intangible force of unyielding determination, a magnetism forged by a collective genius, creativity, and ambition.

  The rapid and vast commercial successes borne from this incubator in the 19th Century were looked upon by outsiders with both awe and contempt, especially as the bravado manifested itself by way of a mansion-building contest along Broadway Avenue and a downtown replete with architectural masterpieces. However, what were seen by some as ostentatious displays of wealth were in fact a people giving back to their benefactor, installations of jewels upon the crown of the Queen City of the Gulf.

  But only now, as Galveston suffered in agony at the hands of her nemesis Mother Nature, was the unseen force behind the city’s meteoric rise given a name. Surrounded by rubble and ruin, facing a population stricken by the pain of the recent past and fear for the future, Isaac H. “Ike” Kempner declared that “The Spirit of Galveston” would prevail.

  This spirit had given the island its paradisiacal status, not the water or the weather, just as it had catapulted Galveston from a modest trading post to a thriving port of international commerce. It was the spirit that would lift the city from tragedy to affluence as it had once before, and as it would again and again.

  Galveston was still an infant city the first time that uncontrollable circumstances overshadowed its natural proclivity for prosperity. When the nation fractured in 1861, a federal blockade was launched against all southern seaports, crippling Galveston’s burgeoning economy. A handful of daring businessmen maneuvered the Civil War situation with blockade runners, but the remainder of the population evacuated their island home as it became consumed with military activity.

  As the closest port city to Mexico, a Union ally, Galveston was viewed as a strategic piece of the supply chain. In late 1862, northern forces wrestled control from their southern counterparts, but with a surprise attack during the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 1863, known historically as the Battle of Galveston, the Confederacy regained control and maintained it for the duration of the war.

  During Restoration, Galveston patiently endured the interference of the federal government and subsequently managed to outpace almost every other southern city with its rapid rebound. This feverish quest for economic dominance continued unfettered for the rest of the 19th century, elevating Galveston’s commerce to a level that surpassed even that of New Orleans.

  The population was the second wealthiest (per capita) in the nation, just beneath that of Newport, Rhode Island, home of the Vanderbilt dynasty. Equally as important to the city’s fabric was its port of immigration that once surpassed Ellis Island.

  This widespread and multi-faceted international influence enlivened the city census to reflect an eclectic mix of nationalities and infused the town with diversity. Among the open-minded population, who lived in unrestricted and unsegregated residential areas, a person’s only meaningful designation was that of “islander.”

  Indeed, only a population galvanized by this social and economic success, as well as the pride elicited by such an accomplishment, was strong enough to embrace the overwhelming task of recovering from the 1900 Storm. Interestingly, most historians deny Galveston this, its grandest achievement, and instead the storm is often named as the ultimate abdication of its sovereignty. But the city did not merely rebuild structures, it literally raised itself to new heights.

  Determined to never let future generations of islanders endure such a hardship and emboldened by The Spirit of Galveston, the city on a sandbar enacted what is still today considered one of the most significant feats of civil engineering ever accomplished in the history of the United States. They built a 17-foot-high barricade against the sea and elevated the southern half of the island an average of 13 feet; the original seawall and ensuing grade-raising took nearly a decade to complete.

  Meanwhile on the northern shore, the Port of Galveston was endowed with the most technologically advanced wharf in the world where it continued to shatter records of importation and exportation set prior to the storm.

   When at last its commerce was overtaken in 1914 with the opening of the Houston Ship Channel, Galveston yet again refused to cower amid adversity. The sense of invincibility fostered by its early success and superlative recovery created the ideal conditions for the city to unofficially declare itself “The Free State of Galveston.”

  Continuing as it had previously, undaunted by outside opinion, the city chose to again play by its own rules - even if that meant changing the game. The eventual and ugly demise of the Free State has relegated this era of Galveston history to the bottom of the heap, but that does not erase the fact that this era is perhaps the most potent example of The Spirit of Galveston.

  The winners write history, which is why few people know about a certain coastal community’s ability to transform the non-violent, victimless “crimes” of vice into a famed national reputation for glamour, luxury, and elegance that removed Galveston from of the atrocities of war and depression. These same sins, for which the city paid dearly in 1957 with a violent and nationally embarrassing takedown at the hands of self-serving state officials, are the ones that today have made Las Vegas an international sensation.

   It seemed at the time that The Spirit of Galveston had been rendered extinct, both sunken and set ablaze like the confiscated slot machines that were once as ubiquitous as the mindset that had installed them in every drugstore and washateria in town. Then Hurricane Carla (1961) grabbed the city by the shoulders and shook it admonishingly, reminding Galveston that the spirit could be buried, but it would never die. Although they no longer exist, the prominent accomplishments of the decade after Carla, namely the Flagship Hotel and Sea-Arama, marked the island’s entrance into a new era that has yet to be named but continues to evolve.

  Weakened from a century of hardship, Galveston finally seemed willing to succumb to the opinion imposed onto it from the outside - that it had always and would always be worthy only of beach-town status, laden with family-friendly entertainment for the rest of the world to enjoy, even if it was not a true embodiment of the city’s values. Thus, although the spirit had been renewed, it limped along with apathy at the task set before it.

  At last in the 1980s, a hometown boy turned oil magnate lit the spark that continues to burn. Perhaps the singular definer of the modern spirit, George Mitchell started the conversation that was finally brought to the forefront after Hurricane Ike again tested the city’s strength - Galveston is more, so much more, than a beach town.

   Just ask one of the hundreds of artists, small business owners, or non-profit organizations who have breathed life into Galveston’s historic downtown, or one of the thousands of historic homeowners who have personally invested in immortalizing island history. They will tell you that the vibrant and exponential growth over the last ten years has nothing to do with a coat of paint, a new building, or a repaved sidewalk.

  They will tell you, or rather show you, that The Spirit of Galveston is alive and well.