Grande Dame of the Gulf

A belle among the roughneck cities of Texas, Galveston is caught between a relentless ocean and an imperious past. If one doesn’t get it, the other will.

December 1983By Comments

When strangers ask me where I’m from, I automatically answer, “Galveston.” I never gave the matter a second thought until my wife suggested that since I have lived in Austin for twenty years and last resided in Galveston in 1959, there might be a more appropriate answer. Upon reflection, I realized that it didn’t change a thing. I live in Austin — but I am from Galveston.

Galveston is a place that stays with you. The attitudes one acquires there are as alien to the rest of Texas as those of New England are. Of the mythic elements that shaped Texas — the endless expanse of land, the frontier, the quest for water, rugged individualism, cultural isolation, cattle, oil — not one applies to Galveston. When Texas ranchers were still driving their cattle to market over the Chisholm Trail and Houston was a quagmire hardly fit for habitation, Galvestonians were $250,000 houses, sipping French wines, and hearing their city called the New York of the Gulf. In recent years Galveston’s estrangement has been of a different sort: the economic boom that has transformed the rest of Texas has hardly touched Galveston at all.

A hundred years ago Galveston was the biggest and most important city in Texas. Today the rest of the state seldom thinks about Galveston at all, unless there is a hurricane like Alicia in the Gulf. Galveston ranks thirty-first among Texas cities in population and, by most of the measures dear to modern Texas, even lower in importance. As a port, it handles less tonnage than pestholes like Texas City or Freeport; as a resort, it has gray, eroding beaches and murky green water that are no match for the whites and blues of South Padre Island. Galveston, in short, has not been a winner.

But that is precisely why it remains one of the most important cities in Texas. Galveston has the same relationship to the rest of the state that the American South has to the rest of the country. It has had to face defeat, despair, and the invalidation of its fondest illusions. As in the South, the weaknesses of its own institutions contributed to its downfall. But if there is a moral to the tale, it is that winning isn’t everything.

The combination of glorious past and humble present is the soul of Galveston. Alone among the state’s cities, Galveston is a hostage to its own history. In other cities, the expectation is that the future will be better than the past. Galveston knows that its future can never equal its past. The days when Galveston was the second-richest city in the country (only Providence, Rhode Island had a higher per capita income in 1900) or the most important city between New Orleans and San Francisco or even a worthy rival to Houston, are irrecoverable.

Galveston even looks different from the rest of Texas. It is next to impossible to find a strip shopping center, a species as common to Texas as the bluebonnet. It is almost as hard to find a new house — and in Galveston that means anything built after 1950. Most of the homes are raised on pilings, and not just to escape hurricane tides: built before air conditioning, they were elevated to catch the precious afternoon breeze from the sea. Many neighborhoods still have their own taverns and family groceries. A few streets are paved with concrete, but most are an old-fashioned pebbled asphalt, wavy and uneven. The motorist who cuts across the island (in Galveston, the I is always capitalized) to get to the beach will in all likelihood drive through blocks that look exactly as they did twenty or thirty years ago. For that matter, the same people may be living in the same houses; on my block, for example, only one of eight houses changed hands between 1950 and 1978. Now it’s up to two, but at least the Burkas are not to blame.

Like modern Egyptians and their pyramids, Galvestonians are condemned to live alongside the monuments of a greater, vanished civilization. Three-story houses with turrets and spires, balustrades with geometrically intricate designs, and columns topped with the carved heads of European rulers sit next to houses with rotting timbers and peeling paint. Downtown, massive commercial structures with ornate brickwork, relics of an era when Galveston’s main commercial street, the Strand, was known as the Wall Street of the Southwest, adjoin empty storefronts. These colossi were designed by and for people who had a sense of destiny about their city — a sense that turned out to be wrong.

This proximity to faded glory has had a peculiar effect on Galveston. The past matters mightily, but not in the way you might think. Galvestonians have not fought to preserve every artifact; more often, they have done the opposite. After Hurricane Carla in 1961, the local trustees of the Ursuline Academy seized upon the pretext of storm damage to raze that grandest of all works by the renowned Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton, replacing his gothic masterpiece with a one-story modern atrocity. When Houston lawyers succeeded in pilfering the regional court of civil appeals in 1957, the noble courthouse that had housed it was fed to the wrecker’s ball, as if to eradicate the defeat. Old Ball High School, which with its rotunda, dome, and wings bore more resemblance to the state capitol that to the typical high school, was sold to a local insurance company and mutilated beyond recognition. I can remember from my childhood a civic campaign to exorcise every watermark remaining form the 1900 storm. That sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore, thanks to a historic preservation movement that is the most important development in the city in decades, but any Galvestonian will tell you that the impetus was provided by outsiders and newcomers.

And why not? Galvestonians haven’t needed buildings to preserve the past; they keep it alive in their minds. Once a friend asked me for help in paring down the guest list for her daughter’s wedding reception. Going over the roster, she read out the name of a ninety-year-old woman I’d never heard either of them mention. “You don’t have to invite her,” I said. “I’ll bet she’s never been in your house.” “Oh, yes, I do,” came the answer. “My grandparents spent the night with her parents during the 1900 storm.”

Sorrow and Suffering Beyond Description

Galveston was created by the sea. It is a barrier island, a combination of beach, dunes, and marsh that belongs more to the ocean than to the land. When the Egyptians were building their biggest pyramids, it was a mere strip; a few thousand years earlier it had been dozens of miles farther out to sea. Perpetually under assault by the ocean, the Island was not a hospitable place either for the works of man, with their pretensions of permanence, or for his laws of property, with their assumptions of a fixed and stable earth. The Indians understood that nature had not designed Galveston with habitation in mind; they lived on the mainland and used the Island for a hunting and burial ground. Cabeza de Vaca in 1528 became the first European to set foot on the Island, but the new discovery never became a functioning part of the Spanish empire. Three centuries later, Galveston was still sufficiently remote that the pirate Jean Lafitte made it his base.

But the men who settled Texas looked at Galveston and saw not a fragile sandbar but a natural deepwater harbor. A trader-turned-land-speculator named Michel Menard obtained a Mexican land grant for the eastern end of the Island. He gave it the same name as the large bay to the north, which a Spanish cartographer had earlier designated to honor Bernardo de Gálvez, the colonial official who had hired the cartographer. After the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, Menard had to make another payment for the land, this time to the new Republic of Texas, and he wasted no time in establishing his town. He envisioned a major port serving the new republic, which reached a thousand miles into the interior. But it didn’t take long for the sea to send an omen. In the summer of 1837, a hurricane leveled most of the structures on the Island.

If Menard had studied a map of the United States more closely, he might have had second thoughts about rebuilding. The great ports — Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans — were all sheltered from the open sea. Even today there are no real cities on barrier islands, just resorts like Miami Beach and Atlantic City. Only Galveston sits on a sandbar, naked to the sea. But rebuild Menard did.

For six decades the ocean was benign and the city flourished. The frontier rigors of inland Texas were unknown in Galveston. Its streets were paved with shell and its businesses lit by gas before the Civil War, while much of the interior still lived in dread of Comanche raids. Its gaslights were the first in Texas; so, in 1883, were its electric lights. The Tremont Hotel downtown was the grandest between New Orleans and San Francisco. Galveston had the first opera house (Sarah Bernhardt played there), the first telephone, and the first hospital. It had the first golf course, the first country club, the first YMCA, and the first law firm. Name just about any business — banking, insurance, real estate, pharmacy — and chances are that Galveston had the first one in Texas.

Thanks to the cotton trade and wholesale dealers, who stocked visiting ships and sent goods into the interior of the state, a few Galvestonians amassed Texas’ first real wealth. In 1860 the top 24 households were on hundred times richer than the next 24. A merchant named Leon Blum owned a million acres in Texas, including land in every county; his granddaughter later married a Kempner and perpetuated one of the city’s enduring financial dynasties. The Island’s stores carried fine English carpets, rosewood pianos (23 grands were sold in 1858 alone), and French china, wine, and brandy. Galveston’s aristocrats lived lavishly, spending $10,000 on Mardi Gras balls and building palaces with brick imported from Boston. By the 1880’s Galveston’s leading families were sending their sons east for their education, not only to college but also to prep school. Galveston looked south and east rather than west; it had — and has — more in common with New Orleans than with Houston.

The sea remained kind to Galveston. In 1875 and again in 1886 it unleashed killer storms at the city’s rival port, Indianola, on Matagorda Bay. The second storm finished off the competition, but it only confirmed the growing belief in Galveston that the Island lay off the track of major storms. Proponents of a seawall got nowhere.

All that ended on September 8, 1900, the fulcrum moment in Galveston’s history. No one will ever know what really happened that day — how many people died (it was at least six thousand, almost one fifth the population) or what freakish circumstance of nature compelled the storm surge to rise an additional four feet in a single instant at the height of the fury. Half the buildings on the Island were demolished. The waves turned the debris from one fallen structure into a battering ram to fell the next. The entire Island, even at its highest point, must have been at least ten feet underwater; I can remember as a child seeing the watermark in my grandmother’s parlor, impossibly, absurdly high above the piano. On the southern and western parts of the Island, nothing and no one was left. In its dispatch after the storm, the Associated Press reported, “The city of Galveston is wrapped in sackcloth and ashes. She sits beside her unnumbered dead and refuses to be comforted. Her sorrow and her suffering are beyond description.”

Physically, at least, Galveston recovered from the storm. Moving quickly to silence a minority who advocated rebuilding on the mainland, Galveston’s leading families reorganized the city government, put themselves in charge, and set about fortifying their sandbar against the sea. U.S. Army engineers interposed a massive concrete barrier between the Island and the Gulf; sixteen feet thick at the base and seventeen feet high, it still rates as one of the world’s great seawalls. Then, in a feat of astonishing civic will, the elevation of the entire city was raised by as much as thirteen feet to coincide with the top of the seawall. Every building in town was jacked up and the space underneath filled. Dredges sailed into the heart of the city down newly dug canals, spewing out sand from the floor of the sea, burying all vegetation. The grade-raising took six years, during which the only means of getting around town was temporary elevated boardwalks. By the next census, the city had regained the population it lost in one night. Port activity actually exceeded pre-storm levels; in the years just before World War I, Galveston was the leading cotton port in the world.

But if engineers could keep the ocean out of the city, no seawall could keep it out of people’s minds. The nineteenth century article of faith that Galveston was destined for greatness could not compete with the memory of the storm. In the future, those who had made their fortunes on the Island would be slow to risk them there and those who hoped to make new ones would place their bets in Houston. The great era of building was over; Nicholas Clayton survived the storm by sixteen years but never again designed a major structure in the city. Invaded by self-doubt, a cancer that never afflicted its inland rival, Galveston came to have an entirely different concept of itself.

Galveston’s loss was Houston’s gain. The storm cinched Houston’s case for an inland deepwater port; by 1914 the deed was done. Ten thousand Galvestonians left the Island for Houston in the first decade of the century, swelling Houston’s population, which had already surpassed Galveston’s before the storm. The exodus from Galveston was numerically balanced by immigrants from Eastern Europe. They added to the city’s traditional polyglot character (in 1860, 40 per cent of Galvestonians were German-born), but the migrations of the storm’s aftermath hastened the transformation of the city from rich to poor. By 1920 Houston was four times bigger than Galveston. The nineteenth century had belonged to Galveston, but the twentieth was Houston’s.

A Dirty Shirt and a $5 Bill

For their city to lose its commercial preeminence was bad enough for Galvestonians, but to lose it to Houston was intolerable. Two things were particularly galling. First, Galvestonians considered Houston to be without grace or culture (many still do). Second, with a declining commercial base, Galveston could only turn to the economic activity it hated most, tourism. The proud dowager was reduced to peddling her physical assets.

To old Galvestonians, Houston was barely removed from savagery. A Galveston matron, returning from Houston in 1864, reported to her family that men didn’t dare to venture out without a gun by day or a lantern by night. The gun referred to Houston’s propensity for sudden violence, which could break out at any time on Main Street; the lantern, to the city’s paludal streets, which could swallow a man up to his waist in mud. On the Island, where the streets had been paved and free of gunplay for years, Houston was derisively known as Mudville and its citizens as mudcats. A Galvestonian on his first visit to Houston in 1872 reported seeing a sign in front of a Main Street bog that read, “No Bottom.” The elegant, European-style living in Galveston had no parallel in Houston, where men put their money into business, not architecture.

Alas for Galveston, Houston never knew its place. Aided by geography, it outmaneuvered Galveston before the Civil War to become the railroad hub of the Gulf Coast. It connived to weaken Galveston by declaring a quarantine on commerce to and from the Island every time there were rumors of yellow fever outbreaks. It forced a statewide election in 1881 to make Texans choose whether they wanted their new medical school to be located in Galveston or Houston. For once Galveston won. Worst of all, Houston coveted its own outlet to the ocean. Galvestonians hooted at the idea, especially when a cargo of salt sent by a Galveston merchant to a Houston warehouse in 1886 washed away in a bayou flood. Houston at Last a Saltwater Port, chortled the Galveston Daily News.

Since the 1900 storm, though, such satisfactions have been all too rare. As a winner, Houston had not been humble either; Galveston Wharves officials still fume over the Houston port director who liked to needle his Galveston competitors, “I love to see Galveston busy because that means Houston is loaded.” But I remember one triumph for Galveston. In 1963 the Houston Post bought the Galveston papers, the morning Daily News and the afternoon Tribune, and embarked upon what in any other city would have been a profitable business venture. The Post folded the Tribune and transformed the once-proud Daily News, the oldest newspaper in Texas, into a chatty afternoon paper with modern typography. The idea was that Galvestonians would turn to the Post for a morning paper and real news. Ha! Instead they flocked to the Houston Chronicle — even though it was strictly an afternoon paper in those days — as a sort of mass protest. After four years of this guerilla warfare, the Post capitulated and sold out. The new owners returned the Daily News to its morning slot and its traditional type, and on the first day of the new regime my mother got a call from an old friend. “Well,” said the friend. “we sure showed them a thing or two.”

Galveston’s historic distaste for Houston was reflected in its posture toward tourism. Galvestonians were never very comfortable with the idea of soliciting the patronage of boorish Houstonians, and their halfheartedness showed up in dirty beaches and unairconditioned hotels. The beachfront never did become an economic bonanza — mainly because, Galvestonians said, people from Houston brought a picnic lunch to the beach, stayed all day, and returned without buying so much as a gallon of gas. “They come down with a dirty shirt on their back and a $5 bill in their pocket and never change either one” has remained a local refrain.

Galveston made a brave show of things for a while. Bathing beauty contests in the twenties, which promoters called the International Pageant of Pulchritude, attracted throngs that haven’t been matched since. The Galvez Hotel opened in 1911, and the new Galveston-Houston interurban rail line ferried Houstonians down. Where Twenty-fifth Street met the seawall, the city put up a sign sixty feet high spelling out “Galveston, the Treasure Island of America, Port and Playground” with three thousand electric light bulbs.

But the intended marriage of port and playground never consummated. Old Galvestonians hated the slogan, which was still around when I was growing up. At one of the first what’s-wrong-with-Galveston conversations I participated in — a rite of passage on the Island — I remember someone’s saying, “They ought to forget the playground and concentrate on the port.” The city split between those who had a direct stake in tourism and the rest of the town, which, as in the case of the Houston Post, kept up a rearguard resistance. Galveston ceded the beach and the seawall to the invaders — like many Galvestonians, I went years (seven, to be exact) without setting foot to sand — and did little to make it more attractive. The beach-town division still endures in Galveston, where old attitudes change slowly, if at all. On a warm day last spring, I was riding in a car driven by a high school friend — the grandson of the owner of the long-defunct Tremont Hotel — when he suddenly spun into a U-turn as we approached the seawall. “Sorry,” he said, “but I never go down the boulevard when the tourists are in town.”

No matter how strongly Galveston resisted the city’s descent into tourism, the old guard was powerless to arrest it. Evidence of decline was everywhere, even on the menus of the city’s finest restaurants. On Christmas Day, 1907, the Tremont Hotel offered suckling pig with baked apples, filet de bouef pique aux champignons, roast canvasback duck, and Spanish mackerel au beurre Montpelier; on Christmas Day, 1934, the Hollywood Dinner Club featured chicken and spaghetti, sirloin steak, fried and broiled trout, and a variety of chop sueys. In the early twenties, around eighty steamship companies had offices in Galveston; one by one they moved to Houston. The Tremont Hotel closed in 1928; its downtown business was gone. Around 1930 mapmakers switched from putting Galveston in big print and Houston in small to the other way around. As the truth sank in that the past was hopelessly beyond recapture, Galveston followed the path of many a fallen derelict: it turned to gambling.

South of the Maceo-Dickinson Line

In the twenties and thirties Galveston wasn’t the only place in Texas where you could put down a bet. If you knew where to look, you could gamble in Victoria, Beaumont, Port Arthur, Corpus Christi, and Fort Worth, among other cities. But Galveston was different in two ways. In Galveston gambling lasted well into the fifties And you didn’t have to know where to look: it was everywhere, it was open, and it was celebrated.

Galveston’s gambling impresarios, brothers Sam and Rosario Maceo, were born in Palermo, Sicily, late in the nineteenth century and arrived on the Island in the teens, just before Galveston ceased to be an immigration port. By the early twenties they had switched from barbering to bootlegging, and in 1926 they opened the Hollywood Dinner Club, their first casino. In the late forties, when reform-minded war veterans were cleaning up vice in other parts of the state, the Maceos remained sacrosanct. Their domain eventually covered the whole county — the Chili Bowl in Kemah, the Silver Moon in Dickinson, and the Streamline Dinner Club in Algoa. To cross from Harris into Galveston County was to go south of the Maceo-Dickinson line, as Houstonians called it. On the Island, the Maceos had slot machines in three hundred establishments as late as 1950 — restaurants, barbershops, corner groceries, everywhere.

Gambling even reached into the schools. When I was in junior high in the mid-fifties, Tuesdays in the fall were eagerly awaited because kids whose fathers worked for the Maceos would bring football betting cards to distribute to their classmates. The yellow sheets listed the point spreads for the weekend’s college games. The young runners guarded the cards as if they were dirty pictures; just to acquire one cost 50 cents. If you wanted to bet on the games, that was another dollar, and if you bet on the minimum three games (your best chance of winning), they tried to goad you into betting on more, thus lowering your odds. It sounds pretty sleazy, I admit, but at least I learned at an early age what many men don’t discover until they are 35 or 40: I am not very good at betting on football.

The Maceos operated out of the Turf Grill downtown, a dark, cheerless restaurant where businessmen dropped in to bet on afternoon baseball games and horse races in a separate room. (A full casino was upstairs.) Scores came in over a Western Union ticker and were posted every half-inning on a blackboard that, from my memory of a stolen peek, covered an entire wall. Or you could call for scores, if you had the number, which I at age thirteen counted among my most important pieces of knowledge.

The showcases of the Maceo empire, though, were two plush casinos. The Hollywood, which resembled a long, low hacienda, sat just outside the city limits to the west, the view from the street sheltered by thick vegetation. The Balinese Room occupied a narrow covered pier extending two hundred yards into the Gulf across from the Galvez Hotel. The casino itself was at the very end of the pier, just in case someone decided to raid the place; the halls permitted only single-file traffic and the doors were numerous, so that by the time officers reached their goal, they would find only harmless pool tables and a group of unlikely looking players.

It was the Balinese Room that inspired the best known of the Galveston gambling stories, featuring the county’s sheriff, Frank Biaggne (pronounced in four syllables), whose long career, from 1933 to 1957, closely paralleled the gambling era. Asked on occasion why he never raided the Balinese Room, Biaggne is said to have replied that as it was a private club and he was not a member, he couldn’t get in. Nevertheless, when high-rolling Houston oilmen like Silver Dollar Jim West came down to gamble, they were honored with a police escort.

Galvestonians say that the Maceos were the forerunners of Las Vegas, the first people to combine gambling with national-class entertainment. I report this as legend rather than truth, but if it is accurate, it figures. Successful things had a way of starting out on the Island and ending up elsewhere — from Gail Borden, Galveston’s first customs collector in 1837, who left town before developing his method of condensing milk, on through the Sakowitz brothers, who moved their store to Houston after the 1915 storm, to the International Pageant of Pulchritude, which after abandoning Galveston evolved into the Miss Universe contest. It is fact, however, that the Maceos imported the biggest names around — Phil Harris, Guy Lombardo, Paul Whiteman, Jack Teagarten, Duke Ellington. After Galveston shut down for good in 1957, many of the croupiers and bosses ended up in Las Vegas, and well into the seventies old Galvestonians got royal treatment at the Dunes, the Stardust, the Sands, and other casinos that had people from the Maceo days.

Sam Maceo died in 1951, Rose in 1954. Their empire survived Rose by only three years, until Will Wilson, a Texas attorney general with ambitions to run for governor, sent in the Texas Rangers and closed down both the gambling and the open prostitution. It was sensational news at the time, but in fact the golden age of gambling had already run its course. The Hollywood, preferred by Galvestonians because the Balinese Room was preferred by Houstonians, closed in the late thirties when the Maceos got crosswise with federal Treasury officials. Not so many big entertainers came to Galveston in the later years. In any event, once legal gambling and first-class hotels took off in Las Vegas, Galveston’s illegal gambling and aging hotels could not have competed.

In retrospect, the surprise is not that gambling came to such an abrupt end but that it lasted so long. It could not have happened anywhere but Galveston. The Maceos thrived because they meshed perfectly with the city’s history and self-concept. Gambling played to two old Galveston themes: it enabled the city to remain an important place beyond its time, and it provided a means to get those $5 bills out of Houston pockets. No doubt there were political payoffs that reached all the way to Austin, but the main reason the law looked the other way was that the community itself raised almost no opposition. Once, at a large political rally on the Island, an anti-vice candidate made a speech attacking what he called the gambling hoodlums. His opponent then began his own speech with “My fellow hoodlums” and won in a landslide. Even the law liked the Maceos. If someone involved with the organization committed a crime — a real crime, that is, not gambling — the local DA’s office didn’t need a warrant, just a telephone. The Maceos delivered. They also looked out for Galveston people and wouldn’t let them lose too much at the tables. And it is said that when a Maceo nephew was stationed in San Antonio during World War II, no Galveston boy ever pulled KP. When the Maceo era finally came to an end, Galveston hit bottom.

Twenty-Two Years and Only a Tie

Galveston tried all sorts of things to get out of the doldrums, from a football bowl game to a new industrial park. All the schemes had one thing in common. They failed, quickly and utterly. Galveston was a place where nothing ever worked.

Not far from my house were mysterious abandoned railroad tracks that ran down Forty-third Street though mostly residential neighborhoods — relics of the worst fiasco of the nineteenth century. (It is characteristic of Galveston that the detritus of failure has been preserved almost as well as the reminders of success.) The tracks were all that remained of the Galveston & Western Railway, whose promoters had great plans. Their idea was to bypass Houston by hugging the coast and eventually to reach Mexico City. They didn’t quite make it: at its peak the G&W extended only thirteen miles and never got off the Island.

The first misadventure I remember personally was the Shrimp Bowl, which was conceived as a solution to the paucity of off-season tourist business. The football game began life in 1948 as the Oleander Bowl, pairing two junior college teams, and soon mutated into a match of anonymous armed service squads. (Imagine trying to promote McClellan Air Force Base versus the Quantico Marines.) Euthanasia was decided on after the 1959 score: 90-0.

Pelican Island, separated from the city docks by a narrow channel, was a more serious flop. It was touted as the magic elixir, the remedy for all of Galveston’s problems. Before World War I, Pelican had been Galveston’s Ellis Island, site of the quarantine station where tens of thousands of immigrants arrived. Inaccessible except by boat, Pelican had been substantially enlarged by decades of use as a dumping ground for dredged spoil. Pelican’s vast mud flasts, broken only by occasional patches of salt grass, were, in the words of one promotion, “the largest tract of undeveloped land at an important deepwater port in the nation.”

Galveston boosters attributed their city’s long-standing inability to attract industry to the high cost and low availability of protected land behind the seawall. Pelican was cheap land; the city already owned it. And so in 1956 Galveston built a $6 million bridge to Pelican, including a railroad line. It is 27 years old now since the bridge opened, and not one train has ever crossed it. There is a trace of development — the Texas A&M maritime academy, a local radio station, some modest facilities for companies servicing offshore wells — but no industry. The sprawling interior of the island looks no different today than it did before the bridge.

But we were used to such things. Year after year passed on the Island without visible change. New construction was a rare sight in the fifties and sixties; a coat of paint was big news. Galveston withdrew into itself. Even the mainland, two miles away, was considered an alien environment. My friends and I, having attained the legal age for driving, were not admonished by our parents to drive carefully or to come home on time but rather to stay on the Island.

The symbol of this cycle of defeat and insular self-preoccupation was the local high school football team. Ball High didn’t just lose; like its town, it was pathetically noncompetitive. In the twenties and thirties Ball High played Port Arthur seventeen games before scoring a point. A survivor of one Port Arthur game told me about the time Ball High’s beleaguered coach gave a fiery pep talk that he ended with “Now go out there and try to keep it under a hundred.” But there was one school Ball High always beat: Kirwin, a much smaller Catholic school also located on the Island. In true Galveston fashion, that became the only game of the season that mattered. Late in the game the stands echoed with a mocking refrain, sung to the Notre Dame “Victory March,” that celebrated the closest thing Galveston had to a winning tradition: “Tears, tears, for old Kirwin High/Twenty-two years and only a tie.”

Galveston’s setbacks were incessant. Lured to the West Coast by special freight rates, the cotton trade left the city that in 1912 had shipped more bales than any other port in the history of the world. On Broadway, the elongated warehouses where passersby once saw bales piled up to the ceiling now stood dark and empty. Galveston had been the top sulfur port in the world in the forties, but sulfur left for Beaumont. The port tried to compensate with grain, but no sooner had officials worked out a deal for a new grain elevator than Hurricane Carla in 1961 caused the project’s backers to cancel. The Army shut down Fort Crockett. The Santa Fe Railroad pulled out its major subsidiary. Galveston’s TV station, KGUL, moved to Houston and became KHOU. Eventually the soft drink bottling plant, the phone company headquarters, and the regional weather service followed. Falstaff closed the brewery it had taken over from Southern Select, Galveston’s own brand. Fortunes left, too. One of the city’s leading merchants staked his son to a store of his own — he bought Foley’s in Houston. Finally, about all that was left were the hotels, the medical school, a couple of insurance companies, the wharves, and the banks. And it was not coincidence that all of them owed their existence to the three families who have dominated Galveston for a hundred years.

Three Good Funerals

Texas has not been fertile soil for dynasties. The few families who survived the change from agriculture to oil were mostly rural — the Kings and Kleburgs, the Temples, the Waggoners. In Houston the most prominent names of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — Rice and House, Kirby and Jones — had no successors. But on the Island the three most powerful families of the nineteenth century extended their lines far into the twentieth. Two are into the fourth generation today and still going strong. The names are Sealy, Kempner, and Moody, and in time they came to rule not only Galveston’s business and politics but also its attitudes and its view of itself.

The Sealys were patricians. They built Open Gates, one of the greatest of the nineteenth-century mansions, a temple to aristocracy, with first-floor windows topped by soaring arches and castle towers that opened onto second-floor balconies. The attic, underneath a steep red-tile roof almost as high as the main portion of the house, contained a children’s theater. In this house the last of the Galveston Sealys concentrated on his real love, developing new strains of oleanders, while the port that was his business responsibility slipped further and further into decline.

The Kempners were much less ostentatious, as one might expect of the leading Jewish family in an immigration center. The world that comes to mind is “proper,” always proper. Their homes were substantial but not spectacular. The Kempners were to Galveston a model for emulation.

The Moodys had more money but less grace. Like the Sealys, they lived in a mansion, but not of their own making; they bought it for a distress-sale price — 10 cents on the dollar, it is said — after the 1900 storm. The Moodys were give-no-quarter nineteenth-century capitalists long after the nineteenth century ended, as frugal and ruthless as Andrew Carnegie but without (at least until the last twenty years) any of the steel magnate’s philanthropic impulses.

Each of the families ruled through four generations, though in the case of the Sealys the genealogy was not lineal. John Sealy became president of the port shortly after the Civil War, followed by his brother, followed by his own son, followed by his brother’s son; not until 1945 did someone other than a Sealy run the port of Galveston. By that time either death or desertion had removed all Sealys from the Island.

W.L. Moody earned his rank and his later nickname, “the Colonel,” in the Confederate Army. Born in Virginia in 1828, Moody came to Galveston as a cotton broker during Reconstruction and lived to be 92. But it was his son, W.L. Moody, Jr., known as Old Man Moody or sometimes just as the Old Man, who put the family on the map. When he died, at 89, Time magazine cited him as one of the ten wealthiest people in the United States. The Moody legacy avoided Billy, as W.L. III was known, whose financial ups and downs were too much for the Old Man; it passed instead to the younger son, Shearn, the meanest and toughest Moody of them all. (Hotel baron Conrad Hilton, after some unhappy dealings with the Moodys in the thirties, described Shearn in his autobiography as the kind of person who liked the Depression.) But Shearn died of pneumonia in 1936 at age 40, and when the Old Man gave up the ghost in 1954, the empire fell into professional hands. There it remained for a quarter of a century while Shearn’s sons, Robert and Shearn Junior, maneuvered to see who would be the premier Moody; Robert won.

The Kempner mantle has passed without interruption, mainly because of the longevity of I.H. Kempner, the scion of the second generation. Mr. I.H., as he was known, took over upon the death of his father, Harris Kempner, in 1894 and lived until 1967. Harris Junior and Harris III have followed.

The Sealys were the principal owners of the port, the Moodys either built or bought every major hotel, and the Kempners controlled city hall. But that was only the beginning. Each family had at least one bank — until 1963, the only banks in town. Among them they dominated cotton warehousing in the days when Galveston was the leading cotton port in the world. The UT Medical Branch fell into the Sealys’ sphere of influence, for their largesse alone thwarted Houston’s ongoing attempts to pilfer the school from the Island. The Moodys owned the newspapers and the largest private employer in town, American National Insurance Company (ANICO), which grew into the biggest insurer in Texas. The Kempners were civic leaders whose orbit encompassed charity drives and bond campaigns as well as city government.

Thousands and thousands of Galvestonians lived their entire lives under that regime. It was in place by the 1880’s, didn’t even begin to change until after World War II, and has life in it yet. The staying power and the vast influence of the three families have contrasted sadly with Galveston’s own history — its inability to hold on to its glory and its assets over time. As in prerevolutionary France, the middle class assigned blame for the decline of their civilization to the upper: “What Galveston needs,” the saying went, “is three good funerals.”

The adage was a reference not only to the closed-shop nature of the Galveston establishment but also to the bitter infighting among the rival dynasties, especially the Moodys and the Kempners. The trouble dated back to the Kempners’ participation in the founding of ANICO in 1903 and their conviction that the Moodys snookered them into selling out five years later. Subsequently they quarreled, with paralyzing consequences for the rest of the city, over what Galvestonians have quarreled over ever since: what is wrong with Galveston. The Kempners were always coming up with cures for Galveston’s malaise — building the Pelican Island bridge, filling mud flats, extending the seawall — while the Moodys recognized no malaise and liked Galveston just the way it was. (When the Colonel was approached about moving the city to the mainland after the 1900 storm because so many people were leaving the Island, he said, “Let them all leave if they wish. Fewer people around will give us better hunting and fishing.”) In the twenties and thirties the Moodys, led by Shearn, mounted challenge after challenge to the Kempner hold on city hall, where Mr. I.H. had been in charge of city finances in 1899, another Kempner would be in charge in 1958, and Kempners were in charge for most of the years in between. Invariably the Moodys lost. In return they frequently opposed bond issues and declined to aid Kempner-led charity drives, which consequently fell far short of their goals. To the Kempners the Moodys were Snopeses who exhibited, as Mr. I.H. put it in a not-so-veiled reference in his autobiography, “the smugness of the self-conceit of those whose wealth so far exceeds their civic pride.”

The hostilities between the Moodys and the Kempners were so intense and lasted so long — until Old Man Moody died in 1954 — that old Galvestonians still regard the feud as a principal reason for the Island’s stagnation. But the problem was much larger; the feud was symptom as well as cause. Looking not just at the Island but at Galveston compared with the rest of Texas, it is clear that the real problem was not just the differences among the families but what they had in common. They shared the fatal preference for safety over risk that is the inherent weakness of dynasties after the first generation. This propensity for caution — the antithesis of the freewheeling, expansive philosophy of the rest of Texas — was augmented by the ever-present awareness of the sea and the knowledge that in Galveston investment was particularly precarious. As a result the families came to prefer monopoly over competition, lending over borrowing, cotton over oil, and philanthropy over investment — all with tragic consequences for Galveston.

Years passed, decades passed, and still there were no new players on the Island. This led to another of Galveston’s endless supply of aphorisms — old money kept new money out of town. The supporting evidence all centers around the Moodys: the Colonel’s going to New York to dissuade his son from entering a partnership with Houstonian William Marsh Rice, the Old Man’s talking the Maceos out of building a modern luxury hotel on the beachfront, W.L. III’s getting disinherited because, among other misfeasances, he built the Jack Tar — which, unlike the Old Man’s hotels, was air-conditioned. For the most part, though, the families didn’t resort to overt discouragement of outsiders. They didn’t have to. Their example was deterrence enough; the pattern of their investments displayed little faith in their city.

The Sealys put so little money into the wharves over the years that in 1940 the city finally decided to buy them out. The Moodys ran their hotels the way the Sealys ran the wharves. The Old Man kept such a close watch on spending that he once told the maids at the Buccaneer Hotel they were too generous in handing out toilet paper. The Moodys did start some businesses, but only to keep money in the family by servicing the larger Moody firms with smaller Moody firms, not to develop new empires. The Kempners underwrote the Galvez Hotel, but for the most part they invested their money inland, in agricultural land, in banks as far away as Wichita Falls, and in their Imperial Sugar plant in Sugarland.

The family banks adopted the same conservative policies. Their loan-to-deposit ratios traditionally were among the lowest in the state — and in some cases still are. Successful merchants couldn’t get loans to expand their businesses. ANICO was notorious for not lending money in Galveston (a $425,000 advance to the Maceos was a notable exception), and it remains so. It turned down a chance to underwrite a Hilton hotel franchise just last year.

The families stuck to ventures that didn’t put their capital at risk — banking, insurance, and middleman operations like brokering and warehousing cotton. When they did put money into the town, it was in the form of philanthropy. The Sealys gave a hospital, the Kempners gave a park, the Moodys set up their foundation. Industry, the economic base Galveston needed most of all, was not for them. Nor was speculation, which is one reason they stayed away from oil, the most speculative business of all. Another reason: the people in oil were the wrong kind of people, high rollers but lowbrows. Cotton was the profession of gentlemen. Old Man Moody, who looked so much the part of the nineteenth-century tycoon that he might have been the model for the little man on the Monopoly game cards, once turned down an early oil deal because one of the offering partners bragged about spending $10,000 on a single painting. Good-bye, Texaco. John Sealy, Jr., organized an oil company but quickly got out, although it retained his aunt’s name. Good-bye, Magnolia. The Kempners dabbled in oil in 1903, lost money, and didn’t try again for twenty years. By that time it was far too late; Houston was on its way to becoming an oil center, and Galveston remained just Galveston.

Born on the Island

Galveston in pursuit of progress has been reminiscent of a car trying to pass a truck on a winding two-lane road: just when a straightaway finally appears, along comes a string of opposing traffic. This past summer alone Galveston had to contend with a recession, a hurricane, and a major downtown fire. Change has not come rapidly to Galveston, but at least it is coming.

The crumbling, empty monoliths along the Strand of my childhood have been restored and occupied by shops, restaurants, offices, and even a few apartments. At one end of the Strand the imposing white railway station, eleven stories tall including a tower, which I remember as the terminus of the Texas Chief, is empty no more; the long-vacant Santa Fe offices have been filled by a junior college. At the other end, the UT Medical Branch, which as late as the forties was on the verge of moving to Houston, has exploded into an 85-acre complex with seven hospitals and $113 million in recent construction. In the historical district between downtown and the medical school, more and more of the old homes bear fresh coats of paint to protect their gingerbread woodwork against the corrosive salt air. On East Beach, a new high rise is taking shape on the ocean side of the seawall where, undaunted by Alicia, Houstonians like James Elkins, the chairman of First City Bancorporation, and Kenneth Schnitzer, the developer of Greenway Plaza, have purchased condominiums at prices well up into six figures — a far cry from the dirty-shirt and $5-bill days.

On the west end of the seawall, a company owned by Houston oilman George Mitchell, who developed the Woodlands, north of Houston, is building a fifteen-story hotel and condominium atop an old gun embankment at Fort Crockett. Next door is an almost completed Holiday Inn that is nearly as large. For an old Galvestonian, though, perhaps the greatest sign of change is the very existence of Hornbeck Offshore Services, in an unprepossessing building a few blocks down Broadway from the Moody family home. Two years ago Larry Hornbeck quit his job as president of the Moodys’ offshore servicing company and did three things that would not have been possible in the old days: get a loan from a Galveston bank to go into business, take on the Moodys, and succeed.

But it is one thing to say that Galveston is changing and quite another to say that it is different. Galveston is still a place preoccupied with its past. No event, no matter how trivial, is without context, and no case, no matter how old, is ever closed. Last summer a local octogenarian replaced a pink oleander bush in front of his house with a red one, and it was town talk for weeks: the bush was part of a two-block stretch pink oleanders planted decades ago by a long-dead member of the Kempner family, so the shrubicide was regarded as a defiant political act. Gambling has been gone from the Island for 26 years, but enough people yearn for the old days that they successfully petitioned the city council to put a legalized gambling referendum on a ballot coming up in January. Earlier this year a developer caused a sensation by erecting a billboard near the beach with the message “Hotel and Casino Sites Available.” It has been thirty years since Ball High and Kirwin played a football game, but hardly a morning passes at Gaido’s coffee shop that the town sages who gather there for breakfast don’t debate which school’s college board scores or teachers or 1949 football team should be judged superior. There is progress, though: occasionally someone will refer to Kirwin as O’Connell, as the Catholic school has been known for fifteen years now.

Galveston is still a provincial place, hard for outsiders to crack. There is even an acronym to set natives apart — BOI, short for Born on the Island. The Galveston Daily News has been known to use BOI without further definition. Local jewelers offer BOI charms, drops, and lapel pins in silver or gold.

George Mitchell understands. He is often cited as the personification of the “new” Galveston — a Houstonian who has invested more money in Galveston in a few short years than the old families did in a generation. Mitchell personally owns ten old buildings on or near the Strand, including an 1871 structure housing his Wentletrap restaurant, the only place in town where you can get a sauce more sophisticated than tartar. Behind the restaurant, in the building from which Leon Blum once managed his million-acre empire, Mitchell is putting in a new Tremont Hotel, where the 125 rooms will have ceiling fans, brass beds, and a black-and-white décor that is at once modern and nostalgic. Mitchell has more than $20 million of his own money in Galveston, but he also has a string of complicated financial concessions from city officials — tax freezes, federal grant assistance, and access to capital at rates far below prime. One reasons Mitchell has had unprecedented success for an outsider is that he is no outsider. He is BOI, and although he hasn’t lived there since 1940, he retains the privileges of his nativity. What’s more, he plays the part. On most weekends he joins the Gaido’s breakfast group of old and apprentice codgers. I saw him one Sunday morning at the Wentletrap, greeting by first name old Galvestonians dropping in for brunch. So much for the “new” Galveston.

Galveston is still a place where Houstonians without pedigree fare less well. When the Galveston Wharves began showing signs of life in the late seventies, Houston port officials proposed a merger. Well, you can imagine how far that got. The resentment over the dirty-shirt and $5-bill crowd grew so strong that in 1980 the city eliminated free parking on the beach and substituted a limited number of paid parking spaces, many of them near remote beaches; the unmistakable message was that Galveston no longer cared if the one-day tourist came at all.

Galveston is still a place where the family dynasties wield immense influence. The families don’t feud anymore, and only the Moody bank remains family-held, but the old order is sustained through family foundations that continue to shape Galveston’s destiny. Sealy money is restricted to the medical school, but the Moody and Kempner foundations, under no such limitation, funded the renaissance of historic Galveston. They provided capital to save old buildings on the Strand, underwrote costly restorations like that of a $4 million sailing ship, and even paid the salaries of professional preservationists. But that was before Robert Moody’s recent coup won him effective control of the bank, ANICO, and the Moody foundation. Moody, whose oldest son was severely injured in a 1980 automobile accident, is more interested in physical rehabilitation than in history, and that’s where more and more of the foundation’s money is going. Can the historic preservation movement survive the loss of Moody money? It may not have to: a fierce struggle has developed within the Moody empire over whether Mary Moody Northen, the 91-year-old daughter of the Old Man, will leave her Croesian estate to the Moody foundation or set up an independent foundation of her own.

Galveston is still a place where the biggest battles are over image rather than power — another legacy of the families. Even if the Moodys and the Kempners no longer fight over what kind of place Galveston ought to be, everybody else does. Nothing has aroused passions as much as the upcoming gambling referendum, even though it is only a nonbinding popularity contest. Another old debate — port versus playground — has resurfaced twice in recent years, once over a port scheme to eject the shrimp fleet, a minor tourist attraction, and once over a proposal for an oil superport on Pelican Island. The playground won the first battle, the port the second, and in both cases the town divided roughly along old-timer-newcomer lines, with the newcomers — the medical school crowd, historical buffs, and broken people who come to Galveston to heal — taking up the old Moody position that Galveston is just fine the way it is.

Maybe it is, at that. Sure, Galveston is still a place with serious problems. It is poor (it has a higher percentage of residents in subsidized housing than any other city in the country) and old (the median age is almost four years higher than the state average, and nearly a third of the population is over 55). The middle class has left the Island for the mainland, where houses are cheaper and taxes lower. The demographics are so dismal that Steak and Ale, a somewhat upscale restaurant chain, recently decided not to locate there. But through all the setbacks — in part because of all the setbacks, because the boom passed it by — Galveston remains a city of culture, character, and grace. Its public library has one of the highest ratios of books to population of any city in Texas. (Midland, a bigger city, with the third-highest per capita income in the nation, has less than half the books.) Galvestonians live the way people used to live. They read, they go visiting just to sit in parlors and talk, they eat in dining rooms rather than at kitchen tables. Galveston stands for values that are largely missing from the rest of Texas — values that make it a worthy rival to Houston even today. Galveston may not have a boom, but it still has its past.


There is nothing like a storm in the Gulf to affirm just how different Galveston is and how much gravitational force it exerts on the mind of people who have lived there. On the day Alicia grew from a tropical storm to a hurricane, I left the city where I live to go to the city I will always be from. It had been 22 years since Carla, Galveston’s last storm, but my first glimpse of the ocean awakened all the old instincts. When a storm is in the Gulf, a Galvestonian needs no weather report to convey the news. He knows it intuitively: the entire ocean seems to be lifted up; the horizon is wrong. There is too much water and too little sky.

The rituals, too, were familiar. Taping windows, closing storm blinds, plotting the latest latitude and longitude, buying candles and batteries and canned goods, driving out to inspect the ocean every hour or two, standing on top of the seawall to lean into the wind and feel the salt spray, and, most of all, talking of the past, of Carla and the 1900 storm and 1915 and 1943, when the storm hit from the bay side, and which one Alicia would be like, and how much the weather bureau was calling Alicia a small hurricane but it was moving real slow, just like Carla, and wasn’t it too much speed that killed Hurricane Allen back in 1980, and whether to stay on the Island or leave.

There was something totally reassuring about it all — not a mitigation of the immediate danger but rather a feeling that the essence of Galveston will always be the same. Hurricanes have done terrible things to the Island, but then they have also given something in return: no matter how many condominiums line the beachfront, no matter how far Houston creeps down the Gulf Freeway, Galveston will never be a subordinate culture. Houston has taken Galveston’s port, its people, its appellate court, its businesses, its railroads, its destiny, but it will never take Galveston’s hurricanes or its soul. Oh, Houston tried to claim Alicia, and the national media made it sound like Houston’s storm, but if you aren’t surrounded on at least three sides by salt water, you haven’t really been through a hurricane.

Galveston is proof of a basic law of biology: Island species evolve in a manner so specialized that they find it difficult to do more than subsist. When outside species are introduced, like swine in Hawaii or Houstonians in Galveston, the indigenous species cannot compete. That is why the tankers laden with oil sail past the Island up the Ship Channel, while Galveston looks beyond them to the sea, so wickedly peaceful, and the sky that will bring the next storm.

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