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Women, Culture, and CommunityReligion and Reform in Galveston, 1880–1920$

Elizabeth Hayes Turner

Print publication date: 1997

Print ISBN-13: 9780195086881

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195086881.001.0001

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Disaster Strikes the Island City

Disaster Strikes the Island City

(p.17) 1 Disaster Strikes the Island City
Women, Culture, and Community

Elizabeth Hayes Turner

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the geography and history of Galveston. It had a history and style that sets it apart. To Texans the city sprang out of the gulf and symbolizes amazing growth and prosperity of the Lone Star State in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though there were some detractions: tropical storms, hurricanes, epidemics and insects that plagued the island one time or another. Though despite the dangers, Galveston still had plenty of admirers and the city grew in its recovery after the Civil War. Galveston boasted the best harbor in Texas. The harbor, railroads and communication networks provided excellent export-import prospects for enterprising capitalists. Cotton was the major export item. However disaster struck when the hurricane 1875 brought winds over 100 miles per hour and left 176 dead. The city stood naked and vulnerable to nature's cruel might.

Keywords:   Galveston, Lone Star State, Texas, Civil War, harbor, cotton, export, hurricane

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

— Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Second Fig”

The city of Galveston in 1900 shimmered off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, a tiny jewel precariously perched on the edge of the continent. Vulnerable to tropical heat and storms, Galveston rested at the end of a long, slender, low-lying island off the coast of Texas. On the gulf side of the island, sandy beaches beckoned summer visitors by the hundreds; on the north side of the island facing Galveston Bay, shipping wharves, a railroad, grain elevators, and warehouses brought in teaming workers and proclaimed the city's busy commercial life. In between the beaches and the wharves stood monuments to prosperity: banking houses, the cotton exchange and trade center, a U.S. customshouse, and a commercial emporium called simply The Strand. Here also lived the city's 38,000 residents, a few in elegant mansions, most in modest, even humble, dwellings. Some said the island was little better than a sandbar, “a mere wave-built cay or key—made by the waves of average storms during a few centuries.”1 But Galveston had a history, an elegance, and a style that set it apart. To Texans the city that sprang up out of the gulf symbolized the amazing growth and prosperity of the Lone Star State in the aftermath of the Civil War.

“Galveston is primarily a seat of good living,” noted Julian Ralph, a roving reporter for Harper's Weekly in 1895.2 So tourists, visitors, and residents had been saying for years. Edward King made the same discovery more than twenty years earlier when on his grand tour of the postwar South he described Galveston as enchanting—“a thriving city set down upon a brave little island which has fought its way out of the depths of the Gulf, and given to the United States her noblest beach, and to Texas an excellent harbor. … It is a city in the sands; yet orange and myrtle, oleander and delicate rose, and all rich-hued blossoms of a tropic land shower their wealth about it.”3

There were some detractions to be sure. Tropical storms, hurricanes, epidemics, and insects all plagued the island at one time or another. One visitor complained, “You have to tie yourself in bed at night to keep the cockroaches and (p.18) other insects from carrying you off bodily. And I am told the ‘skeeters’ soon eat up a bar [mosquito net] trying to get at you. If you attempted to sleep without a bar, I can truly say, there would be nothing but the bones of a person left in the morning.” Bouts of yellow fever scourged the island from time to time; the last really nasty episode occurred in July 1867; eleven hundred people were carried away by a disease brought in by migrants from other infected areas. When Thomas Seargent penned these words, he had no idea they would be among his last: “The fever is getting pretty bad indeed—we had twenty-four hurried [sic] on Saturday; about the same Sunday and today I fear it will be equally as fatal.” Amelia Barr, living behind a military encampment that fateful summer, dolefully recorded, “I saw long lines of carts filled with rude boxes and tarred canvas pass the house. They were carrying the dead to the long trenches. …” Her family of seven all contracted yellow fever; she lost her husband and her only two sons in the epidemic. Years later she dubbed Galveston, the “city of dreadful death.” Storms, of course, were an ever-present danger, and Galveston's history is so closely tied to hurricanes that it inspired one author to lament: “Galveston has an implacable enemy. Like Torre Annunziata and Herculaneum, the great seaport lives in the shadow of possible destruction.”4

Despite the dangers, Galveston found plenty of admirers, and the city grew charming in its recovery after the Civil War. Its attractiveness was built upon several foundations: a mild climate, sandy beaches, fertile soil, a good harbor, admirable mercantile prospects, and enterprising people for whom commerce was only one pursuit in life.

The Gulf Coast city sported a “salubrious” and healthy climate, where sea breezes usually tempered the heat from the Texas interior in summer and warmed the island in winter. “The heat is never disagreeably intense in Galveston; a cool breeze blows over the island night and day,” reported Edward King to the nation's readers.5 He obviously had not experienced a 95-degree day in the middle of August, when most of the city's wealthier residents headed for the mountains of Virginia or for the Northeast. As in most southern towns close to the equator, heat plus an average forty-five inches of rain per year yielded summer days dripping with humidity. “An hour or two of pouring, beating, tropical rain, and then an hour or two of such awful heat and baleful sunshine, as the language & has no words to describe,” complained Amelia Barr in 1867. In winter the occasional “Blue Norther” from the Midwest blew in cold so severe that twice in the city's history the bay froze. “It was the funniest sight in the world, as it was the first snow that any one had ever seen before,” remembered Margaret Scaly Burton, daughter of prominent businessman George Sealy, of the 1886 freeze. “All sorts of costumes appeared and cow bells were tied onto horses attached to huge piano boxes turned upside down and filled with children going for a sleigh ride.” Despite an occasional seasonal extreme, Galveston had the advantage of gulf winds to help warm the air to an average 49 degrees in winter and cool it to an average 87 degrees in summer.6

Thirty-one miles of sandy beaches, “laved by the restless waters,” flanked the island in the days before concrete seawalls and stone riprap. “It is only a few steps from an oleander grove to the surf, the shell-strewn strand, and the dunes,” wrote (p.19) King.7 Leslie Brand informed his mother in Los Angeles that compared to the Pacific Ocean, the warm gulf waters provided splendid bathing. “The breakers roll in oftener and the water is much warmer. I remained in for an hour and enjoyed myself more than I ever did before in water. For I did not get cold. And then the numerous beaches make it exciting.” Average water temperatures of 84 degrees made bathing in the gulf and the bay the most popular summer sport. Swimming was not the only recreation on the beaches. “From my window,” wrote one island visitor, “I watch the sea all day, and in the afternoon I walk or drive on the finest beach in the United States.” Promenades, horse and buggy rides, and later excursions by car on the hard sand delighted tourists and residents alike.8

Rich prairie soil for the sustenance of oleander groves, chinaberry trees, colorful gardens, and overarching oaks kept the city shaded and roseate. “On the whole it is a very pretty place, … [with] large and beautiful lawns and lovely flowers and shrubbery. … Oleanders can be seen bordering sidewalks nearly everywhere,” noted one sojourner. So abundant were the colorful shrubs that Galveston called itself the Oleander City. Others noticed the towering oaks shading visitors from the relentless sun. Julian Ralph praised the “marvelous abundance o f … salt-cedar trees, … oleanders, magnolias, gums, palms, huge laurels, and cloudlike water oaks and live-oaks.” He ended by declaring “her gardens … semi-tropical and gorgeous.” Wollom's Lake, at the end of the West Broadway trolley line, provided a peaceful nature refuge from the city's bustling center. “Surrounded with trees, winding walks and overhanging boughs,” the lake sported “gayly painted row boats [that] wended their way through the tiny canals. There were rustic bridges and islands for flower gardens and cages for scarlet and purple parrots. White swans and wild Mallard ducks swam about at ease and trailed the canoes for the cracker crumbs that the passengers threw to them.” Margaret Sealy Burton opined that “it is almost impossible to visualize such beauty as once existed in this lovely city before the terrible devastation in 1900.”9

Physical amenities aside, Galveston boasted the best harbor in Texas. The only deep water port between New Orleans and Tampico, Mexico, the city had since its beginnings in 1839 relied on the harbor and shipping for its prosperity. In the years before the Civil War, Galveston became the principal port of entry for the state. In 1854 wealthy citizens combined to form a Galveston Wharf Company, consolidating individually owned wharves into a profitable collective, one third of which was owned by the city. As Texas cotton production leaped forward in the postwar years, wharf owners and the city were in a position to benefit from the increased trade. Galvestonians foresaw their city's dependence on shipping and began to look for ways to improve the entrance to the harbor, which at times was obstructed by an annoying sandbar lurking twelve feet below the water's surface. In 1874, U.S. Army engineers began to build two jetties, extensions of the channel to the harbor, that jutted out into the Gulf of Mexico. The jetties were intended to help the tide and currents scour the channel of any sand, but the plan was not successful. Realizing that a massive project entailing federal funds would bring the necessary improvements, a Deep Water Committee, comprising leading Galveston entrepreneurs, petitioned both state and federal representatives for help in constructing a first-rate port. In 1890, Galveston citizens, led by Colonel William (p.20) L. Moody, who stood to gain a fortune in the cotton trade, secured $7.5 million in federal aid for the construction of a deep water port. After that, large vessels frequented the harbor and required the improvement of the Galveston wharves. The Galveston Wharf Company, owned partly by private interests and partly by the city, extended its wharves, built new warehouses and elevators, and earned the reputation “of having the best wharves and warehouse accommodations of any city.” With deep water and improved wharves, Galveston by 1898 shipped 64 percent of the Texas cotton crop to world markets and by 1900 “was the leading cotton port of the nation.”10

Shipping required railroads and steamship lines, and Galveston already had both. The Galveston, Houston, and Henderson rail line, which ran to Houston, was built in 1858 and by 1876 was in the hands of John Sealy, who standardized the track gauge, linking Galveston to the transcontinental railroads. Eventually the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway—financed in part by citizens who resented the power Houston wielded over rail traffic—stretched from Kansas City to the Island City bringing grain, cattle, and cotton from the great Midwest. These were carried away in freighter vessels owned by various individuals and companies, among them the Texas and New York Steamship Company, Harris and Morgan line, and the C. H. Mallory line, which served the city for more than fifty years.11

Galveston led the way in technology that advanced business and improved living comfort. Communication from the island to markets outside the city and the state began in 1854 when the first telegraph service opened. Far more practical items came over the wire, however, as Galveston began to receive national weather reports. John Downey, as if forecasting dreadful events, wrote to his sister in 1885: “Before RR and telegraph lines we seldom knew of the weather far off until weeks or months. Now we hear all about the weather in extreme sections and are warned by signal service reports by telegrams and the signal lights (of different colors according to the weather looming) are seen all nights as a warning. … We know at once or in a few minutes, what weather to expect the coming day and ships stay in harbor till the danger is over.” More advances came with the telephone. Galvestonians claimed that they introduced telephones to the state of Texas in 1878 and opened the first telephone exchange in 1879. The two earliest patrons were cotton brokerage firms, but within a month 101 subscribers had joined the telephone exchange, and in 1883 the first long distance service to Houston opened. Soon proprietors of smaller businesses, shops, and groceries, as well as the police station found the telephone a valuable asset, especially when the idea caught on for home use. Gas for heating and artificial lighting came to the city in 1856; electrification superseded gas in January 1882 when the Brush Electric Light Company cranked up twenty-eight arc lamps at the old ice house at Twenty-Sixth and Post Office streets. John Downey fairly exulted: “We have electric lights over most of the city except when we have bright moonshine.” Businesses, city street lamps, trolley cars, and homes were all using the “new urban power source” by 1891.12

The harbor, railroads, shipping lines, and communication networks provided excellent export-import prospects for enterprising capitalists. Dry goods wholesalers and retailers, printers and lithographers, book binders, furniture dealers, piano sellers, jewelers, luggage purveyors, and boot and shoe makers, not to mention the (p.21) more commonly found butchers, grocers, cigar and tobacco vendors, liquor sellers, coal dealers, dressmakers, grain dealers, and auctioneers, all benefited from the city's premier trading position. A sizable commercial base preceded the Civil War, when entrepreneurs like Henry Rosenberg, George Ball, Joseph Osterman, James Moreau Brown, John Henry Hutchings, and John Sealy began trade that carried over into the postwar period. With commercial opportunities flowing into town, the wholesale and retail business worth approximated $50 million by 1885. Successful businesses, such as Marx and Kempner wholesalers, Clarke and Courts printers, and the Galveston Dry Goods Company, continued to grow, adding to their capital stock, their facilities, and their prospects for trade in the greater South and Midwest. As Walter Graver reminisced, the “Strand [was] lined with next-door to next-door wholesale business houses that supplied not only all of Texas but the western part of Louisiana, Arkansas, Indian Territory, New Mexico and the Northern part of Old Mexico, with all the merchandise and commodities they needed.” The result, he found, was that within fifteen years after the Civil War the city had become wealthy, “with more millionaires than any city of comparable size.” Boosterism aside, statistics show that long-term prospects for the city were indeed good. Galveston in 1915 (even after the hurricane destruction of 1900) exported nearly $230 million worth of cotton, cattle, grain, and crude oil while importing more than $10 million in manufactured items and luxuries.13

Cotton, of course, was the major export item. As railroads began to enter Texas, linking the interior of the state with cities to the north and east, Galveston merchants sought ways to keep cotton flowing through their hands rather than through factors in midwestern cities. In 1873, twelve cotton brokers gathered and formed the Galveston Cotton Exchange. They adopted standards of classification, adjusted controversies between members, and maintained uniform rules, regulations, and usages, thereby collectively helping Galveston's up-and-coming cotton dealers. Soon after, the Exchange contracted with the Western Union Telegraph Company for service at a cost of $565 per month; thus, the brokers were connected by telegraph to world cotton markets.14

The moment of Galveston's departure from frontier status to sophisticated city came in 1879, when wealthy citizens dedicated the new Cotton Exchange Building, an ornate, four-story structure at the corner of Twenty-first and Mechanic streets. A formal ball, the society spectacle of the year, marked the occasion. Wives and daughters of the city's elite, as if to announce their own entrance into a world of respectability, danced in finery never before seen in this southern town. ‘Ten years later, members changed the name to Galveston Cotton Exchange and Board of Trade, indicating that the Exchange had expanded to include a market for futures and for wholesalers of grain, coffee, and produce. Brokerage firms within the Exchange prospered until “exports reached the 1 million bales mark in 1891.” Out of the Exchange developed the Galveston Maritime Association, a company of ship agents who inspected cotton for its uniformity. “It is an age of venture and recklessness,” wrote one fellow working in a cotton brokerage on the Strand, “it is the rule rather than the exception for men to steal themselves rich when opportunity offers. … It requires a firm and fixed character to go safely through the strife and take the position of ‘poor but honest’ and to follow the ‘golden rule.’” (p.22) Whether acquired honestly or ruthlessly, fortunes were made through cotton and its related industries for a few enterprising Galvestonians: William Moody, P. J. Willis, Julius Runge, J. G. Goldthwaite, William F. Ladd, and Bertrand Adoue, to name a few.15

Cotton factoring and brokering gave rise to another lucrative business: compressing. Competition swelled in the postwar boom between cotton press owners, many of whom forged companies as newly invented mechanical devices improved the compression of bales. With the invention of the Taylor press in 1876, vessels were able to carry 25 percent more cotton. By 1893, five major cotton presses worth more than $1 million were able to handle 6,000 bales a day, 300,000 bales a year; employ 550 men; and store cotton in warehouses that covered fourteen city blocks. Without exaggeration, in postwar Galveston, cotton was king.16

Railroading, shipping, merchandising, and cotton factoring brought in enough capital for Galveston to become a banking center as well. The interdependence of commerce and banking dates to the antebellum period, when banks, especially those controlled outside the state, were looked upon with suspicion by Texas legislators. Banking houses in Texas's early years were more likely extensions of cotton factor and commission houses. By 1866, Galveston banking concerns were complying with the 1862 federal National Banking Act, and legitimate banking houses opened on the Strand, the city's main trading street. The First National Bank, founded in 1866, “commenced business with a cash capital of $200,000, with authority to increase to $500,000.” In 1869 the directors elected to the bank presidency Henry Rosenberg, whose business acumen and enormous philanthropic gifts to the city are now legendary. The local but important Ball, Hutchings & Company (later Hutchings, Sealy & Company), which opened as a banking enterprise in the 1850s, by 1885 was rated as “having greater resources than any bank in the South.” It was responsible for taking the plans for the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railroad in hand in 1879 and seeing the road to completion; it continued its financial interests in the Galveston Wharf Company and handled accounts for cotton, grain, and other staple commodities in connection with shipping. Cotton and banking joined hands in the firms of W. L. Moody & Company; in City National Bank, founded in 1907 by William L. Moody, Jr.; and in the Texas Bank and Trust Company, which later became United States National Bank under Isaac H. Kempner. The three principal families of wealth in twentieth-century Galveston—Scaly, Moody, and Kempner—were tied directly to banking.17

Some of Galveston's wealth spilled over into industries and manufacturing, but the city never claimed manufacturing as one of its primary commercial pursuits. In 1880 Galveston ranked among the lowest ten in the top 100 manufacturing cities of the nation; its net product reached just over $1 million. City manufactories did increase in the years between 1880 and 1900 from 170 establishments to 295, and the additional establishments more than doubled the labor force and the gross value of products. Galveston supported a brewery, a baggage and cordage company, several cotton oil mills, a vinegar and pickle works, a cracker company, a candy factory, several foundries, and ice and cold storage plants. City manufactories made hats, soap, barrels, bricks, asphalt, sashes and blinds, brooms, lime, (p.23) and apple cider. Texas Star Flour and Rice Mills, which processed grains for shipment to the West Indies and Central America, became one of the largest food processing mills in the state. The Galveston Cotton and Woolen Mills, a West End (of the island) manufacturing plant headed by local elites, provided employment for 650 textile workers, most of whom earned pitiful wages for long hours of tedious work. The fact that Galveston had so few of these textile sweat shops (and the Galveston Cotton and Woolen Mills closed before 1900) added somewhat to the illusion that life in the city was pleasant for almost all of its citizens. Most manufacturers served the local market by supplying the city with such necessities as boots, saddles and harnesses, clothing, bread and confections, furniture, guns and locks, smithing of all sorts, printing and publishing, carpentering, carriages and wagons, bottling works, cooperage, tombstones, lumber, and ironworks.18

For skilled workmen Galveston offered multiple avenues of employment on ships, wharves, railroads, ironworks, and in carpentry, metalwork, and in lumber mills. The proliferation of trade unions toward the end of the century gives a clue to the diversity of the laboring population. Among the strongest and oldest were the Screwmen's Benevolent Associations, separate organizations for blacks and whites, which protected the interests of men who stowed bales of cotton in the holds of ships. Longshoremen, pilots, typesetters, tailors, painters, marine engineers, tinsmiths, mechanics, sheet iron and cornice workers, boilermakers, and barbers, to name a few, had formed some thirty trade unions by 1895. But most of the unskilled remained unorganized as manufactories increased in number. Industries employed 1,600 workers in 1890 and more than 2,000 in 1900; among these were 333 women and 132 children. The average annual wages of the women were $235; the average salaries of the children were $171, compared to the 1,593 men who averaged $553 per annum. Over time the salaries decreased and the hours lengthened. In 1895, women textile workers earned ninety cents a day for a sixty-six-hour week, eleven and a quarter hours five days a week and nine and a quarter hours on Saturday. Owners docked their pay as much as five to fifteen cents for errors made usually at the end of their shifts. As more women entered the workforce, they did so at greatly reduced wages and in harsher conditions, which may help explain why Galveston also had a thriving red light district.19

Women with other skills found a slightly wider range of opportunity among the usual sex-segregated jobs. Eight midwives and five hairdressers advertised their services in the 1875 business directory. The millinery and dressmaking professions had “reached an exquisite degree of perfection … given the closest study by … ladies of rare taste”; so oozed Charles Hayes in 1883. Of the thirty-nine boarding houses listed in the business directory of 1881, thirty belonged to women. In this same decade more women owned private schools than did men, and more women in religious orders managed schools than did male clerics. Of the seventy teachers hired by the public school system in 1887, fifty-eight were women—fifty-one white women to four men; seven African American women to eight men. Of the six principals in white public schools, two were women. African American women, on the other hand, were outnumbered by male colleagues: male principals presided over all three “colored public schools.” The only private school listed for African Americans in the city directory was owned by a man. Nobody said women (p.24) had to be excluded from the commercial life of the city, and in 1881 one woman owned a tobacco store, another an oyster market, and two others coffee and chocolate stands; of the 105 grocery stores in the city, women owned seventeen. The truly lucrative businesses—cotton factoring, railroading, shipping, and banking—listed no women as owners or members of the boards of directors.20

Galveston's commercial base was a male enterprise, and, while wealth was mainly derived from cotton, shipping, and banking, such other concerns as law firms, insurance companies, newspapers, utility plants, waterworks, electric trolleys, hospitals, the public school system (1881), the University of Texas Medical School (1891), and fire and police departments all contributed to employment in a thriving city. Small shops, dairies, fishing businesses, drayage and livery services, mortuaries, and many more of the accoutrements of urban life provided income for hundreds of families.

As a seaport Galveston attracted a good number of merchant seamen and sailors who came ashore looking for adventure and usually found it in numerous “pleasure dens.” The Reverend Ralph Albert Scull recalled that “the majority of the laborers drank and played cards”; he added candidly that saloon keeper “Ike Rector had a flourishing place at Post Office and 25th. Rector added the women to his place and did a rushing business.” In 1880, Galveston offered up 489 liquor saloons—more saloons than any city of its size and more than any port on the Gulf Coast, including New Orleans. Disgruntled citizens voiced their complaints in newspapers to little avail: “Every one who lays claim to decency regards [the Belle Poole Saloon] as a nuisance and at times deafening noises emanate from its portals and shock the ears of pedestrians.” Although the evidence is difficult to acquire, the Island City probably had as many as fifty-five brothels. Drunkenness and prostitution were illegal activities, but citizens tolerated vice, no doubt for the profits associated with these dens of iniquity. Instead of closing down houses of ill fame, police arrested the ladies of the night; the courts fined them and set them free, giving the city a little extra revenue. Through whatever means, Galvestonians by 1891 boasted that theirs was “the wealthiest city in the world of its size.”21

On the other hand, Galvestonians were worshipful people. In 1900, the city claimed no fewer than forty-five congregations: eight black and four white Baptist churches; four black and four white Methodist churches; one black and four white Episcopal parishes; one black and four white Catholic parishes; four Presbyterian and three Lutheran churches, two Jewish synagogues, and an assortment of Disciples of Christ, Christian Scientists, Swedenborgians, and Spiritualists. Likewise, citizens enjoyed one another's company to the extent that they created several hundred societies and clubs. The city directory listed no fewer than sixty-five white church and synagogue societies (of which thirty-one were women's and twenty were youth's led by women), six charitable institutions (all managed by women), and clubs of every description for men and women. These listings do not begin to show the full extent of associational life in Galveston, for these directories seldom included the organizations of African Americans beyond churches and schools.22

Galveston by 1900 supported an urban elite accustomed to sophistications beyond the reach of most southerners. Those who belonged to this privileged (p.25) group (probably less than 10 percent of the city's population) represented a greater cross section of the world's populace than one might think, as foreigners and Americans alike moved up from humble beginnings to wealthy status. A swell of immigrants entered the island in the 1850s; many stayed and were joined by others after the Civil War. Swiss-born Henry Rosenberg, Harris Kempner of Poland, Morritz Kopperl of Moravia, Samson Heidenheimer of Württenberg, and J. L. Darragh of Ireland were just a few of the Europeans who added to the native-born American mix. Among African Americans, who composed approximately 20 percent of the city's population, Norris Wright Cuney and his brother Joseph should be considered “aristocrats of color.” Dr. Mary S. Moore, Dr. James Moore, Dr. J. H. Wilkins, newspaper editors William H. Noble and W. H. Bearden, and educators John R. Gibson and the Reverend Ralph Albert Scull were representative of an educated black middle class. The city's ethnicity more heavily reflected the heritage of northern and western Europe than that of Mexico and Latin America; approximately 40 percent of Galveston's residents claimed English, German, Irish, or French ancestry, whereas the 1900 census shows only 156 foreign-born residents from Latin America.23

The German influence was so strong in Galveston that for years the Lutheran and German Catholic churches performed services in their native language; German newspapers flourished, and beer gardens, open to the public, hosted bands, family recreation, and, of course, beer. Schmidt's Garden “was planted out in large mulberry, chinaberry and straggling cedar trees. Under these were long tables and benches, a band stand was at one end of the garden where a splendid German Band played and there was an open dance floor, and swings for the little children, at the tables foaming glasses of beer could be had[,] sour kraut, wienerwursts and liver sandwiches with heaps of pretzels.” The Garten Verein Pavilion, built in 1876 as an exclusive social club by the “best German families,” boasted membership by the city's white elite regardless of ethnicity. Margaret Sealy Burton remembered that every Wednesday afternoon and evening, her family and their servants went to enjoy the park; the children came “to play on the swings, seesaws, sliding pole or the trapeze.” The young adults danced inside the pavilion to the tune of a “splendid orchestra.” Young ladies showed off their finery of “ruffled organdies, point de sprit, lawns and embroidered East India princess frocks.” The mothers, nurses, and grandmothers “sat under the spreading trees at green tables and yellow benches, listening to the music. … tiny tots sitting in their baby buggies, lined with pink and blue … bouncing up and down to the strains of the music.” Often families brought their dinners in huge picnic baskets but were assisted by German waiters “with flowing yellow mustaches and red perspiring faces, carrying black trays with platters of cold meats, salads, and steins of beer. Their long white aprons flying out before them in the wind like bellied sails on a schooner.”24

Travelers noted that the privileged classes were intent on making Galveston a city for living the good life southern style. To reach a state of gracious leisure required honing talents for amassing wealth with seeming ease. Julian Ralph found members of the prestigious Aziola Club, “well-to-do men of cosmopolitan tastes and experiences, gourmets, lovers of art and literature, music, and such ease as (p.26)

                      Disaster Strikes the Island City

FIGURE 1.1. Garten Verein Pavilion and Park before 1900. Courtesy Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

our best element gets in America, where every one works hard six days in the week.” Leslie Brand thought he had the last word on Galveston's denizens: “The place strikes one as a sleepy, old fashioned, lazy and easy going little city, whose inhabitants live for ease more than for money.”25 Actually, white-collar Galvestonians worked long hours to acquire a standard of living that allowed them to seem at ease, affording them the appearance of cultured southern gentility. The point was to make money as rapidly as possible so one could enjoy its fruits, build architecturally interesting dwellings, travel, attend cultural events, invest in civic benevolence, and be at home in polite society.

Cultural entertainments, many of them locally produced, added to the city's image of refinement in this, “the most southern of all Texas cities.” The Artillery Ball, grandest and oldest of Galveston's exclusive events, resembled the St. Cecilia Society Ball of Charleston for its exclusivity and snobbery and remained a gatekeeper for the city's upper social classes. Mardi Gras, created for the masses but enjoyed in exclusive parties by the wealthy, reminded longtime residents that Galveston (p.27)

                      Disaster Strikes the Island City

FIGURE 1.2. Garten Verein Pavilion and Park before 1900. Courtesy Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

was at heart a Catholic city, even if its civic leaders were mostly Protestant and Jewish. Beginning in 1867, Mardi Gras captured the romantic imaginations of young women fortunate enough to be invited to the masquerade ball. Invitations came by coach; Margaret Sealy Burton remembered “the blast of the long coach horn, from the trumpeter that stood at the back of the golden coach drawn by six snow white horses, as it dashed up to each favored door. … The herald, who delivered the golden card … was dressed in red velvet; the postillions were in silver cloth[,] and the King, as he sat inside, was [a] triumph in Turquoise satin, embroidered in heavily precious jewels. … It was a regular Cinderella coach … Oh! for the days of romance once more, roses, Valentines, and love letters of poetry, gallantry, chivalry, modesty and deference.”26

Not everyone agreed. “There is a constant succession of attractions going on (p.28) in Galveston—I think more than is good for the quiet and prosperity of the pleasure seekers,” counseled John Downey to his sister in North Carolina. “The theater goes on all the winter and the Rolling Seating [sic] rink near the Beach Hotel has been the cause for months[,] and in the summer Ball play in the Beach Park is all the go[,] and even Sunday does not conflict with many of these amusements.” As the state's center of trade and culture, Galveston offered up theater at the Tremont Opera House just after the war and at the Grand Opera House after 1895. Lawrence Levine writes that “the theater, like the church, was one of the earliest and most important cultural institutions established in frontier cities.” Performances by Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt dazzled genteel audiences, while variety shows, minstrels, troubadours, circuses, and traveling performers offered the masses of Galvestonians more excitement than did most southern towns. More frequently, however, the city's histrionic societies, glee clubs, quartettes, and orchestras— filled with women—helped introduce “culture” to Galvestonians while giving voice to local performers.27

The Island City had always provided spectacular palm tree and ocean vistas, but, with the accumulation of wealth, its structural environment became equally arresting. James Moreau Brown, a hardware store owner, banker, and president of the Galveston, Houston & Henderson Railroad, in 1859 built the finest and most expensive house on the island. Ashton Villa, a three-story brick Italianate “suburban residence,” cost $14,000, not including the $4,000 lots on the corner of Broadway and Twenty-fourth. It stands today, a museum home, a symbol of the wealth that accumulated early in the city and carried over into the postwar years. With

                      Disaster Strikes the Island City

FIGURE 1.3. Ashton Villa, built by James Moreau Brown in 1859. Courtesy Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

(p.29) war and depression behind them and with cotton bringing in unimaginable sums, antebellum elites, as well as postwar Galvestonians who achieved elite status, changed the architectural character of the city after 1873 to reflect the new prosperity. By then Nicholas Clayton, a native of Ireland, had arrived to begin his career creating solid buildings lightened by the ebullience of stone tracery. He was the first professional architect to remain in Texas; his initial design, the Block-Oppenheimer Building on the Strand, began his long commitment to embellishing the city's natural beauty. Over a period of thirty years he designed buildings for the mightly and the humble, from the Hutchings Sealy Bank building and the Gresham House (Bishop's Palace) to the city's poor farm. As architects added a touch of class to the commercial district, so too were common neighborhoods transformed. Elegant, fanciful, and thoroughly Victorian, the city's residential sections took on the flavor of the era of carpenter Gothic, as wooden gingerbread ornaments adorned simple frame houses. Architectural historians identify a typical Galveston style that included variations of Victorian design combined with the practical necessities of sleeping porches and galleries (verandas) for the warm climate. John Downey took pride in his “upstairs room with north and south galleries and doors and windows for the most delightful sea breeze,” and he gloried in his view of the “finest streets and Beach drives and street cars and the Gulf and ships and steamers, all in full view.” With thousands of buildings in place by 1900, surrounded by an azure sea and a calm harbor, Galveston resembled a glistening jewel—a “shining palace built upon the sand.”28

There was little to suggest that 1900 would prove to be the worst year of Galveston's history or that the city would receive a blow from which it would never entirely recover. As in most midsized towns, citizens of the Island City had welcomed the new century with romantic expectations of renewed prosperity. The twentieth century—the modern century—promised a continuation in growth. City population had climbed from a mere village of 7,000 in 1860 to a city of 38,000 in 1900. The depression of the 1890s was over, William McKinley and fiscal conservatism reigned in Washington, and businessmen glowed expectantly over the prospects of increased trade. Since cotton production was on the rise, importers and traders saw nothing but high times ahead. Nobody guessed that the good fortune of the principal port city of Texas would be devastated by the weather.

Newspaper accounts just prior to the storm of September 8, 1900, gave no hint of the disaster to follow. Headlines chronicled the news: Americans were concerned over Russian aggression in northern China and feared the threat of attack by Chinese Boxers in Peking. While the U. S. government had committed 5,000 Americans troops to China, in another part of the world the Taft Commission had declared the Filipinos incapable of ruling themselves. On the domestic front, the papers showed concern over William Jennings Bryan running again on the Populist and Democratic tickets. Locally, city officials quibbled over the latest census report that placed the city at 37,789 citizens—too low a figure according to the compilers of the Galveston city directories. No headline indicated that a cataclysm was approaching. No front-page weather reports of impending disaster penetrated the calm.29 (p.30)

                      Disaster Strikes the Island City

FIGURE 1.4. Bishop's Palace, built by Walter Gresham in 1893. Courtesy Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

News that a storm was brewing in the Caribbean reached the island as early as Tuesday, September 4. By Friday, September 7, the storm, now a hurricane, was in the Gulf of Mexico and storm-warning flags went up as Dr. Isaac M. Cline, chief of the Galveston Weather Bureau, issued news of the approaching hurricane to telephone callers. No defenses lined the coast except for a few salt cedars planted at shore's edge; no seawall protected the densely packed houses upon an island whose elevation stood no higher than nine feet at its tallest point. No lessons had been learned from the hurricane of 1875 that brought winds of over 100 miles per hour and left 176 dead.30 The city stood naked and vulnerable to nature's cruel might.

Saturday morning brought mother-of-pearl skies and a mild wind that reached twenty-four miles per hour by 10 A.M. Isaac Cline noted that the barometer was dropping and the tide had begun to invade the lowest parts of the island. Worried, he harnessed his horse and wagon and rode up and down the beaches warning playful sightseers of the danger that lurked at sea. Although the temperature at n A.M. was a pleasant 82.8 degrees, heavy rain began to fall; the barometer at 29.417 was still plummeting, and winds of thirty miles per hour whipped the red and black storm warning flags atop the Levy Building. By 2 P.M. the tide, now six feet above normal and driven by a north wind, slammed against the wharves and railroad tracks facing Galveston Bay. The last train filled with unsuspecting passengers drove into the city sometime after noon; none followed because the tracks on the west end of the bay went under water, effectively cutting off the island from the mainland.31

The flooding of homes and businesses began that afternoon. When the waters (p.31) came over the doorsill of her home, Louisa Rollfing begged her husband to find them a safer place. He hired a driver and buggy, who took Louisa and their three children toward the West End to relatives. “It was a terrible trip, we could only go slowly for the electric wires were down everywhere. … We got as far as 40th Street,” but “the water was so high … the horse was up to his neck in [it.]” John Newman reported that the waters in the streets of the business section came up to his waist. Ida Austin, who only the night before had given a “beautiful and well-attended moonlight fete” at her home on Market Street, heard a man running and shouting, “‘My God! The waters of the bay and the gulf have met on Fifteenth Street.’ … In an incredibly short time,” she noted, the salt water “surged over the gallery driven by a furiously blowing wind. Trees began to fall[;] slate shingles, planks and debris of every imaginable kind were being hurled thro the air. We brought our cow on the gallery to save her life,” she wrote, “but soon had to take her in the dining room where she spent the night.” Ida Austin opened all the doors of her house and let the water flow in. Three feet of salt water covered the downstairs floors; the wind ripped at the frames, blinds, sashes, and draperies, leaving no protection from the driving rain. Water poured in through the damaged upstairs windows and then dripped through to the lower levels bringing down a mess of plaster and paper.32

Wind velocity increased to possibly 120 miles per hour that evening. The wind gauge atop the weather bureau registered 100 miles per hour before blowing away at 5:10 P.M. The barometer dropped to 28.48 inches, its lowest point, between 8 and 9 P.M. on September 8, but the storm raged on until morning. Louisa Rollfing and her three children found refuge with relatives, where they nailed ironing boards and table tops across the doors and windows downstairs. As the water rose inside the house, the families retreated to the upstairs hall, where they witnessed the devastation. “We soon heard the blinds and windows break in the rooms upstairs. … It sounded as if the rooms were filled with a thousand little devils, shrieking and whistling. In the rooms downstairs the furniture, even the piano, slid from one side of the room to the other and then back again.” The kitchen broke off from the house when the water reached seven feet inside, and finally the whole house jolted off its pillars, but the families remained unharmed. Henry M. Wolfram, after securing safety for his wife and children in a brick building, returned to his home only to find it lurching off its foundations. He managed “to grasp the rafters” and there spent the next five hours.33

Not all were as fortunate. In the howling darkness homes were shattered, their occupants flung into the roily sea, some to survive, many to perish beneath the collapsing structures. Isaac M. Cline, after warning citizens of the impending disaster, found his own home at Twenty-fifth Street and Avenue Q in trouble. The water climbed ten feet above ground until finally, knocked off its base by debris, wind, and water, the house with fifty sojourners inside collapsed into the sea. Thirty-two of the fifty, including his wife, drowned. Later, workers recovered the body of Mrs. Cline under the structure that had once been her home. Cline, along with his three children and brother, clung to the floating debris for three hours, dodging flying timbers, resisting tearing wind and rain, hoping to find shelter in the utter darkness. Cline reports that many people were “killed on top of (p.32) the drifting debris by flying timbers after they had escaped from their wrecked homes.” At St. Mary's Catholic Orphanage, next to the sea on the island's West End, Mother Superior Camillus prepared the children for rescue by tying several of them together with pieces of clothesline. But before 8 P.M. the roof blew in on the innocents, and the orphanage vanished completely, ninety-one of the children and all ten of the sisters gone. One of the sisters was found with nine orphans tied to her cincture. Two other sistersʼ bodies were found at the far north end of Galveston Bay. Three teenage boys, sole survivors of the orphanage, were thrown into the water and managed to stay afloat on a drifting tree for two days.34

Others were luckier; they found safety in the city's more substantial houses and public buildings. Ash ton Villa, at Broadway and Twenty-fourth, one of the highest points of the island, became a sturdy refuge for those who could make it to her doors. Even so, the flood waters climbed to six feet inside the first floor. Down the street the Sealy mansion, Open Gates, was transformed into a way station for 400. The Tremont Hotel, near the Strand, sheltered 1,000 people; the Union Passenger Station housed 100. Henry Johnson recalled running away from his collapsing boarding house on Avenue I, grabbing a broom to push away floating debris as he made his way to rescue teams. “Dere was a lot of de men what live in de neighborhood helping de people to leave. … Dere was one thing ‘bout those men, white or colored it didn' make no diffrunce wit’ ʼem. Dey treat ʼem all ʼlike.” Johnson was taken to the train station where he observed “white people an’ colored people … all bundled up dere together.” Daniel Ransom formed a one-man rescue operation. He had built his own home on Avenue R near the beach and practiced swimming across the bay from the island to the mainland. The house began to rock about four o'clock that afternoon, when he jumped into the water and swam out over his picket fence into the maelstrom. “I swam for two and one-half hours and rescued forty-five people from houses that had blowed down or was just about to, and swam with them to a brick building where hundreds of people were.” Finally, John Newman found refuge in a “public house” near the Strand. He recounts, “As I stood on the floor the water reached me up to my neck, and the barman was standing on the counter serving customers with drinks. Talk about devotion to duty!” Newman stayed only long enough to fill his flask with brandy; venturing out into the night, he swam until he could climb onto the upstairs balcony of a private home. He talked his way into the house, paid thirty cents for a room with a bed, and slept the rest of the night “whilst outside, the elements seemed to have gone stark crazy.”35

Catholic churches, hospitals, convents, and monasteries took in more refugees than any other temporary asylums. St. Mary's Infirmary became a hospice not only for its own patients but also for the patients of the county hospital, many of whom were carried a quarter of a block to safety through waist-deep water. Sacred Heart Church and St. Mary's University, which adjoined each other, secured 400 refugees. The Ursuline Convent gathered 1,000 people into its sheltering walls, including four women in labor who delivered live babies in the midst of the howling storm. The infants were christened immediately as no one could foresee the outcome of that dreadful night. While death pulled many into its grasp, life forces, sometimes in astonishing ways, resisted. One child, William Henry Heideman, (p.33) born that night represents the triumph of life. His mother, in the throes of labor, was tossed out into the waters after her house collapsed. She landed on a cottage roof but was thrown from the roof into a floating trunk where she traveled with the current until colliding into the convent walls. Rescuers brought her into the convent and several hours later William Henry was born. Meanwhile, Mrs. Heideman's brother, trapped in a tree outside the convent, heard the cry of a child afloat and caught the little fellow by the hand. It was Mrs. Heideman's other son. Again rescuers brought the pair into the safety of the convent where the family—what was left of it—reunited.36

When the survivors emerged from their shelters Sunday morning, they were greeted by the pealing bells of the Ursuline convent amidst scenes of incredible destruction. Sarah Littlejohn, daughter of school principal E. G. Littlejohn, described in wonderment the view from her home at Thirty-seventh Street and Avenue O 1/2: “We looked out of the window and of all the beautiful homes that were between our house and the beach not one was left. It is just a clean sweep; nothing but desolation.” When Louisa Rollfing's husband reached their own neighborhood, he found, “Nothing! Absolutely nothing! The ground was as clear of anything as if it had been swept, not even a little stick of wood or anything for blocks and blocks.” Gid Sherer exaggerated only slightly when he wrote that “every house in the East End went in the storm, except a few large Buildings. You would not know the city now if you should see it.” Henry Wolfram, grateful that his family had survived, wrote sadly, “Here we stand father, mother and seven children, looking upon the ruins of our once cozy home, all that was left us, excepting the few clothes upon our backs and barefooted. … The period of our married life, its cherished accumulations, all these years of toil, thrift, devotion and ambition, to see them ruthlessly crushed and torn from us, the feelings, the emotions and all that this inspires, is best imagined by you, than pictured by me.” Despite his sorrow, he knew he had been lucky; among those he met the morning after the storm, many who had ventured out to help others had lost their entire families and were left to recover alone.37

Sunday dawned bright and pleasant as if to mock the horror over which the day presided. “Oh what a glorious morning it was,” wrote John Newman.

The sun spread its golden robe over a new creation. … huge areas were entirely denuded of houses and trees, and the general aspect completely changed. Here and there were tangled masses of telephone wires and overhead electric cables. Huge piles of timber flung here, there, and everywhere by the raging elements during the previous night—demolished human dwelling houses, stables, byres, and warehouses, under which were buried beneath the debris both man and beast. Sorrow and sadness everywhere. Parents searching for their children, among the dead and injured. Weeping children looking for their parents. Husbands inquiring for their wives, and heartbroken almost hysterical women [searching] for their beloved ones.38

Survivors sought food while those who had not lost their all, including hotel kitchens and cafes, proffered nourishment to the destitute. Cook stoves still standing were put to work and smells of coffee wafted across the sodden ruins.

(p.34) Nothing like this had happened to any American city. The storm killed at least 6,000 of 38,000 citizens in a fifteen-hour period. It demolished or damaged beyond repair approximately 4,000 or nearly two-thirds of the city's structures, and it destroyed between $17 and $30 million worth of property. Water had completely covered the island and flooded the city to a level, in some places, of fifteen feet when the tide from the Gulf of Mexico met Galveston Bay.39

Not a single public structure in Galveston escaped damage. The hurricane blew away the bridges to the mainland and damaged the central water works system, so the city had no water for days. The wharf suffered severe wreckage; ships anchored in the bay were sent reeling off in the raging storm to land ten—even twenty-two—miles away from deep water. The Marx and Blum Building on Mechanic Street was reduced from four stories to one; city hall lost its roof and much of its upper story; the Galveston Orphansʼ Home and the Letitia Rosenberg Women's Home, large stone structures, stood but with their roofs caved in. School after school on the island reported damage—and this with the fall term just beginning. One entire wall of the Bath Avenue School dropped away, exposing a collapsed third floor with pupilsʼ desks still attached in neat rows. The storm destroyed East District School for African American children and drowned seven of the teachers. The pupils from East District and the damaged Central High School doubled up for the fall term at tiny West District School at Thirty-fifth Street, the only safe public school structure available to black students. Black citizens complained nearly one year later that trustees of the school board had not yet rebuilt the East District School.40

Hardest hit, ironically, were the churches. African American churches—fourteen in all—suffered the most; every single structure was demolished. Among the white Protestant churches, the storm destroyed totally twenty-two (five of them brick) and damaged twelve. Those religions structures that sustained less damage became host sanctuaries for neighboring congregations: members of the African American St. Augustine Episcopal Church met in Eaton Chapel, the only usable part of Trinity Episcopal Church; Methodists met in the Central Christian Church; and members of First Baptist met in the Jewish synagogue. Martha Poole remembers sadly but gratefully the neighborliness of the congregation at Temple B'nai Israel. “The awful storm of 1900 swept away all our church buildings and 50 of our members. … We were in despair, but God helped us. Our neighbors, the Jews, opened the doors of the synagogue to us, like genuine Christians; although their building was greatly damaged. I changed my seat there four times one Sunday, to escape a wetting.” No Catholic church sustained more damage than the towering St. Patrick's Church at the city's West End. Its lofty spire, 220 feet tall, broke in half and came crashing down upon the nave of the church, slicing through brick, lumber, and tiles, exposing the interior of the sanctuary to utter ruin. Only four small stained glass windows and two altars remained. At one of the altars, “every morning since the storm the priest of the parish has held service,” wrote Father James M. Kirwin. St. Mary's Cathedral, the oldest church on the island, sustained the least damage among Catholic churches. Parishioners took hope from the revelation that the statue of Mary, Star of the Sea, placed atop (p.35)

                      Disaster Strikes the Island City

FIGURE 1.5. Bath Avenue School, 1900. Courtesy Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

the cathedral after the storm of 1875 as a guardian, remained in place even though a two-ton bell was torn from its fastenings within the cathedral tower.41

The area of the city that suffered the most damage stretched in a 1,500-acre crescent from the far east end of the island at Eighth Street diagonally across Broadway to the shore and away to the west end of the island beyond Forty-fifth Street. As if some huge arm had moved across the island, the storm swept away whole neighborhoods and left only a denuded stretch of land from the beach to Avenue P. Structures closest to the gulf had had the least chance of survival; winds drove fifteen- to thirty-foot waves against small clapboard houses, most of which could not withstand the force of water and wind and collapsed with their hapless occupants either buried under the debris or flung out into the tide. Over half of those living near the beach, an estimated 8,000 people, had chosen not to seek shelter within the city's more substantial buildings, leading to extraordinary loss of life. Even more lives were lost when victims ventured or were tossed out in the storm's midst late Saturday afternoon. The hurricane winds loosened from roofs slate tiles, which acted as lethal missiles mutilating those caught in their path. Then, as the houses collapsed, their shattered remains, driven by 100-mile-per-hour winds, acted as battering rams against the buildings north of them. Like a giant scythe, the storm scraped away traces of habitation until it deposited the refuse in a great three-mile-long mound of shattered buildings south of Broadway. (p.36)

                      Disaster Strikes the Island City

FIGURE 1.6. St. Patrick's Church. The 220-foot spire fell, destroying the church nave. Courtesy Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

Within this two-story mountain of detritus rested the remains of houses, barns, furnishings, machinery, dead animals, and sodden human corpses.42

When the waters had receded to expose the work of the storm, survivors spoke of the horror awaiting them in the streets and in the denuded land beyond town. “I hope I never see nothing like dat ʼgain,” remembered Ella Belle Ramsey. “De whole town was tore up. … Anʼ dead people was all over de street anʼ everywhere.” Father Kirwin, on his day-after inspection, found forty-three mangled bodies caught upon the framework of a railroad bridge. A row of salt cedar trees as far west as Heard's Lane held in its branches the twisted bodies of 100 victims. “The horror of such spectacles was increased by the fact that all of the bodies were stripped of clothing.” At first residents underestimated the numbers of dead, thinking the storm had taken perhaps 100, maybe 500. But the enormity of the tragedy unfolded as people began to search for relatives, friends, and neighbors and found bodies littering the streets, floating in waterways, or intertwined within the storm debris. Not all were recognizable, so battered and broken were the remains. Later estimates had it that 3,000 corpses lay buried beneath the mountain of rubble in the middle of the island. Another 1,000 covered the streets and yards; 500 swept out to sea with the receding tide and 500 more were blown to the north end of Galveston Bay. Probably 1,000 on the mainland drowned. Searchers continued to find skeletal remains months later.43

The problem of removal soon became pressing. Survivors sought their dead (p.37)

                      Disaster Strikes the Island City

FIGURE 1.7. Map showing the damage from the Galveston, Texas, storm of September 8, 1900. Shaded portion of the map shows the area of total destruction. Enhanced from an image reproduced courtesy of the Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

and buried them in shallow graves in any available plot of ground. Disposal of the unclaimed was left to the hastily devised Central Relief Committee. At first the bodies were taken to a makeshift morgue near the docks. Volunteers searched for identification and allowed survivors to view the remains for signs of their loved ones. But as the day heated up, and as the numbers of dead swelled past 500, the futility of providing decent burial became apparent. Initially, volunteers tried interment, but the ground was too saturated for mass graves. Despite a shortage of horses and willing hands to carry the dead, the first 700 bodies collected in the makeshift morgues were gathered and sent out on barges for burial at sea. But the remains washed ashore. Ida Austin captured the moment: “The mournful dirges of the breakers which lashed the beach, the sobbing waves and sighing winds, God's great funeral choir, sang their sad requiem around the dead. The sea as though it could never be satisfied with its gruesome work washed these bodies back upon the shore, the waves being the hearses that carried them in to be buried under the sand.”44

In the 88-degree heat of September corpses quickly reached a state of putrefaction before the workers, bribed with whiskey, could remove them from the (p.38) tangled mounds. Finally, at the insistent demand of the city's medical community, the Central Relief Committee decided to burn the bodies in great funeral pyres across the devastated wasteland of the once-thriving port city. The ghastly charnal mounds, as many as twelve at a time, burned for six weeks. Observers said that eyewitness descriptions were inadequate, although many tried to report the desolation. “They gathered up all the dead bodies they could find,” noted Daniel Ransom. “Then they piled them up, just like you cross-pile cord wood, and pour oil all over them and burn them. It sure was a awful sight, but I guess it was all they could do.” Fannie B. Ward of the American Red Cross observed these scenes from across the bay, “Over on Galveston island, a long line of flame, mounting to the heavens, marked the burning of ruined homes and corpses; while other fires, in all directions on the mainland, told of similar ghastly cremations. … Early in the morning a strange odor drew attention to a fresh funeral-pyre, only a few rods away. … That peculiar smell of burning flesh, so sickening at first, became horribly familiar within the next two months, when we lived in it and breathed it, ate it and drank it, day after clay.” Teams of men were pressed into working to clear the island of bodies and debris. They even worked on Sundays because, as the News reported, “It is a holy office to care for the dead and the health of the city demands that the work be continued without interruption until finished.”45

It is difficult to measure the shock and grief that citizens experienced in the aftermath of the disaster. Everyone had lost something; some had lost everything. Some went out of their minds, but more often people responded with determination to carry on. A certain stoicism marked the columns of the Galveston Daily News as it editorialized about the city and its citizens:

The sorrows of the past few days are overwhelming and we all feel them and will continue to feel them so long as we live. It could not be expected that our friends and relatives and loved ones should be so suddenly torn from us without leaving scars from which those in the ranks of maturity can never recover. But it is all in the past now. We can not recall our dead thousands. Whereever they sleep … we will love their memories and recall as long as we live the unspeakable and mysterious tragedy which destroyed them. But it must be remembered that we have more than 30,000 living, and many of these are children too young to have their lives and energies paralyzed by the disaster which has overtaken us. Our homes must be rebuilt, our schools repaired, and the natural advantages of the port must sooner or later receive our earnest attention. We have loved Galveston too long and too well to desert her in the hour of misfortune. Our distress and destitution are going to be relieved. … We must look to the light ahead.46

Hard work was one way of dealing with grief. Ida Austin may have seemed prideful when she described the survivors at labor, but she was not inaccurate. “Galvestonians are a brave people and they are taking heart again and are busy trying to rehabilitate their city and their homes. The necessity of work for all classes has been the salvation of the city. … Galveston will be rebuilt more beautiful, more massive, more enduring than before.”47

Building the city and reshaping its government consumed the efforts of its remaining citizens. Just hours after the storm had blown itself out over New England, survivors organized emergency relief, districted the city by wards, and (p.39) moved ahead with burial, cleaning, and food and supply distribution. Out of the catastrophe also came political reformers who would shape a new generation of civic leaders. The storm had been the great catalyst for this. It demanded the creation of an emergency Central Relief Committee made up primarily of entrepreneurs; brought an elite faction of capitalists openly into politics; stimulated the creation of a city commission form of government; mobilized African Americans to strengthen churches, schools, and civic organizations; and drove white women survivors to create a permanent organization to promote their goals for a better community.

This last group, formed to help shape the future of the city, was the Women's Health Protective Association. Founded in March 1901, six months after the day of wreckage, the WHPA planned a voluntary program to inspect and safeguard the city's cemeteries, streets and alleys, markets and restaurants, sewers, dairies, schools, jails, hospitals, and parks. Within days they launched a vigorous campaign to reinter the remains of storm victims; then they moved to revegetate the island after the city constructed a seawall and raised the island with sand dug from the bay. Their most challenging years came with the campaign to secure pure milk for the infants and children of Galveston, for here they battled the forces of entrepreneurial independence and public indifference. Their civic activism continued through the 1920s, and their efforts spawned other women's civic organizations, not the least of which was a woman suffrage association whose leader, Minnie Fisher Cunningham, went on to become president of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association.

The women who founded the WHPA in 1901 had not suddenly materialized without warning. They were among the most visible white upper- and middleclass women in the city. More important, they responded to the crisis of the storm as they had to other needs within the city: collectively and with a sure sense that theirs was an important role to perform in civic betterment. Where did this confidence come from? Where do we find these reforming origins?

It came from a long legacy, at least thirty years, of activism by the women of Galveston. They had begun to minister to community needs first through their churches and synagogues, then through their own benevolent institutions, and finally through Progressive Era organizations. Reform in Galveston was engendered by genteel women who transformed their churches to accommodate their concerns, created benevolent institutions to care for city dependents, formed women's clubs for edification and to tackle urban problems, and campaigned for equality of voting rights and protection of working women. As we shall see, however, the development of women's confidence and public acceptance came before all reforming efforts. And it began in the city's religious institutions.


(1.) W. J. McGee, “The Lessons of Galveston,” National Geographic Magazine, 11 (October 1900), 377.

(2.) Julian Ralph, “A Recent Journey through the West.” Pt. 8: “Joyous Galveston,” Harper's Weekly, November 9, 1895, 1064.

(3.) Edward King, The Great South, edited by W. Magruder Drake and Robert R. Jones (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, [1874] 1972), 101.

(4.) Leslie C. Brand to Mother, May 11, 1899, Galveston Vertical File (Rosenberg Library, Galveston; hereinafter cited as Rosenberg Library) (first quotation). Clarence Ousley, Galveston in Nineteen Hundred (Atlanta: William C. Chase, 1900), 67. Descriptions of the 1867 yellow fever epidemic may be found in the Amelia Barr Letters (Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin; hereinafter cited as Center for American History); in Amelia Edith Barr, All the Days of My Life (New York: Applcton, 1913), 262–284, 268 (third and fourth quotations); and in Thomas Scargcnt to Annie M. Seargent, August 13, 1867, Thomas Seargent Letter (Rosenberg Library) (second quotation). David G. McComb, Galveston: A History, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 93–96. Kathleen Davis, “Year of Crucifixion: Galveston, Texas,” Texana, 8 No. 2, (1970), 140–153; Peggy Hildreth, “The Howard Association of Galveston: The 18505, Their Peak Years,” East Texas Historical Journal, 17, No. 2 (1979), 33–44. Mildred Cram, Old Seaport Towns of the South (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1917), 325 (fifth quotation). Yellow fever, always imported by migrants to the city from other infected areas, was eventually halted altogether by the effective use of quarantines after 1870.

(5.) King, Great South, 102.

(6.) U.S. Census Office, Report on the Social Statistics of Cities. Pt. 2, 1887, 318. Barr, All the Days of My Life, 268. McComb, Galveston, 23. Margaret Sealy Burton, “I'm Telling You,” typescript, Margaret Sealy Burton Letters (Center for American History).

(7.) King, Great South, 102.

(8.) Leslie C. Brand to Mother, May 11, 1899 (first quotation). Katherine Sherwood MacDowell to Mr. Milliken, May 7, 1877, Katherine Sherwood (Bonner) MacDowell Papers (William R. Perkins Library, Duke University; hereinafter cited as Duke University Library) (second quotation). King, Great South, 108; McComb, Galveston, 23.

(9.) Leslie C. Brand to Mother, May 11, 1899 (first quotation); McComb, Galveston, 69. Walter B. Stevens, The Story of the Galveston Disaster (Galveston: San Luis Press, 1975, rpt. of an article from Munsey's Magazine, December 1900), 5. Ralph, “A Recent Journey through the West,” 1064 (quotations). Burton, “I'm Telling You” (Wollom's Lake quotations).

(10.) Galveston Daily News, June 11, 1906 (first quotation), July 4, 1926; Earl Wesley (p.308) Fornell, The Galveston Era: The Texas Crescent on the Eve of Secession (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961), 16–20; McComb, Galveston, 61 (second quotation). Galveston and Deep Water, pamphlet, in Subjeet Files (Rosenberg Library); D. W. Meinig, Imperial Texas: An Interpretive Essay in Cultural Geography (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969), 57, 61, 63; C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South 2877–1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), 125; Gary Cartwright, Galveston: A History of the Island (New York: Atheneum, 1991), 138–140. Robert H. Peebles, “The Galveston Harbor Controversy of the Gilded Age,” Texana, 12, No. 1 (1974), 74–83; W. Maun-Darst, “Galveston's Harbor Defenses,” Texana, 10 No. 1 (1972), 51–54.

(11.) Galveston Daily News, April 11, 1917, June 16, 1926, December 16, 1928, December 31, 1933. Sam B. Graham, ed., Galveston Community Book: A Historical and Biographical Record of Galveston and Galveston County (Galveston, A. H. Cawston, 1945), 72–74, 78–80; Charles W. Hayes, Galveston: History of the Island and the City (2 vols, Austin: Jenkins Garrett Press, [1879], 1974), Vol. 2, 673–678, 685–688. Isaac H. Kempner, Recalled Recollections (Dallas: Egan Co., 1961), 15. McComb, Galveston, 49–53; John S. Spratt, The Road to Spindletop: Economic Change in Texas, 1875–1901 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970), Chap. 2.

(12.) Galveston Daily News, October 30, 1921, July 4, 1926, January 18, 1932; Galveston Tribune, March 9, 1926, July 5, 1926; John A. Downey to Ann Downey Davis, February 9, 1885, Samuel Smith Downey Papers (Duke University Library), thanks to Jane Turner Censer for this citation; McComb, Galveston, 70, 83, 104 (third quotation). Kenneth Lipartito, The Bell System and Regional Business: The Telephone in the South, 1877–1920 (Baltimore, 1989); and Lipartito, “Whcn Women Were Switches: Technology, Work, and Gender in the Telephone Industry, 1890–1920,” American Historical Review, 99 (October 1994). 1075–1111.

(13.) The best account of Galveston's antebellum commercial history is found in Fornell, The Galveston Era, Chap. 2. John H. Heller, Heller's Galveston Business Directory, 1880–81 (Galveston: 1881), 149–161; Walter E. Grover, “Recollections of Life in Galveston during the 1880s and 1890s,” typescript, Kiney Rygaard File (Rosenberg Library). Success stories abound for Galveston entrepreneurs in the late nineteenth century. See Harold M. Hyman, Oleander Odyssey: The Kempners of Galveston, Texas, 1854–1980s (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1990), 25–37, 87; Galveston Daily News, November 7, 1915, July 22, 1922, July 22, 1923, June 16, July 4, 1926, April 26, 1932, September 9, 1958, February 21, 1971; Houston Chronicle, July 22, 1936; Galveston Tribune, October 25, 1922, September 14, 1932.

(14.) Galveston Daily News, November 5, 1915, September 5, 1920, January 18, 1925, March 21, 1930; April 11, 1942. The first meeting of the Galveston Cotton Exchange was held on June 18, 1873.

(15.) Houston Post, March 3, 1968 (first quotation); William T. Purviauce to Belle Alderman, January n, 1874, Alderman Family Papers (Southern Historical Collection, Chapel Hill, N.C.; hereinafter cited as Southern Historical Collection) (second quotation); Frank Leslie's Illustrated, March 22, 1879, Galveston Daily News, September 5, 1920, March 21, 1930, April 11, 1942. Samuel Chester Griffin, History of Galveston, Texas, (Galveston: A. H. Cawston, 1931), 159, 319–323; Graham, ed., Galveston Community Book, 75–77.

(16.) Galveston Daily News, November 7, 1915, October 1, 1927, April 11, 1942. Col. W. L. Moody founded the Galveston Cotton Compress and Warehouse Company in 1894; it quickly became the largest handler of cotton in the city.

(17.) Hayes, Galveston, Vol. 2, 705 (first quotation); Galveston Daily News, June 16, 1926 (second quotation taken from Ed Morrison's Industries of Galveston, published 1885), February 24, 1935, September 9, 1958. Galveston Tribune, November 26, 1929.

(p.309) (18.) Gross value of industrial products climbed from $2.5 to 5 million between 1880 and igoo. Directors of the Galveston Cotton and Woolen Mills were Albert Weis, J. Reymershoffer, W. F. Ladd, H. A. Landes, D. Herlich, Bertrand Adoue, George Sealy, Morris Lasker, and Julius Runge. Galveston Daily News, June 16, 1926, July 7, 1929, February 28, 1932, March 8, 1932, April n, 1942, October 26, 1958; C. W. Hayes, “Galveston's Progress,” in Morrison and Fourmy's General Directory of the City of Galveston, 1882–1883 (Galveston, 1883), 9–34; hereinafter all city directories cited as City Directory, with appropriate date. U.S. Census Office, Report on the Manufactures of the U.S. … 1880 (Washington, 1883), 379; U.S. Census Office, Report on Manufacturing Industries in the U.S. … 1890. Pt. 2. Statistics of Cities (Washington, 1895), 226; U.S. Census Office. Twelfth Census of the U.S. … 1900. Manufactures, Pt. 2: States and Territories (Washington, 1902), 866. McComb, Galveston, 112–113; Hyman, Oleander Odyssey, 30.

(19.) City Directory, 1895–96, 66–67. U.S. Census Office, Twelfth Census … 1900. Manufactures, Pt. 2, 866, 878–879. The average female office worker earned $6 a week or $312 a year in the 1890s. McComb, Galveston, 112–113, 155–156. Ruth Rosen in The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900–1918 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 145–155, explains that the most frequently cited reasons women entered prostitution were bad home conditions, low wages, and seasonal layoffs in such industries as textiles, dressmaking, millinery, and food processing. See also Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 103–105, 148.

(20.) John H. Heller, Heller's Galveston Business Directory, 1875 (Galveston, 1875); Heller's Galveston Business Directory, 1880–81 (Galveston, 1881); City Directory, 1882–1883, 75–76. City Directory, 1886–87, 46–49. Unless otherwise indicated, these city directories list white businesses only.

(21.) Ralph Albert Scull, “Black Galveston: A Personal View of Community History in Many Categories of Life,” manuscript (Rosenberg Library) (first two quotations). Galveston Daily News, January 8, 1889 (third quotation); Galveston and Deep Water, 11 (fourth quotation). McComb, Galveston, 99, 108–109, 112. Lawrence H. Larsen, The Rise of the Urban South (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985), 140; and Larsen, The Urban West at the End of the Frontier (Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1978), 86–87. Larsen writes that the city with the greatest number of liquor saloons in the West was San Francisco with 8,694, but among southern cities Baltimore topped the list with 2,100; New Orleans sported 429. Whereas statistics are incomplete for the number of bordellos (they were illegal and therefore unlisted), New Orleans led among southern cities with 365; Baltimore listed 300.

(22.) City Directory, 1899–1900; U.S. Census Office, Report on Statistics of Churches in the United States at the Eleventh Census: 1890 (Washington, 1894), 100–101.

(23.) In 1900, 53 percent of Galvestonians were of native parentage; 47 percent were of foreign parentage; 17 percent were foreign born, and 22 percent were black. U.S. Census Office, Twelfth Census of the U.S. … 1900. Population, Pt. 1 (Washington, 1901), 643, 681, 796–799. U.S. Census Office, Thirteenth Census of the U.S. … 1910. Population, Pt. 3 (Washington, 1913), 852–853. Fornell notes in Galveston Era, 115, 125, that there were 1,500 slaves in Galveston in the 1850s. Willard B. Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 19; Maud Cuney Hare, N. W. Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People (New York: Crisis Publishing Co., 1913); Lorenzo J. Greene, “Sidelights on Houston Negroes as Seen by an Associate of Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1930,” in Howard Beeth and Gary D. Wintz, eds., Black Dixie: Afro-Texas History and Culture in Houston (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992), 151–153; Barr, Black Texans: A History of Negroes in Texas, 1528–1971 (Austin: Jenkins Publishing Co., 1973), 71–73; and (p.310) Lawrence D. Rice, The Negro in Texas, 7874–1900 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971), 35. Richard Payne and Geoffrey Leavenworth, Historic Galveston (Houston: Herring Press, 1985), 33–35; Hyman, Oleander Odyssey, 3; Don H. Doyle, New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860–1910 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 12; Howard N. Rabinowitz, The First New South: 1865–1920 (Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1992), 158. Howard Rabinowitz, and Don Doyle mistakenly assume that Galveston's population included a great many Mexicans and Latin Americans in the early twentieth century. The 1900 census shows that this is not the case.

(24.) Payne and Leavenworth, Historic Galveston, 33–35; Burton, “I'm Telling You.

(25.) Ralph, “A Recent Journey through the West,” 1064 (first quotation); Leslie C. Brand to Mother, May 11, 1899, Galveston Vertical File (second quotation). For a discussion of men, their work habits, and self-identity, see E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modem Era (New York: Basic-Books, 1990), Chap. 8; Ted Ownby, Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); and Doyle, New Men, New Cities.

(26.) Payne and Leavenworth, Historic Galveston, 20 (first quotation); Burton, “I'm Telling You” (subsequent quotations); Doyle, New Men, New Cities, 240–244. For Mardi Gras in Galveston, see Galveston Daily News, February 21–29, March 1, 1924, March 2, 1930; Galveston Tribune, Magazine Section, January 30, 1932, February 14–18, 20–22, 1933, March 2, 1935.

(27.) John A. Downey to Ann Downey Davis, February 9, 1885, Downey Papers; McComb, Galveston, 106–107; Lawrence W. Levinc, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 18 (quotation), 88–89 for touring opera companies.

(28.) Kenneth Hafertepe, A History of Ashton Villa: A Family and Its House in Victorian Galveston, Texas (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1991), 6–19. Ralph A. Wooster, “Wealthy Texans, 1870,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 74 (July 1970), 33–35. Howard Barnstone, The Galveston That Was (New York: Macmillan Co., 1966), 89; Howard Barnstone grouped Galveston's architecture into three distinct periods: classical antebellum, romantic, and Victorian Gothic, specifically under the imprint of architect Nicholas J. Clayton. Payne and Leavenworth, Historic Galveston, 43–45. John A. Downey to Ann Downey Davis, February 9, 1885, Downey Papers.

(29.) Galveston Daily News, September 2–8, 1900. The News printed on Friday, September 7, a brief story about the storm raging in the Gulf near Key West, Florida, but by then the storm was off the coast of Louisiana. Herbert Molloy Mason, Jr., Death from the Sea: Our Greatest Natural Disaster, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 (New York: Dial Press, 1972), 60–61.

(30.) John Edward Wcems, A Weekend in September (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1957), 8–13. Mason, Death from the Sea, 71; McComb, Galveston, 123–124. Houston Chronicle, September 15, 1988.

(31.) Wecms, Weekend in September, 35, 46, 53; Mason, Death from the Sea, 79–80; McComb, Galveston, 124; Ousley, Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, 28–29.

(32.) John Newman to the Editor, August 31, 1934, John Newman Letter (Center for American History); Louisa Christine Rollfing autobiography, typescript (Rosenberg Library); Ida Smith Austin, “Letter Describing the 1900 Storm,” November 6, 1900 (Rosenberg Library).

(33.) Galveston Daily News, September 12, 1900. E. B. Garriott, “The West Indian Hurricane of September 1–12, 1900,” National Geographic Magazine, 11 (October 1900), 391. (p.311) Louisa C. Rollfing autobiography; Henry W. Wolfram to Dear George, September 21, 1900, Henry M. Wolfram Letter (Center for American History).

(34.) Ousley, Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, 28, 43–44 (quotation); McComb, Galveston, 125; Houston Chronicle, September 8, 1934; Weems, Weekend in September, 104, 115. Cartwright, Galveston, 168.

(35.) Hafertepe, Ashton Villa, 39; Wccms, Weekend in September, 80–81, 90, 122; Cartwright, Galveston, 168. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Supp., Ser. 2, Vol. 8, Pt. 7 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979), 3244 (third quotation); Ibid. Ser. 2, Vol. 6, Pt. 5, 2010–2011 (first two quotations); John Newman to the Editor, August 31, 1934 (last two quotations).

(36.) Ousley, Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, 110–113.

(37.) Sarah Helen Littlejohn, “My Experiences in the Galveston Storm, September 8, 1900” (Rosenberg Library); Ousley, Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, 35; Galveston Daily News, August 9, 1978; Louisa Rollfing autobiography; Gid Seherer to Mary Hutson, September 28, 1900, Charles Woodward Hutson Papers (Southern Historical Collection); Henry W. Wolfram to Dear George, September 21, 1900, Henry M. Wolfram Letter.

(38.) John Newman to the Editor, August 31, 1934.

(39.) Mason, Death from the Sea, 90, 107, no, 116; McComb, Galveston, 124–128; Ousley, Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, 30–32; Galveston Daily News, September 12, 1900.

(40.) Ousley, Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, 47–50; Stevens, Galveston Disaster, 12–15. McComb, Galveston, 127. Scull, “Black Galveston.” [Galveston] City Times, August 17, 1901.

(41.) “Reminiscences of Mrs. Martha H. Poole,” typescript, 7 (Rosenberg Library); William Manning Morgan, Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church, Galveston, Texas, 1841–1953 (Houston: Anson Jones Press, 1954), 102. Ousley, Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, 95–97, 100, 119 (second quotation); Weems, Weekend in September, 158.

(42.) Mason, Death from the Sea, 90, 107, no, 116; McComb, Galveston, 124–128; Ousley, Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, 30–32; Galveston Daily News, September 12, 1900.

(43.) Rawick, ed., American Slave, Supp. Ser. 2, Vol. 8, Pt. 7, 3235 (first quotation); Ousley, Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, 31, 110–120 (last quotations); Weems, Weekend in September, 135–145.

(44.) Galveston Daily News, September 12, 1900. Austin, “Letter Describing the 1900 Storm.Mason, Death from the Sea, 194, 198, 200, 209–210, 217–218; McComb, Galveston, 126–127; Ousley, Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, 31, 36–37, 120; Weems, Weekend in September 145; Galveston Tribune, September 12, 1900.

(45.) Rawick, ed., American Slave, Supp. Ser. 2, Vol. 8, Pt. 7, 3245 (first quotation). Red Gross, “Report of Fannie B. Ward,” in Report of Red Cross Relief, Galveston, iexas (Washington, D.C., 1900–1901), 48 (second quotation). Mason, Death from the Sea, 209–210, 217–218; McComb, Galveston, 126–127; Ousley, Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, 37–38; Galveston Daily News, September 16, 1900 (third quotation).

(46.) Galveston Daily News, September 14, 1900.

(47.) Austin, “Letter Describing the 1900 Storm.