It has been 80 years since The Storm. But it is still remembered -- by those not born in 1900, and by those few who survived on this island sitting 2 miles off the Texas coast in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Storm. A single day of tragedy that brought notorious fame to what had been a placid seaside community. But in those few hours the island was devastated -- more than 6,000 people died, and many of the island's homes were washed into the sea in the nation's worst natural disaster. Galveston, then center of Texas business life, was dead.
But today Galveston is alive and doing rather nicely. Today Galveston entertains more than 4 million tourists annually tourists who come for the island's beaches, her semi-tropical climate and some of the finest seafood on the Gult Coast. Although she has lost much of her glamor, and many of her tourists, to the Padre Island resorts to the south, Galveston is still a major force in Sunbelt tourism.
The hour's drive from Houston International Airport is perhaps the least glamorous moment of the trip to Galveston, passing as you do squalid Texas oil communities belching fire and smoke into the humid air. But once you pass over the causeway to the island, once you pass the taco stands and the hamburger joints and the endless streets of neon and arrive at the ocean, Galveston reveals her charm.
In the winter, when the day-toursts from Houston aren't clogging the beaches, when you don't have to smell the odor of sizzling suntan lotion on human flesh, when you can walk into a restaurant on the historic Strand without a reservation and get a good table, Galveston is at her best. Winter, except for those who insists on a tan, is the perfert time to see the city.
History's the thing in Galveston in the winter. A partial list of the city's "firsts" indicates its importance to early Texas history:
Cabeza de Vaca, the first white man to set foot on Texas soil, landed on Galveston Island in 1528, just 36 years after Columbus discovered the New World.
Jean Lafitte became the first and only pirate to make his headquarters on Texas soil when he ruled as virtual king of the island from 1816 to 1820. When he left he burned the city to the ground.
The first customs house in Texas, with Gail Borden as collector of the port, was extablished in Galveston in 1836. Borden later invented condensed milk.
In 1842 the oldest newspaper now surviving in Texas was established as The Galveston Daily News.
The first telegraph operating in Texas was started in Galveston in 1854.
The oldest hospital in Texas, St. Mary's, was founded in 1868.
Galvestn has the oldest drugstore in Texas, and the first public library, and the first orphanage, and the first electric lights, and the first medical college and the first brewery and the first golf and country club and . . . well, you get the idea.
Visitors to Galveston can enjoy a great deal of that past as present today, thanks to an ambitious renovation program that has transformed rundown structures into the South's most magnificent collection of ironfront commercial buildings -- The Strand.
In its heyday, from 1850 until the devastation of the 1900 hurricane, The Strand was an enterprising street where fine French food and imported wines were consumed and monumental business transactions took place in its opulent buildings. In 1872 the Galveston Weekly News said, "The Strand is conceded by those who are familiar with trade centers of the United States to be one of the most beautiful avenues to be found in any city on the continent." Civic boosterism aside, the sentiment was echoed by the New York Herald in 1874, when it called Galveston "The Wall Street of the Southwest."
Forunately, the hurricane spared most of the handsome buildings that today proudly house restaurants, specialty shops, pubs and homes. Particularly notable is the Wentletrap, a restaurant developed by George P. Mitchell, the Houston millionaire who also developed The Woodlands, one of the finest resort communities in the South. Whirling ceiling fans, towering palms and a two-story entrance give you the impression of the 1930s.
Or go just down the street to the Cafe Torrefie, a historic pub where the bartender, Bino, makes the Best bloody Marys in town and the country bands play to packed houses. Or duck in Col. Bubbies Surplus, where you can buy anything from special arctic survival gear to tropical supplies. And be sure to stop into the Strand Emporium, with its exotic selection of imported foods and wines.
But The Strand isn't the only historic spot you can visit in Galveston today. You can go to Ashton Villa, a beautifully restored and authentically furnished Italinate villa dating from 1859; or to the Bishop's Palace, completed in 1896, and one of only 14 structures selected to represent early American archietcture in the archives of the Library of Congress. The Palace was once the home of Col. Walter Gresham, a prominent Galveston citizen of the turn of the century. The mansion's exterior is composed of native Texas granites, white limestone and red sandstone, all cut and shaped on the site and used in mosiac designs. The interior features a crystal chandelier from Venice, damask wall coverings from London and a marble fireplace from Italy. In all there are 14 fireplaces in the home.
You can also go to the 20th floor of Galveston's "skyscraper," the American National Tower, and enjoy a minilession on Galveston's history, from its founding to the reign of pirate Jean Lafitte; from the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde to the tremendous task of building the Galveston seawall, dedigned to prevent another tragedy like the 1900 hurricane. The company also has an impresive collection of art.
All these things are available now in Galveston -- along with the surf and sand. Although it might be a bit chilly, it is a pleasure to walk along the wide, sweeping beaches on a February day with only seagulls and scuttling crabs for company; to enjoy a winter's sunset and to experience that isolate with nature that is all too difficult to find today.
The only drawback about going to Galveston at any time is that the hotels of the island are decidely secondrate. The Flagship, once a proud structure sitting over the Gulf, is tattered and badly worn. The best bets are probably the Holiday Inn, 'guido's (also the home of the city's best seafood restaurant) or the La Quinta.
The lack of fine hotels will be solved, at least partially, when Marriott opens the restored Hotel Galvez, probably in May. The $10-million project, being financed in part by famed Houston heart surgeon Denton Cooley, will bring Galveston 228 bably needed firstclass rooms. And, like all that is good about Galveston, the renovation will be done with an eye on the past.
For a city that died in 1900, Galveston is in particularly good shape today, and getting healthier with age. (A copy of the Texas travel handbook is available free from TEXAS, Box 5064, Dept. WP, Austin, Tex. 78763.)