The city of Galveston at the end of the 19th century was a booming metropolis with a population of 38,000. Its position on the natural harbor of Galveston Bay along the Gulf of Mexico made it the center of trade in the state of Texas.
The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 made landfall on September 8, 1900. The hurricane washed over the entire island. The surge knocked buildings off their foundations, and the surf pounded them to pieces. Over 3,600 homes were destroyed, and a wall of debris faced the ocean.
Rescuers from Houston found a city destroyed. Eight thousand people had lost their lives, a fifth of the island's population. More people were killed in this single storm than in more than three hundred hurricanes that have struck the United States since, combined, as of 2005.
Survivors set up temporary shelters in surplus US Army tents along the shore. Others constructed "storm lumber" homes, using salvageable material from the debris to build shelter.
By September 12, the first post-storm mail was received at Galveston. The next day, basic water service was restored, and Western Union began providing minimal telegraph service. Within three weeks, cotton was again being shipped out of the port.
Prior to the Hurricane of 1900, Galveston was known as "the New York of the South." Only the nation's wealthiest were allowed to live there. Many people say that had it not been for the hurricane, Galveston would today be one of the nation's largest and most beautiful cities. However, development shifted to Houston, which was enjoying the benefits of the oil boom. The dredging of the Houston Ship Channel ended Galveston's hopes of returning to its former position as a major industrial center.
To prevent future storms from causing destruction like that of the 1900 hurricane, many improvements to the island were made. The first three miles of the 17 foot high Galveston Seawall were built beginning in 1902. An all-weather bridge was constructed to the mainland to replace the ones destroyed in the storm.
The most dramatic effort to protect the city was using sand to raise the city of Galveston by as much as 17 feet above its previous elevation. Over 2,100 buildings were raised in the process.
In 1915, a similar storm struck Galveston. Sadly, 275 people lost their lives.
Today Galveston is considered the playground of Houston. Homes and other buildings that survived the hurricane have been preserved. The seawall has since extended to ten miles, and hotels and tourist attractions have been built along its length.
Source: The Galveston Hurricane of 1900
Copyright © 2005 Mark Thoma