This map, made in 1891 depicts Galveston County with an inset illustrating details of Galveston city. From the Library of Congress.

This map, made in 1891, depicts Galveston County and geographic details of Galveston city. From the Library of Congress.

As mentioned in the previous post here on HistoryHodgePodge, Coney Island’s Galveston Flood thrill ride was inspired by the natural disaster that occurred in Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900. The hurricane that struck the coastal city of 38,000 remains the deadliest natural disaster in American history. As many as 8,000 people died in the storm, although an exact count of those who perished will never be known. As an article in The Houston Post described,  “whole families were washed into the gulf and lost and their habitations blotted from the face of the earth, while hundreds of bodies found [were] disfigured beyond recognition.”

Within a day of the storm’s catastrophic landing, newspapers all over the country were (sometimes exaggeratedly) reporting the carnage inflicted upon Galveston. Here are a few from the days and weeks following the storm:

The storm was initially discovered on August 27 in the Atlantic Ocean. Within the subsequent week, it made its way towards Florida, in a northeasterly direction, as a tropical storm eventually amassing great strength as it entered the Gulf of Mexico. By the time the storm made landfall on Galveston Island, it had intensified into Category 4 Hurricane. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) has created the an interactive map depicting the storm’s path.

GalvestonIsolated The citizens of Galveston had no harbinger on September 8 that a storm of cataclysmic proportions was steadily approaching their city. In the issue of The Houston Daily Post released that morning, the storm failed to garner any mention save for a small article sandwiched in between an advertisement and the day’s “Important News” that made note of the storm and the damage sustained in New Orleans and Florida.

As the storm ravaged Galveston, all communication wires were severed. The following morning, September 9, The Houston Daily Post ran the article (see left) which ominously announced, “Galveston Isolated. Completely Cut off from Communication With the Outside. All Telegraph and Telephone Wires Are Down.”

The hopes of “no causalities” and “but little damaged” mentioned in the article were quickly decimated as Mr. James G. Timmons, one of the first survivors to flee Galveston, arrived in Houston around 8pm the following day and recounted his horrific tale (read below).


Mr. Timmons’ tale in the Dallas Morning News, September 10, 1900

By September 11th, more details slowly emerged about the state of the city as survivors fled and outsiders cautiously infiltrated the ruins. A correspondent for The Houston Post, who traveled to the scene, estimated a death toll of 1800 to 2000 and more comprehensive lists of the dead were published. The bodies which littered the rubble were too numerous to bury and were consequently piled onto barges and dumped into the sea. This massive article published by The Daily Picayune in New Orleans is a particularly gruesome account of the city in the days following the storm:

“The buildings were chocked with the bodies which began to decay, and the authorities were made to see there was no other course than to dispose of the corrupting remains as rapidly as possible…Upon these barges bodies were heaped ten deep…It is said that about 2500 bodies were taken out to sea and thrown off far from land…The air was stifling and the stench which arose spurred the authorities on to an even more radical step…Bonfires were built along the beach and throughout the city and on these fires bodies were cast for cremation. The odor of roasting flesh was all-pervading.” – The Daily Picayune

On September 13, The Houston Daily Post reported that a relief committee, formed under martial law, had begun “impressing men into service if necessary, issuing orders for rations only to those who worked or were unable to work.” An “imperative need for disinfectants” in the city arose as citizens found themselves surrounded by thousands of rotting corpses. Unable to bury so many dead in such a short time, bodies were loaded onto barges, taken out to sea and dumped. When the need for burial exceeded even these efforts, bonfires were built on the sea and piles of dead were cremated (see Daily Picayune article above). The need for swift crime control also arose; looting became a dire problem as robbers attempted to rob corpses of their jewelry. Soldiers were given orders to shoot anyone seen robbing the dead. In some cases, ears and fingers of the dead were hacked off by robbers unable to quickly remove the jewelry from the bloated bodies.

Images of the destruction:

According to the Texas Almanac, discovery of the dead continued at an average of 70 bodies per day for one month after the storm with the last body being recovered in Feb. 1901, five months later. To fend off future mass destruction, engineers devised a two part plan consisting of raising the elevation of the city by lifting structures and pumping in sand from the ocean bottom, and constructing a seawall 17 feet tall and 15 feet wide at the base.

Filling pumped in the streets of Galveston to raise the city's elevation. From Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library.

Filling pumped in the streets of Galveston to raise the city’s elevation. From Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library.

"Galveston's Great Sea Wall" from The American Review published in November 1903 about the seawall's construction.

“Galveston’s Great Sea Wall” from The American Review published in November 1903 about the seawall’s construction. Click for full article.

A 1902 map illustrating the proposed sea wall and elevation increase.

A 1902 map illustrating the proposed seawall and elevation increase.