The ghosts and gangsters of Galveston, 120 years after America’s worst storm

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It is a dank, unfriendly autumn morning on Seawall Boulevard. There is a bank of dirty cloud swarming all over the horizon, blotting the line where the Gulf of Mexico – blue-black and sullen at this breakfast hour – meets the sky. And a sideways rain is coming in off the water. It is nothing too torrential as yet, but its persistence and angle means that, even within 10 minutes of leaving the hotel, my clothes are clinging doggedly to my skin.

I push on anyway, determined that – having dragged myself out of bed for a dose of exercise, in the hope that it will shake off my jet-lag where caffeine has been failing – I will notch up at least five miles on a lengthy promenade that is ideal for running. It takes until I turn around at the bottom of 41st Street for me to spot another pedestrian – a fellow jogger, racing south-west towards me through the drizzle. We share a shake of the head and a grimace as we pass each other. No-one else is daft enough to be out in this weather.

Down on my right, the tranche of smooth muscle which separates the promenade from the beach is a very firm reminder that grey days on Galveston can be write-offs from dawn – overcast conditions drifting in low, leaking their precipitation precisely where North America’s huge “inland” offshoot of the Atlantic Ocean hits the warm landmass of the star-striped southwest. It is no surprise to find the man-made barricade which puts the “Seawall” into “Seawall Boulevard” in this location. It stretches out as 10 defensive miles of unflappable concrete, running along the lower edge of an island – a flat barrier outcrop, lurking three miles below the Texas mainland – that barely raises its head above sea level.

The imposing sea wall

The imposing sea wall

Credit:
chris leadbeater

But if the “why” of the structure’s existence is obvious, the “when” is rather more a tale to be told. And it is etched, in white lettering, in the two decorative stone blocks which frame the “entrance” to the beach at the end of 23rd Street. “Started December 12 1903” begin the words on the side of one of them. “Finished February 16 1911”. And therein lies the rub; an admission that, as mighty as it is, Galveston Seawall was reaction rather than prevention. That it was not there to save Texas’s holiday island in its bleakest hours.

It has become known as the “Great Storm” – the hurricane, Category 4 at its peak, which all but wiped Galveston from the map 120 years ago this week, in the biting darkness of September 8-9 1900. It came, as hurricanes tend to, from the Caribbean, brewing east of St Lucia, late in the August, as a tropical cyclone. From there, it made its way north-west, grazing the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and rattling the windows on Cuba. But it saved its fury for the continental North America, achieving hurricane status – with winds of up to 145mph – as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico. It made land just south of Houston in the early hours of September 9, and left a trail of destruction throughout the state – though even this did not douse its rage. It would turn north-east, causing damage across the Midwest and New England, even dragging its tail into Canada and the pastures of Newfoundland. It was still shaking a fist in the northern Atlantic as late as September 15.

An artist's depiction of the great storm

An artist’s depiction of the great storm

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getty

It remains the deadliest natural disaster in US history. The last 12 decades have produced challengers for this title – not least Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Hurricane Maria in 2017. But even the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which chalked up 3,000 fatalities, was only – at “best” – half the killer that the Great Storm proved to be. It accounted for the lives of between 6,000 and 12,000 people – that imprecise broad sweep in the figures a statistical acknowledgement that the full extent of the devastation was impossible to gauge. But Galveston bore the brunt – hammered by a 12ft (3.7m) tidal surge that chewed up over 7,000 buildings, leaving around 10,000 people – more than a quarter of the local population – homeless. The island would, without exaggeration, never be the same again.

Residents assess the damage

Residents assess the damage

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getty

The sense of tragedy was exacerbated by the fact that, in the later decades of the 19th century, Galveston had been facing a very different sort of wave. It had been an American success story – a rapidly growing city where investors and workers had been flocking in equal measure. By the 1890s it had a population of 37,000, and might easily have become  a port rival to New Orleans. The storm smashed all of this, reducing the city to kindling. And the timing could not have been worse. On January 10 1901, a colossal oil field was discovered 70 miles away at Spindletop. While Galveston picked through the wreckage of its streets and houses, the money went north to the sanctuary of the mainland – and was spent on transforming Houston into what is now the fourth largest metropolis in the USA. The widening of the Houston Ship Canal (initially between 1910 and 1914) sealed the deal, making Houston a port in its own right, with no need to rely on its island neighbour.

The town sits in the shadow of Houston

The town sits in the shadow of Houston

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getty

Not that Galveston was left to rot. It would, however, develop in a different way – becoming not a sprawling conurbation with 24-hour docks, but a popular seaside resort, drawing in new generations of 20th-century Americans with disposable income in their pockets and spare time to spend at the beach. And for a while, it really thrived. It cast one opportunistic eye at the restrictions of Prohibition (1920-1933) and set about bending the rules, operating as a haven of illicit booze, behind-closed-doors gambling and ask-no-questions merriment. It did this so effectively that, during the Twenties and Thirties, it was jokingly referred to as the “Free State of Galveston”. This also brought with it the usual accoutrements – crime bosses, clubs and casinos. The era would endure until the dying embers of the Fifties – and the crackdowns on vice which would lower the shutters on similar mischief in the likes of Atlantic City (in New Jersey) and Newport (Kentucky).

Galveston reinvented itself as a holiday resort

Galveston reinvented itself as a holiday resort

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getty

If Galveston has become a little dowdier, a little dingier, in the subsequent 60 years, it is not without its fans. These days, it specialises in the sort of unfussy relaxation that is a staple of so many parts of the American shoreline. It is three-star motels along the front, and condominiums on the cross-streets behind. It is easy-come eateries – Gaidos Seafood Restaurant at 3828 Seawall Boulevard; Joe’s Crab Shack at 3502 – and convenience food. It is unfashionable and old-fashioned. Its Historic Pleasure Pier (pleasurepier.com), jutting into the Gulf at the tip of 25th Street, is more Scooby-Doo being chased around the ferris wheel by a bank-robber in a werewolf costume than Sinatra at the Sands – but it is a lot of fun with it, its Iron Shark rollercoaster clanking, its Texas Star Flyer swinging riders out above the shallows. It is a sign of the island’s perennially precarious position too. Despite its name, the pier, in its current form, only arrived in 2012. Its predecessor, which opened its gates on this spot in 1943, was demolished by Hurricane Carla in 1961.

Wander inland, though, and you find echoes of distant glories. Away on the north-east side of the island, sheltered a little from the gusts that barge in off the water, the Strand Historic District cradles the remnants of The Time Before The Storm. True, its red-brick Victoriana – all curio shops and antique stores – has been buffed and burnished over the decades. But it has an authenticity too. The Grand 1894 Opera House is so proud of its pre-storm heritage that its brandishes its birth-year in its name; the Old Galveston Customhouse is even older, wearing its memories of the boom era on the wharves nine blocks to the north in its white-pillared 1861 facade. Two blocks to the south, St Mary’s Cathedral Basilica has also seen it all – its foundation stones having been placed in 1848.

Wander inland and you find echoes of distant glories

Wander inland and you find echoes of distant glories

Credit:
getty

Out on the fringes of the district, the Schaefer Haus also recalls the golden years prior to the hurricane – its moniker celebrating the German immigrants who flocked to the island in the second half of the 19th century; the theme continuing in accommodation with titles like the “Heidelberg Room” and the “Frankfurt Room”. I immediately spot the metal star by the door as I ascend the wide front steps – bearing the legend “1900 Storm Survivor” in faded capitals. I am beckoned from the long veranda into an American yesterday – a hallway of creaking floorboards and polished dressers, stained glass windows above the sturdy staircase which sweeps up to the first floor. I am shown into the Bremen Room, with its high ceiling and polite armchairs. It’s the sort of suite that looks like it has ghosts.

If it does, they do not trouble me. But then, there are ghosts everywhere on the island. I notice one as I finish my run – the phantom footprint of the Balinese Room Pier, marking its old turf on Seawall Boulevard between 19th and 21st Streets. Once upon a time, it was one of the party hubs of the under-the-table Galveston – opened in 1942 by Sicilian barbers-turned-bootleggers Sam and Rosario Maceo, and attracting major stars to its stage – Sinatra did play here. It stuck gamely to its task too, shrugging off its closure for gambling offences in 1957 to become a restaurant and disco – and even climbing back to its feet in the wake of Hurricane Clara. Alas, its 66-year-old arms and legs could not cope with Hurricane Ike in 2008, and all that “stands” now is a simple wooden frame on the pavement, approximating its former outline – and an adjacent billboard detailing its story.

The phantom footprint of the Balinese Room Pier

The phantom footprint of the Balinese Room Pier

Credit:
chris leadbeater

Yet even here, there is hope. Down at the base of the sign, two lines of text inform passers-by that the owner of the pier is still one Scott Arnold, a local lawyer – who can be contacted by e-mail about a potential purchase or reconstruction of the site. In Galveston, when the wind blows hard, you pull your hat down, and wait for the sunshine to reappear.

Storms are still an annual threat

Storms are still an annual threat

Credit:
getty

Getting there

At time of writing, the American border is shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the easiest way to reach Galveston is to fly to Houston. British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) and United (0845 607 6760; united.com) serve the city from London Heathrow.

Staying there

Double rooms at the Schaefer Haus (511 17th Street; 001 409 497 6325; schaeferhausgalveston.com) cost from US$99 (£76) per night, including breakfast.

Touring there

Bon Voyage (0800 316 3012; bon-voyage.co.uk) sells “America’s Sunny Southern Seacoast”, a two-week road trip through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama which spends two nights on Galveston, from £1,915 a head, including flights. America As You Like It (020 8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) offers a six-night “Houston Family Adventure” which spends time on the island. From £995 per person, with flights.

Further information

galveston.com; traveltexas.com; visittheusa.co.uk

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