The history of Galveston Island: hurricanes, yellow fever, smuggling, vice, the Civil War, the building of a medical school and port, raids by the Texas Rangers, and, always, the struggle to live in a precarious location.
On the Gulf edge of Texas between land and sea stands Galveston Island. Shaped continually by wind and water, it is one of earth's ongoing creations—time is forever new. Here, on the shoreline, embraced by the waves, a person can still feel the heartbeat of nature. And yet, for all the idyllic possibilities, Galveston's history has been anything but tranquil. Across Galveston's sands have walked Indians, pirates, revolutionaries, the richest men of nineteenth-century Texas, soldiers, sailors, bootleggers, gamblers, prostitutes, physicians, entertainers, engineers, and preservationists. Major events in the island's past include hurricanes, yellow fever, smuggling, vice, the Civil War, the building of a medical school and port, raids by the Texas Rangers, and, always, the struggle to live in a precarious location.
Galveston: A History is at the forefront of a trend in writing urban biographies emphasizing technology as the dynamic force in urban development. David McComb explores this often contradictory relationship between technology and the city, and provides a guide to both Galveston history and the dynamics of urban development.
- 1. The Edge of Time
- 2. The New York of Texas
- 3. The Oleander City
- 4. The Great Storm and the Technological Response
- 5. The Free State of Galveston
- 6. Galveston Island: Its Time Has Come ... Again
When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.
—John Muir, cited by John L. Tveten in Coastal Texas
Galveston! The name resonates in the chords of imagination. There are others in our language: Virginia City, Jackson Hole, Aspen, Las Vegas, Key West, Dodge City, St. Augustine, Taos, Santa Fe. These are places we have heard about; places that are lodged in vague memory; places we will visit when we have the time. Because of their link with the past they all possess a romantic magnet. We are drawn to them by curiosity. So it is with Galveston. It is a name of imagery which summons four centuries of adventure, hope, tragedy, sin, and death.
The Indian name for the island of Galveston was "Auia," but in the sixteenth century the first Spaniards called it "Malhado," the isle of doom.' Sailing under the French flag, Bénard de La Harpe entered Galveston Bay in 1721, and attempted to establish a fort and trading post. The hostility of the local Indians prevented the success of his mission, but he included a map of the bay area in his account of the expedition. This is the earliest known map of Galveston Bay and its configurations are clearly revealed, even though La Harpe left Galveston Island unnamed and called the bay "Port François." In 1785 José de Evia charted the Texas coast at the command of Count Bernardo de Gálvez, the viceroy of Mexico and the former Spanish governor of Louisiana. A tracing of his map at the Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas at Austin shows the island labeled "Isla de San Luis" with the eastern tip called "Pt. de Culebras" (Snake Point). The bay to the north is labeled "Bd. de Galvestown." A copy of the Evia map, printed in 1799, at the Rosenberg Library of Galveston, leaves Galveston Island unlabeled, notes Snake Point as "Pd. [sic] de Culebras," and calls the area "Bahia de Galveztowm" [sic].
Alexander von Humboldt in 1804 repeated the designations of "I. de S. Luis," and "Pte de Culebras" for the island, and called the bay "Bahia de Galveston." Stephen F. Austin also used this modern spelling of the name in his 1822 map of the coastline. He labeled the island "San Luis," noted the Bolivar Peninsula, which was named for the great South American liberator, and drew a series of small houses on the eastern end of the island as "Galveston." The David H. Burr map, "Texas," in 1833 changed the name of the island to "Galveston Island," and included Pelican Island. The Galveston City Company which established the city in 1838 used the name "Galveston" and thus firmly anchored the name in time.
The island is located on the northwest coast of the Gulf of Mexico, fifty miles southeast of Houston, Texas. It is 345 miles west of the Mississippi River and 280 miles from the Rio Grande, at 29°18'17" latitude and 94º46'30" longitude. It varies in width from one and one-half miles to three miles, and is twenty-seven miles long. Lying parallel to the coast two miles away, Galveston stands as a guardian protecting the land and the bay from the Gulf. The long straight edge facing the sea, which was cut by several short bayous in early days, offers a smooth, sandy beach, while the side facing the mainland is serrated into salt marshes and tidal flats except where altered by humans.
To a geologist Galveston is a sand barrier island. Such islands line and protect the Texas coast. Sand and silt carried by currents from as far away as the Mississippi River move parallel to the shore. As waves reach shallow water and form breakers, they lose their capacity to carry a load. They dump the sand, and eventually an island forms. Sea level changes and catastrophic events, like hurricanes, also play a role. Storms pick up shells and rocks from as deep as eighty feet and deposit them on land. They submerge mud flats with new layers and rearrange shore lines. The 1900 hurricane, for instance, pushed the beach back several hundred feet. The northeast tip of the island has moved westward, and there is evidence from the exposed clay deposits on the Gulf side that the island is moving closer to land.
Pelican Island, the small isle to the north of Galveston, was a narrow marsh with only a hundred feet of dry soil in 1816. Pelican Spit, now a part of Pelican island, was a tidal marsh and shoal as late as 1841. The spit and the island were silt catchers, and prime roosting grounds for seabirds. They gradually enlarged, joined, and emerged above the sea in the nineteenth century.
Galveston Island essentially consists of gray, brownish-gray, and pale yellow fine sand to a depth of many feet. While drilling for water in 1891, the workers took soil samples every 5 feet. To a depth of 1,500 feet the drill went through various layers of sand, clay, shell, sandstone, and shell conglomerates. From as deep as 900 feet the drill brought up fragments of wood. There was no underlying bedrock; it was truly an island of sand. The water table lies within 4 feet of the surface and is brackish. Salt permeates the soil, and to the surprise of the new householders of the Lindale subdivision of the 1950's, their underground water pipes corroded to dust and had to be replaced. Galvestonians, thus, have to import both water and topsoil.
The side of the island toward Galveston Bay consists of mud flats except where "improved" by human beings. Between Galveston and nearby Pelican Island is the Galveston channel, which was scooped out by a bay current. It formed a natural harbor for the sailing vessels and small steamers of the nineteenth century. It attracted early exploitation and was the major geographical feature which made the place desirable. An inner sandbar formed across the channel near its exit into the bay on the northeast end after 1843, and an outer bar, always there, obstructed the entrance from the Gulf into Galveston Bay. The outer bar stretched in horseshoe configuration with the arch pointed toward the sea for four miles between the eastern tip of Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula. Still, this was the best natural port between New Orleans and Vera Cruz. "Galveston will be the sea Port sir, for this province," wrote a Texas pioneer in 1822, "water plenty, good Harbour, also an ancorage are exceled by non..."
Extending to the north for thirty miles lies Galveston Bay. It is irregular in shape, about seventeen miles wide and generally seven to eight feet deep. It is the drainage basin for numerous small creeks and rivers. Dickinson Bayou, Clear Creek, and Buffalo Bayou are on the west; the San Jacinto River, Cedar Bayou, and the Trinity River are on the north. A large portion of the northeast quadrant is taken as the estuary of the Trinity River and forms Trinity Bay. South of that is East Bay, which Bolivar Peninsula separates from the sea. In the southwest quadrant is West Bay, which is formed by the two-mile expanse of water between Galveston Island and the mainland of Galveston County. Several small streams, including Halls Bayou and Highland Bayou, feed this portion. The gap between Galveston Island and Bolivar represents the main entryway into the bay, although there is an exit on the west end of Galveston island called San Luis Pass. There was once an attempt to set up a rival town at that point, but the water was too shallow. The pass serves mainly as a tidal funnel for West Bay.
The geological formation is relatively recent. The Gulf of Mexico appeared in the middle Mesozoic Era, about 180 million years ago. The sea advanced and retreated over the region at least nine times and left sedimentary deposits. The vast layers of sand and gravel put down at this time and later in the Cenozoic Era provided the basis for the artesian water and oil resources used in the twentieth century. Around Houston the deposits are twenty thousand feet thick. The youngest stratum is near the coast, and in the spoilage from the dredges at the Texas City dike are found the fossilized teeth and bones of ancient camels and horses. Throughout the area huge plugs of rock salt have punched through the sedimentary strata from salt beds far below. The bent edges of the rock layers caused folds and faults which trapped natural gas and petroleum. The domes also gave sulphur, salt, and gypsum." What happened over 100 million years ago provided an environment of natural resources—salt, oil, gas, sulphur, water, rivers, and harbors—which combined in the twentieth century with the technology and ambition of human beings to establish a petrochemical industry that dominates the economic life of the region.
The land of the Gulf coastal plain slopes gently about two feet every mile. It is only forty feet above sea level in northwest Galveston County. The gradual descent continues into the water and then drops somewhat more rapidly to the edge of the continental shelf six miles from shore. The soil on the mainland of Galveston County does not drain well. There are heavy clay subsoils which remain saturated with moisture for long periods. Portions, moreover, have high salt content, and the native vegetation is coarse grass and herbaceous plants. As a result, farming has never been particularly successful. Even as late as 1930, only 17 percent of the land was used for farming.
An example of the difficulty with the land occurred in 1940-1941 when the federal government built an Army base near Highland Bayou. Camp Wallace had the advantages of proximity to the established base of Fort Crockett at Galveston, an urban water supply, and access to electricity. It possessed 1,600 acres, 161 barracks, a payroll of $150,000 per week, almost four hundred buildings, and a capacity for twelve thousand men. The disadvantages were weather and soil conditions which translated into drainage and flood-control problems. During construction the site flooded three feet deep after a nine-inch rainfall in November 1940. Roads washed away and the only way to move was with horses. There was brief consideration of a shift to higher ground, but the engineers persisted because of high land prices elsewhere. They emphasized the construction of ditches and the building of a railroad. Rail lines, historically, were the way to beat the mud of the area.
The engineers used draglines to dig ditches around the site and laid down three layers of planks to build a road. In December a sixinch rain flooded the site again. Draglines bogged in the mud and the plank road floated away. Soldiers worked knee deep at "Lake Wallace" to unload lumber from a spur track and to watch the material to be certain it did not drift away. The soldiers had to widen the bayou and place ditches throughout the campsite. Eventually they built shell roads with materials dredged from Galveston Bay. Even then roads had to be maintained by hand to remove the large clumps of waxy clay mud that dropped off the tires of trucks. Success came in May 1941, when a six-inch rain left only mud and no flooding.
Late in 1943 the Army left the site. The Navy took it over for a year as a boot camp, but after the war gave it up entirely. The government eventually divided it among Galveston County, the University of Houston, and the Hitchcock School District. The story of Camp Wallace underscores the problems of land use in the coastal area. This environmental limitation also explains part of the success of Houston in the nineteenth century. In contrast to Galveston, Houston possessed a hinterland which produced cotton and other agricultural products. The surrounding land provided an agricultural base for a growing city. True, there was mud to overcome, but Houston merchants solved that with the widespread use of railroads. Galveston lacked nearby farmland and had to span two miles of water and a county before reaching productive soil like that which encircled Houston.
The mud flats and salt marshes which rimmed the bay and the northern part of Galveston island, nonetheless, are extraordinary. An acre of marsh produces ten times more protein than an acre of farmland. Cordgrass, sedges, and rushes with their roots in brackish water shelter, for example, frogs, spiders, snakes, bees, butterflies, herons, bitterns, blackbirds, mice, and ducks. Ninety percent of the coastal fish and shellfish depend upon the estuaries. The marsh is intensely alive. A Rice University report on the wetlands of East Bay states:
The plants, predominantly grasses, that flourish in this environment serve two biological functions: productivity and protection. From the amount of reduced carbon fixed by these plants during photosynthesis, this ecotone must be considered one of the most productive areas in the world and truly the pantry of the oceans. The dense stand of grass also represents a jungle of roots, stems, and leaves in which the organisms of the marsh, the "peelers," larvae, fry, "bobs," and fingerlings seek refuge from predators. Organisms invade from both fronts, fresh and saline. Insects, spiders, birds, and mammals from the landward face. Crabs, clams, oysters, shrimp, and fish from the marine environment. The energy of the sun is trapped in the process of photosynthesis. Herbivors, the primary consumers devour these plants, and they in turn are eaten by other predators in the food chain.
Alligators are common in the mainland marshes and show up once in a while on the island. In 1875 citizens observed a four-foot alligator comfortably walking along the street near Postoffice and 25th. In 1877 a seven-foot reptile was caught near the wharves, and in 1948 workers near John Sealy Hospital found a ten-foot beast in a drainpipe. In 1958 fishermen roped a 275-pound one in shallow water near the jetty on East Beach and towed it ashore. In East Bay in 1961 after Hurricane Carla men shot a twelve-foot, 400-pound alligator which had probably been dislodged by the storm.'
Much more common to Galveston and of greater danger are the rattlesnakes. The Indians feared them and avoided permanent settlement in part because of them. The early maps designate the eastern tip as the "Point of the Snakes." Every year, even now, doctors at the University of Texas Medical Branch treat twenty to thirty people for snakebite. These reptiles stay mainly in the marshes and the sand dunes of the west end, but sometimes show up in town. In 1964, for example, Willie Burns, the police chief at the time, was resting at home while his wife was working in the garden. He heard her scream, "Willie, it's a rattlesnake! Don't move! Call the police!" There was a five-foot rattler on the sidewalk. "Call the police?" he asked. "Why should I call the police? I am the chief of police." With that pronouncement, he killed the snake with a rake.
There is food for humans in the flats, too, if they care to gather it. Green cattails can be eaten like corn on the cob and the roots crushed for flour. Quahog oysters and scallops can be harvested along with crabs and flounders. More interesting, perhaps, are the ducks—especially to a hunter. As Joel Kirkpatrick, a journalist, explained:
Well, every morning during the duck and goose hunting season, the sun brings the daylight, and sometimes it smears a salmon-colored sunrise along the horizon.
The wind frosts over the ponds with ripples and leaves its footprints on the marshgrass, and hunters crouch in blinds and look and listen for wildfowl, and breathe the fecund air of marshlands.
And finally, ducks come, wings whistling and cupped feet lowered, in to the decoys, and they're too beautiful to shoot—almost.
Bolivar and the area of High Island and East Bay have long been prime hunting and poaching areas-Pelican Island, too, in the nineteenth century. The first seizure for illegal hunting came in 1912, and the hunters, like the fishermen, liked to tell their tall tales. A hunter named Little John was bragging in a High Island cafe, "Why, with one shot I killed twenty-five ducks."
A stranger got up from a table, walked over, looked Little John in the eye, and asked, "Do you know who I am?"
"Well, I'm the new game warden, and what you did is illegal."
Little John paused and then said, "You know who I am?"
"No," the warden replied.
"I'm the biggest liar at High Island."
Then there is the story of a hunter who flagged down the manager of a game preserve during the season and said, "I've shot some geese I can't identify. Can you help?"
"Sure," replied the manager as the hunter opened his trunk. He looked in at a pair of white birds and laughed, "Why man, you've shot seagulls."
The huntsman turned red and angrily retorted, "You can't fool me. These are geese! I'm a doctor from Galveston and I ought to know what seagulls look like!" He slammed the trunk and left. The manager could only wonder what the seagulls tasted like at the doctor's table.
Other people come to watch Galveston's birds rather than shoot them. Some two thousand ornithologists visit each year, since the island is on a migratory flyway. At Galveston Island State Park, a two-thousand-acre preserve which includes wetlands, salt meadows, beach, dunes, and coastal prairie, the migratory birds include cuckoos, thrushes, orioles, warblers, tanagers, buntings, and grosbeaks. In 1962 an "extinct" Eskimo curlew was spotted and photographed. Permanent residents include the mockingbird, great blue heron, snowy egret, white ibis, mottled duck, bobwhite, mourning dove, red-bellied woodpecker, starling, red-winged blackbird, house sparrow, seaside sparrow, marsh wren, meadowlark, and horned lark, as well as the usual coastal birds such as sandpipers, gulls, plovers, rails, terns, and pelicans.
The white pelican, a fresh-water migratory bird which winters in Galveston, has not had the trouble of the brown pelican, which lives there on a year-round basis. The browns were plentiful as late as 1955, when flocks of fifty to sixty at a time could be seen floating on the water. They proved to be extremely sensitive to the DDT they absorbed from the fish they ate. The eggshells of the young became thin and cracked, and after 1960 the brown pelican population went into a severe decline. The bird became an endangered species, and pelicans from Florida had to be brought to Galveston to reestablish the colony.
Much more hardy are the seagulls; there are fifty-three species at Galveston. They are graceful, buoyant fliers, good swimmers, and poor walkers. Most gulls are scavengers and act like beach bums. They hover and pick up morsels wherever they can—the sanitation crew of the beach. The most common is the laughing gull, noted by its dark-red legs, thirty-two-inch wingspan, and raucous laugh. It lives for eight to fifteen years. There is also the Franklin gull with black head and black wing tips; the herring gull which has a fiftyfour-inch wingspan and migrates to the South for the winter; and the ring-billed gull with yellow legs, a forty-eight-inch wingspan, and a black ring on its bill. In addition, the skimmer gull, northern gull, and various terns share the beach. The terns have narrower wings, cruise the waves, dive into the water, and live off fresh fish. It is considered an ill omen when the gulls fly in high, spiraling circles over the city. It is a sign of foul weather.
The birds are at the top of the food chain. They all feed in their evolved manner and at their own depth; each has a distinct place on the tree of life. The plovers, for example, rush busily about picking up worms and crustaceans with their short beaks while the sandpipers probe the sand with their slender bills. There are all sorts of predators on the beach. Each species, seemingly, eats others while providing a meal for those which prey upon it. Some feed on plankton, others on algae. The moon snail drills into the shell of mollusks with its radula until it can reach and digest the inhabitant.
There are sand dollars and seashells in abundance. Among the bivalves are clams, oysters, cockles, scallops, and mussels. They burrow into sand and cling to stone. The teredo, a wood-boring clam known as shipworm, destroys unprotected wooden pilings and ships within a few years. Galveston also has spiraled snail shells such as the wentletrap, olive, tulip, and whelks. In the rocky habitat of the jetties and groins are sponges, starfish, and sea urchins.
Purple Portuguese men-of-war drift onto the beach with their dangerous trailing tentacles which can inflict a chemical type of burn on the unwary. Sargassum, a free-floating weed which harbors pipefish, flatworms, hydroids, and anemones, also floats ashore. In quantity both the men-of-war and the seaweed cause a stench while the sun and air decay them. Blobs of tar, some as large as baseballs, wash ashore and melt in the sun to the distress of barefoot tourists. Ships and offshore oil drilling catch the blame. Coastal Indians, however, used the tar for decoration and waterproofing, and the de Soto expedition of the sixteenth century referred to it. The material likely comes from natural asphalt seeps along the Mexican coast. Kerosene easily removes it from the bottom of the feet.
On occasion, in August or September, a "red tide" appears along the shoreline. This is caused by blue-green algae which make the water look red in the sunlight. It is harmless to humans, but hurtful to fish when it cuts off oxygen in narrow channels. In 1909 another curiosity turned up in the form of schools of phosphorescent fish drawn by high tides into Galveston Bay. A good pair of eyes could read a newspaper by their light at two o'clock in the morning, so it was reported. Turtles also have shown up. A large green turtle weighing forty pounds and caught with a hook and line was served at Peter Liselle's restaurant in 1872. A dozen two-hundred-pound sea turtles came ashore near 41st Street in 1880 presumably to lay eggs. They were captured. A shrimp boat brought in a two-thousand-pound leatherback turtle from the north jetty area in 1951. It managed to knock over a dock worker with a flipper before meeting its fate of steak and soup. In 1978 the National Marine Fisheries Service established a laboratory at Galveston to raise Ridley turtles to one year of age in order to give them a head start in life. They are an endangered species, and the scientists hoped to establish them on Padre Island. One of the tagged specimens turned up on a beach in France after 569 days.
People have shown greater curiosity about the whales which become stranded every now and then. According to stories, three whales blew ashore in the storm of 1810, and a sixty-two-foot sperm whale in the storm of 1818. The latter killed a seventeen-year-old Portuguese sailor with a swat of its tail. There was also memory of a fifty-foot whale that washed up on the west end in 1848 and was melted down for oil. A whale discovered in the Galveston channel near Bolivar in 1875 brought a scramble for possession in which everyone lost except the catfish, which ate it. In 1916 two black men captured a sixty-foot Atlantic right whale with broken bones east of the south jetty. There had been a hurricane south of Corpus Christi, and supposedly it came from that area. The men towed it to a dock, covered it with canvas, and charged ten cents for the curious to view it. They later towed it back to the jetties for dissection. In 1951 sightseers paid twenty-five cents per adult and ten cents for a child to see a seventeen-foot finback whale on the beach at Bolivar. The specimen finally decomposed after 3,500 people saw it, and the exhibitors gave the money to a polio charity drive. Although there once was discussion in the early twentieth century about starting a whaling industry, nothing happened. There were just not enough whales in the Gulf of Mexico to support the enterprise.
Away from the hard-packed surface of the shoreline, at the upper reaches of the beach, dunes form from dry, blowing sand. The dunes move and shift with the winds until covered with vegetation. Salty air dehydrates and stunts. Plants must have tough, wiry stems and thick leaves in this essentially desert habitat. Sea oats boldly thrust into the air, but most flora hug the ground like the beach morning glory. There are dove weeds, goatweeds, sunflowers, and all sorts of grasses. They stabilize the dunes and form a natural breakwater during storms. Left alone, the dunes grow naturally and acquire a covering of plants. At one time, before the residents of the city took the sand for filling purposes, Galveston dunes reached fifteen feet high. Nothing like that exists at present. Now, as then, however, the dunes provide a home for beetles, grasshoppers, katydids, lizards, ghost crabs, gophers, mice, rabbits, birds, and diamondback rattlers.
Mosquitoes have always been around Galveston to annoy human beings. Even with current fogging techniques, an early morning jog across a grassy area will prove their hardiness. When the wind stops, the mosquitoes close in. Two boys who worked the cotton presses in 1875, for instance, took their girl friends for an early evening sail near Pelican Island. The wind dropped and they drifted ashore. They tried to sing songs, but insects "as big as sparrows" attacked, and they discovered that "love and musquitos will not harmonize." The boys prepared to swim for help, but the girls had a better idea of using the planks from the boat as paddles. After a forty-five-minute effort they reached the wharf well-bitten, but safe.
Oscar M. Addison wrote to his mother in 1845:
You may think you have some fleas "to hum," but were you to pass a few nights in this City, the conclusion would force itself upon your mind that there is none in comparison to what we have here, for sometime after I arrived here, sleep was almost impossible, and it is only by use that I have become accustomed to their disagreeable company. But Musquitoes and fleas united form a desperate anoyance and the poor fellow who has to sleep without a bar is in a "bad fix" and is really deserving of sympathy.
In addition to all of these natural phenomena, there is something else that makes Galveston different. This can be seen, and felt, and heard at the beach. From two hundred yards away as you face the sea, you hear a steady whiffle of wind which usually blows at a rate ideal for kite flying. From one hundred yards you hear not only the wind, but also a steady, low, roar from the Gulf. Closer, at twenty-five yards, the sound becomes more complex. You can hear individual waves as they run with a shhhhh sound to the shore and then break with a ka-shhhh on the sand. They arrive in a rough cadence, one about every six seconds.
At Galveston the easy slope of the continental shelf and the small tides, which rarely rise over two feet, do not produce crashing surf. For the most part the waves are gentle, and somewhat inconsistent because of the variance of the wind. As a wave nears the shore the friction of the bottom causes the lower part of the wave to slow and the top portion to fall forward and break. The breaker then rushes foaming to the beach until its energy dissipates and the water slides back into the sea with a never-ending pulse.
Even on the winter beach, when the wind comes from the north rather than from the usual southeast direction, the sonance of the waves continues. "The waves sounded on the beach with crisp and icy splashes," wrote a reporter in 1876, "and over the broad open area of sand from east to west, as far as the eye could reach, the north wind whistled with relentless viciousness, defying the glare of openfaced sol." Of the elemental sounds of nature, as Henry Beston once noticed about Cape Cod, the sounds of the ocean on the shore are the most varied. There are roars, hisses, splashes, whispers, and hollow tumblings which change in accent and tempo. The sound can be soothing, slow, and lulling. In times of storm it can resound like a cannonade as the ancient war between land and sea reopens. To the listener it is a reminder that we, as human beings, long ago cast our destiny with the land. The voice of the storm king thundering on the beach raises a prehuman terror because we know that the sea has not forgiven our infidelity.
The beach invades our other senses as well. It is not just sound, but also sight, and smell, and feel. The air is heavy with salt and moisture. It coats the skin and films over glass surfaces. The air is highly corrosive, a solvent which attacks the technology of humanity. Galveston always looks in need of a can of paint, and the people buy used cars to reduce the high cost of rust. The odor is salty, and sometimes fishy as well. If the sun is out and it is warm, the combination of air, smell, and feel is highly sensual. What is seen, too, is different. The haze produces pastel colors—lavender sunsets and misty, orange sunrises over the shore. The softness is addictive.
On the beach there is a strong, almost primordial urge to sit naked in the surfline and allow the warm water and sun to wash away the worries of life. It promises renewal. Here on the beach you stand at the edge of the world. Here is the border of the two primary divisions of earth and water. Here you can feel the heartbeat of the planet. Here the voice of creation can still be heard. Galveston Island is one of the youngest of nature's land children. It is still in formation. It stands on the edge of time, and time is new.
The edge of the sea and land is a gateway of evolution. Once the transition is accomplished, however, it is dangerous to linger. The edge is treacherous as well as nurturing. It is unstable and subject to more natural violence than older places. In shallow waters the salinity and temperature ranges are greater than elsewhere, and shoreline creatures must adapt to the constant smash and wet immersion. Such inhabitants develop hard shells and claws in order to hang on to their environment. Human beings, also, have found life on the edge difficult. The natural death toll by disease and storm has made Galveston in its short history one of the dramatic killing grounds of the Western Hemisphere. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse—fire, famine, war, and death—have thundered across the island and left their hoofprints in the sand.
Although the surrounding coastal land is comparatively unproductive, the bay and the sea provide a bountiful harvest. Fresh water from rivers and bayous reduces the salinity of the bay, supports marshlands, and provides nutriments for infant oysters and shrimp. Oysters prefer clean, shallow, diluted seawater, and in early days they flourished in the many bays along the Texas coast. Across Galveston Bay, cutting it in half, was a great oystershell reef called Red Fish Bar. It was a hazard to navigation, but a tribute to long centuries of industrious oysters. There were other oyster beds in the bay and along the lee shore of Galveston Island. Shell ridges once cut across the eastern end and midway down the island. Indians, thinking that the shell would keep the rattlesnakes away, preferred to camp on the ridge.
In the nineteenth century the city developed a seasonal oyster industry which in 1885 employed five hundred men and shipped oysters throughout the Southwest. Reduced in size, the business continues to the present. It is hard, dirty work. Oyster gatherers use a broad, four-foot rake to scoop across a reef. With a winch it is raised to the boat and dumped upon a culling table. "Irons" which look like meat cleavers are used to sort out the shell, crabs, beer cans, and oysters less than three inches. These are thrown overboard, and the small oysters are allowed to grow to legal size. Dredging in the area has greatly reduced the extent of the oyster beds. Mud-shell became a useful substitute where gravel was scarce, and from 1880 it was used for paving streets, providing ballast for highways and railroads, producing lime, and improving chicken feed. Led by W D. Haden and his successors, the shell industry removed 214,000,000 cubic yards from Texas shores during the half-century from 1912 to 1962.
Brown and white shrimp also find existence in the shallow water. They spawn offshore; the babies hatch and migrate to the inlets and salt marshes. In two to three months they mature and return to the sea to start the cycle over again. To0 much fresh water, to0 much salt, or to0 much pollution will diminish the numbers. At first shrimp fishers used seines, but after 1912 they adopted trawls, copied from those utilized by scientists working along the coast of North Carolina. The idea spread from Florida, where the first shrimp trawl was used, along the Gulf Coast. In 1955 shrimpers from Rockport, Texas, began using powerful two-rig trawls which increased the catch by one-third. On one- to five-day voyages the boats prowl the coastline and bays. Workers use a small "try" net to locate their prey and then deploy the large nets which are pulled along the bottom to capture the shrimp. The nets are opened on the deck of the boat and the trash separated. The shrimp are iced and brought to port for sale. During the late 1940's the catch of white shrimp from the bays declined. It was then that the shrimp boats began to venture into the Gulf in pursuit of brown shrimp, which now compose about 8o percent of the annual catch.
The variety of sea life is enormous and has contributed not only to the dining tables of humans, but also to their entertainment and sport. The types of fish are like those of the South Atlantic Coast, and the markets in Galveston are similar to those of Charleston and Norfolk." Flounder, redfish, Spanish mackerel, red snapper, sheepshead, croakers, and speckled trout are all-time favorites, while the silver king tarpon is the most exciting. Dave Huddleston holds the record with a 192-pound, seven-foot, four-inch silver king taken from the Galveston Ship Channel. Most weigh 125 -150 pounds. All have a silvery appearance and the spectacular ability to leap five to six feet from the water when attempting to throw loose a hook. Silver kings have been characterized as having the "agility of the mountain trout, wisdom of the serpent, courage of the tiger, and the weight of a full-grown man." No wonder they are a thrill to catch.
The best tarpon fishing occurred from 1938 until 1965, when it was possible to hook them from the piers and jetties. Even then you had to be patient; there were only one or two strikes per day. People blamed the decline in the 1960's on pollution and the dynamiting of fish for fertilizer on the Mexican coast. The blasting has stopped and it is hoped that the fish are recovering.
Spanish mackerel, plentiful around the rock jetties, are among the more beautiful and graceful of game fish. They have burnished sides, silver flecked with gold, and are about two feet long with a row of dense spines. Also numerous around submerged structures are sheepshead. They are scrappy fighters and good eating, but they are hard to clean and have jaws and teeth which can cut through wire. In 1887 "old darkies" were observed "crack fishing" through the planks on the New Wharf for such fish at the harbor. The men would lie on their stomachs and hold the line in their teeth. When one got a nibble he jerked his head and grabbed the line. Strangely enough, the technique was successful.
Redfish runs in the surf after storms, especially in the early fall, are sensational. Redfish are bottom feeders and like rough, sandy water. It helps to be there at the right time, because the conditions do not last long. In 1967 people hauled in reds from the Flagship pier, some twenty-five feet above the water. The fish weighed up to forty pounds and there were broken lines with lost fish in the process. After Hurricane Cindy in 1964 about three thousand redfish were caught in Galveston waters.
Then there are some oddballs caught every now and then. In 1887 a fisherman told of being towed two miles by a "granduquois." It was six feet long, resembled an alligator gar, and finally broke the line. The same man also pulled one into his rowboat. It flopped around, knocked him and his tackle over the side, tipped the boat over, and escaped. Jewfish, or junefish as they are sometimes called, also appear. They weigh as much as 700 pounds; measure six feet in length; are rough-scaled, sluggish, and dark green in color; and make a good ingredient for chowder. Sawfish sometimes surprise people. In 1962 two boys fishing near the concrete ship, a half-submerged vessel at the edge of the harbor, threw a fifteen-pound anchor overboard and hooked a ten-foot sawfish. The fish tore free as they tried to tow it to shore, but it left saw marks on the side of the boat. A seventeen-foot sawfish was caught from Kuhn's Wharf in 1860 by boys fishing for jewfish. Its bill was almost six feet long, and it took several rifle shots to kill it. Another one, twenty feet overall, was caught by hand in the surf in 1885 and hauled onto the sand. More recently, a shrimp fisherman caught a seventeen-and-a-half-foot sawfish weighing around 2,400 pounds in his net near Texas City.
Devilfish, or rays, have shown up in the surf around the bathhouse piers. One captured in 1885 and brought up to the beach measured sixteen feet and had a mouth large enough for a flour barrel. Another, captured in 1910 with harpoons, rifle fire, and a forty-pound anchor used as a hook, was fourteen feet wide and weighed 2,000 pounds. There have also been eels, sea horses, and porpoises, but those attracting the greatest and most persistent fascination have been the sharks.
There have always been a lot of sharks around Galveston. In 1856 a ten-and-a-half-foot shark with a mouth large enough to swallow a small boy was caught at the wharves. In 1868 an eight-foot one with a mouth large enough for a hamper basket was captured at the same place. Fishing for jewfish in 1873, John Benson hooked a twelve-foot shark that began towing him and his small boat to sea. The pilot boat came to his rescue, and the fish towed them both until killed with a harpoon. A ten-and-a-half-foot shark caught from the wharves in 1877 had a dog collar with rope attached in its stomach. From the wharves in 1890 fishermen caught a twelve-foot shark. "Black Tom," a twenty-one-foot shark with a black dorsal fin, lived for a while in the Galveston channel in the 1930's. People shot the fin and left it with white pock marks. Once, a band of twenty blacks on the dock hooked him. The tug of war ended when the inch-and-a-half manila rope broke with a crack and snapped back over the heads of the men to the top of a cotton shed. Then in 1947 an eight-and-ahalf-foot, 240-pound sand shark was brought to land from the 25th Street pier. A five-gallon can would fit in its mouth, but sand sharks are not noted for eating humans.
Galvestonians have often stated that the waters around the island are safe from shark attack. That information is reassuring to swimmers, and for the most part the claims are correct. Ben C. Stuart while a lad in Galveston in the late nineteenth century used to swim nude with other boys near the wharves at 16th Street. One of their thrills was to swim into the channel behind the steamboats and "take the wash" of the paddle wheels. The boys would also dive twelve to fourteen feet to the bottom to fetch mud with which to plaster their companions. They were never bothered by sharks and had more fear of the three-hundred-pound constable who tried to catch them and who chased them home in their "airy costume."
In the 1940's, beachfront businesses sponsored long-distance swimming contests on the Gulf shore to demonstrate that there was no shark menace. There was never a problem, but it is doubtful that the athletes knew how they were being used. The director of the beach patrol in 1978, Bill Scott, stated that he had never heard of a shark attacking a swimmer at Galveston. Much more dangerous in his opinion were the Portuguese men-of-war and the powerful currents around the groins. "Floaters," bodies which drift into shore, moreover, do not show shark bites even though they have been weeks in the water. Galvestonians make a convincing case, but there are, nonetheless, some isolated incidents.
At the turn of the century judge George W. Baylor, a long-time fisherman who caught sharks from the wharves, recalled a deadly attack on a man trying to wade across San Luis Pass. A sailor who had been swimming around the docks at Texas City in 1911 experienced some minor wounds when a shark took a swipe at his feet dangling in the water. The most serious case, however, occurred in 1937. A police officer found a fourteen-year-old boy, wounded, in shallow water on the beach two miles west of 61st Street. He had been swimming in four-foot-deep water when struck. His lower right arm was gone, along with the flesh of his upper right leg. No one saw a shark, but they could see tooth marks. The boy died at the hospital. One cannot be certain that it was a shark, but it probably was.
Farther offshore there is more evidence. A four-hundred-pound shark hoisted tail up aboard a boat two miles south of the south jetty regurgitated a human body. It had not been long since eaten. A day later, in 1976, a fishing boat caught a tiger shark, fourteen feet long, with a human skull inside, seven miles off Galveston. The discovery surprised the skipper, and he foreswore his habit of taking a noontime recreational swim around his boat. In 1983 a windsurfer disappeared from Galveston waters. His leg with a Nike shoe still on the foot, severed by a shark, washed into Corpus Christi. The board was found thirty miles at sea from Sabine Pass. The idea that sharks at Galveston are not dangerous, as local propaganda states, is just not true. There is danger in the water. For swimmers it is unlikely to come from a shark. But it can happen.
Commercial fishing, other than for oysters and shrimp, developed along with the sport fishing. There is an early story about a visit of a French admiral in 1839. While the mayor and other dignitaries visited the flagship, a fishing boat came alongside and sold a cargo of red snapper. The fish had been caught off some banks, but, unfortunately, the men neglected to note the location. It remained lost until 1868, when Captain "Dave" McCluskey discovered red snapper at the Campeche Banks of Mexico. In the same year Galveston fishermen began to catch snappers about forty miles out from Galveston.
By the time of the First World War Galveston possessed a fishing fleet that regularly coursed the Campeche Banks. Small-scale fishing, meanwhile, kept Galveston markets well supplied with a variety of fish. Most often the fishers sold to a merchant, but others marketed in their own way. In 1875 a black fisherman brought to shore a 140-pound jewfish, still in the water, towed behind his boat. As he dickered with buyers on shore about the price, a twelve-foot shark came by and took all but the head. Everyone laughed except the fisherman, who turned to the last bidder and said, "I b'lieve you knowed dat shark was dere all de time."
Fishing and fishermen always create exaggerated stories. Journalist Christie Mitchell recorded one in 1961. Two old fishermen were discussing their exploits. One claimed that he caught a six-foot, eighty-pound trout in front of the Galveston jetties. That had to be the biggest sea trout in the world, his companion noted, but he also had something to brag about. The second man claimed that while fishing near the concrete ship he pulled up a lantern just like the one his grandfather used a hundred years ago. The surprising thing was that the lantern was still lit. The first man heartily protested such a lie, so the second replied, "O.K. I'll make a deal with you. You can cut four feet off that trout and I'll blow the light out of the lantern.""
People also relate to the weather—probably the most talked—about subject in the world. The temperature at Galveston averages 49ºF. in the winter and 87º F. in the summer. Forty-two to forty-seven inches of rain fall per year, and the wind blows from the southeast except in the winter months, when it comes from the north. In summer Galveston is cooler than most of Texas which gave the island an early reputation as a place to go to escape the heat. The water temperature shifts from 67º F. in the winter to 84º F. in the summer. There can be extremes and unusual conditions, but for the most part the climate is mild.
The winter sometimes brings "blue northers" of great intensity. Robert H. Hunter recorded in his diary of the 1820's about being caught near Cedar Bayou:
I got about half way home when the norther sprung up a fresh, rained and sleeted, and my lazy horse, I could not git him a long. And I got so cold that I had no fealing. The icicles hung to my hat brim so that I could hardly see my way. I finally got home, I rode up to the gate and Pa come out to git some wood and saw me. He cald me to git down. I heard him, but I could not speak. He came to me and took me off the horse and stude me on the ground and I fell over.
“Maybe it's the mention of familiar places, the old names, or maybe it's remembering oral history recited in countless family car trips across the causeway. Whatever the reason, there seems to be a slight aroma of salt air coming from these pages.”
Dallas Morning News
“Galveston: A History will attract several types of readers. Scholars will use the book as the basis for further research; genealogists with roots in Galveston will read it for the story, index, and citations leading to other sources; and Texas history buffs, tourists, and newcomers to the area will read the book for pure enjoyment. McComb is a great storyteller.”
Jane A. Kenamore, Head of Special Collections at the Rosenberg Library, Galveston
“One of the best studies of Galveston history.”
Maury Darst, Galveston historian