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Galveston is known for many things – from its beaches to its historic architecture – but being home to the deadliest storm in U.S. history is one of its less kind claims to fame.
The Great Storm, as it is now called in history, struck Galveston on Sept. 8, 1900, claiming the lives of more than 10,000 and taking its place in infamy. Read on to learn more about the history of this devastating storm, how Galveston responded to make itself one of the world's most resilient cities, and ways you can explore and honor its victims/ survivors today.
The "Great Storm" reigns today as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, with historians estimating between 10,000 and 12,000 people losing their lives. Of these tragic deaths, at least 6,000 were on Galveston Island. Although the storm struck Galveston with 120-mph sustained winds, most of the deaths were caused by saltwater drowning, as a 16-foot storm surge washed over the city. This saltwater flood swept through the city, enabling large, destructive waves to pound many buildings and break them into pieces.
As this category 4 hurricane approached the Texas coast, Galvestonians were unaware of the impending catastrophe. Coastal residents of this era did not have much warning from such storms, as advances in forecasts came in the following decades from the development of wireless communications from ships at sea, weather radar, and, eventually, weather satellites.
This powerful hurricane forever changed the course of the island, which was a thriving, successful city known as the “Wall Street of the South” (with more millionaires occupying the island per capita than any other American city) in the decades leading up to the storm.
Despite the unimaginable destruction and the possibility that it could happen again, the city quickly began pulling itself out of the mud. Galveston responded courageously to this catastrophe and immediately organized civic leaders to direct the city through response and recovery of this disaster. The first step involved caring for the injured and burying the dead. An attempt to bury bodies at sea failed when many of the corpses drifted back to the beach. Galvestonians were left with no choice but to dump the bodies in large piles and burn them; this work went on for several weeks. It's an unpleasant and gruesome part of our local history, but one that our ancestors endured.
Additionally, within the first few weeks following the storm, telegraph and water services were restored; new telephone lines were being laid; and the saloons, trolleys and harbor freight services began running.
Residents of Galveston quickly decided that they would need to rebuild, and were determined that the city would survive. The projects that followed - building a seawall and raising the island's elevation - are still revered today as engineering marvels.
A board comprised of three engineers recommended the construction of a seawall that would help protect the island from other potentially devastating storms in the future. The initial segment of the Seawall was completed on July 29, 1904, and stretched 3.3 miles long, 5 feet wide, and up to 17 feet high.
The seawall quickly proved its worth following the hurricanes of 1909 and 1915, proving to dramatically lower the loss of life and destruction. Therefore, several additional segments have been constructed throughout the years to give us the over 10-mile-long Seawall we have today.
Concurrent with the construction of the seawall, Galveston underwent extensive grade raising from 1904 to 1911, which supported the seawall and facilitated drainage and sewage systems. Work was completed in quarter-mile-square sections and involved enclosing each section in a dike and then lifting all structures and utilities such as streetcar tracks, fireplugs, and water pipes. Additionally, around 2,000 buildings were raised on hand-turned jackscrews.
The sand fill was dredged from the entrance to Galveston Harbor and then transported to the residential district through a 20-foot deep, 200-foot wide, and 2.5-mile-long canal using four self-loading hopper dredges - three from Germany and one from The Netherlands. After the fill was discharged in the areas to be raised, new foundations were constructed on top of it.
By today's standards, the challenges of these monumental civic engineering project are daunting, so it is all the more impressive that it was completed so efficiently and effectively in the early 20th century.
With the Seawall came tourism; despite it being built as a protective measure; sure enough, visitors arrived in droves to admire it, as they still do today.
At over 10 miles long and rising 17 feet above sea level, the expansive Seawall is the longest continuous sidewalk in the US. Simply taking a stroll or a bike ride along it are popular pastimes, but the Seawall also boasts several beaches, unique shops, restaurants, and thrilling attractions to entertain just about anyone.
If you are a student of storm history, there are many tours, landmarks, and special events you can discover today:
Located on the seawall at 47th Street, this statue depicts a woman cradling a child. Galveston artist David Moore crafted the bronze sculpture that was placed here in 2000 commemorating those who died and those who survived on the storm’s 100th anniversary.
When you drive through Galveston’s neighborhoods, you’re bound to notice plaques on many of the storm survivors. The Galveston Historical Foundation sponsors a 1900 Storm Survivor Plaque Program that allows property owners to display testaments to the resilience of Galveston’s built history.
Inscribed: "The Island City Orphans Home of the 1870s and 1880s was created to provide refuge for Protestant and Jewish children in Galveston. The orphanage operated out of its original wooden structure for the next twelve years, narrowly escaping destruction in the November 1885 fire which burned houses in the immediate neighborhood. When prominent businessman and philanthropist Henry Rosenberg died in 1893, his will appointed a building fund for the orphanage. Galveston architect Alfred Muller was hired to design the Gothic Revival style structure and Thomas Lucas and Sons were chosen as the builder. The 'Galveston Orphans Home,' a name that it would retain for over 80 years, was dedicated on November 15, 1895.
On September 8, 1900, a powerful hurricane devastated the island and the Orphans Home was heavily damaged. To benefit the reconstruction of the Orphans Home, a charity bazaar sponsored by William Randolph Hearst was held in New York City. With the $50,000 raised at the event, the Orphans Home board hired architect George B. Stowe to design the new building. Incorporating parts of the original building left standing, the new Orphans Home was constructed by local builder Harry Devlin in the Renaissance Revival style. The building was dedicated on March 30, 1902. Community support for the Galveston Orphans Home continued by way of donations and annual charity galas. In 1984, Galveston's orphanages combined to create the Children's Center, Inc. and moved to a different location, leaving this building vacant. For over a century, the Orphans Home provided a shelter for thousands of children and was a significant organization and charity for citizens of Galveston Island."
The Galveston Orphans Home was dedicated in November 1895. The building functioned as an orphanage and foster home for nearly a century. It was restored and re-opened as The Bryan Museum.
In October 2013, J.P. and Mary Jon Bryan purchased the old Galveston Orphans Home and after a careful restoration of the historic structure, The Bryan Museum opened in June 2015. The Bryan Museum is perfect for those who want to immerse themselves in history and the arts. The museum houses one of the world's largest collections of historical artifacts, documents, and artwork relating to the American West.
Visit Artist Boat's beautiful mosaic benches, Project S.I.T. (Seawall Interpretive Trail), a Texas-sized art installation spanning Galveston’s Historic Seawall, from 6th to 61st street.
Visit these beautiful mosaic benches, Project S.I.T. (Seawall Interpretive Trail), a Texas-sized art installation spanning Galveston’s Historic Seawall, from 6th to 61st street. Learn more here.
Join international hurricane expert Dr. Hal Needham on Galveston Hurricane Tour. The 90-minute tour investigates local hurricane impacts, as well as Galveston's resilient response. Dr. Needham is an active weather and climate scientist who has been conducting field research inside hurricanes for 15 years. He runs the international coastal flood database and works closely with disaster-prone communities to make them more resilient. He has been featured on PBS NOVA, PBS NewsHour, BBC, The Weather Channel, and hosts a weekly podcast on disasters and resiliency on GeoTrek.
Take a 90-minute walking tour as we explore the gory, spooky, and fascinating paranormal happenings on The Strand: the original street of horror. From hurricanes, war, fire, and epidemics, Galveston has more ghost stories than any other city in America.
During this 90-minute walking tour, you'll hear about the history of Galveston and what has made this historic downtown a "go-to" for visitors. Included in this tour is a look into The 1900 Storm with stops at hurricane markers and the weather office from 1900.
Where the Texas Coast begins.
by Visit Galveston
by Visit Galveston