Podcast: How Galveston Island Went From Commerce Hub to Tourist Haven

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

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Over the past two centuries, Galveston has been a popular destination for thrill seekers and those seeking relaxation. The island offers attractions such as roller coasters, Ferris wheels, and dance floors with gulf views to secluded spots for swimming and natural marshes. By the mid to late 1800s, the city transformed from a bustling commercial hub into a vibrant vacation spot, earning the nickname Playground of the Southwest. This shift in Galveston's identity is a significant part of its history. Galveston's significance in Texas history and extensive beaches have attracted visitors from around the world for almost two centuries.

In September 1842, Matilda Houston and her husband, Captain William Houston, set sail from England aboard their 200-foot yacht, the "Dolphin." They headed west across the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. With plans to visit New Orleans and the Republic of Texas, Matilda Houston arrived at the port of Galveston in December 1842, where she spent weeks exploring the island. In her 1844 book, Texas and the Gulf of Mexico, Yachting in the New World, Matilda describes Galveston as a small village with a distinct lack of trees but an abundance of prairie grass and as a city with a reputation more sizable than its actual population.

Matilda spent several months traveling between New Orleans and Galveston, meticulously documenting her journey. She describes immigrants arriving at the port of Galveston, the residents' self-sufficiency, and the option to rent a horse for half a dollar a day to ride along the beachfront. As one of the earliest documented tourists on Galveston Island, Matilda Houston left a significant mark on its history. Her journey was a testament to the island's allure, and her experiences paved the way for future visitors.

One reason Galveston became a city in the first place is its relationship to the Gulf of Mexico. Since its establishment in 1839, the city and port of Galveston have been bustling hubs of commerce, handling massive amounts of cargo and welcoming ships carrying hopeful immigrants eager to start a new chapter in Texas and the United States.

Galveston hasn't always been known as a beach destination. By the mid-1850s, a railroad bridge was constructed connecting Galveston Island to the Texas mainland, making it easier to transport goods and people to and from Galveston Island. This included two-way rail service to and from Houston, significantly reducing the difficulty of the journey to the island. After the Civil War, efforts to promote Galveston as a tourism destination faced opposition from those emphasizing its commercial importance.

Galveston's economy greatly benefited from the Texas railroad boom between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the 1880s. Passenger rail service made it much easier for people to visit the bustling island city. The railroad system throughout Texas amplified commerce in the American West and enabled island visitors to travel across Texas in passenger cars. What previously would have taken weeks by horseback on muddy roads could now be done in a day or two. Beginning in the early 1880s, the number of tourists coming to enjoy the beach increased every year, which increased the demand for tourism-related services along the beachfront. This led to the construction of a series of bathhouses along Galveston's coastline.

Bathhouses were built over the breaking water on the beach, where you could rent a bathing suit for a day or two, buy souvenirs, and rinse off after swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Among the earliest and most remarkable bathhouses was the Pagoda Bathhouse on the beach at 23rd Street. Opening in 1883 with a champagne christening, The Pagoda Bath House stood in front of one of the first beach hotels in Galveston, fittingly named The Beach Hotel. The Beach Hotel was a symbol of luxury and leisure, designed by the renowned architect Nicholas Clayton. This grand hotel epitomized Galveston's rising status as a premier vacation spot and quickly became the go-to venue for extravagant events.

Along with being able to provide a simple day at the beach, Galveston became a popular destination for health resorts. During the 19th century, doctors consistently praised the therapeutic benefits of the ocean air and physical activity, which led many people with health issues to visit coastal destinations. Investors saw the potential of catering to this growing market and quickly developed tourism infrastructure and leisurely activities. Thereby fueling Galveston's prosperity through tourism,

The 1880s and 1890s were good for Galveston as a whole. The island was known for its luxurious beach resorts and economic significance in Texas. It was on the brink of becoming the 21st-century icon of prosperity on the Gulf Coast. However, the 1900 storm, the nation's deadliest natural disaster, dealt a devastating blow, changing everything for Galveston Island.

The 1900 storm destroyed Galveston, shattering its dreams of prosperity. However, the city immediately began planning for its future, initiating a seawall and grade-raising project to protect against future hurricanes. Galvestonians embarked on a decade-long process to raise the elevation of the urbanized portion of the island.

By 1904, the city finished its first three-mile-long seawall project, attracting visitors to explore the recovering city and enjoy the view of the Gulf of Mexico atop the new 17-foot-high seawall. In 1906, Galveston's Electric Park, also known as the Coney Island of the South, opened its doors. The park was filled with dazzling lights and exciting attractions, just like a modern-day theme park.

The city boasted several grand hotels that catered to tourists. The luxurious Hotel Galvez opened in 1911, offered modern amenities and a stunning view of the Gulf. It hosted elaborate events, dances, and social gatherings, all of which continue today. Transportation infrastructure, such as railroads, streetcars, and a causeway for vehicles, was invested in and improved. This made traveling to and around Galveston easy and accessible, contributing to the city's popularity as a vacation spot. Waterfront venues like Murdoch's Bathhouse were built and rebuilt after being destroyed by hurricanes, leading to a proposition by the city to prevent building structures over the water.

In 1916, on 21st Street and Seawall, Galveston's Crystal Palace was a three-story entertainment hub featuring penny arcades, souvenir shops, cafes, a rooftop dance garden, and an indoor saltwater natatorium. Inspired by the rising popularity of amusement parks, plans for the Pleasure Pier began in the 1910s. But World War I and the Great Depression delayed construction. Construction finally started in the late 1930s with federal and local funding, and the pier opened just after World War Two. Originally catering to military personnel stationed on Galveston Island, the pier featured a large ballroom for dances and entertainment. By the late 1950s, Pleasure Pier had evolved into a popular destination with rides like a Ferris wheel, an amphitheater, and a fishing area. During the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933, Galveston gained notoriety for its gambling, nightlife, and illegal liquor trade, leading to the rise of speakeasies and nightclubs all over the island.

In 1942, the luxurious Balinese Room at 21st Street and Seawall became a symbol of the playground of the Southwest, offering a 600-foot pier over the Gulf of Mexico. Despite illegal gambling in Texas, The Balinese Room thrived, featuring top entertainment acts like George Burns and Frank Sinatra until the Texas Rangers shut it down in 1957, severely affecting Galveston's nightlife scene.

The City of Galveston's Park Board of Trustees was created in 1963 to oversee all tourism efforts in the city. The citizens of Galveston voted to establish the park board, which is responsible for the city's tourism efforts and coastal zone management. The Park Board is primarily funded through hotel occupancy tax and beach user fees, and its nine-member board is comprised of volunteer residents from diverse business backgrounds. For the past six decades, the Park Board of Trustees has been tasked with promoting Galveston Island as a top tourism destination. Galveston Island has become one of the top tourist destinations in Texas due to its 32 miles of beaches and well-preserved historic districts. From the charming Victorian architecture in the historic neighborhood districts to the vibrant cultural scene and inviting beaches, Galveston offers something for everyone and has for almost two centuries.

Today, whether you're exploring historic sites like the Strand or enjoying attractions like Moody Gardens and the Pleasure Pier, there's never a dull moment on the island. There's always something new to experience.

Despite setbacks like hurricanes and economic challenges, Galveston's spirit endures, attracting over 7 million visitors annually. So, the next time you're on the island exploring historical sites or basking in the sun, remember the stories woven into the streets and beaches. Galveston Island invites you to become a part of its ongoing narrative, where each visit adds another chapter to its rich history and warm hospitality.

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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."