"Step Up" to The Strand, Unknown History About Historic Downtown Galveston

Have you ever wondered why the curbs in downtown Galveston seem unusually high? This unique feature is not just an architectural quirk—it's a fascinating part of the island's history.

Let's dive into the intriguing story behind Galveston's distinctive curbs and how they embody the island's resilience and innovative spirit.

Spend some time in Historic Downtown Galveston and you’ll notice that the curbs are much higher than usual. So much so that many of them have graded steps or slopes to accommodate pedestrians. Longtime residents of the Island have theories about how this came to be. Some say the streets have sunk into the sand, distancing them from the curbs that flank them. Others insist they were designed that way, either to offset the flooding from torrential rains or to easily facilitate stepping out of, and into, horse-drawn carriages.

The truth is that from the beginnings of the East End Neighborhood, flooding was an issue. Not only during hurricanes, but in hard downpours, the streets of Galveston have had a tough time quickly displacing that much water. In response to this, curbs were built higher than normal to keep standing water off the sidewalks so residents might still navigate with dry socks. This was practiced throughout the early neighborhoods of Galveston, although the heights of the curbs varied vastly.

However, Galveston received an opportunity that most cities never have: the chance to start over and make everything uniform. When the 1900 Storm ravaged Galveston Island, not only did reconstruction begin but so did an effort to raise the entire Island (as high as 17 feet in some areas) to ensure that such terrible destruction never happened again. Raising the Island meant lifting houses and businesses, as well as building elevated trolley tracks, streets, sidewalks and curbs.

City planners and engineers knew that raising the Island would not be the end of drainage problems in the streets. To be fair, that issue still exists today to a lesser extent. But this meant that the need for a higher curb structure would still be important for the newer version of Galveston. This is where multitasking would come into play. If they had to raise the curbs in flood-prone neighborhoods, it could at least have a practical purpose. In this case, that purpose was to also have the lifted curbs function as carriage steps.

During the early days of Galveston, many homes and businesses installed carriage steps (or stones) in front of their structures. Horse-drawn carriages were still the most common mode of transportation in the early 1900s, and the steps provided an easy and sophisticated way for people to enter and exit their carriage. As a result, “knee-high” curbs were placed at businesses and homes along the newly reconstructed streets.

These curbs helped facilitate foot traffic in the residential and business districts during storms while also doing away with the need for these places to purchase and install dedicated carriage steps. So, know that when you must “high step” from curb to curb in Galveston, you are indeed stepping on a unique part of Island history.

This is an article from our visitor information guide (magazine) titled "Island Soul." Click the button below to get your physical or downloadable copy!

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