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 backgrounds, from African to Italian, earning it the title “Wall Street of the South.”
The first major setback for Galveston came during the Civil War when federal troops occupied the town and Union ships were placed as blockades to the port, stalling business. The historic Battle of Galveston, on New Year’s Day 1863, ended this occupation and, after the Civil War, brought business back to normal. By 1880, Galveston boasted a population of 22,248 and was ranked the largest city in Texas. Based on the per-capita income of its citizens at the turn of the century, Galveston was ranked as the second richest urban area in the nation. Although the city was a force to be reckoned with as a commercial center, some investors still had their reservations about the city’s proximity to the Gulf.
Despite the fears of the skeptics, Galveston was at the peak of its prominence in the 1880’s. Not only did it have the finest harbor in Texas, but it also had the possession of the state’s leading trading houses and banks. But by the late 1890’s, Galveston’s sovereignty was being threatened by Houston. Investors opted for Houston when building manufacturing plants, and in 1899, when both cities were comparable in size, for every 100 plants that Galveston had, Houston had 45 more. Being right on the coast did have its drawbacks.
The end of Galveston’s reign came suddenly in September 1900, when the Great Hurricane struck the city with wind gusts of more than 120 miles per hour. Approximately six thousand people were killed, and parts of the city were submerged. Still, the hurricane was not the only reason for the city’s demise—the railroad played a role too, as did the shift in economic importance from agriculture to industrialization. And, of course, there was the Houston ship channel.
While Galveston struggled to rebuild, Houston quickly stepped in. The oil boom that brought industrialization to Texas favored Houston; pipelines led to Houston, Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange. Galveston was left out. Houston’s deep-water port put it in direct competition with Galveston, and soon enough, it became the major port of Texas, surpassing Galveston in annual tonnage. The city that had once been the center of Texas’s commerce was abandoned because of the very thing that had brought it its initial fame—geography.
Despite this, the city showed resiliency and constructed a seawall—noted as one of the great engineering feats of the twentieth century—that would prevent the recurrence of such a disaster. Its ability to withstand weather conditions equal to the Great Hurricane was tested in 1915. Today, the seawall runs about ten miles across the shores of Galveston.
Galveston reinvented itself, and nowadays the beach is dotted with luxury vacation homes and resorts. But behind those million-dollar mansions are some of the nineteenth-century buildings, reminders of a different time. That the two worlds coexist attests to Galveston’s strength and greatness.