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NOAA Photo Library - Homes Destroyed by the Storm Surge - Galveston, TX 1900


By John Fay

On the evening of Friday, September 7th, Galveston was serene, picturesque and charming. The famous beach of glistening white sand, packed as hard as asphalt, which fringed the saffron waters of the gulf, was alive with merrymakers. The soft note of music came pleasing to the ear. Beneath the palms of Broadway men and women in tropic attire chatted and sauntered. Cottage balconies held thousands eager to catch the soft gulf breeze. Troops of shouting children reveled in the waters that laved the sand.

.....It was the last night on earth for more than five thousand souls. Between noon on Saturday and midnight, one-seventh of the city's population was exterminated. Suffocated in angry waters or crushed by crumbling walls, they went to their death. An area equal to one-third of the territory covered by the city was swept clean, the wreckage piled up twelve hundred feet back from the building-line on the beach, paralleling the water for four miles. Streets and landmarks were effaced. Men who attempted two days later to find the sites of their homes, became confused in the sand. The property loss is still a matter of speculation--of speculation in millions. The whole island was submerged. The gulf and the bay, pushed from their beds, rushed through the streets with a hurricane accompaniment, and struggled for possession. The depth of water ranged from four feet in the higher places to fifteen feet on the lower level. Under normal conditions this city of thirty-eight thousand is but five feet above the sea-level. There is little tide. As one approaches from the sea, the city appears springing from the bosom of the water. Land is not in sight. Like a floating spectacle of fairyland Galveston greets the eye. Not until the harbor is entered is the long tongue of sand back of the Jetties, the treacherous site of the city, discernible.

Galveston Island is a sandbar twenty-five miles in length east and west, and varying from one to two miles in width. It was settled in 1847, and tradition has it that prior title was vested in the person of pirate Lafitte. There he fled with his buccaneers and the plunder of the Spanish main, and held possession until encroaching civilization made the pirate business unhealthy and hazardous.

..... There are no cellars in Galveston. One cannot dig four feet without striking water, Toward the western extremity the island approaches within a few miles of the mainland. Here the city grappled the permanent shore with three low bridges constructed on piling. The water to the north of the island is Galveston Bay. To the south is the wide expanse of the Mexican Gulf. At the far eastern end, lmost overhanging the point where the waters of the gulf and bay mingle, is the city. Why a city should thrive and develop on a low sandbar eight miles from the nearest mainland, at the mercy of the tropic winds and waves, may be puzzling, but Galveston stands as an example of man's combat with nature.

Even before the government began the work which made Galveston an ocean port, the city was thriving. Last year it was the fourth wealthiest city, per capita, in the United States. The deep-water channel on which the government has expended six and a half millions of dollars comes in on the bay side. The nearest mainland to the city is the site of Texas City, eight miles northwest across the bay.

Galveston covers the shifting sands from bay to gulf for four miles. The business district is on the bay side. The residences are on the gulf and along the central avenues. At this point the island is but e a trifle more than a mile wide. The streets run at right angles, those from bay to gulf being numbered, and from east to west alphabetically lettered.

The storm came over the bay from the north before daylight Saturday morning. At 4 A.M. there was a heavy rain and the, wind was blowing steadily about thirty miles an hour. When dawn came, the sky was overcast with surging clouds, and the velocity of the wind was increasing. The waters of the bay began to bank up at the wharves. At 10 A.M. the inundation from the bay began. Even then no alarm was felt. The wind took on new strength, and the waters were carried four blocks through the business section into Market Street. Ocean freighters dragged anchors in the channel, and were sent crashing against the wharves. The wind soon reached the hurricane stage, and buildings began to crumble. First the copings would go, then sections of roofs and walls. By this time the bay water had reached the highest point on Tremont Street. The gulf was yet quiescent. Then a remarkable thing happened. The wind suddenly shifted from the north to the southeast. There was no lull, no breathing-spell, during this movement. The hurricane increased in fury, and picking up the waters of the gulf hurled them with crushing force against the four miles of residences along the beach. There was no sea-wall, nothing in the way of protection, and houses were knocked over like so many card structures. The great loss of life was due to the belief which prevailed ~ that the storm would subside before the waters reached a dangerous elevation. People decided to cling to their homes. Had they fled to the business district when the waters of the gulf began the first mad rush across to the bay, many would have been saved. When thousands attempted it later, they lost their lives in the effort.

At three o'clock the gulf had spread over the city and mingled in the streets with the waters of the bay. The violence of the wind continued. Higher and higher rose the water. Cottages began to collapse, and shrieks of agony from women in death-struggles were heard. 'Twas then that many families abandoned their homes for more substantial buildings. One family of five took refuge in four different houses, abandoning each in turn just in time to save itself. Death was busy in the streets during this period. The water was four feet deep, and a shower of deadly timbers, carried on the wings of the wind, was falling. Hundreds struck by the flying wreckage fell unconscious in the water. When night settled down upon the city, the whole beach side was in process of destruction. Wreckage was thrown with the force of a catapult against houses which still offered resistance.

The electric light and gas plants were flooded, and the city was in darkness. The last record of the anemometer in the weather bureau registered the velocity of the wind at eighty-four miles an hour. Then the instrument was blown away.
..... Westward on the beach stood the Catholic Orphan Asylum, a long, old-fashioned building, the home of one hundred children and fifteen Sisters of Charity. The structure was exposed to the full fury of the elements. Between seven and eight o'clock, the building went down, and all but two children perished. Two boys of seven years seized some wreckage and were driven across the island, where they were found Sunday in the sands near the bay. The body of one heroic Sister was found eight miles away at Virginia Point, with the bodies of six of her charges tied together and attached to her with a rope. The Orphanage tragedy was one of the most deplorable of that dreadful night. The Ursilline Convent, a substantial brick building five blocks back from the beach, was a haven for all the people in the neighborhood. The Sisters dragged many out of the tumbling waters, using poles and ropes to rescue the drowning When the flood subsided, there were one thousand persons who were saved by convent walls.

..... Far down beach at Fort Crockett, twenty-seven members of Battery O, First Artillery U. S. A., Capt. W. C. Rafferty commanding, met death. The battery had been divided. Half the men were at Fort San Jacinto near the entrance to the harbor. The rest were in the barracks back of Fort Crockett At 2 P.M. Captain Rafferty with a detail was examining the condition of the big ten-inch gun which commands the gulf. The waters were bombarding the works much of the effectiveness of shot and shell. The captain became alarmed, and ordered a man to bring Ms. Rafferty, the children, and a servant, to the gun. He had decided to take refuge in a small steel room beneath the gun-carriage. He watched the man depart and in five minutes saw him knocked off his feet and drowned. The captain stripped to his shirt and trousers, and, half swimming and wading, reached his home. He sent a warning word to the barracks, and with his family abandoned his house and began the return journey to the gun. He had supplied himself with an improvised raft, on which he placed the children with their backs to the strangling spray. The women never flinched, and soon all reached the gun in safety. If the trembling foundation gave way, or the gun collapsed, it meant death. the room below was low and without ventilation. Huge waves pounded and broke over the works. The steel door of the room was dashed in, the servant-girl struck by a wave and carried out to her death before a hand could save her. For hours the family were imprisoned with a deluge roaring over and around them. In the end, the soldier's judgment proved correct.

The gun triumphed over wind and sea. In the barracks the big, bronzed artillerymen made hasty preparations to leave. When the captain's message came, Senior Sergeant George called the men to attention and said: "Boys, it is every man for himself. This building won't stand half an hour. I am going to get out." Instantly a division of opinion developed. Many decided to remain in the barracks. Others decided to go to the Denver Resurvey school building, a short distance away. About thirty started for the school house, swimming and wading. Three were lost on the way, carried with millrace velocity down the island and into the bay. The others reached the school. Of the men who remained in the barracks, seven were lost; five escaped, clinging to wreckage. Two hours after the men took possession of the school building, the water was five feet deep on the first floor. Then one of the walls fell and killed three men. The question of abandoning the building came up. Sixteen men declared they preferred to take their chances in the water rather ' than remain and be crushed. Eight decided to stick to the building. The sixteen had no plan except to leave and proceed to the nearest buildings. Wreckage was floating about and in some places they could walk but for a moment. Just one of the sixteen escaped. The current swept fifteen across the island into the bay, and Tuesday their bodies were buried at Virginia Point. The man who was saved floated on a section of roof to Virginia Point. He was carried two miles inland, and there exchanged his raft for a telegraph pole, to which he clung until the waters receded. The men who remained in the school building were saved. No portion of the structure fell except the wall which drove the fifteen to their death. An incident bordering on the marvelous is told by Captain Rafferty. A soldier on detail at Bolivar Point, near the harbor entrance, was carried forty miles on wreckage and tossed up on the mainland at Cedar Bayou. He was found by fishermen and brought back to his quarters on Tuesday. While we are on the marvelous, the case of the boy Rutter is apropos. He lost his father and mother, brother and sister. When the house collapsed he found himself in the water near a trunk. He seized it and hung on until he landed at Hitchcock, twenty miles from Galveston, the next morning.

 A butcher named Meyer was met by Father Kirwin Monday morning trudging in from the west. He told the priest he was carried out in the gulf Saturday night, floated on a raft all night, all Sunday and Sunday night, and just landed that morning at seven o'clock. " The most remarkable incident that came to me was from an honest fellow, a member of my parish, " said the priest. "He lost his wife and child and was floating along, half dazed, on a raft, when he saw two children struggling in the water. He seized them and found that their combined weight threatened to sink his raft. He jumped off, and pushed the raft against a stable which had lodged against a telegraph-pole. He placed the children in the wet hay in the upper part of the stable, and going out on his raft, fell asleep. When he awoke, he found himself on the dry street, and forgetting all about the children came uptown. The next day he remembered the little ones and returning to the stable found them crying. They were his sister's children. " Between nine and ten o'clock on Saturday night the water reached its maximum height. A score of coolheaded witnesses assert that it rose eighteen inches in twenty minutes. The beach wreckage, hurled inland in great piles, proved a barrier to much of the destructive force of the waters. The wind, which is believed to have attained a velocity of more than one hundred miles an hour, carried off roofs, crushed buildings already weakened by water, leveled poles and wires, and drove the rain almost horizontally and with shot like effect. Galveston homes are constructed for comfort and not on solid lines. Cedar posts, brick columns, and brick foundations imbedded a few feet in the sand, are the usual substructure. When the waters rose above the foundations, the houses, driven by the wind and waves, floated off and collapsed. West of Thirty-fifth Street, clear across the island, the waters made a clean sweep. The cemetery is in that vicinity.

The dead of years were washed from their graves and carried across to the mainland. A metallic casket weighing two hundred pounds was found at Virginia Point. No one attempts to explain how it was lifted out of the cemetery , and driven over seven miles of submerged island and two miles of bay. It was there, however, and examined by many persons. Scarcely less astonishing were the gyrations of the huge Huntington dredge. It was driven out of the harbor across the bay to Texas City, over the mainland for a mile, and now rests quietly in the tall grass beside the Southern Pacific Railway. A tramp steamer was carried over to Virginia Point, then sent like a shot through all three bridges. Sections of the two railroad bridges and one wagon bridge were cut out so cleanly that men interested in naval architecture are amazed at the resistance of the sea tramp's hull. The steamers "Alamo" and "Red Cross" were dropped upon Pelican Flats, and when the waves retreated they were high and dry in the sand. The English steamer "Kendal Castle" was carried over to the mainland at Texas City, and there she lies in one foot of water.

The "Gylla" was sent toward Virginia Point and stranded. Yachts and sailboats were driven over the mainland and could be seen in the grass far beyond Texas City. Railroad ears, loaded and empty, w ere carried into the bay, and miles of track torn up and washed away. At 9:30 P.M. the water was four and a half feet deep in the office of the Tremont House. The dome had been carried away, and the one thousand or more persons crowding the floors expected every moment to go down with the building. Many were drowned trying to reach the hotel. Wives under the escort of husbands walked in water shoulder-deep only to be swept from the sidewalks to the deeper water in the street and drowned.

..... Between ten and eleven, the wind fell and the water rapidly receded. Before daylight the streets were clear of water, but covered with a slime from the sea and choked with wreckage. On that Sunday morning the people did not realize the full proportions of the horror. It was not until men came in from the beach and the west end, bringing news of the almost total destruction of that portion of the city, and of the heaps of dead in the streets, that full realization began to dawn upon them. It was not necessary to go to the beach to find the dead. They were thick along the business streets.

.....Mayor Jones, Chief of Police Ketcham, John Sealy, and other citizens, called a meeting to discuss removal of the dead and succor for the living. An appeal was sent to Washington, and General McKibben of were ordered to kill any man found plundering the dead. Sunday night, Monday and Monday night, many negroes were killed. How many never will be known, for a part of the instructions were: "Make no report." Tuesday, Adj.-Gen. Thomas Scurry, of the State Military Department, arrived. The Galveston company was mustered out, and a Houston company ordered into service. Thereafter there was no killing. Galveston now affects to believe no negroes were killed, but testimony on the other side is conclusive. Martial law was proclaimed by General Scurry, and made systematic and regular. The citizens perfected their organization, and general orders were issued to everybody to "clean up." Women and children were allowed to leave the city, but men were requested to remain and assist in removing the dead. The public was barred out. There was no lack of food. Bacon, canned goods and flour were there in plenty. If the Department of Texas received orders to send one thousand tents and ten thousand rations to the stricken city. It was believed at that time that perhaps one thousand lives had been lost. A committee of public safety was organized, and all men, white and black, were asked to assist in the removal of the dead. The superstitious negroes refused. A local military company was called out, armed, and placed under the command of the Chief of Police. Negroes were impressed wherever found, and compelled, at the muzzle of a Winchester, to gather in the bodies.

Father Kirwin was one of the first to discover it would be impossible to bury the dead on land. Hughes, a longshoreman, suggested barges and burials at sea. Society men, clubmen, millionaires, longshoremen and negroes took up the work, loading the bodies on drays and conveying them to the barges. There was a dreadful procession of these drays all Sunday and Monday. Three barge loads of the dead were towed out to sea and given back to the waves. The weights were not properly attached, and soon the corpses were back in the surf tossing on the beach. Sunday afternoon the first robbing of the dead was reported. The Galveston men were then on guard. Captain Rafferty had collected his decimated battery, and at the urgent request of citizens, protected the business district. The Galveston Volunteers there was suffering, it was due to the lack of system in distributing the food. The citizens' committee took charge of grocery stores and gave food to all known to be in w ant. After the storm, the weather turned sultry. By Monday the city reeked with the smell of a charnel-house Pestilence . was in the air. Dead animals strewed the streets. The waters of the bay and gulf were thick with the dead, both human and a animal. All of the lime, carbolic acid and camphor in the city was quickly consumed. An urgent appeal was sent to Houston a for disinfectants.

The same appeal a was sent all over the country. Tuesday, a general cremation of the dead began. Trenches were first dug and lined with wood. The corpses were tossed in and covered with more wood, saturated with oil and set on fire It was found that this method was not so effective as the pyre. Bodies were then collected and placed in piles of wreckage and the whole was given to the flames. Men engaged in this horrible task frequently found relatives and acquaintances' and in some instances their own wives and children. One poor fellow examined the teeth of every female corpse in a vain quest for his wife's body. The men wore a camphor-bags under their noses, and frequently became so nauseated they were forced to cease work. The fire purified the air as well as the earth, and was a great factor in saving the city from scourge. Disinfectants began to come in and were used with a lavish hand. The streets were covered with a solution of lime. Carbolic acid was showered everywhere. By Friday the waters of the bay and gulf had been partially relieved of the . dead. A great pall of smoke overhung the city, telling the story of the incinerating in progress along the beach. The task seemed overwhelming to the fifteen hundred men who were employed. A small street-railway bridge, spanning an inlet in the gulf, gave up forty-one dead. The bodies had floated in, caught in the timbers and rails, and remained there. For fifty miles along the coast, on both sides of Galveston, the storm found victims. The waters of the sea were carried inland ten miles all along the coast. Bales of cotton and wreckage from Galveston were found at Lamarque' where ten persons lost their lives. The island city will never again be popular as a city of homesūnot until some engineering genius constructs a seawall, or successfully elevates the city ten feet above its present level. These things are not beyond the bounds of possibility. The Southwest requires a port, and Galveston is a natural outlet. Millions have been invested there by the government, by corporations, by exporters and capitalists. All are of one voice as to the future.



Updated: November 17, 2005

1. A home lies in ruins at 15th Street and Avenue K.

2. Scene of destruction near 16th Street and Avenue M.

3. A few houses remain standing at 16th Street and Avenue M.

4. Wind damage at 19th Street and Avenue N and 1/2.

5. Houses lie together in a mountain of timber at 19th Street.

6. A body lies half buried at 21st Street and Avenue O.

7. A view of the destruction at 27th Street and Avenue M.

8. A view of four block wide area wiped clean by the storm.

9. Timber stretches as far as the eye can see on 5th Street.

10. A panoramic shot of the island showing receding floodwaters.

11. Several houses are collapsed against each other at Avenue L.

12. The bodies of storm victims are laid out in rows.

13. A man stands amidst storm debris with the Gulf behind him.

14. The First Baptist Church at 22nd Street and Avenue I.

15. The back of The Grand 1894 Opera House.

16. Several homes lie blown over against each other.

17. Lucas Terrace lies collapsed inward amidst a field of debris.

18. Another view of Lucas Terrace amidst a field of debris.

19. The S.S. Alamo as seen from the destruction at Mallory Wharf.

20. Survivors survey the damage to shops on Market Street.

21. A group of men stops to pose in the debris of a building.

22. A boat lies wedged against the debris of a dock at Pier 16.

23. UTMB's "Old Red" after the storm.

24.A ship sits lopsided amid the rubble at Pier 12.

25. Timber and scaffolding litter the scene at Pier 21.

26. Wreckage of homes piled 15 feet high near the beach.

27. On the way to Galveston - derailed train 20 feet inland from Galveston Island.

28. Shipped piled up with wreckage in the harbor.

29. A trunk that saved a young boys life after he lost both parents and a sister during the hurricane.

30. Collapsed homes at 14th Street and N1/2.

31. Two men cover the body of a dead resident at the corner of Tremont and Ave. P.

32. House has second story totally ripped off on Main Street.

33. Dead bodies are gathered for burial on Tremont Street.

34.Reminates of Fort Hood which used to sit on Sea Wall Blvd.

35. Firemen carry a cot to gather the dead on 22nd Street and The Strand.







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