The 1900 storm that struck Galveston still carries the designation, as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Periodically, storms flooded the marshy bayou-creased island on the Gulf of Mexico, but experts believed that the lay of the land somehow protected the thriving seaport from the vicious storms that had already destroyed the port city of Indianola on down the southern coast and that often ravaged Louisiana to the east.
Galveston had grown into Texas’ most prosperous city with a population of 38,000. Known as the Wall Street of the Southwest, it served forcefully as the business capital of Texas where all the state’s major insurance companies, banks, cotton brokers, and mercantile businesses maintained headquarters.
And then on the morning of September 8 heavy winds and rain began and by 4:00 P.M. the city lay under four feet of water. At 8:00 P.M. the wind reached an estimated 120 miles an hour, driving a four-to-six-foot tidal wave across the island. Houses splintered into debris that moved across the city like a battering ram destroying everything in its path. Finally, it crashed against the massive Gresham mansion and created a breakwater that protected the remainder of the city. At midnight the wind ceased and then the water rushing back out to sea sucked away many unsuspecting victims. As dawn came on September 9, the shattered city stared in horror at the devastation––over 6,000 dead and $40 million in property damage.
But Galveston refused to die. An esprit de corps developed among the populace, especially the business community that literally worked miracles to bring Galveston back to life. A board of three engineers headed by retired Brigadier General Henry M. Robert (author of Robert’s Rules of Order) recommended building a seawall and raising the level of the city behind the wall.
The Galveston seawall is one of the great engineering feats of its time. The solid concrete wall rises seventeen feet, spreads sixteen to twenty feet at the base, and is three to five feet wide at the top. In July 1904 at the completion of the first phase, the wall protected 3.3 miles of waterfront. Over the years it has stretched further along the coast.
To raise the level of the city, dikes of sand were built to enclose quarter-mile-square sections of town. Dredges scooped up the sand from the ship channel and moved along canals dug from the port side of the island. Owners paid to have their houses within each cordoned-off section raised on stilts, making it possible for huge pipes to funnel the sand under the raised buildings and in this fashion to lift streets, streetcar lines, alleys, gas and water lines, and even the privies.
The three-ton St. Patrick’s Church was the heaviest structure raised. Workers placed 700 jackscrews under the building. The crew sang songs to synchronize the operation and on designated words, they cranked the jacks one-quarter turn. In this fashion, they lifted the massive structure five feet without causing a single crack, even in the bell tower. Church services continued without interruption. Other structures of almost equal weight were also lifted.
Because of frequent flooding, many structures already sat on piers or were built with a first level used only for a carriage house and storage. Those buildings simply had the first level filled as the area around them grew higher. The first floor of some two-story buildings disappeared under the sand and the second floor became ground level.
Catwalks crisscrossed the city to allow residents to get about above the stinking, muddy silt hauled in from the bottom of the ship channel. A drawbridge across one of the canals allowed movement about the city. Tourists came to see the activity. When two dredges collided and had to be pulled from the canal, residents brought picnic baskets and watched the operation. It became fashionable for ladies to carry their nice slippers in a little bag and upon arrival at an event, they simply changed out of their muddy shoes.
By the time the grade raising was complete in 1910, over 2,300 buildings, large and small, had been lifted from five to eight feet.
Before the storm, Galveston reigned as the business center of the Southwest, but with the completion of the seawall and grade raising, and the construction of a new causeway that handled five railroads, an electric Interurban, and a highway for automobile traffic the business community asked: Why not have a first class beachfront hotel and add holiday destination to Galveston’s allure? In 1911 the Galvez, a $1million hotel of the finest order opened overlooking the Gulf. Galveston was ready for its next chapter.