Podcast: Shell Middens, Found Wood, and The City Dump?

More of a visual learner? Read the transcript of this week's Galveston Unscripted podcast episode below:

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We are always looking for ways to improve our lives, and sometimes it can benefit us to look back at our past. For those living on the island, every decision past citizens and leaders have made affects us today, and not always in a good way!

If we make choices like letting our garbage pile up, it will end up on top of the last generation's garbage heap. In this episode, we will explore a few eras of garbage, waste, and recycling on Galveston Island.

The island and the bay area have been home to humans for at least 10,000 years. There is a mass of evidence that generation after generation of hunter-gatherer people used Galveston as a full-time homeland or a seasonal destination for nomadic populations.

We may not always think of waste management when it comes to Indigenous populations, especially in this current century where it is difficult to find evidence of native people on this barrier island which was ravaged by hurricanes and has been fortified by a seawall and grade raising by the most recent rendition of inhabitants.

Before European Colonization of the Gulf Coast, native peoples ate considerable amounts of seafood, as it was great year-round, unlike people further inland that relied on large mammals, farming, or gathering edible plants, which were more challenging to find and hunt depending on the season.

Native peoples, a society without a culture of mass production, did not have a problem throwing their organic waste on the ground or piling it high next to their camp. Undoubtedly, their garbage was biodegradable or directly from the earth or the ocean. Native Peoples in the Galveston area, such as the Karankawa and Atakapa, would place their trash, such as shells and bones, into gigantic piles. Some of these piles would stack up, exceeding 15 feet tall, and span more than 50 feet in diameter. These waste piles are known as "Shell Middens."

Literally littering the Gulf Coast landscape, Shell middens would only be disturbed by a hurricane storm surge or possibly a resourceful European who may have decided to build a fort on top of the mound as it would have provided an elevated view above the flat, low-lying landscape.

Why don't we see Shell Middens on Galveston Island today?

In 1838, Long after most of the indigenous peoples were forced off the island by American and European settlers, The city of Galveston was founded. The streets had been paved with brick or concrete. Galveston was a barren sandbar with very few trees except for the area near the port. The only protrusion from the Galveston flatness would have been shell middens and natural sand dunes. For a few years after the city's founding, the street system was simply a sandy grid until a few enterprising Galvestonians began to place scrapped oyster shells on the roadway to prevent the sinking of wagons and quell the wind-blown sand. Before long, the shell middens became a target of businessmen. Their workers or slaves shovel the ancient shell midden and relocate the shells to the city streets. What was once an indigenous trash pile that could have taken centuries to accumulate became the pavement of the streets of Galveston.

Call it recycling or the destruction of an indigenous landmark; either way, these middens are an example of reusing resources at hand.

As Galveston began to grow in population through the mid to late 1800s, a popular garbage disposal process was to burn or dump garbage on the edge of town. Most of the garbage was not of a mass-produced nature. These disposal methods were not an issue for decades, except for the occasional stray fire that led to a home or structure being engulfed. Dumping on the west end of town seemed tolerable as the population converged on the eastern portion of the island.

Like others in this era, Galvestonians used everything from tin cans to old clothes in ways familiar to us today. Like making toys out of them for their children or using them to make things like jewelry or decorative art pieces for their homes. Some items took on an even more practical purpose: old clothing served as insulation for homes during the winter. Very few items in this era were one-time use!

At the turn of the 20th century, as Galveston Island was booming, the worst natural disaster in American history had left the island in shambles. The 1900 Storm left a trail of destroyed homes, buildings, and belongings across the island. Parts and pieces of homes washed up onto the beach and bayside for months after the storm. Like every storm before and since, Galvestonians jumped into action, collected the bits and pieces of wood, and stocked their lumber yards. People began to rebuild their homes almost immediately. Most of the wood, once a sturdy wall, roof-turned projectile, or floatation device, was now repurposed in a new home. Any home built before this storm and a few years after, no doubt, was patched with or entirely constructed with found wood.

Garbage disposal in Galveston has mostly stayed the same since the early 1900s.

In 1909, the undeveloped East End Flats, next to the medical college, became the city's trash dump. Associating the area with filth and disease through the next decade. Without many objections, the city built a roadway to enable wagons to enter the area and dump the trash. People tended to leave their garbage closer to the city and the hospitals at the medical school than the intended dump location further east.

Efforts had been made to curb disease outbreaks, and trash collection services were established to ease garbage accumulation and reduce the rat population in the streets and alleys. A night watchman was hired to ensure the trash was dumped further from the hospital. The East End Flats were extremely low-lying and not protected by a seawall, making this area extremely vulnerable to storm surges and washing trash into the bay and eventually onto the beaches.

The East End Flats were eventually filled in, and trash was dumped in various locations on the island until the City of Galveston initiated a truck and rail service that removes the garbage to a landfill on the mainland.

Today, unlike the native population, our waste is mainly not biodegradable. It can be challenging; however, we do have the option to reuse and recycle. We have the option to not just dump our mass-produced garbage into a wetland area to wash back onto our beaches later.

If history has taught us anything, like waste products, the small decisions we make over time accumulate. They can turn into dirty, unsightly, disease-ridden heaps, or they can turn into a neat stack of good decisions that serve as a monument for future generations to learn and benefit from.

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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."