Thursday, March 5, 2015

Galveston - A Texas Lady in the Rough

Galveston — A Texas Lady in the Rough
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

          The drive along the big, flat, multi-lane highway from Houston to Galveston on a gray afternoon in February 2015 was pretty boring. The view was the basic hum-drum frontage road establishments sprinkled with blue collar communities. I had trouble picturing our vacation in Galveston where we had booked a bed and breakfast inn, one that was within a historic district of stately houses and quaint bungalows. The refineries of Texas City gave a bleak, industrial feel to the area, and the Galveston harbor with its barges and oil tankers added to the grayness.

Oil tanker arriving in Galveston Harbor

          Why had I picked Galveston as a vacation spot? It was winter, and my wife, Gretta, and I wanted to go to a warmer place than Kansas City. I had read the historical account of the 1900 Hurricane, specifically Erik Larson’s book titled Isaac’s Storm. It piqued my interest to see what Galveston looked like today. The hurricane was one of the worst to hit the United States, a calamity of massive proportions causing an estimated 6,000 deaths, almost wiping out the entire city. It survived and rebuilt, but it would never be the same bustling city.

          We drove over the long bridge to Galveston Island, and then curved onto Broadway to find our path to Avenue M and The Coppersmith Inn. I specifically picked the bed and breakfast house because it was located right on the edge of the area that was completely wiped out by the hurricane. I pulled the rental car to the curb and we viewed the stunning Victorian-style mansion, with massive porch columns and intricate cut-outs, railings and trim.

Greg & Gretta check in to the Coppersmith Inn
          Ellen, our host, graciously checked us in and told us some of the history of the house. “This house was one of the survivors of the hurricane.” She grabbed a framed picture and held it in front of me. A black and white historical photo revealed a partially demolished, two-story house perched at an angle in the front yard of the house we were standing in. “During the storm, the entire first floor was under water. A house from across the street floated over to our front yard. That fact, along with a nearby wall of debris from houses that had been levelled by the wind and the storm surge are what may have protected this house.”

          I glanced at the twelve-foot ceilings on the first floor, and walked over to put my hand on one of the tall doors to the parlor. The oak door and jamb were solid as a rock, straight and plumb. They don’t make houses like this anymore.

The Coppersmith Inn, Galveston, Texas
          “When the city was raised after the hurricane, this house was put on jacks and lifted five feet above the ground and set on a new foundation. The engineers designed a system of pipes to pump sand slurry over several blocks at a time to permanently raise the ground level.

          She told us there weren’t any written accounts of how many people were in the house at the time of the hurricane. Several houses of this size had as many as fifty people on the upper floor during the height of the storm, which had winds exceeding 130 miles per hour. In the devastated areas, smaller houses were blown to pieces while masses of people huddled in the attics or upstairs.

          Galveston had a significant harbor in the late 1800s, and thousands of European immigrants came through the city on their way to a new life. Cotton and lumber were the exports of the region, and the proud citizens believed they — not Houston — were on their way to becoming a major U.S. port city like Philadelphia or San Francisco. Although some of the houses of the financiers and cotton barons were built of stone and brick, most of the new construction was built of relatively cheap yellow pine, which was readily available from eastern Texas or Louisiana.

          Ellen smiled. “Did y’all come for Mardi Gras?”

          Gretta and I felt like deer in the headlights. If we’d known the city was celebrating Mardi gras, we probably wouldn’t have come on the weekend in early February.

          “Galveston celebrates Mardi Gras in a big way. We’re like New Orleans, and celebrate it for two weekends before Fat Tuesday. If you want a good seafood meal, you’ll want to go downtown tonight, because tomorrow is Friday and it will get wild down there. They block off the streets on the weekend and charge admission to get into downtown. If you aren’t into the partying, but would like to see a parade, they have a really big one during the day on Saturday, and I’ll give you directions for good places to watch.”

          We noted her recommendations for a good seafood restaurant and continued to look around the parlor. Standing there, it was hard to imagine the powerful storm that filled the first floor of the house with seawater, and then blasted it with wind and debris.

          In 1900, Galveston was a hurricane disaster waiting to happen. There were many factors which caused it to be horrific. Weather forecasting at the turn of the century was part science, part mumbo-jumbo speculation. Communication was limited to wires used on land for Morse code. The radio was not yet fully invented or used by seamen. There was also a false belief that hurricanes rarely had the strength to travel west across the Gulf of Mexico, all the way to Texas. If the storms did make it to the Texas coast, it was believed they would be too weak to cause much damage.

          When the hurricane hit Cuba, it was growing and full of energy. The U.S. Weather Service erroneously “guessed” it was turning north towards the Florida panhandle and would travel up the east coast. That was the forecast which was tapped out through the wires to the weather offices around the country.  Isaac Cline, in charge of the weather office in Galveston had a storm warning flag raised at the Galveston station on September 8, 1900, but he had no idea of the magnitude of the disaster that was about to unfold. By early afternoon, the storm surge had filled the streets, and the winds increased above fifty miles per hour. In late afternoon, the water began to pour into the first floor of the buildings and houses in town, and residents scurried to be with neighbors and ride out the storm on the upper floor of the larger houses. Water and wind became so strong the houses began to float off the foundations and the 130 mile-per-hour wind tore apart the houses which were already weakened by the storm surge.

          We climbed the curved wooden stairway to the second floor. Ellen gave us a tour of our room and then handed me the skeleton key to the door. As we settled into the room, we admired the large windows and the balcony. The room had a ten-foot ceiling, and the bed and mattress were so high I thought Gretta might need a step ladder to climb into bed. I peered into the bathroom which revealed a big, freestanding bathtub with claw feet.

Stepladder anyone?

Taking a break on the generous balcony
           I lifted the lower section of the eight-foot high window to the large front porch. The old window, counter-balanced with hidden weights in the wall lifted with just two fingers. Gretta and I ducked under the upper half of the window and walked out onto the full front balcony. The massive railings, columns and trim made me realize the significance of the skill and craftsmanship required to build a house of this size and detail. I pictured the German craftsmen, scraping the edges of the trim boards with large hand planes and crafting the solid joints that have survived 125 years. I imagined the foreman shouting instructions to crank the jacks to lift the house a fraction of an inch at a time in 1904 to satisfy the property owners in doing their part to raise the city to a safer level.

          Ellen told us to look near the door of each house to determine if the Galveston Historical Society had identified it as a 1900 Hurricane survivor. She showed us the diamond-shaped medallion by the front door of the Inn, designating it as a pre-1900 structure. She encouraged us to walk around Galveston and look for the medallions. As we strolled through the neighborhoods around the Coppersmith Inn, we could still see the effects of the storm which occurred 115 years ago. The houses seemed to have survived in small groupings, creating enclaves of mansions and bungalows with large trees, palms and gardens. Between these groupings were newer, smaller and more nondescript houses. We learned that if we took the time to look deeper, the bland appearance of a blue-collar town revealed a richer existence of neatly trimmed bungalows and stately homes. I called them the ‘red-velvet cake’ areas of Galveston. On many blocks we heard the noise of contractors rebuilding the interiors of the old homes, including the house across the street from the Coppersmith Inn, the one that had floated to the front yard during the hurricane.

A well-detailed home on M Street
          We opened our eyes on Saturday morning to golden patches of sunlight streaming into the room through lace curtains. Ellen told us at breakfast that it was the first warm weather day of the winter, which was unusual. The sunshine and Mardi Gras created an infectious atmosphere in which everyone was ready to celebrate. People were excited and friendly wherever we walked. Many houses were decorated with the Mardi gras colors of green, gold and purple, decked out with arrangements of beads, door wreaths and ribbons.

          On the parade route, we watched the party get in full swing. Residents were grilling in their front yards, drinking beer and listening to loud music emanating from inside the houses. In one yard, a group of men had strung lights, and were hanging small umbrellas for decorations. They hurried to get the umbrellas hung before the arrival of the parade.

Decorations for Mardi Gras
          Finally, the police motorcycles led a mile-long procession of marching bands, double-decker floats, drum corps, dancers and party-goers. Some floats had kids, others had a full working bar, some had Mardi Gras royalty and others had senior citizens who sat in chairs and threw beads to the crowd.

The parade marches through Galveston.

          “Shake it for me!” screamed one of the bead-throwing float ladies. I did a little boogie and we got showered with beads. Every float threw us beads. We had so many draped around our necks that I started decorating shrubs and fences along the street. It was one of those days where the sun kept shining and we didn’t want to go inside. After quesadillas and beer at a family-run Mexican food establishment we sat out on our balcony at the Coppersmith Inn. Folks were on the sidewalks all over town, a part of the celebration atmosphere.

          Before the sun went down, we wandered the neighborhoods, inspecting the decorations on the ornate railings and porches. As we walked closer to downtown, we passed a church with historical plaques mounted near the sidewalk. The church, which had survived the 1900 Hurricane, had been the first German-speaking Catholic Church in Texas. On this night, a wedding was about to begin. The procession lined up at the front steps and we noticed the bride and her father standing together in an alleyway on the side of the church, anxiously anticipating the start of the big occasion.

          With the sun going down, I looked at the well-lit church full of people. The streets were busy and the crowds walked by on their way to more Mardi gras celebrations. Galveston appeared vibrant once again, ready for future generations to live and thrive. The citizens are resourceful, persistent and full of energy. They’ve survived many hurricanes including Ike, a vicious storm in 2008 that left several feet of water standing across the city. I think they’ll continue to celebrate their city on the gulf and handle whatever is dealt to them by Mother Nature.