Wild Weather Wednesday: The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900

WildWeatherWednesdayOn September 8, 1900 a massive storm was raging and headed for the Texas coast.  The storm, which may have originated off the western coast of Africa, had already inflicted heavy damage in New Orleans and was heading west.

Galveston_2The city of Galveston, located on thirty mile-long Galveston Island, was incorporated as a city in 1839 and by 1900 had become a major United States port (third busiest), and approximately forty thousand residents called it home.  The island’s highest point was a mere 8.7 feet above sea level, with most of it averaging about half that altitude.  The city was fast becoming a metropolis on par with other U.S. cities like New Orleans and San Francisco.  The New York Herald went so far as to call it the “New York of the Gulf”.  Galveston had electricity, telephone and telegraph services, several hotels, expensive restaurants and more.

It was raining heavily that day in Galveston but it seemed that residents paid little attention or had little concern for the situation.  Part of their apathy may have been influenced, some believe, by the meteorologist who headed Galveston’s weather bureau, Isaac Monroe Cline, who was also a physician.  A statement Cline made in an 1891 article would come back to haunt him:

West Indies hurricanes are not a problem for Texas because they always recurve to the north before reaching the Western Gulf of Mexico.

IsaacClineCline also believed that “shallow water offshore from Galveston will protect the island from hurricane waves.”  That being said, Isaac Cline was known as a highly credible scientist and had written several articles and publications on hurricanes.  But why he would make the 1891 statement is unclear to historians.  Cline was clearly doing his job as a meteorologist, however, on September 8 as he noted in his autobiography, Storms, Floods and Sunshine: An Autobiography with a Summary of Tropical Hurricanes:

I was up making observations at 5 a.m. September 8th, and found the Gulf water coming in over the low parts of the city with the tide 4.5 feet, on the automatic gauge, above what the tide should have been.  The barometer was falling slowly, the wind was 15 to 17 miles per hour from the north, offshore, and the tide was rising with this wind directly against it; such winds under ordinary circumstances cause the tide to fall and give a low tide.  The storm swells were increasing in magnitude and frequency and were building up a storm tide which told me as plainly as though it was a written message that great danger was approaching.  Neither the barometer, nor the winds were telling me, but the storm tide was telling me to warn the people of the danger approaching. (p. 93)

He telegraphed a report of the unusual tide conditions to the Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C. every two hours following his 5:00 a.m. observations.  Erik Larson, author of Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, noted that for some reason “[T]he bureau had long banned the use of the word tornado because it induced panic, and panic brought criticism, something the bureau could ill afford.”  Isaac then took his horse-drawn cart and began to warn citizens and tourists of the danger – some six thousand tourists were vacationing on the beach and he told them to go home immediately.  Residents within three blocks of the beach were warned to head for higher ground.

Around noon on that day, several men were dining at Ritter’s Café when all of a sudden a huge gust of wind lifted the restaurant’s roof and crashed down, killing five and seriously injuring five others.  A waiter who was dispatched to find help was overcome and drowned in the flooded street.  By 3:30 p.m. Cline realized that indeed a disaster was imminently approaching and he sent another message to the Weather Bureau Chief in D.C.  Joseph Cline, his younger brother and assistant, waded through waist-high water to reach the telegraph office, only to discover that by then all telegraph wires were down.

By temporarily taking over telephone lines, however, the message was sent out just before telephone service was severed and Galveston was cut off from the rest of the world.  Following his final attempt to warn the world of impending disaster, Isaac later wrote:

Having worked for the public ceaselessly from 5 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. and with no possibility of being able to further serve the populace I waded nearly two miles to my home through water, often above my waist.  Hurricane winds were driving timbers and slates through the air every where around me, splitting the paling and weather boarding of houses into splinters, and roofs of buildings were flying through the air.  My house had been built recently structurally designed to withstand hurricane winds. (p. 94)

Note: The slate he referred to had been required by the city of Galveston since an 1885 fire swept through the city, according to Erik Larson.  Larson noted that soon older residents of the city would begin to flash back to “the gore-filled afternoons they spent at Chancellorsville and Antietam.”

His own home was surrounded by the rising tides and he found that around fifty persons had already made their way to his home which had been purposely built on stilts after his previous home had been destroyed by fire in 1896.  He found some of the builders and their families seeking refuge there.  Regardless of the home being built on stilts, the rising water overwhelmed the first story, forcing everyone to move to the second floor.

From there a better view was afforded of the storm and its devastation.  Wreckage was everywhere.  Isaac later reflected on the situation:

We probably would have weathered the storm, but a trestle, about one fourth of a mile long, which the street railway had built out over the Gulf was torn from its moorings, and the rails held it together as one piece of wreckage.  The storm swells were pounding the other wreckage against our home.  It held firm against these without trembling.  But the street railway trestle was carried squarely against the side of the house.  The breaking swells drove this wreckage against the house like a huge battering ram; the house creaked and was carried over into the surging waters and torn to pieces. (pp. 95-96)

His brother had just returned from his trip to send out one last message and was able to save Isaac’s two oldest children by knocking a glass window out and stepping onto the trestle.  Isaac, his pregnant wife Cora May and his youngest daughter were thrown into the wreckage.  Cora’s clothing became entangled in the wreckage and she was swept away.  Isaac was pinned momentarily under timbers, thinking he was on the verge of drowning.  His last thought was “I have done all that could have been done in this disaster, the world will know that I did my duty to the last, it is useless to fight for life, I will let the water enter my lungs and pass on.”

It wasn’t his time to leave this world, however, and after regaining consciousness he glimpsed his youngest daughter floating by on a piece of wreckage.  He rescued her and joined Joseph and his other two daughters.  Amazingly, Isaac noted that his daughters showed no sign of fear.  The storm ranged from 8:00 p.m. until midnight  – the night was dark and foreboding and only an occasional flash of lightning would reveal the carnage swirling about them.

They were able to rescue another child who was floating along and finally landed a few blocks away where they spent the rest of the night.  The child was left with the residents of the home where they landed.  Later they learned that the child and her mother had been visiting family and she had obviously been separated from her family by the storm.  Several days later Joseph was in a drug store and met a distressed gentleman who was fearful his wife and child were lost.  Joseph asked the man’s name and discovered he was the father of the child they had rescued.  Father and daughter were reunited – presumably the mother was killed.

The story of Isaac’s ordeal was no doubt repeated all across the city, especially the vulnerable neighborhoods closer to the beach.  Even today no one seems sure just how many people died, except to say that it was the most disastrous hurricane in history – estimates range from six to eight thousand fatalities.  Cora’s body was later found on September 30 underneath the very wreckage that Isaac, his daughters and Joseph clung to during the height of the storm.  Her body was identified by her wedding ring.  Among the dead were ten nuns and ninety children of the St. Mary’s Orphans Asylum.

Galveston_1By the following day, headlines across the country began to report the tragedy, albeit having somewhat sketchy details to report since Galveston’s communication lines had been severed in the midst of the storm.  Survivors were met with horrible conditions in the aftermath.  Corpses of both humans and animals were strewn about everywhere.  Early on Monday the 10th, efforts were underway to try and bury the humans.  City officials, however, abandoned that plan – there were simply too many bodies.  By Monday afternoon they were planning to have a mass burial at sea.

The bodies would have weights attached and transported out into the Gulf on barges.  This was a gruesome task, to say the least, and to entice men to carry it out the city offered free whiskey.  Enough men signed up, but after becoming exceedingly drunk were incapable of securing the weights properly, causing hundreds of bodies to wash back up on the beach on Tuesday morning.  The only option left was to burn the bodies.  The smell of burning flesh and plumes of smoke hung in the air for several weeks.

Martial law was declared to prevent both thievery and ghoulish behavior.  Isaac described instances of how “[T]he low criminal element, both white and colored, would cut the heads off the dead to get their necklaces and the fingers from their hands to get their rings.”  A posse of responsible citizens were sworn to shoot the so-called ghouls on sight – one thousand were shot before the macabre behavior was stopped.

Galveston residents, historians and Isaac Cline himself would later reflect on the storm and the lessons learned.  Obviously, West Indies storms WERE a problem for the Texas coastline.  They also learned that storm surge has the potential to cause the most deaths, and the waters surrounding Galveston Island made it particularly vulnerable to such devastation.  Residents had learned, painfully so, to take storm warnings more seriously.

Following the storm, discussions began to focus on the need for some sort of seawall.  Two years later a contract was signed for a seventeen foot-high, three mile long wall.  In the midst of the project, the United States government chipped in and paid to have the seawall extended another mile to protect Fort Crockett.  The wall continued to be lengthened over the years and today is over ten miles long.

Another project called for parts of the city to be raised, from the seawall back the level would gradually be raised to ten feet near the center of the island.  In 1915 another Category-4 hurricane hit the island and only two hundred and seventy-five were killed.  Galveston and other coastal cities will always be vulnerable to damage from hurricanes, but the steps taken (and the lessons learned) following the 1900 event have no doubt saved countless lives since that time.

There are many historical pictures of the devastation, too many to post individually.  If you’d like to view some of them, click here and also peruse the web site for more stories about the great storm.

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.

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