Galveston, September 8, 1900: When The Hurricane Struck

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While Joseph slept, the morning edition of the Galveston News was being printed. In it appeared a local weather story whose hopeful final paragraph noted that at midnight “the moon was shining brightly and the sky was not as threatening as earlier in the nighl. The weather bureau had no late advices as to the storm’s movements and it may be that the tropical disturbance has changed its course or spent its force. …”

But anyone who had observed the tide now thundering ashore to the south would have known the storm had not changed course. The swells had increased continuously, and they were rolling ever farther inland against a stiffening north wind that ordinarily would have tended to break them up.

Four blocks from the beach, in the room where Joseph slept, the roar of the breakers was audible; perhaps that explained why he slept so fitfully. At four o’clock he awoke, filled with what he later described as a “sense of impending disaster.”

“I sensed,” he said, “that the waters of the Gulf were already over our back yard. Une glance out of the south window … showed me that my presentiment was correct. I immediately awoke my brother.”

The two Clines decided on a division of duties: Joseph would return to the office to handle observations and to telegraph developments to the central office. Isaac would harness the horse to his two-wheeled cart and hurry to the beach to awaken residents and warn them back to higher ground. He was to keep an eye on the rising tide.

Before five o’clock, then, Isaac stood watching the dirty brown turbulence that was the Gulf—where only a few days earlier there had been crowds of tourists from all over the state enjoying late-summer relaxation in the clean sand and warm surf. He observed the swells, and the wind blowing ineffectually against them, and he drafted a message for the central office: “Unusually heavy swells from the southeast, intervals one to five minutes, overflowing low places south portion of city three to four blocks from beach. Such high water with opposing winds never observed previously.” Cline knew this was no ordinary storm tide.

Immediately he began a Revere-like ride up and down the beach, warning people to leave low areas. Comparatively few heeded his advice. Most residents, having experienced overflows before, were not worried. They were sure the Gulf was harmless. And some people simply never received any warning. By seven o’clock most Galvestonians were awake. Many had, in fact, already finished breakfast and were preparing for a full Saturday’s work; in 1900 the six-day week was routine. Many residents near the beach, however, stopped long enough to watch the tremendous display put on by the giant waves. It was a grand sight, they agreed, and the word began to spread across the city. Other citizens hurriedly dressed for wet weather and came to view the spectacle, arriving by horse and buggy, by streetcar, on foot. They watched, entranced, while enormous waves demolished amusement houses, a bathhouse, and piers.

At least one youngster viewed the scene with alarm—King Vidor, who later became a motion-picture director. Long afterward, he recalled that moment: As we looked up the sandy street the mile to the sea I could see the waves crash against the streetcar trestle then shoot into the air as high as the telephone poles. Higher. My mother didn’t speak as we watched three or four waves.

I was only six years old then but I remember now that it seemed as if we were in a bowl looking up toward the level of the sea and as we stood there in the sandy street, my mother and I, I wanted to take my mother’s hand and hurry her away. I felt as if the sea was going to break over the edge of the bowl and come pouring down upon us.

The tide continued to rise during the rest of the morning. The water, encroaching from Galveston Bay to the north (forced ashore on the bay side by the prevailing winds), was coming in even larger volume from the Gulf side, where the waves were growing ever more tremendous. In the low areas of the city, water quickly covered the streets. The inexorable tide—and a rising, whipping wind—soon forced most of the curious at the beach to seek shelter.

At 10:00 A.M. Joseph Cline, at the Weather Bureau, received a telegraph order to change the storm warning from northwest to northeast. Hoisted within five minutes, the flag was soon ripped apart by the wind. Later the flagstaff itself was destroyed. The significance was not lost; the city might be on the storm’s immediate right after all. During the morning the wind in Galveston had been mostly from the north, varying from northwest to northeast, and any weatherman could realize that it would come later from the east, southeast, and south, that being the pattern for a tropical hurricane. And when the wind went to the east and southeast it seemed likely to throw the Gulf over Galveston Island. By noon the Gulf had crept halfway across the city in some places, and had submerged the two causeways linking the island with the mainland.