Prayer Wall: Galveston prays for miracles as Hurricane Ike approaches Texas coast

Residents flee storm that recalls the worst natural disaster in American history

BY BEVERLEY WOOD — 9:00 am one fateful Saturday in September, a storm began to make landfall in Galveston, Texas from the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, where it had tossed and turned all night. By 10 o’clock, the severity of the wind had gathered force — and with it, the size and speed of the waves. People began to notice.

The next 14 hours would count more than 6,000 dead in what remains (at least, today) the largest natural disaster in American history. Dateline: Galveston, Saturday September 8, 1900.

Saturday, September 13, 2008 is upon Galveston — and so is Hurricane Ike . . . Galveston was once the Wall Street of the South. (Houston owes its growth to her devastation in the 1900 storm). More immigrants have passed through Galveston than through Ellis Island. But let’s start at the beginning.

Jean Lafitte (the pirate) was kicked out of Louisiana in 1817 and Galveston just happened to be available and right handy, so he established his base there until the US Navy kicked him out in 1821. His treasure is said to be buried somewhere on the 32-mile long island.

A Canadian, Michel Menard, bought the island from the Texas Republic in 1836 (for $50,000) and in 1839, incorporated the city and started selling town lots. (This is before Texas was in the union, remember. That happened in 1845.) In no time at all she became a bustling port town. Wholesalers, cotton agents, paint, drug, grocery, hardware and dry goods stores filled The Strand (those buildings still stand). The Texas elite made Galveston their home. As Queen of the Gulf, she boasted may Texas firsts, among them: first post office, first naval base, first telephone, first newspaper, first drug store (still standing). Galvston’s golden age coincided almost precisely to the rein of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and the architecture of the time reflected this. Many of the classic mansions and castles stood strong and survived the 1900 storm (such as Bishop’s Palace, right). Many did not.

The 1900 storm changed everything. I encourage all to read about it in detail. One of the most haunting images I have is a description I read of rescuers finding the body of one of the nuns from the Sisters of Charity Orphanage washed up on a West end beach, with nine drowned children attached to her by a rope. Another account that stuck with me is the city being so overwhelmed with bodies that it was dangerously unsanitary, so they were carted out in boat after boat, thrown in the ocean. The tide brought them back. They were burned in a huge funeral pyre.

To ensure that it would never happen again, a 17-ft high seawall was buit (seven miles long), and completed at great expense over a period of seven years. That seawall stands today, and has protected Galveston well for the 97 years since its completion. But Ike’s surge is forecast to be 20 feet or more.

Galveston picked herself up by the bootstraps after the big storm, but never regained her footing in business or society. She made herself over as the beauty contest captial of America in the 20s and 30s and was known in the 40s and 50s for her mob connections. The Balinese Room is at the end of a long covered pier over the water . The nightclub, which was really a plush (illegal) gambling casino in those days, featured top entertainment: Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Jack Benny — all the stars of the 40s and 50s. Legend has it, when The Texas Rangers arrived at the curb (almost a nightly occurence), the signal was given and the band would strike up “The Eyes of Texas”. Dealers would fold the tables into the floor and by the time the Rangers made it down the 600-foot covered pier, there was nothing illegal going on at the club. This went on for years. And years. And I guess that place might not make it through Ike. The Balinese room clay poker chips so coveted by collectors will surge in price, along with oil prices, as another piece of history is swallowed by the storm.

I love Galveston. I’ve spent (at least parts of) the last seven winters there. She gets under your skin. She’s the last of an era, like Atlantic City was, before the Donald. And Galveston is one of only three blue counties in all of Texas, which really ought to be worth points with the storm Gods.

Please pray/chant/whatever your thing is…for her to pull through this one. She has a long history of doing whatever it takes. But this time, I really think she might need a little help before that sun comes up again over the gulf.

Beverley Wood is a winter Texan who summers on Vancouver Island. She runs the Gone to DogStar website in her spare time.

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4 Responses to “Prayer Wall: Galveston prays for miracles as Hurricane Ike approaches Texas coast”

  1. I’ve been to Galveston and walked in the sand and looked at the fire coming from the refineries. It occurs to me that Galveston is lit from within and a storm hasn’t come that could extinguish that fire, not totally. It could dowse the wick a bit… blow the curtains around… but nothing we love ever really dies.

    I was writing a friend tonight about chaos and from an outsider looking in, the chaos is self-created; but to the person in the storm, the wind is howling, the waves are crashing and the end is close by.

    In my mind’s eye I see the beach after the storm — when everything men built lies crumbled and one perfect shell is left in its wake.

    I pray that the roaring peace inside that shell finds its way into your dreams tonight. And when the water comes tumbling… stretch out your arms, take a deep breath and swim.


  2. Galveston oh Galveston. After these years gone from you I still feel the sand in my toes while walking on your beaches. I still hear the pounding of your surf and the smell of your salty sea. I will never forget the years I spent in your magic. The lulling me to sleep with the lapping of the waves on the sand as I lay in my little house on the beach. The sunrises through my window bringing a new day. I love you Galveston. I always will. May God watch over you through this night and hold you in his hands. My time with you will forever be in my heart.

  3. Thanks for that colorful and moving piece, Beverley. I remember visiting Galveston once when I was thirteen. We rode the City of New Orleans from Memphis to Houston. For a treat, we drove to Galveston for a seafood dinner.

    The days of train travel were something. We didn’t have the Weather Channel or even much air conditioning. I heard it said that shoes left in the closet in Texas mildewed overnight.

    And SueAnn said something beautiful as well. This shows me that the spirit of a place and of its people far outweighs what happens to it.

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