EYE-WITNESS DESCRIBES HURRICANE-DEVASTATED GALVESTON, 1900
J. Marvin Hunter, Sr.
Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, June, 1948
In the world's great tragedies that of Galveston stands remarkable. In no other case in history has a disaster met with such courage and fortitude; in no other case in history were the people of the whole world so responsive to the call for help for the helpless. There have been heavy blows and there have been times when the waters of the bay and the Gulf met in the Galveston streets, but the storm of September 8, 1900, is without parallel. The storm did not come upon the city without warning. The same storm, less ferocious perhaps, had swept along the South Atlantic coast several days before. It had its origin in that breeding place of hurricanes, the West Indies, and after swirling along the Florida and Carolina shores, doubled on its tracks, entered the Gulf, came racing westward and developing greater strength with each hour and centered all its energies upon the Texas coast near Galveston. On September 7th there was official warning of the approach of a severe storm but no one expected such a tempest as was destined to devastate the city. Such warning as was given was rather addressed to mariners about to go to sea than to those living on shore. Simultaneously with the approach of the hurricane was a great wind from the north, known locally as a "Norther." This developed at Galveston about 2 a.m. on September 8th. The approaching hurricane from the east and southeast had been driving a great wall of water toward the shore at Galveston. The tremendous windstorm from the north acted as a counter force from Galveston Bay on the one side of the city and the storm in the Gulf hurled its battalions of waves upon the beach side of the city. Early in the day the battle between these two contending forces offered a magnificent spectacle to a student of scenery of nature. As long as the north wind held strong the city was safe. While the winds dashed great volumes of water over the wharves and flooded some streets in the business portion of the city and the waters of the Gulf on the other side of the city encroached upon the streets near the beach, there was no particular fear of serious consequences, but about noon the barometer, which had been very low, suddenly began to drop at a rate that presaged a storm of tremendous violence.
Following this came the warning that the wind would, before many hours, change from the north to the southeast and to the fury of the wall of water being driven upon Galveston by the approaching hurricane would be added all the tremendous force of the wind that had previously acted as a partial check to the Gulf storm.
To those who previously had no fear, the certainty that the wind would change came as the first real note of wafting. With the first shifting of the wind the waters of the Gulf swept over the city. Houses near the beach began to crumble and collapse, their timbers picked up by the wind and waves and thrown in a long line of battering rams against the structures. Men, women and children fled from their homes and sought safety in higher portions of the city, or in buildings more strongly built. Some were taken out in boats, some in wagons, some waded through the waters, but the flood rose so rapidly that the approach of night found many hundreds battling in the waters, unable to reach places of safety. The air was full of missiles. The wind tore slats from roofs and carried them along life wafers. The waves, with each succeeding sweep of the in-rushing tide, brought a greater volume of wreckage as house after house toppled and fell into the waters. So tremendous was the roar of the storm that all other sounds were dwarfed and drowned. During the eight hours from 4 p. m. until midnight, the hurricane raged with a fury greater than words can describe. What height the wind reached will never be known. The wind gauge at the weather bureau recorded an average of 84 miles an hour for five consecutive minutes, and then the instruments were carried away. That was before the storm had become really serious. The belief that the wind averaged between 110 and 120 miles an hour is as good information as was obtainable.
Nothing so exemplified the impotency of man as that storm. Massive buildings were crushed like eggshells, great timbers were carried through the air as though they were of no weight, and the winds and waves swept everything before them until their appetite for destruction was satiated and their force spent.
How many lives were sacrificed to the Storm King has never been determined. The census taken in June preceding showed that Galveston had a population of 38,000. Outside the city limits on Galveston Island there were 1,600 persons living. The dead in the city exceeded 5,000. Of the 1,600 living outside the city limits, 1,200 were lost. This frightful mortality 75 per cent—outside the city was explained by the fact that most of the people there lived in frail structures and had no place of comparative safety to take refuge in. It was estimated that at least 7,000 lives were lost, and property damage amounted to between $25,000.000 and $850.000,000.
For a week Galveston was under martial law. There was no disorder. There was some robbing of the dead by ghouls. This was checked by a punishment swift and sure. The city rose from its ruins as if by magic. Street after street was cleared of debris. A small army of men worked from early morn until the shadows of night descended to lift the city from its burden of wreckage. Then when danger of epidemic seemed past, attention turned to commerce. The bay was strewn with stranded vessels. Monster ocean steamers weighing thousands of tons, had been picked up like toys, driven across the lowlands, and thrown far from their moorings. One big steamer was hurled through three bridges; another, weighing 4,000 tons, was carried twenty-two miles from deep water and dashed against a bayou bluff in another county. The great wharves and warehouses along the bayfront were a mass of splintered broken timbers.
But the mighty energy of man worked wonders. Marvelous to say, under such conditions, a bridge two and a half miles long was built across the bay within seven days and Galveston, which had been cut off from the world. was once more in active touch with all the marts of trade and commerce. An undaunted neople strove as only an indomitable people can strive, to rehabilitate the city. Dark and dreary days were crowded into Galveston's life with horror unspeakable. It is an inexorable law of nature that after the storm comes the radiance of a glorious sunshine.
We have many eyewitness accounts of the Galveston disaster, and could devote pages of Frontier Times to a description of the terrible storm. John A. Rockfellow, of Arizona, in his book. "Log Of An Arizona Trail Blazer," published in 1938. gives an account which we publish below, because it gives the experience of an outsider, who, with his family, barely missed death in the Galveston tragedy:
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The year 1900 was a wet one for the State of Texas. In April a large dam at Austin gave way. In September the terrible West Indian storm, working slowly westward across the Gulf of Mexico, culminated about Galveston taking the lives of eight thousand people. Though living in Arizona, it was the fate of my family to have experiences in both these catastrophes. My wife, with three small children, had started to visit our old home in western New York, but was stopped in Texas by the flood waters from the broken dam. The train was moved here, there, thither. When they finally arrived in Buffalo, New York, they were not only hungry but much in need otherwise. I joined them the first of August and we planned to return by boat from New York to Galveston. We sailed from New York, September first on the Mallory line steamship "Comal." The master, Captain Evans, was a very able commander, a native of Cape Cod, the home of real seamen. It was a fine trip and we made many pleasant acquaintances among the sixty or seventy passengers. On the night of the eighth we nosed into the outer circles of the storm which at that time was driving the Gulf of Mexico into Galveston bay and wrecking the town. We didn't suffer much on shipboard, however.
All next day the sea was very rough but the wind had moderated. We were standing on and off at the harbour mouth at daylight on the following morning. The usual light to guide us in was gone, and the water under us was of a most peculiar color. The entrance is between two long lines of pilings that narrow the outlet of the bay and keep the bottom scoured deep enough for large vessels. When it was light enough, we entered the opening and met a current running like a millrace from the bay into the gulf. The water covered the tops of the pilings which should have extended four feet above the normal water line.
I said to Captain Evans, "Does this mean that another dam has broken loose as the one at Austin did in April?"
He replied, "The water from Austin darn wouldn't have raised Galveston Bay an inch. I can't understand this."
Right away we met floating debris of all kinds and were startled to see a human body, and then many more. Once inside, we were even more shocked. There was not a vessel afloat or a human being in sight. The docks were wrecked. At the Mallory dock, the pilings were supporting a good sized schooner that had floated up on them and had there stuck tight. In front, another schooner had sunk and was on its side, the masts sticking out dangerously into the harbor.
We came to anchor near enough to the wrecked dock to hear some words from a man who came as far toward us as he could. He was the husband of one of the passengers. Later we learned that he had reached Galveston, which is situated on an island, by swimming from pier to pier on a wrecked railroad trestle. We had stopped at Key West, a quarantine port, and were not supposed to land until given permission by a health officer, but no such officer was in sight. A sister ship, the Alamo, was grounded about a quarter of a mile away; soon her captain came in his gig and ranged up alongside. He volunteered to go and look for a health officer and in a few words gave us the story of the storm.
Then a long rowboat manned by four oarsmen ranged up. The stern seat was occupied by an Associated Press reported who was starting for Houston at the upper end of the bay, to take the story of the disaster to the world. He kindly offered to carry telegrams for any of us to be sent to friends.
This was very pleasing to us and nearly everybody got busy. The telegram I wrote was delivered to my father three days later and was a great relief to our friends in New York State.
We hadn't been at anchor more than half an hour when another steamship, the Pensacola, steamed in and anchored a short distance from us. A couple of hours later we saw the flag of our neighbor ship set at half-mast. It seems that her captain, having noted the warning signals which were hoisted some hours before the hurricane, and thinking that his ship would be safer at sea than in the bay, had steamed out into the gulf. Before leaving, however, he had sent his wife and daughter ashore. The building in which they took shelter was wrecked and the ladies were drowned. This explained the flag flying at half-mast.
After a long delay, the captain of the Alamo returned with permission for us to land. The anchor was hoisted and the ship was brought alongside a dock that was in fair condition — though the floor planking had been washed away. Most of the men on the passenger list went ashore. With one of them I picked my way up into the business section, climbing over wreckage, the worst that can be imagined. Cart loads of bodies were being gathered and taken to a barge at one of the best of the wrecked docks. A small tug boat had been floated and was hauling the death barge out into the gulf where the bodies were dropped overboard.
The fronts of the stores on the ground floors had been broken by the flood but the most substantial buildings were intact. It was in the residential district that houses had been wrecked or partly demolished. On the gulf side of the island a tier of three or four entire blocks had been absolutely cleaned of houses, and the wreckage had been washed back till it formed a barricade as high as the roofs of two-story buildings. A citizens' committee had been organized with headquarters at one of the hotels and had taken the city in hand.
That afternoon a small excursion steamer came down from Houston loaded with supplies, surgical and general. It even brought ice. This steamboat was later to take us away. Besides the thousands of dead, many more in number were injured and private homes that had survived were filled with the injured.
On board the "Comal," Captain Evans called us together and said, "We can't put you ashore with no place to go, so for the present stay with us on the boat."
Much of the ship's cargo was commandeered by the citizens' committee for the use of the town. That night we heard frequent shots in the town. Much looting was going on and the guards were shooting. Next morning many gruesome incidents were related. One man had been taken with his pockets bulging with human fingers bearing rings. He had been looting the dead. His captors were not long in disposing of him. During the day we learned that railroad men were relaying the track with frenzied haste, from Houston, and that probably refugees could be taken over the road the next day.
We made application to the committee for permits and about thirty were granted to Comal passengers, those having children. We were to take the little steamboat that had come with supplies from Houston and be ferried across the bay to Texas Point. Our party was given an early breakfast and set ashore; the steamship having been anchored out in the bay again. At the embarking place we walked the slippery timbers of the old wharf. and then down on the funeral barge that had carried.the dead bodies to sea, from which we were to climb a gangplank to the excursion steamer.
But, no, the boat was loaded to the guards and not a foot of space was available. The captain of the boat harangued the crowd, telling them that no one could go except those with permits, and the boat could not carry even the present load. It was no use; no one would stir. Our party stood on the awful smelling barge and debated. Soon we heard the tramp, tramp of men in uniform above us, and we saw on the collar of the commander and on his shoulder-strap the insignia which showed him to be a captain. The master of the steamboat had sent for him.
The army captain spoke kindly to us and advised us to go up on the wharf, as the barge would be overcrowded in a few minutes. We climbed up on the wharf and watched. The captain with his squad crowded aboard the boat and ordered all ashore whether with permits or not. No one stirred. He repeated his order. No one moved. Then we heard, "Fix bayonets!"
The butts of rifles hit the deck in unison, and on went the bayonets. Another order was issued to the soldiers, and then the crowd moved fast. A few were pricked to speed them up, but in less time than it takes to tell it, the crowd was on the barge and scrambling up on the dock. Then the captain placed four men at the gangplanks with muskets crossed and told those that had permits to come on, but added with emphasis for no one to come on who had no permit. No count was kept of the number that embarked, but it was found that almost three hundred people were on the boat, which was intended to hold not more than two hundred and fifty. However, none were sent ashore and the boat pulled away.
Our "Comal" party gave three rousing cheers for the good old craft as we passed her at anchor, and got a toot from her whistle in answer. The sandy bottom of the bay had shifted much and choked the former channel, so that at one time there was but six inches of water under our keel. Our landing place was a long pier running out a quarter of a mile into the shallow bay. As all the planks were washed away, we walked on stringers about twelve inches wide. We had brought only light hand baggage, leaving our trunks to be forwarded by the Mallory people. They reached us in Arizona about two weeks later. Walking the long pier, I carried my two-year old boy on my shoulders.
On shore we waited in most intense heat for hours, but finally a train came creeping along. The weight of the engine and cars would cause the rails to sink out of sight and fountains of muddy water to spurt up. The train brought scores of people, expecting to reach Galveston, and they made a rush for the pier to board the waiting steamboat which had brought us over. But at the shore end of the pier a guard from the squad of soldiers had orders not to allow anyone aboard. The crowd begged and threatened, but no use. One fellow would say, "But I represent the press:" another, "I have kinfolks there." The answer was, "There are too many hungry and homeless people in the city now' and your friends are either alive or dead, and you can't do them any good. You would only be another person to be cared for."
When the crowd saw it was no use pleading and that there was no use trying to get by those boys with bayonets, they made a rush for the train. We three hundred would have filled the coaches, but with this crowd of curious sightseers they were packed. Some of our children were put aboard through the windows. Slowly the train crawled through the mud. We were soon out of sight of the water but for miles inland we saw small craft of every description, high, but not dry, for the ground was almost a bog. One large dredge, the "Cameron," heavy with powerful machinery, was squatting in the mud many miles from the bay.
We passed through groves of good sized pine trees, every one of which had been broken off about half to two-thirds of its height from the ground, not blown over the roots or broken off at the butt, as I have generally seen such trees when they have been swept by a tornado. Arriving at Houston at about five p.m., we were met by throngs anxious to hear the extent of the disaster, and many asking for friends and relatives. Our "Comal" party separated there, all going in different directions.
I with my family, boarded a westbound Southern Pacific train at ten p.m. Texas is a fine state, but the dry mesas of New Mexico and Arizona seemed like home, and our humble home seemed like a real palace when we arrived. Our friends greeted us as arisen from the dead. One newspaper editor informed me he had written my obituary and that it was in the hands of the compositor when he heard of our arrival. During the subsequent years he has several times reminded me that this obituary still hangs on the hook, ready for use when needed.