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You may know that Galveston is home to Texas’ first customs house, post office, medical school and so much more. Texas and the western United States would not have developed as it did without the Port of Galveston. This free museum, located in the Galveston County Courthouse, offers artifacts on the area’s indigenous people while exploring immigration, and the area’s military bases. You’ll see the history from small neighborhood corner stores to the “Free State of Galveston” when illegal gambling thrived on the island. 

The most impactful exhibit focuses on the 1900 Storm where you’ll see actual footage shot after the hurricane and the coroner’s book with personal items from some of the people lost in the storm. These items include rings, watches, and a set of leather false teeth. The goal was for loved-ones to read the descriptions in the book, recognize the personal item, and make a positive identification.    

“This coroner’s book is the only one of its kind known to historians. It records the deaths on Bolivar Peninsula,” said Museum Director Jodi Wright-Gidley. “Out of about 84 people described in the book, only four people were actually identified.” 

“One man was found wearing the uniform of a Spanish-American War soldier,” added Wright-Gidley. “A ring was sewn into the seam of his jacket. We may never know the full story of these victims, but this coroner’s record is fascinating.”

The 1900 Storm remains the deadliest natural disaster in American history. The storm destroyed two-thirds of the city, leaving a two-story-high debris pile in the middle of the island, and killed an estimated 10,000 people. Soon after, ambitious improvements were made, including a grand seawall, the raising of 500 city blocks, and a reliable concrete bridge linking the island to the mainland. Galveston recovered but faced new competition from the growing city of Houston.

In the early 1900s, the large influx of immigrants into New York was becoming a burden for the northeast U.S. The federal government looked to establish other ports where land, agriculture, and other growing industries needed workers. Several guidebooks were published enticing emigrants to Texas, where farmland was abundant. Galveston became the “Ellis Island of the Southwest,” as nearly 50,000 immigrants arrived from 1906 to 1914. 

“Galveston was a very diverse and worldly city at that time,” said Wright-Gidley. “It would have been normal to hear many other languages spoken on the streets of Galveston, especially German. The Strand was a lively placed filled with immigrants, imported goods from all over the world, busy streets, and loud train and ship horns.” 

The museum’s immigration exhibit includes stories of Czech families arriving to become farmers in Central Texas, a Russian man who altered his heavy coat to adapt to the summer heat, and other artifacts from that period.

Eventually, as more railroads connected the northeastern United States with the West, and it was faster and cheaper to transport to northeastern ports, Galveston’s immigration numbers gradually reduced until they stopped with the onset of World War I.

Gradually, the city embraced its identity as a tourist and gambling hub, nicknamed the Free State of Galveston. Gambling clubs flourished in Galveston, and throughout the county. One of the most well-known clubs was the Balinese Room. Museum exhibits include poker chips, playing cards, furniture, and photographs from the famous club. In 1957, the Texas Rangers raided the city and shut down gambling. Galveston, again, had to re-invent itself. Today Galveston is known for shipping, cruise ship terminals, tourism, health care, financial institutions, and its historic preservation efforts.

The Galveston County Museum was established in the mid-1970s. It was located on Market Street in Galveston, until Hurricane Ike damaged the building in 2008. Artifacts were safe during the hurricane, but the building was damaged, and the museum was moved to its current location inside the old county courthouse. It took many years to relocate the museum’s collection of over 25,000 artifacts and rebuild exhibits.

The museum, at 722 Moody/21st Street, is free on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 10 to 4. You can book a group tour or schedule a time for the Padlock Mystery game on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Learn more at or call 409-766-2340.