Podcast: September 8-9, 1900, The Great Storm Makes Landfall

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Through the darkening skies and dropping barometers. The morning of Saturday, September 8th, 1900. Started like any other day for most Galvestonians. The daily trains were running to and from Galveston.

In the morning, the talk of the town between the locals and tourists alike was the rising tide and rough waves.

Isaac Cline, the chief of the Texas branch of the National Weather Bureau had hoisted a storm warning flag the evening before, as the weather bureau began to wonder if there was in fact, a storm in the Gulf of Mexico.

Galveston had no true protection from an impending storm. City leaders had discussed building a Breakwater or sea wall, but this decision never progressed beyond a vote. If there was a storm headed straight for Galveston, it was too late for effective preparations.

Word was spreading through Galveston that there could be a storm in the Gulf, but the chances that it was severe or would strike Galveston were slim according to the National Weather Bureau and the experience of many Galvestonians.

As the morning rolled on, Kids were playing in the flooded streets, and people were enjoying the cool breezes from a porch or through their open windows. Regardless of the storm warning, it was too late for most, it was just another rainy summer day in Galveston.

Unwitting passengers on the last train of the island finally rolled over the rail bridge by 9:45 AM. After having to transfer to another line when the conductor found the main set of tracks completely washed out.

These passengers noticed that the waves in Galveston Bay were lapping just under the bottom of the rails of the track. After hearing the morning, gossip of the storm warning flag being raised, many Islanders expected, at worst , high tides and large waves that would appease the tourists and people living south of Broadway would have to bring their lawn furnishings up on the porch, which was somewhat normal when a storm rolled in every so often. By 11:00 AM crowds of tourists, children and locals began to form on the beach to watch the waves crash over the streetcar trestle. With every crashing wave, a close observer may have noticed that the island seemed to be sinking into the Gulf. By noon, the street cars had quit running and the waves began lapping against the beachfront homes and buildings.

Although the storm surge was pushing billions of gallons of water into Galveston bay, effectively flanking the island from the bay side.

The ornate Victorian buildings in downtown Galveston were full of restaurant and saloon goers, employees filled offices, docks, and warehouses, and grocers sold their goods. They could not anticipate the chaos in the coming hours.

As murmurs of the high tides and increasingly violent waves traveled through the ranks of Galveston's residents. And summer visitors by the early afternoon, the whipping wind had shifted and was the invisible indicator that it was too late to escape the cataclysm.

There had never been an evacuation warning. Only a storm flag was raised the evening before. Galveston bay and the Gulf of Mexico had finally met at 15th street and Broadway.

Storm experienced onlookers had never seen this kind of inundation in their lifetime. The crowds that were watching the giant waves crash into the beach had dissipated to find refuge from the increasing downpour.

People, homes and commercial structures found themselves overwhelmed with salt water.

The rain was starting to become heavy, steady, and horizontal. The men who had gone to work and left their wives and children at home were fortunate if they lived, but a few blocks away for this was the final chance to wade and swim through the flooded streets of Galveston to your loved ones.

No one knew it yet. By the next morning, the island would be transformed into an inconceivable, soggy and splintered wasteland. By around 3:00 PM. People from the John Sealy hospital on the far east end to St. Mary's orphanage on the westward portion of the city began their struggle to secure refuge as the darkness of the storm closed in like nightfall, there was no longer any doubt that there was a storm in the Gulf and Galveston was the target.

Those who had been comfortable the night before , sought homes and buildings stronger than their own, and attempted to traverse the torrential streets and wind flung debris. People who decided to ride out the storm in their own home, brought everything inside that they could. This included livestock, cows, chickens, goats, and pigs that filled small cramped rooms that also held their kids, neighbors and strangers who begged to ride out the storm.

The rising water was unrelenting. Most homes in Galveston were made of wood, and it was common for many to chop holes in their floor to use the weight of the flood water, to keep their homes from floating off the foundation. This was a bold effort, but not enough to keep many homes intact. As the Gulf of Mexico found itself, completely washing over Galveston island while displaying the full force of mother nature.

First wagons, barrels, and large objects that were not secured, began to float away. This made swimming extremely difficult. Next slate shingles, which were popular in Galveston as they reduced the spread of fire, began to fly off roofs and indiscriminately slice, cut and slam into anything that was in their way, making deadly projectiles in over a hundred mile per hour wind.

Then occupied houses began to crumble, flip over and wash away. People screamed and cried out for help, but the pleas were no match over the howling wind and driving rain.

As night fell, and the storm ravaged the city, crumbled homes, and possessions added to the chaotic soup that became the Galveston city streets. While pitch black and landmarks disappearing around them, survivors of the crumbled homes and buildings would climb onto anything they could, as they would float through the city streets, they would cling to roofs, trees or anything that would float and hang on for dear life. If they were lucky, they would be pulled into an open window and could ride it out until that building gave way, hope you survive and then do it all over again.

The storm raged through the night collapsing homes, destroying buildings, and hurling objects and structures. Many buildings in downtown Galveston had their roofs and top floors collapsed by the storm. Nonetheless many sought refuge in the sturdy buildings in downtown Galveston. There are firsthand accounts of people being rescued as they floated by second story windows shipping vessels in the Harbor that were tied to a pier, and were thrown around like toys by the waves. They were lucky to stay afloat as they were being slammed up and down against the dock. Regardless of where you were riding out the storm, you were going to witness mayhem. Firsthand accounts remark on how the indescribable devastation caused people's self control to give way and screams of sorrow and despair rang through the evening.
Wherever people happened to be hiding through the long night of September 8th into the early hours of September 9th, Galvestonian's lives were flipped upside down.
The neighborhoods between the beach and avenue N were completely decimated. The debris created from those destroyed homes piled up between avenue N and avenue M and created a type of wall. This wall slightly dulled the blows of the hurricane force waves for most of the buildings north of avenue N.

This however did not ensure survival for buildings on the other side of this wall of destroyed homes and debris. No residence escaped damage, no person was without loss. St. Mary's orphanage, which was located just a few hundred yards from the beach on the west end, lost all nuns and all, but three of the orphans.
People lost husbands, wives, kids, brothers, sisters, parents, and some made it out as the only surviving member of their family.

As Dawn arrived, the storm had passed, and the water had receded.

The devastation began to reveal itself. The grand island city, the queen jewel of the south, the wall street of the Southwest had just experienced the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. History.

The experience of surviving the storm would have been a nightmare. And for those who made it through the horrifying ordeal had just begun. The bodies of people and animals covered the debris line streets.

Prominent city landmarks had been wiped off the face of the earth. There was no communication to, or from the outside world as the Telegraph polls and Causeway had been completely wiped out. It would be days before the world would hear about the destruction in Galveston and weeks before substantial assistance could reach the island.

In Galveston alone, it is estimated that over 6,000 people were killed during the storm.

As the survivors emerged Sunday, September 9th, 1900, they would face Galveston's second greatest challenge.

Marshall law, makeshift morgues and men working at bayonet point.

These were the daunting first steps towards rebuilding Galveston and earning the title of a resilient city forever.

In memory of those lost during the Great Storm on September 8th and 9th 1900. Galveston, Texas.

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."