Posted by: coastlinesproject | July 25, 2011

Texas Sea Level Rise.

A Tale of Two Cities
Galveston and Indianola
The 1900 Storm

Before ending this grand tour of the coasts, there is one last place and one last storm to visit. Though the storm occurred on the Texas coast over two hundred years ago, it has particular relevance for New Orleans today, and for the rest of our hurricane prone coasts tomorrow.
Galveston sits on a 30 mile long sandbar not much wider and almost as vulnerable as Monomoy, the island I used to visit as a boy on Cape Cod. The main difference is that a deep channel sweeps around the easternmost point of the island and on into a natural deep water harbor on Galveston Bay. Despite the vulnerability of the island, the location of the harbor was just too good not to be turned into a major port.
Barges and later railroads carried cotton, wheat and cattle down the bay and across the causeway to the city’s bustling wharfs. There, well muscled stevedores used 200 pound jackscrews to cram bales of loosely packed cotton into the holds of oceangoing ships. A good team of screwmen could increase a cargo by as much as 20%. They were so valuable to wealthy white shipowners that Norris Wright Cuney was able to organize an all-black Cotton Jammers Association that wielded considerable political power. Cuney became a force in the city and was elected as the city’s first black alderman. White businessmen sought his counsel in negotiating deals fair enough to blacks to keep the port humming and harmonious. (85)
As in many old cities, Galveston’s landowner and business classes had largely pulled away from city government. One exception was the Deep Water Committee established in 1881 to bring James Eads to Galveston to make a case for building jetties to scour the channel as he had done so successfully in Louisiana. After the Galveston channel was deepened, however, the group of influential bankers and businessmen continued to lobby for better city governance. Many of their ideas formed the core of the sweeping municipal changes that would occur in the wake of the upcoming storm.
Prior to the storm, women lacked the vote and seemed content to stay at home organizing the many picnics, dances, concerts and bicycle races that made Galveston such a fashionable seaside resort. Indeed almost everyone in the city did their best to ignore the fact that they lived on a hurricane prone, two to three mile wide barrier beach island, which at its highest elevation was only nine feet above sea level. That should have inspired about as much confidence as living 20 feet below sea level in New Orleans. In fact seven major hurricanes had ravaged this East Texas coast from 1835 to 1900. Two of them had successfully wiped out Indianola, Galveston’s main seaport rival a hundred miles to the south.
In 1874, Indianola, was the second largest port in Texas after Galveston. One of it most exotic imports had been two shiploads of camels that the Secretary of War had transported to Indianola to help move military equipment through the Southwest. Other than that, Indianola exported cattle and was the favored entry port for European immigrants traveling to West Texas. (86)
But Indianola’s fortunes changed drastically after a powerful hurricane washed over the low lying city in 1875. Although most of the city’s structures were eventually rebuilt, the underpinnings of the economy were swept away and the port slipped into economic stagnation. When a second more powerful hurricane struck eleven years later, dispirited investors rerouted the railroads and the town moved ten miles north to Lavaca. Today, most of the former city lies underwater, a victim of erosion and rising seas. All that remains is a granite marker placed on the shore at the nearest point to Indianola’s old courthouse, now 300 feet offshore in Matagorda Bay. (87)
A few forward thinking people in Galveston used the demise of Indianola to resurrect the old idea of building a seawall to protect their port city. But after a few hurricane seasons passed with no appreciable storms the idea quietly died as it had so many times before. Instead people seemed content to continue lopping off the top of the dune that ran like a spine down the center of the island. They used the sand to fill in the island’s low lying areas to squeeze in more homes, and they cut the island’s erosion resistant cedar trees to give people easier access to the beach.
When the cotton season opened on September 1, 1900, Galveston was the largest city in Texas and boasted the highest per capita income in the state. It had just eclipsed New Orleans as the nation’s largest exporter of cotton and was behind only New York City in exports of wheat. (88)
September 8, the day of the Galveston Hurricane, dawned warm and overcast. The live oaks in Kempner Park swayed in the tropical breezes blowing in quietly off the nearby Gulf of Mexico. Visitors lounged on the broad verandahs of the Tremont Hotel or strolled along the city’s beaches so wide they hosted automobile races in season. But one of the people on the beach was there for a different reason. He was Isaac Cline, head of the Galveston Weather Bureau. Cline had the idea that high tides could presage a hurricane and this tide was one of the highest on record. After taking his measurements, he had seen enough. He hitched up his buggy and drove down the beach warning visitors to take the causeway back to the mainland and warning inhabitants to move to safe houses on Broadway, the city’s main street that perched on the duneline. But Galvestonians mostly ignored his warnings. They had seen such hurricanes before, water would overflow into the gulfside streets then drain back after the storm had passed. Why should they leave the safety of their own homes? But by late afternoon both the bay waters and the gulf waters merged in the center of town. Galveston was already submerged when the full fury of the storm descended on its inhabitants. (89)
By early evening a thousand people sought shelter in the Tremont Hotel. They rushed up the stairs to the hotel’s mezzanine floor as water seeped into the lobby. Shortly after 6pm the storm surge swept over the island. The water which was already 15 feet deep in the Cline’s house rose four feet in an instant. Thirty foot waves on top of the storm surge knocked gulfside houses off their foundations and used them as battering rams to smash the next line of buildings. Survivors heard the cries of people as they were swept down the streets and out into the Gulf of Mexico. Many would be consumed by sharks in the days ahead.
By the end of the night between 6,000 and 10,000 people had drowned or been crushed by water born debris. The following day Captain Thornton sailed a rescue boat down Galveston Bay. There were so many bodies in the water he had to send a man forward with a pike push them away from the bow. All that could be heard in the strange calm after the storm was the quiet sounds of bodies bumping against the side of the boat as it drifted in the outgoing tide. (90)

It was the worst natural disaster in North American history. Over a fifth of the city’s inhabitants were dead. Whole neighborhoods were swept away leaving only sodden sections of marshy soil behind. In the end everything came to rest in a berm of rubble 30 feet high and three miles long. Over 4,000 buildings, two thirds of the city’s structures, were destroyed. Whites dragooned blacks into piling bodies onto barges and shipping them offshore to be dumped. Even though the corpses were weighed down with iron fastenings many drifted the 18 miles back to shore. Their remains had to be collected again and burned on funeral piles that lit up the beach for several months.
But it is what happened after the storm that should concern us today. The nation was in the midst of the Progressive Era. There was optimism in the air that science and engineering could solve almost any structural problem and that governmental reform could improve people’s health and economic well-being.
The day after the hurricane, Mayor Walter C. Jones created the Central Relief Committee for Galveston Sufferers. The CRC as it came to be known, included many of the progressive leaning members of the old Deep Water Committee. The CRC established subcommittees to bury the dead, handle public safety, distribute relief, and initiate a bond drive to pay for the city’s rebuilding. They did such an exemplary job that the city ended up in better financial shape than before the storm. The CRC also became the model for a new progressive system of city government run by 7 commissions rather than by a mayor and 12 aldermen. Such ideas had been bandied about before, but had taken the shock of the storm to turn them into reality.
On September 17, another force of nature blew into town. It was Clara Barton, the 78 year old founder of the American Red Cross. She arrived in Galveston after traveling by train from Washington D.C. It had been an arduous trip. Her train had snaked its way south to Atlanta, then west to New Orleans and on through to Galveston. She was so ill when she arrived that she retired straight to a bed in the Tremont Hotel.
The next day she started directing the relief efforts from her bedside table, ignoring pleas from red Cross officials that she return to Washington for the sake of her health. She continued in this way for many months, raising funds, writing her own thank you notes, attending meetings and organizing ward relief committees. At her insistence, each ward committee was chaired by both a man and woman. Eventually the entire relief operation was turned over to Barton’s direction and and she was appointed as the sole female member of the Central Relief Committee.
But perhaps Barton’s longest lasting contribution was to draw so many local women into Galveston’s political process. At the peak of her relief efforts she had 150 women and 50 men working on her ward committees. The experience they gained helped open doors to them in other civic organizations. One was the Woman’s Health Protective Association that worked to improve the city’s sanitation and notoriously bacteria filled milk supply. The association also lobbied the state to jettison Galveston’s old form of city government in favor of the progressive idea of a city run by commissions. The downside of all of these activities was that while middle class white women gained access, they tended to displace black men in positions of political power. Norris Wright Cuney was sorely missed, he had died shortly before the storm. There is concern that the same dynamic could occur in New Orleans.
On September 25, 1901 the newly installed Commission Government appointed a committee to hire engineers to come up with a plan for protecting the city. The engineers had to decide which areas could be saved and which were irretrievably lost. instead of fighting nature along the island’s entire 30 miles of waterfront, they decided to build a 3 mile long, 17 foot high seawall to protect the central city. Of greater importance, they initiated an audacious plan to raise the entire city 17 feet.
First, every house, hospital, hotel and cathedral were put on beams and raised 17 feet in the air by human powered jackscrews. Then dredges, steaming in and out of canals specially dug through the center of the city, pumped a slurry of sand off the floor of the Gulf of Mexico and under each building.
Throughout the twelve years of construction people navigated the city by walking on an intricate system of rickety raised catwalks. But by 1912 the project was complete and Galveston was once again the second largest port in the country and the largest city in Texas. However this status was not destined to last.
The federal government had expanded so much by this time that it could finance the dredging of channels into cities that lacked natural harbors. One of these cities was Houston, Galveston’s dreaded rival to the north. In 1914 the Army Corps of Engineers widened and deepened Houston’s Buffalo Bayou so oceangoing ships could enter its port. Galveston’s fate was sealed. Houston had more room to build large wharfs and port facilities. It was ready to accommodate the offshore petroleum industry when it took off with the discovery of the Spindletop oilfield. Houston roared past Galveston to become the center of the nation’s oil industry, the largest and most influential city in Texas, and the fourth largest city in the world. ( )
Galveston’s seawall finally got its test when a second, equally powerful hurricane slammed into the city in 1915. Almost all of the structures not protected by the seawall were destroyed and the streets were flooded, but the city survived.
After the storm passed, however, people realized that high energy waves slamming against the seawall had washed the beach entirely away. Since then, the city has had to pump sand back onto the beach on a regular basis and construct an expensive system of groins to slow the sand from washing away. This is the reason that seawalls have largely gone out of favor as a way of preserving coastal land, plus the fact that in 2007 it would cost $30 million dollars a mile to build such a seawall!
Today, however, Galveston is once again a thriving seaport and favorite stop for cruise ships. Shops and mansions dating from the city’s pre-hurricane Victorian era still line it crowded shopping district on Broadway. The city hosts museums, hospitals and the country’s first nonmilitary level 4 biocontainment facility. In case of another hurricane the facility would be instantly decommissioned and all the anthrax Ebola and West Nile viruses destroyed. Fail Safe meets The Perfect Storm, doesn’t that make you feel more secure? ( )
But in the end you would have to say that the seawall worked for Galveston in 1900. Though it no longer had the power and ambitions it harbored before the storm, Galveston emerged with a smaller footprint but a safer infrastructure and a better, though less representative system of government. The essence of the city had survived.

Excerpt from “Just Seconds From the Ocean,” available at a discount to Coastlines supporters.


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