Galveston, September 8, 1900: When The Hurricane Struck

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At 2:30 in the afternoon Joseph went up to the Levy Building’s roof. He found that the rain gauge had blown away. The last reading was 1.27 inches, but the Weather Bureau later estimated that a total of ten inches fell during the storm period. He had completed the rest of a special observation, to be telegraphed to Washington, and had returned to the third-floor office when Isaac, still warning people on the south side of the island, stopped long enough to telephone. He had realized by this time that “an awful disaster” was upon the city. He told his brother, “Half the city is under water.” Then he relayed some additional information for the central office, stressing the need for relief.

Joseph added his brother’s information to his own report and left for the Western Union telegraph office to dispatch it. He waded through the business section, through water swirling knee-deep in places, picking his way among floating wooden pavement blocks. When he reached the Western Union office he learned that the wires had been down for two hours.

He went to the Postal Telegraph office, a few doors beyond; its wires were also down. He struggled back to the weather office.

He finally managed to get a telephone call through to the Western Union office in Houston. Just as he finished reading his message, the telephone wire snapped, leaving Galveston isolated from the world.

Joseph then left the office in John Blagden’s care and struck out for the beach area to help his brother. Again he struggled through flooded streets, while gusts of wind frequently blew him off his course. Along the way he shouted warnings that the worst of the storm was still ahead. When he could not make his voice heard above the wind he pointed to the center of the city, urging people to go there.

Still, many residents stayed put. Some were confident that their houses could weather even this storm; and by now they had also realized that venturing out had become too dangerous. Slate sharp enough to decapitate a man was flying about, carried by a wind approaching one hundred miles per hour; bricks, lumber, and pieces of metal were raining down.

From late afternoon on, many residents were literally caught in a trap. Those in beachfront houses had delayed too long, but now they were afraid to leave.

At 5:15, while Joseph was nearing his brother’s residence, the wind gauge atop the Levy Building whirled to pieces. The last recorded velocity was eighty-four miles per hour, but the wind was gusting to at least one hundred. Isaac later estimated a velocity of “110 or 120 miles an hour”; some guesses went higher.

Joseph climbed the steps to his brother’s front porch. He motioned to several persons across the street to go into town; then he entered the house. His brother was already there, along with nearly fifty neighbors.

Joseph’s first concern, typically, was for his job. He reported to his brother that the barometer had dropped below twenty-nine inches. But when Isaac advised him to take the horse and return to the office, he refused. His usefulness there had ended, he had concluded; perhaps here he could be of some assistance.

Downtown, from Saint Mary’s Cathedral, the Angelus rang out in the six o’clock gloom. To Father James M. Kirwin, the pastor, it sounded like “a warning of death and destruction.” Suddenly the cathedral towers swayed. The two-ton bell was torn from its iron bands and clasps, and crashed to the floor. The Right Reverend Nicholas Gallagher, bishop of the diocese of Galveston, turned to Father Kirwin, gestured toward several other clergymen waiting in the room, and said, “Prepare these priests for death.”

Nearer the Gulf, the eastern and western portions of the city were being swept away. Roaring seas smashed houses to debris and hurled the wreckage against structures farther inland. Most survivors said that by the time the storm reached its peak they held out no hope of living through it. They watched as brick buildings were flattened by the undermining action of the water, and as victims were cut, bruised, or killed by debris. Worst of all, they heard their own buildings creak and groan. Most had resigned themselves to dying. They hoped it would happen quickly.

In one house near the beach a group of fifty hovered in a second-floor bedroom. Above the ceaseless din of the storm several of them heard a little girl’s voice ask, “Mamma, how can I drown?”

For her and for hundreds of other Galvestonians, the answer came just after six. A four-foot storm wave, sweeping ashore ahead of the hurricane’s vortex, crashed over Galveston Island, destroying many of the buildings yet standing.

About six blocks east of the Cline residence, Clarence Howth, an attorney, realized the effects of the wave. A new father, Howth was understandably concerned about the welfare of his wife and their hoursold baby. With them were Mrs. Howth’s father, Dr. John B. Sawyer, her brother, a nurse, and a maid.

When the water rose almost to their second-floor bedroom Howth supervised the transfer of his wife and child up the steep stairs to the attic. Soon the salt spray was coming in the attic window.

Mrs. Howth called to her father, “Papa, are we going to die?”

“No, daughter,” he answered. “It’s almost over now.” Within minutes the house collapsed.

“The crash threw me away from my wife, and I sank underneath the water,” Howth recounted. He struggled to the surface, grabbed a window frame, and clung to it while he was carried out into the Gulf and back again. Like many other Galvestonians, he had lost his family, his house—everything but his life.