The morning of Saturday, September 8, 1900 began like most others. Beautiful little Galveston Island, dubbed the “Oleander City” was waking to barking dogs, ice and milk wagons wandering up and down the oak-lined streets, children venturing outside to play after a hearty breakfast with the family and others preparing to go downtown.
This Saturday was different than most; it was overcast, windy, and rumors of a storm circulated from one end of the island to the other. Old folks that felt they could predict the weather with their aches and pains insisted something was brewing. As the morning drew on, the skies grew darker, the wind picked up and the usually noisy birds seemed to grow silent. Even the flying dinosaur pelicans and gulls were gone, as if they knew the storm that had struck the Dominican Islands and Cuba five days before was zeroing in on Galveston.
What played out over the next hours was to become known as the worst natural disaster in American history, The Great Storm of 1900.
In that day and time, there were no internet, satellite tracking or sophisticated meteorological instruments that aided in following and predicting weather conditions. Doppler radar would not come along until many decades later. Instead, climatologists and weather observers relied on glass barometers, reports from ships and telegraphs. Though folks knew a storm was brewing in the Gulf, hardly anyone could predict the magnitude and destruction that was soon to tear through the island.
Chief weather forecaster Isaac Cline knew that something was up and something big. His brother Joseph Cline was a meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Service, now the National Weather Service. Between the two of them, they knew that a powerful storm was approaching that would bring an end to the Golden Era of Galveston.
Before 1900, studies had been conducted and revealed that strong storms with a huge surges could possibly inundate and destroy Galveston Island. There was much discussion regarding the building of a “sea wall” or fence-like structure that would protect the vulnerable island. Forecaster Kline was opposed to this idea and made his concerns and opinions well known.
Learning of the destruction to the Dominican Island and Cuba and plotting the intensity and direction of the storm, Kline calculated the storm’s path. By noon, he began to warn islanders to prepare, take precautions and be ready for a super storm unlike any other. In so doing, Kline breached protocol and took it upon himself to announce the oncoming storm.
The island had certainly weathered storms in the past, however the darkening sky, increasing winds and rapidly dropping barometric pressure indicated the size and intensity of the raging tempest. It is said that Kline rode up and down the beach on horseback, warning people and urging them to take cover, though this has not been proven. The island was filled with late summer tourists, and most were not heeding the warnings. Disaster lay just ahead and the little diamond in the Gulf would never be the same.
As the afternoon passed there were reports of high winds destroying a few roofs and some structures along the beach and Strand area. The sky grew black and waves of water started infiltrating the neighborhoods and streets. Islanders ran to their homes and sought safety in the upper floors if they had them. By dark the island was under siege. Some folks, realizing their home could not withstand the strong winds and wave action, fled to neighbors or even to strangers with larger and more secure structures.
The wind howled fiercely and ripped at roofs, fences and walls. The crashing waves took down buildings like a warm knife through butter. Nothing could stand against the torrent. There was screaming, wailing and cries from those trapped in the waters. Debris flowed in the waves, crushing all in its path — humans, animals and buildings.
Farther down from the East End, around 71st street, the Sisters of Charity, operating the Galveston Orphanage, began to move more than ninety children to the upper floors. Being right on the beach, the Sisters could see the water rising and engulfing the lower floors of the orphanage. In haste the three nuns used bed sheets to lash the children one to another in hopes of remaining together safely. Perhaps singing hymns or praying, the cold, salty water and debris took down the brick structure, killing all inside.
The storm raged through the night and daylight trickled down revealing a devastated landscape. Few buildings had survived, and thousands of people were dead. The air smelled of mud, seawater and death with humans, livestock and pet dogs and cats all woven together in a watery grave.
Down where the orphanage once stood, searchers found the bodies of the ninety orphans and three nuns buried in the mud, still lashed together with the bed sheets. The horrible scene was played out all over the island; no area had been spared.
The recovery was long and hard. Galveston’s booming economy dropped to nothing. Later, would-be investors shunned the island for fear of more storms in the future. Some business owners and “deep pockets” refused to reinvest in the island. A black pall had fallen over what was once the “Bagdad of the Gulf.” It would take years to clean, rebuild, raise the grade and finally construct that sea wall that Isaac Kline and others had opposed.
At the time of the storm, the population was estimated at 38,000. At least 6000 people perished and some estimates put the number at 10,000 to 12,000 persons. Many residents were never recovered or accounted for. The Great Storm of 1900 is the worst natural disaster ever on American soil with 7,000 homes and buildings destroyed and 10,000 people left homeless. The storm is considered to have been a Category 4 hurricane with winds above 145 mph. The island was covered with an 8-to-12-foot surge of water.
The smell of kerosene and burning bodies engulfed the island as huge stacks of victims were quickly disposed of in order to avoid disease and pestilence. Some bodies were loaded onto barges and taken out into the Gulf and buried at sea, only to come back with the waves and wash ashore. This made burning the bodies an absolute necessity. Breezes that once held the gentle fragrance of oleanders now were laden with the stench of death.
In 2000 on the 100th anniversary of the storm, a statue sculpted by Galveston artist D.W. Moore was dedicated to the memory of those that lost their lives in the storm. The statue is on the Seawall at the 4800 block.
On this 123rd anniversary of The Great Storm, take a moment to remember those that perished and remind yourself to never take life for granted.
Forest Riggs lives in Galveston. His book, ‘Galveston Memories and Related Stories’ is available at Amazon.com, OutSkirtsPress.com and ForestRiggs.com.