Galveston Refused to Die

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 was built in 60-foot sections.

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.

St. Patricks Church was raised five feet.

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.

Houses were raised on stilt. The sand and slush was pumped in under them.

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.

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El Paso Mission Trail

My long-range plans call for finding a book publisher interested in my Texas history blogs. With that goal in mind, I’m expanding my Texas coverage with a series of West Texas and Panhandle stories. This blog post was to be about the founding of the oldest Spanish mission in Texas and the first thanksgiving in the United States, both of which I thought had occurred near El Paso, a city on the far western edge of Texas. Immediately, I uncovered a wide range of stories that I have decided to share.

We often think of Spanish activity in Texas getting underway when the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle landed on the Texas coast in 1685. Concern that the French might have an eye on Texas prompted the government of New Spain to construct six missions in East Texas to Christianize the Indians and to serve as a buffer against encroachment from the French in neighboring Louisiana. In fact Spanish explorers started coming into Texas at present-day El Paso in the early 1580s, a century before the East Texas missions were built.

King Phillip II of Spain made Don Juan de Oñate the governor of New Mexico, before the territory

Don Juan de Onate

Don Juan de Onate

had been conquered. In search of riches, adventure, and political power Oñate personally financed an expedition, or entrada, meant to “pacify” the natives in New Mexico. He assembled 400 soldiers, 130 families and thousands of head of cattle, sheep, and other livestock. In early 1598 Oñate led his entourage on what he thought was a shortcut across the Chihuahuan Desert in Northern Mexico in search of a pass through the mountains into New Mexico. In late April, after four days of walking without food or water, the desperate travelers reached the Rio Grande where Oñate claimed all the surrounding land for King Phillip II of Spain. A few days later, they met native people who called themselves Manos, “peaceful one.” The friendly Indians led the Spanish to the place where the Rio Grande cut through the mountains forming El Paso del Rio del Norte—the pass of the north—the Spanish entryway to the West. The Mansos, who wore very little clothing, provided fresh fish for the Spanish and received clothing in return. Oñate invited the Mansos to be guests at a feast on January 26, 1598, celebrating the travelers’ amazing survival. The huge display of wild game and other food stuffs from the expeditions’ supplies created a feast of thanksgiving, which seems to be the second to be celebrated in the present United States. The first thanksgiving is claimed by St. Augustine, Florida, where on September 8, 1565, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez held a feast of thanksgiving with the Timucua.

The entrada moved on into New Mexico, but when scouting parties failed to find gold and silver,

Acoma Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo

Oñate’s troops began demanding payments from the Pueblo population. The Acoma pueblo refused to comply and in 1599 the Acoma Wars ended with Oñate’s orders to kill 800 people, enslave another 500, and cut off the left foot of all men older than twenty-five. Numbers of amputees vary from twenty-four to eighty. The young women were sent into slavery. Oñate continued his exploratory travels as far as present Kansas, returned to found the town of Santa Fe, and was finally called back to Mexico City in 1606 to answer for his conduct. Although he was tried and convicted of cruelty to the Spanish colonists and to the natives, he was later cleared of all charges.

His treatment of the native peoples set the pattern of Spanish cruelty that continued until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 when the natives rebelled against their overlords. The Pueblos drove out the soldiers and the Spanish authorities, killed twenty-one Franciscan priests, and sacked mission churches. More than 400 Spanish colonists and 346 native people were killed, which sent hundreds of Indians and Spanish fleeing for their lives to the south. The Tigua (Tiwa) people were among the refugees who reached safety at the Paso del Norte. In order to serve the displaced population, Franciscan friars established the first mission and pueblo in Texas, Corpus Christi de la Isleta, in 1682 on the south bank of the Rio Grande. That same year Nuestra Señora de la

Ysleta Mission

Ysleta Mission

Concepción del Socorro was established for other native people who had fled from the Pueblo Revolt. Over the years, the Rio Grande flooded many times, changing course, and moving the communities that grew up around the missions to both sides of the river, even isolating them for a time on an island between two channels of the Rio Grande.

Socorro Mission

Socorro Mission

Despite the construction of the Spanish missions, the Indians from New Mexico brought their own way of life with them, and continued to control the political and economic activities of the new mission communities. The Franciscan friars were allowed authority only over the Indians’ spiritual life.

Into this mix of missions, native peoples, and Spanish settlers, San Elizario settlement was established, and the Presidio de San Elizario was built in 1789 to protect the area missions and the travelers on the Camino Real (Royal Highway) that ran from Mexico City through Paso del Norte to Santa Fe. While it was never a mission, the presidio boasted a chapel to serve the military personnel.

San Elizario Chapel

San Elizario Chapel

Today’s Ysleta church was completed in 1907 and the Isleta community was annexed into El Paso in 1955. The present Socorro Mission was completed in 1840, replacing the 17th-century structure destroyed by Rio Grande floods. The current church retains many of its original decorative elements, including the original beams, or vigas, which were salvaged from the old flooded church. Both missions and the San Elizario Chapel are on the El Paso Mission Trail.

El Paso Mission Trail

El Paso Mission Trail

Texas’ First Settlers: Canary Islanders

After the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle missed the mouth of the Mississippi where he planned to establish a colony and landed instead in 1685 on the middle Texas coast, the Spanish Colonial government became concerned about the French encroaching on Spanish Texas.  The worry led to constructing missions in East Texas with the aim of Christianizing the Indians and establishing a buffer to keep the French in Louisiana from coming into Texas.  After years of little success in converting the Indians and finally moving all the missions out of East Texas, the Spanish Colonial authorities realized that securing control of the vast area required more than missions and a military presence—civilians were needed to populate the province of Texas.  By 1718 Mission San Antonio de Valero (present Alamo) and its presidio still lacked a civilian presence.

Canary Islands

Canary Islands

Originally the Spanish crown planned to move 400 families from the economically distressed Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa to establish a civilian community near the Mission San Antonio de Valero and its presidio.  The King of Spain intended to completely fund the move from the Canary Islands through Havana and on to Vera Cruz, including all the necessities for the journey.  However, after six years of planning, the original numbers were deemed too large and the transportation too expensive.  By the time the Islanders actually sailed for America in 1730, there were only twenty-five families, fifteen of whom stopped in Cuba and only ten traveled all the way to Vera Cruz on the Mexican coast. As they followed the route laid out for them by the Spanish government up through the center of Mexico, they

Route through Mexico

Route through Mexico

stopped at places like San Luis Potosi and Saltillo where they received food and clothing.  At Presidio San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande they left their worn-out horses and continued their trek on foot to the banks of the San Antonio River. The journey of almost a year brought heartache, including deaths that left two widows as heads of large households and the three Cabrera children–Ana, José, and Marcos—whose parents died on the trip.  Marriages along the way increased the entourage to fifteen families—fifty-six people—reaching their new home on March 9, 1731.

Each family received generous land grants, including the three Cabrera orphans.  They named their pueblo “Villa de San Fernando” in honor of the prince, Don Fernando, who became King Ferdinand in 1746.  By August the Islanders, “Isleños,” had finished plowing and planting and had elected civilian officials to legally establish the first chartered civil government in Texas. Because of their position as the first civilian settlers, the Isleños had permission from the crown to carry the title of “hidalgo,” or son of noble lineage.  For years they represented the political and socioeconomic elite of the community.

Tensions arose between the three communities—the Isleños, the military in the presidio, and the Franciscans in the nearby missions—over access to water, which had to be delivered by acequias or irrigation canals, the use of the land, and the management of livestock.  As continued harassment from marauding Comanche, Apache, and other roving tribes made it difficult for farmers to work in their fields and sometimes even cut off communication with authorities in New Spain, the lines of differences began blurring between the groups and a cohesive community emerged as they banded together against the outside threat.

Church of San Fernando

Church of San Fernando

The Isleños laid the cornerstone in 1738 for the Church of San Fernando, the first parish church in Texas and completed its construction in 1750.  Over the years the church was enlarged and in 1874 Pope Pius IX named San Antonio a diocese with San Fernando as its cathedral.

The first formal census, dated December 31, 1788, refers to the “Villa of San Fernando” and the mission and its presidio as “San Antonio de Béxar.”  After Mexico won independence from Spain, San Antonio de Béxar served as the capital of the province and when Texas finally won independence from Mexico in 1836, the city became known as San Antonio.

The dome of the original San Fernando Church served as the geographic center of the city and the point from which all mileage was measured to San Antonio.  When Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) was secularized in 1793, its congregation became members of San Fernando.  Finally in 1824, after missions Concepcíon, San José, and Espada were all secularized, their members joined the San Fernando parish.  Jim Bowie married Ursula de Veramendi, daughter of the Governor of the State of Coahuila y Tejas at San Fernando in 1831.  The Battle of the Alamo began when General Santa Anna raised the flag of “no quarter” from the tower of the San Fernando church.  It is claimed that a sarcophagus or marble coffin at the back of the sanctuary holds the remains of Davy Crockett, William B. Travis, and Jim Bowie who died at the Alamo.  Today, the cathedral

Marble coffin said to hold remains of Alamo heroes

Marble coffin said to hold remains of Alamo heroes

plays a major role in San Antonio as it continues to function as a religious institution while hosting symphonies, concerts, television specials, and the constant arrival of tour buses carrying visitors eager to see one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States that began as a parish church for Canary Islanders.

San Fernando Cathedral

San Fernando Cathedral

Log Church Cathedral

A one-room log church sits on a lane leading off a country road in Wesley a farming community between Houston and Austin. Wesley boasts the first Czech school in Texas that started here in 1859 when the town was called Veseli meaning “joyous.” The church building, erected in 1866, housed the community school and the place of worship for the first Czech-Moravian congregation in Texas.

photo credit: Alan Oaks, C.S.P.

photo credit: Alan Oaks, C.S.P.

Rev. Bohuslav Emil Lacjak, serving as teacher and pastor in 1888, began painting the interior of the wood building using an art technique called trompe l’ oeil, a method of creating realistic imagery in three dimensions to give the impression of a basilica-style cathedral, which resulted in rustic-appearing brick walls, columns, and geometric decorative patterns.

photo credit: Alan Oaks, C.S.P.

photo credit: Alan Oaks, C.S.P.

Unfortunately, Rev. Lacjak was killed in 1891 in a hunting accident before he could explain the meaning of his work, although he clearly had not completed his creation because the outlines of more designs are still visible.  The congregation believes the gray bricks highlighted in black that stretch to the top of the windows depict the strength of the walls of Jerusalem.  The Star of David atop white pillars casting dark shadows remind congregants of the pillars of Solomon’s Temple.  The continuous chain design around the edge of the ceiling represents the unbroken link of brotherhood and the word “Busnami,” above the pulpit area translates as “God with Us.”

Photo credit: Alan Oaks, C.S.P.

Photo credit: Alan Oaks, C.S.P.

Czech immigrants, searching for cheap land, began arriving in Texas in the 1850s. Although most of them were Roman Catholics, ten to fifteen percent were Protestant and most of those were United Brethren who came to Texas after generations of persecution by the Catholic Church in their homeland. They held worship services in homes until they built this little one-room chapel.  The building was enlarged and the steeple added in 1883.  One hundred years later, the congregation built a new church next door, which serves a community of about sixty.  The “log church cathedral,” listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is open as a museum reminding all Czech-Moravians of their rich heritage.