The Galveston Hurricane of 1900: Taking The City By Storm
As news arrives of Hurricane Joachim making landfall on the East coast, there is no denying that hurricane season is upon us again, and I am reminded of hurricanes past. It’s hard to believe it has been ten years since Hurricane Katrina blew through the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Louisiana. Thinking back on Katrina made me wonder about some of the other most damaging U.S. hurricanes. And by “wonder,” I mean it made me type, “most damaging U.S. hurricanes,” into Google. That’s when I discovered that Katrina isn’t the only hurricane with a recent anniversary. It has been just a smidge more than 115 years since the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, one of the worst natural disasters in American History.
In honor of Mother Nature and her wrath, we’re going to take a look back at the destructive path left by the 1900 Galveston Hurricane—a storm that is so old it didn’t even get a decent name, like future potential storms, Fiona, Shary, and Igor. As a matter of fact, most Galvestonians who survived the storm simply referred to it as just that: The Storm.
Take the City by Storm
In 1900, the coastal city of Galveston, Texas wasn’t much smaller than it is today. With close to 37,000 residents, the city located on Galveston Island was a booming town and a desirable tourist destination. The beach, which was level with the surf, allowed the wealthy that flocked to the shallow waters to enjoy easy access to “therapeutic bathing” in the Gulf of Mexico.
Galveston was also the most important seaport in the state. While most people may not have realized it, Galveston was very important to the national economy. More than 70% of the country’s cotton crops traveled through the port of Galveston. It was one of the wealthiest cities in the nation and the first city in Texas to have electricity and telephones. By all appearances, Galveston was the goose that laid golden egg, but folks were about to discover it was also a sitting duck!
It’s not that some residents hadn’t recommended that Galveston should build a seawall to protect the city. But, hey, they had never faced any serious damage from high tides and hurricanes before 1900. Even Galveston’s chief meteorologist, Isaac Cline, was on record as saying that the thought of a hurricane seriously damaging Galveston was “a crazy idea.” So, Galvestonians continued basking in the sun and counting their money.
Isaac Cline must have thought he had the world by the tail when he landed his job with the U.S. Weather Service station in Galveston. He was living the good life in one of the most important cities in the country. But he may have started doubting his choice on at 5am on Sept. 8th, when he observed water from the Gulf inching over the low areas of the island. From his vantage point, he took note as the winds increased, the barometer dropped and the storm swells rose. He hopped on his horse and began riding up and down the beach like some primitive National Weather Service alert. He warned visitors to go home and asked beach residents to get to higher ground. The highest ground available was only about nine feet higher than the lowest ground. But, any port in a storm!
Cline kept in contact with the Weather Service’s Washington D.C. office until telegraph lines went down in the afternoon. He estimated that winds exceeded 120 mph, though it is believed he underestimated the speed by at least 10-20 mph. Having done all he could do, he slogged through the rising water to his home.
The weather expert was not immune to the destruction that was unfolding around him . . . a trolley trestle broke and crashed into Cline’s house. He managed to save himself and his six-year-old daughter. His brother Joseph saved Isaac’s other two daughters. But Cline watched as his pregnant wife drowned in the turbulent waters.
Come Hell or High Water
Meanwhile, many of Galveston’s residents were facing similar fates. They might have wanted to batten down the hatches, but there were no hatches to batten down! The city’s infrastructure and architecture had never been built to accommodate the frightful storm that was upon them. There was no way to ever have anticipated the power of this storm. The worst of the storm lasted from 8 pm until midnight, when a 15.5-foot storm surge swept across the island. Houses and other buildings collapsed. A giant wall of debris, standing at least two stories high pushed its way from one end of the island to the other. As the wall moved, it grew like a snowball rolling downhill—gaining force and momentum.
Those fancy, new-fangled electric lights that normally illuminated the town were of no use. They were the first to fail, and the city was plunged into darkness. Aside from an occasional lightning flash, Galveston was pitch-black. Ironically, the same wall of debris that destroyed so many buildings protected others. When the wall stopped moving, it protected the buildings on the other side of the island from being tossed about like Popsicle stick structures. It is said, however, that no building in Galveston was without damage.
Hollywood film director King Vidor, a Galveston native, whose debut film in 1913 was “Hurricane in Galveston,” recalled the storm years later. “I could see the waves crash against the streetcar trestle, then shoot into the air as high as telephone poles. Higher. My mother didn’t speak as we watched three or four waves. I was only five then, but I remember now that it seemed as if we were in a bowl looking up toward the level of the sea. … I felt as if the sea was going to break over the edge of the bowl and come pouring down upon us.”
The home of George Sealy, a successful banker, railroad executive and philanthropist, stood at Broadway and 25th Street in the city’s Strand District, at the highest elevation in the city. It became a place of refuge for some 400 storm-tossed refugees who gathered there during the height of the storm, as water poured into its basement. Some refugees tied their boats to fences that surrounded the Sealy home and swam to the house, and ultimately to safety.
St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum, which was situated directly on the Gulf, received the heaviest blow. Ten nuns and ninety children lived there, and as the storm tide rose the nuns prepared the children for the worst. The nuns cut clothes line into sections and tied the children to them, and as the main tidal surge hit, they tried to calm the children by singing the hymn “Queen of the Waves.” All but three boys were killed. Hours after the flood receded, the three boys awoke in a tree, 20 blocks from shore.
The death toll estimates from the hurricane ranged from 6,000-12,000. Most sources quoted 8,000 is a fairly accurate estimate. Everyone in Galveston lost someone they loved on that night.
The aftermath of The Storm is often thought to be Galveston’s finest hour. Even as they buried their dead, for most residents, there was no question as to whether or not they would rebuild. The Red Cross was a fledgling organization at the time, but volunteers swooped in under the leadership of their 78-year-old founder, Clara Barton. Volunteers, working alongside residents, began a massive reconstruction of the city.
That seawall, which the experts had discouraged, was finally built. The city was raised to an elevation of about sixteen feet at its highest point. Many buildings were raised on jacks. Canals were dug. Catwalks were built to connect houses and buildings. They did everything they could to prepare for the next storm, which was a certainty. Residents had the opportunity to test out their preventative measures when the Galveston Hurricane of 1915 hit. While the damage was extensive, the loss of life was limited to 275.
Thomas A. Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, traveled to Galveston to film the aftermath. Here is the remarkable documentary footage.