Galveston, September 8, 1900: When The Hurricane Struck

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By ten that night the storm was well past; the center had moved inland a few miles to the southwest of the city. The south wind, though now comparatively slight, pushed some of the water in the northern section of Galveston back into the bay. The area to the south, however, was not so fortunate. There the same wind tended to hold the flood on the island, and a line of debris several blocks inland, acting as a dam, also kept the water from flowing back into the Gulf.

An eerie stillness settled over Galveston as the water and wind relinquished their hold. Occasionally the dreadful quiet was broken by the cry of someone buried beyond help in the debris. But the cries soon ceased, and weeks—months—were required to recover the victims. The body of Isaac Cline’s wife was not located until October 3—under the very wreckage on which her family had drifted until it went aground. Many victims could not be identified. Others—and there were hundreds—were never found; they had simply vanished in a storm that took between six and eight thousand lives and cost seventeen million dollars in property damage. It was the worst recorded natural disaster that has befallen North America.

The catastrophe was so great that some Galvestonians were quite willing to abandon their city; but most residents at once involved themselves in rebuilding.

The recovery was astounding. The city built a sea wall seventeen feet above mean low tide, and over a foot above the 1900 storm level. Finished in 1904, the wall was put to the test eleven years later, when another hurricane and a fourteen-foot tide assaulted the city. Property damage was less than five million dollars—and only twelve lives were lost.

Galveston raised its ground level by as much as seventeen feet by pumping in sand from the floor of the Gulf. The process necessitated first raising buildings, telephone poles, streetcar tracks, and shrubbery; the heaviest building raised weighed three thousand tons.

A short time after the 1900 hurricane Galveston devised the city commission form of government. Its previous format—a mayor and twelve aldermen—had long been fiscally unsatisfactory and had been unable to cope with various specific duties in digging out from the storm. The city commission idea soon spread to other municipalities across the country. (In 1961 Galveston again switched its type of government, this time to the council-city manager format.)

Before the storm a favorite topic of conversation in Galveston had been the new century, and particularly the date it would begin. The Vatican, among other world authorities, had declared it would start January 1, 1901, and predominantly Catholic Galveston largely accepted this, although a few insisted the actual date was January 1, 1900. But the nineteenth century actually came to an abrupt end for the island city on September 8, 1900. Nowhere else was the changing of the centuries more noticeable, for the lives of virtually all Galvestonians had been vitally affected.

Clarence Howth, one of those to whom the storm had granted a grudging stay of execution, is a case in point. Two weeks after the hurricane he visited the lot near the beach where his home had stood—where, on the Friday night before the storm, he had been watering cauliflower plants in his back yard; it was just hours before he had become a father. Now there was only a torn piece of garden hose attached to a water pipe to mark the site.

“It seemed as a dream,” he mused, “of a thing that had never been.”