For the tourist, Galveston’s scenic 32-mile coast off the Gulf of Mexico promises a relaxing getaway. But back in its heyday, Galveston was a thriving metropolis with a bustling harbor that controlled Texas’s commerce and ensured Galveston’s destiny as “The Queen City of the Gulf.” That destiny changed dramatically in 1900, the year a violent hurricane leveled the city, wiping out about one third of Galveston’s population and any chances it had of remaining the commercial center of Texas.
Galveston’s rise to prominence followed soon after it was officially “founded” by Michel Menard and a group of investors in 1836. (In 1785 Galveston Bay had been named in honor of Bernardo de Gálvez of Mexico.) The city was made a port of entry by the Congress of the Republic of Texas in 1837, and almost immediately, commercial buildings and other signs of metropolitan life sprang up. Galveston had the first of many things in Texas, including the first telephone, post office, naval base, cotton compress, insurance company, opera house, electric lights, and medical college.
Geography played a vital role in the city’s success; it was the only city in Texas to have a deep-water port, so it controlled imports and exports. The harbor was a point of transfer for oceangoing vessels and coastal steamers. In fact, before the Civil War, about 90 percent of the cotton from southeast Texas went through Galveston to New York, New Orleans, and Great Britain. By the 1850’s, Galveston was the established trading center of the state, and the city’s downtown Strand District was crowded with merchants of mixed