In 1783 José Antonio de Evia, a Spanish navigator, surveyed the area and named the bay Galvezton to honor Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez who supported the United States in the Revolutionary War. However, Galveston’s development as a great port city did not begin until the 1820s. As Texas struggled for independence from Mexico, who controlled this natural harbor became crucial. The Mexican government designated it as a port in 1825 and built a customs house in 1830. But, during the Texas Revolution, Galveston became the last point of defense as many families fleeing Santa Anna’s army took shelter on the island where the Texas Navy was stationed. The people in Galveston were eager to leave when they heard news of Texas’ victory, because of the lack of fresh water and accommodations.
New settlers flooded into Texas taking advantage of the opportunity to buy cheap land. Canadian Michel B. Menard secured title for the eastern part of Galveston Island in 1836 and organized the Galveston City Company along with several associates. The town was laid out in a grid pattern, and lots were sold. By the end of 1836, about 60 families and over 100 buildings populated the new town. Galveston incorporated in 1839.
Being the only deep water port between New Orleans and Tampico, Mexico, Galveston supplied Texas and the western United States with essential goods that fueled development of the entire nation. Galveston became known as the “Wall Street of the Southwest” or the “New York of the Gulf.” By 1899, the town had become a bustling commercial center including warehouses stuffed with imported wholesale goods supplying stores throughout Texas and the entire Southwest. Numerous railroad companies transported freight and passengers.
Galveston functioned as the region’s principal banking center due to its numerous wealthy citizens. With more millionaires per capita than any other U.S. city in the late 1800s, many of the prosperous population of about 38,000 enjoyed living in elegant homes, purchasing the finest imported goods, and dining in European-inspired restaurants. Galveston was the first in the state to have telegraphs, telephones, and electric-powered houses, streetlights and trolleys.
The hurricane that devastated Galveston on September 8, 1900 killed more people than any other natural disaster in American history. Throughout that night, water slowly rose to cover the entire island, and winds reached more than 120 miles per hour. Two-thirds of the city’s buildings were gone. The storm deposited a huge debris pile measuring about three miles long and two stories tall. At least 6,000 deaths on the island were documented, but many more died or were never found throughout the region. The city’s recovery was an intense struggle.
Eventually, city leader’s developed an ambitious plan to hold back the forces of the gulf by constructing a wall against the sea, raising the level of 500 city blocks to deter flooding, and linking the island to the Mainland with a reliable concrete bridge to facilitate evacuation. These unprecedented efforts required great community support and determination. While the grade was raised beneath them, houses were perched on stilts and residents made their way through town on elevated boardwalks. These projects took about ten years to complete.
The 1900 Storm did relatively little damage to the port, and shipping resumed as soon as the railroad connection to the Mainland was restored. However, Galveston was forced to compete for economic survival with the rival ports of Houston and Texas City. As World War I began, Galveston was the leading cotton port in the world, the third largest exporter of wheat, and an important sugar import center. Galveston also became a major port of entry for thousands of immigrants. From 1906-1914, nearly 50,000 newcomers arrived in Galveston from Europe and Asia. This influx of worldly goods and people gave Galveston a sophisticated character unlike any other Texas town.