Texas HistoryToday in Texas History: 1900 Hurricane Ravages Galveston

Nearly 20 percent of Galveston's population at the turn of the century perished in the hurricane that ripped through the bay city.
September 8, 2021
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Man versus nature is a constant theme throughout world history and while the former has become very good at withstanding the latter, the human race was not always so calamity resistant. Disasters such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or the Helike Tsunami have wiped whole micro-civilizations off the map.

And Texas has its own version, albeit less catastrophic. On September 8, 1900, a Category 4 hurricane struck Galveston, decimating what was a long thriving, and then-growing Texas city.

In 1850, Galveston was the state’s most populous city with 4,177 people. By 1900, it had grown to nine times that and was the fourth largest city in the state — behind San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas in that order. Its port was the city’s economic focal point and the foremost driver of population growth.

Today, Galveston ranks 69th on the population hierarchy and only has about 12,500 more residents than it did 121 years ago. The port city’s staggering fall from its previous ranks can be traced directly back to the calamity which befell it nine months after the turn of the century.

Galveston residents woke up to a newspaper headline on the morning of the 8th that read “Great Damage Reported on Mississippi and Louisiana Coasts-Wires Down-Details Meagre,” with no further details.

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Due to its proximity to the Gulf, Galveston and its residents were used to bouts of tidal overflows and the strong winds of that morning were nothing more than that to the unsuspecting population. Because the information was so spotty and the tracking or communication technology so unreliable, no evacuations had occurred and only a storm warning was issued in the city.

And those on the island found themselves marooned when the mainland bridges collapsed under the windstorm’s fury.

By 5:00 p.m., wind gusts upwards of 80 miles per hour (mph) were recorded before the anemometer was swept away only minutes later. It is estimated that the winds later eclipsed 120 mph — making wrecking balls out of the first row of houses against the next row, and so on.

Brick crashed into brick, mortar into mortar as row by row the city’s structures toppled like the first little pig’s house of hay from the wolf’s exhalation.

Debris rained down on passersby that had not taken refuge, and many lost their lives in the man-made hailstorm.

Among those buildings razed by the storm were the St. Mary’s Orphans Asylum dormitories, which were “splintered” by the storm. In those structures that collapsed, 10 nuns and 90 children lost their lives. The nuns had roped themselves to clusters of the children in a desperate attempt to save the young ones, but when the roof caved in and the waters rose, nearly all drowned.

Only three older boys survived from that orphanage.

An anonymous letter published by the Galveston History Center describes the terror of that day.

“It does not require a great stretch of imagination to imagine this structure, a shabby old boat out at sea,” it reads, continuing, “the whole thing rocking like a reef surrounded by water, said water growing closer, ever closer.”

“12-noon, things beginning to look serious. Water up to the first floor in the house, all over the basement of the hospital. Cornices, roofs, window lights, blinds flying in all directions.”

“The scenes about here are distressing. Everything washed away. It is all a grand, fine sight, our beautiful Bay, a raging torrent.”

The letter concluded, “Darkness is overwhelming us, to add to the horror. Dearest, I reach out my hand to you — my heart, my soul.”

By the next morning’s dawn, between 6,000 and 8,000 people had lost their lives and over $30 million in damages laid strewn across the area — worth an estimated $975 million in today’s dollars.

After ripping through Galveston, the hurricane traveled northward through tornado alley and eventually passed Halifax, Nova Scotia before disappearing over the Atlantic. The hurricane’s path would not be the only link between those two cities in history.

The devastation in Galveston caused by the hurricane was similar in scope to another North American disaster that would occur 17 years later during the First World War: the Great Halifax Explosion, the largest explosion in world history until the advent of the atomic bomb, caused by a collision between a relief ship and an overloaded ammunitions ship.

Both port cities were ravaged by disaster, where Halifax’s population growth recovered, Galveston’s did not.

After the storm, the rebuilding project began, and the city rebuilt its infrastructure on stilts, constructed a then-six-mile-long sea wall, and raised more resistant bridges.

While the Texas city avoided complete devastation, the likes of which occurred in Pompeii and Helike, the effects of the hurricane still linger today.

For more information about the 1900 hurricane, visit the Galveston History Center or the Texas State Historical Association.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.