THROUGH AUGUST 3, THE STRAND THEATRE in downtown Galveston is celebrating the Island's golden years (1910-1940) via Galveston! The Musical, a production conceived by Robert Wilkins. In case you were wondering, Wilkins is BOI, Born on the Island--a term used by native Galvestonians. For those of you who are not BOI, you might not realize that a historical gem lies at the southern end of Interstate 45. Maybe you know Galveston by the seashells you gathered there as a child, the knickknacks you bought on the Strand, or the beads you caught during Mardi Gras. The once-thriving port city is indeed a tourist town today, where many visitors, eager to shop or get to the beach, are oblivious to Galveston's rich history.
The Karankawa Indians—one of the most ferocious coastal tribes—inhabited the Island long before Louis Michel Aury established the Island's first European settlement on September 13, 1816. Founded as a launching point for attacks on Spanish ships and areas loyal to Spain, the Mexican government used the natural port to its advantage. But the Mexican government wasn't the only group to use the Island; when Aury returned to Mexico in 1817, pirate Jean Laffite used that window of opportunity and created a fort, Campeachy (Campeche), to house his pirates and booty until 1821.
After Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, Canadian Michel B. Menard bought a seven-square-mile plot of land for $50,000 and established the City of Galveston. Menard and nine other investors, including Gail Borden, Jr., the inventor of condensed milk, came together to form the Galveston City Company and promote the city's development. In 1870, there were 13,818 residents; by 1880, there were 22,248 people, making Galveston the largest city in Texas. The Strand became known as the Wall Street of the Southwest, a bustling commercial center filled with cotton agents, insurance companies, wholesalers, and merchants.
When the devastating hurricane (called the Storm of 1900) hit the prospering Island on September 8, 1900, more than six thousand people died. The entire island was covered by a storm surge of more than fifteen feet of water, and about two thirds of the buildings in the city were completely destroyed. In an effort to rebuild and protect the city, lawmakers proposed building a seawall and raising five hundred city blocks. Although the projects took years to complete, they got the city rumbling and roaring once again.
During the twenties, nightclubs, craps tables, slot machines, hotels, and restaurants brought in visitors looking to live it up on the Island. In the forties and early fifties the Balinese Room, owned by Rose and Sam Maceo, was the place. Folks could place bets, shoot craps, and catch a live show by performers like Frank Sinatra, the Marx Brothers, and Bob Hope. Those days came to an end in 1957, when Attorney General Will Wilson and the Texas Rangers shut down illegal gambling establishments and houses of prostitution. Galveston still brings in tourists; only nowadays, they are families hoping for a day of sunshine and a pleasant walk through Moody Gardens or students sunbathing on the hot sand.
The glory days may be long gone, but many jewels from Galveston's past remain. The stately Moody Mansion and the Bishop's Palace, lovely Victorian houses, and the brilliantly white Sacred Heart Catholic Church are a few remnants that catch the eye, evoke a time of stateliness, and stir up the imagination of the ambling visitor interested in more than a tan.