As the Texas coast grapples with the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey and as Florida braces for Hurricane Irma, the ghost of another hurricane hovers over this date in history: 117 years ago today Galveston suffered the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history as the “Great Storm of 1900” struck.
The story of the Galveston hurricane of 1900 is not, in a technical sense, a Fort Worth story. But it is a Fort Worth story in the same sense that it is a Waco story and a Denison story and a Texas, a United States, and even a world story. From coast to coast and even overseas people read the headlines and tried to comprehend the incomprehensible:
Galveston was a graveyard.
The hurricane—today classified as category 4—hit the island early on a Saturday. By 6 p.m. winds were measured at 100 miles per hour just after 6 p.m., but the anemometer of the Galveston office of the National Weather Bureau was blown away soon after that reading was taken. Maximum winds were later estimated to have been 120 to 145 miles per hour.
The eye passed over the city around 8 p.m. The reading of the barometer as the eye passed over the city was so low that observers assumed that the instrument was inaccurate.
It was not.
Three hours later, by 11 p.m. the wind was diminishing, the water covering the island was receding.
But the damage was done. An estimated 8,000 of the city’s 37,789 residents were dead; 3,600 homes were destroyed.
Galveston was a debris field.
Let’s back up a few days. In 1900 the science of meteorology was primitive. For a week the weather bureau had known that a storm was approaching the Gulf coast from northwest of Martinique. But the trajectory and strength of the storm were not predicted with the accuracy possible today. In the Fort Worth Register of September 8, these clips on inside pages are the extent of coverage of the hurricane that day. New Orleans reported winds of only forty-eight miles per hour, but even then there was some loss of life and property damage.
The next day, September 9, these headlines were dire but still tucked inside on page 2 of the Register. The storm was not yet front-page news.
The Register did not publish on Mondays (September 10). This is the front-page coverage of the Dallas Morning News on September 10 as headline writers struggled to convey the scope of the disaster in Galveston.
The Ball High School referred to in the fourth deck of headlines was funded by and named for banker George Ball, whose widow Sarah and son Frank moved to Fort Worth and in 1899 built the Ball-Eddleman-McFarland house on Penn Street. The people of Galveston raised money to repair the school building. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
By the time readers of the Fort Worth Register readers got the September 11 edition on Tuesday, the news from Galveston was even more horrific: “Galveston Is Greatest Tragedy of the Century,” “Dead Outnumbers the Living.”
The scene in Galveston was indeed apocalyptic. The highest point on Galveston Island was only 8.7 feet above sea level. The hurricane packed a storm surge of more than fifteen feet. The ocean washed over the island from south shore to north shore. The surge swept buildings off their foundations; the surf pounded them into kindling. The largely wooden city was flattened. Some of the sturdy mansions along the Strand survived.
J. L. Cline recalled: “The water rose at a steady rate from 3 p.m. until about 7:30 p.m., when there was a sudden rise of about four feet in as many seconds. I was standing at my front door, which was partly open, watching the water, which was flowing with great rapidity from east to west. The water at this time was about eight inches deep in my residence, and the sudden rise of 4 feet brought it above my waist before I could change my position. The water had now reached a stage 10 feet above the ground at Rosenberg Avenue [Twenty-Fifth Street] and Q street, where my residence stood. The ground was 5.2 feet elevation, which made the tide 15.2 feet. The tide rose the next hour, between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m., nearly five feet additional, making a total tide in that locality of about twenty feet.”
When the water receded, the dead and injured lay everywhere. Bodies were even washed out of graves. To prevent disease, bodies were buried at sea but washed back ashore. Then they were burned in pyres.
Photo from Wikipedia.
At a time when people got their news from newspapers, and newspapers got their wire dispatches from just that—wire, news was slow coming out of Galveston at first because the hurricane destroyed bridges and blew down telegraph and telephone wires to the mainland. In some cases, messages were taken by boat from the island to the mainland and then overland to the nearest telegraph station. Train travel was disrupted across south Texas.
As in many other cities, people in Fort Worth fretted over the safety of friends and family in Galveston.
As Galveston suffered “the greatest tragedy of the century,” many heroes stepped forward. So did the predictable scavengers. Some merchants began price gouging. People with boats charged exorbitant fees to ferry people to the mainland. Bodies and property were looted. As martial law was declared, looters (the estimates range from 75 to 125) were shot and killed.
The Great Storm of 1900, even after it was over land and deprived of its energy source, was stubborn, tracking north into Oklahoma and then northeast over the Great Lakes and even into Canada, swamping a schooner fleet off the coast of Newfoundland. (Photos from Wikipedia.)
These four photos of Galveston are from the Library of Congress: