“ Due to the phenomenal efforts of residents and outsiders who loved the Island, Galveston has prospered after tragedies that would have destroyed other settlements. People have made Galveston special and the residents today are making the city a unique spot on the Gulf Coast … Galveston belongs to the state and the nation because the events that occurred here have affected more than just this Island – they have touched the world.”
– Myra Hargrave McIlvain in Texas Auto Trails: The Southwest, 1982.
Galveston’s Colorful Past
Like people, all cities have a past. And if Galveston were a person, it would be a feisty, still-beautiful centenarian with tales to tell of pirates, great tragedies and opulent lifestyles.
A great part of Galveston’s appeal is its rich and exciting past. It gleams with the luster of antique silver rather than the gaudy chrome of some newer cities. First inhabited by Karankawa Indians in the 16th-century, the Island’s first noted visitor was Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who landed here in 1528. French privateer Jean Lafitte made his home in Galveston in 1817 and his living off of nearby Spanish merchant shipping. Rumors still are whispered of Lafitte’s treasure buried somewhere on the Island.
The first American colonists arrived in 1827. In 1836, the same year that Texas gained its independence from Mexico and became a republic, the City of Galveston was born. Canadian fur trader Michel B. Menard purchased seven square miles of land for $50,000. That land became the City of Galveston.
Business flourished and the Chamber was formed in 1845 by the founding fathers, making it the oldest chamber of commerce in Texas.
Over the years, the Island was battered by a number of tropical storms, yellow fever and the Civil War, but those adversities couldn’t slow Galveston’s growth. With its natural seaport leading to business opportunities in shipping, imports and rail, Galveston’s population boomed and the city thrived. In 1885, it was the largest and richest city in the state. In the late 1800s, The Strand was the banking, retail and shipping hub of the area, and was known throughout the country as the Wall Street of the Southwest.
Galveston also was the cultural center of the state. The Grand 1894 Opera House, now restored to the original vibrantly beautiful theatre of its opening year, hosted international stars Sarah Bernhardt, Paderewski and Anna Pavlova.
To illustrate its leadership role in the state’s growth in the 19th-century, one need only look at Galveston’s list of firsts in Texas. Galvestonians can brag about having the first post office, naval base, hospital, grocery store, gaslights, telephone, opera house, medical college, golf course, public library, and the first chamber of commerce. It also is home to the state’s oldest daily newspaper, The Galveston County Daily News.
The Island was riding a tide of prosperity when a torrential hurricane hit on September 8, 1900. The swelling seas and high winds leveled many blocks and took over 6,000 lives. Despite the horrific loss, Islanders didn’t delay in rebuilding their Island and ensuring its protection from future storms.
Islanders approved a plan to build a 16-foot-high seawall along the beachfront. Behind the seawall, all structures including offices, homes and churches had to be raised to this new elevation. The structures were carefully raised and 25 million cubic yards of fill were pumped in.
Construction of the seawall and the grade raising were phenomenal feats of engineering and incredibly expensive even by today’s standards. The grade raising cost Galveston taxpayers and individual homeowners $8 million. The 10.4-mile seawall cost almost $14.5 million in 1904. The seawall is a symbol of the tenacity and spirit of Island residents. Even in difficult times, they didn’t give up. In remembrance of the lives lost, and to celebrate the rebirth of Galveston, events were held citywide in 2000 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great Storm of 1900.
In the beginning of the new century, Galveston’s premier status as the major seaport for the region diminished as Houston aggressively sought the rail and shipping businesses while Galveston still recovered from its tragedy.
The Strand took such a lashing that it did not recover for a number of years; however, nearly four decades ago, Galveston experienced a revival. The Strand National Historic Landmark District received national recognition for its restored Victorian architecture, and the district has set the standard for historical restoration in other communities. Millions of investment dollars have restored historical buildings for new uses and The Strand is once again a bustling center for retail, trade and visitor services.
While its port is still active, the Island’s economy has diversified by adding medical research, the insurance industry, education and tourism – giving the economy more stability and strength.
The tenacity of the Island residents, like their predecessors, has proven to be as strong today as it was in 1900. The Island was struck in September 2008 by Hurricane Ike and around 80 percent of the Island homes and buildings were affected by rising water and wind damage. Residents and business owners have rebuilt and are recovering.
Galveston plays host to over seven million visitors a year. They are attracted to the same features that brought visitors 100 years ago – the Island’s natural beauty, first-class hotels and restaurants, the arts, cultural activities and recreational attractions.
Major source: Bob’s Reader by Bob Nesbitt, Galveston historian