Galveston, September 8, 1900: When The Hurricane Struck

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Shortly before the storm wave struck, Isaac Cline had opened the front door a crack to watch the weather. While he was peering outside, the sudden rise of four feet sent water above his waist before he could move. The Gulf, now ten feet deep around his home, had reached a record tidal level of 15.2 feet. One hour later, the Cline residence stood alone; all nearby houses were gone.

The people in the Cline house were crowded into a second-floor room on the windward side; the Clines had reasoned that if the house were blown over, they would be on the top wall as it fell. Joseph warned them that collapse was imminent. Indeed, they heard and saw wreckage from other buildings crashing against the house; by 7:30 both the front and rear porches had been sliced off. Then they observed, bearing down upon them, a great piece of wreckage from what had been a streetcar trestle. Rails still held it together—it was a two-hundred-foot-long battering ram powered by more energy than man could ever hope to generate. As the trestle moved, it gathered random wreckage. It upset one raft carrying twentyfive persons and swept on toward the Cline house.

Some of the crowd became panicky. Many had begun to sing, in a prideful effort to discipline themselves, but others surrendered to hysteria. At impact, they felt the house shudder and move; it was afloat. The wind caught it and forced it into a slow forward roll; but before it capsized, Joseph grabbed the hands of two of his nieces and lunged backward through the window. He smashed through the glass and the storm shutters, and the momentum carried all three through the opening. The house rolled over, and then bobbed to the surface. Joseph and the two youngsters found themselves alone on the top side, clinging to the outside wall. To their knowledge no one else had survived. Rain drenched them, but they saw that the clouds had begun to break. They even had an occasional glimpse of the moon.

Joseph, remembering that drowning persons will seize any object within reach, crawled to the broken window and yelled “Come here! Come here!” into the darkness below. Then he lowered his legs through the opening and swung them back and forth in the water. There was no response.

The wall on which they crouched began to pitch. Under the pounding their insecure refuge was slowly breaking up.

Nearby, but unseen, Isaac and his youngest daughter were clinging to floating debris. He had seen his brother break through the window; but then a dresser had skidded across the room and pinned him and his wife and the daughter against a mantel. All three had been carried under water, and Isaac was certain he would drown. Despairing, he decided to take water into his lungs, and when he did blackness engulfed him.

But he regained consciousness. He realized that his head was above water and that several large, bobbing timbers were brushing against his chest. Nearby he saw his daughter, on a shattered piece of the roof, trying to raise herself, but a plank across her back held her down. He regained his senses in time to see a board careening toward her; he raised his hand and deflected it. Then he groped in the debris-littered water for his wife, but he could not find her.

Isaac crawled onto the piece of roof that held his daughter and took her in his arms. A few minutes later he discerned three human shapes bent low on pitching debris, about a hundred feet to windward.

“Who’s there?” he shouted into the storm. One of his daughters called back, “Who are you?” The Cline family were reunited about half an hour after the house had fallen—all but Mrs. Cline, of whom there was no sign.

They were forced to keep moving from one sinking piece of debris to another. At one time a floating house bore down upon them, but just before it struck, the two men grabbed for its top; their weight was enough to pull the top far enough down for all of them to scramble onto it. They huddled there for three hours.

Occasionally one of them would be knocked off the “raft” and would have to fight his way back through the water. Once, while drifting toward the city again, they heard cries from the second-story window of a house in their path. But they were helpless: their raft rammed into the house, and Isaac was hit by some falling timber. Luckily, he was not badly hurt.

At one point Joseph noticed a small girl struggling in the water—his youngest niece, he assumed, knocked off the raft. He grabbed for her dress and pulled her out. Several minutes passed before he realized that all three of his nieces had been accounted for and that this girl was a stranger.

The storm had begun to diminish noticeably. Bright moonlight occasionally illuminated the ghastly scene of destruction, and the southerly wind had rather suddenly become almost gentle. The five Clines and the young stranger felt their raft plow into other wreckage; it shuddered and stopped. They were “aground” in the midst of debris piled fifteen and twenty feet high.

They saw, about fifty yards away, a two-story house poking above the wreckage and decided that it offered the most immediate haven. Joseph went first, gingerly picking his way across the debris for a few feet, then turning and taking the children from his brother, who lifted them to him one by one. Thus they finally reached the house, where the occupants pulled them in through a second-floor window. They were amazed to find themselves only a few blocks from where their own house had stood.