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.

Advertisements

Texas Interurban Railways

In 1901 the first electric interurban, or trolley, began operating on a 10.5-mile track between Denison and Sherman in North Texas.  The thirty-minute trip on the seventy-

Denison & Sherman Railway Donna HuntHerald Democrat

Denison & Sherman Railway Donna Hunt
Herald Democrat

pound steel rails cost twenty-five cents.  The line proved so successful that a second route between Dallas and Fort Worth opened the next year.  A fourteen-mile track began operating between Belton and Temple and by 1909 the original line extended all the way south from Denison to Dallas.  In five years the line moved further south to Waco and other lines began between Beaumont and Port Arthur, El Paso and Ysleta, and Houston, Baytown, and Goose Creek.

Parlor CarDenison-Dallas-Waco-Corsicana

Parlor Car
Denison-Dallas-Waco-Corsicana

The interurban between Houston and Galveston started carrying passengers in 1911 after Galveston completed its amazing rebuilding following the devastating 1900 storm.  The city constructed a seventeen-foot seawall, raised the entire level of the island, and opened a new $2 million causeway to the mainland with tracks to accommodate the electric interurban line, railroad tracks, and a highway. The Houston-Galveston Interurban boasted an observation car on the rear and the fastest schedule of any steam or electric railroad.  It made the fifty-mile downtown-to-downtown trek in seventy-five minutes with the help of a thirty-four-mile “tangent,” one of the longest sections of straight track that allowed the carriage to travel at fifty-five miles per hour.  Passengers rode to Galveston for an evening on the beach or in the gambling houses and then took the late interurban back to Houston.

Houston-Galveston Interurban

Houston-Galveston Interurban

Other areas offered special excursions between cities.  Baseball teams grew up along the interurban lines, and passengers flocked to see games of the Class C and D “Trolley League.”

The frequent service, convenient stops within cities, and lower fares of the interurbans overcame all competition with steam railroads.  At the peak of the service in 1920, nearly four million passengers enjoyed the trolleys—the carpeted cars with lounge chairs, spittoons, and rest rooms.  By 1931, ten systems across the state covered over five hundred miles.

The advent of the automobile and the convenient travel it offered spelled doom for the interurbans.  The lines began closing, their tracks being paved over to make way for their competition, the automobile.  On December 31, 1948, the old Denison to Dallas line made its last run.

GALVESTON GRADE RAISING

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 the 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 workmen 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 homes 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 their 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 business leaders 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 of Mexico.  Galveston was ready for its next chapter.

THE POMPEIIAN VILLA

The Pompeiian Villa, built in 1900 in Port Arthur is a replica of a first century Roman villa complete with the deep pink exterior, Doric columns, and ten rooms circling a grand peristyle. Although it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and bears a Texas Historical Marker, its heyday symbolizes an era of surprising twists and turns.

The tale begins with Arthur Stilwell, an eccentric industrialist who, even as a child showed signs of unusual intuition.  As a powerful businessman, he often raised eyebrows when he insisted on following a “hunch” when making decisions.  Stilwell claimed a “hunch” convinced him to construct a railroad from the agricultural heartland of Kansas straight south for 600 miles to a protected inland harbor on the Texas coast.  The problem with Stilwell’s port site was that there was no port there.

Stilwell “believed” his landlocked harbor would be spared the damaging Gulf storms and be a much more profitable locale for Midwestern farmers to ship their grain exports than shipping 1,400 miles to the East Coast.

A “hunch” also kept him from constructing his railroad to the already thriving seaport of Galveston.  Instead, the Kansas City Southern Railroad reached Sabine Lake in 1898 where Stilwell’s Townsite Company had already laid out the village, built a hotel, a pleasure pier, grain elevators, and loading docks.  Ocean-going vessels could reach the town that Stilwell modestly named Port Arthur through a freshly dug canal that connected with the Gulf of Mexico.

Three wealthy investors John W. Gates, who made his first fortune promoting barbed wire to skeptical Texas ranchers, Isaac Elwood an early developer of barbed wire, and James Hopkins, president of the Diamond Match Company joined the railroad project and real estate development of Port Arthur. Tragically, Gates managed to shove Stilwell out of the Kansas City Southern Railroad just before it reached the terminus.  Apparently Stilwell didn’t get a “hunch” in time to stop Gate’s takeover.

The ambitious businessmen decided the view overlooking Sabine Lake offered the ideal locale for summer cottages.  Gates built a $50,000 Colonial-style mansion.  Ellwood built the Pompeiian Villa for $50,000 and then sold it to Hopkins, who wanted the lavish villa for his wife and daughters.

Unfortunately, when Hopkins’ wife and daughters arrived, they were greeted by the typical heat, humidity, and mosquito infestations of Southeast Texas summers.  They refused to step from their carriage.

Meantime, Stilwell’s “hunch” about the best location for his railroad terminus proved accurate when the September 1900 hurricane struck Galveston only 60 miles down the coast, killing over 6,000 and devastating the thriving seaport known as the Wall Street of the Southwest.

On January 10, 1901, Sprindletop the oil gusher, which ushered in the petroleum age, blew in a few miles north of Port Arthur.  The little town sat perfectly positioned for the first oil pipeline in the world to deliver Sprindletop crude oil to its dock facilities.

The oil boom brought vast wealth to the area and housing, especially handsome accommodations such as the The Pompeiian Villa, were in high demand.  James Hopkins rented his beautiful Villa to executives of Guffey Petroleum Company, present Gulf Oil.  Then, in 1903 George M. Craig a local banker offered to purchase the Villa for 10 percent of the stock in one of the new oil operations called the Texas Company.  Today, that stock in Texaco is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Craig family lived in the Villa for the next 43 years.  When asked why he tossed away Texaco stock for the Villa, Craig explained that oil companies during the Spindletop oil boom were a dime-a-dozen.  Oil companies started up and went broke overnight.  Perhaps Craig had not developed his “hunches” as well as Stilwell.