The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900
The Worst Natural Disaster in U.S. History

"As the raging sea and relentless winds pounded the Gulf Coast, as even the strongest buildings crumbled before the onslaught ... the storm's helpless victims huddled together with a united hope-survival!"

That could well be a description of the horror felt by those caught in the path of Hurricane Frederic. But, in reality it is an account of the greatest natural disaster to strike an American community-the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

The storm cut Galveston Island off from the mainland and completely submerged it under the sea. In Galveston city alone, it killed at least 6,000 men, women, and children. It left 1,000 survivors naked and 5,000 more bruised and battered. In a 1,500-acr area of total destruction, 2,636 houses-nearly half the homes in the city-were swept out of existence. Elsewhere, at least 1,000 more were reduced to wreckage. Not a single building escaped damage.

The Galveston hurricane was a far greater disaster than the Chicago fire of 1871, which killed 250 people, or the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which killed 480, or the Johnstown Flood in 1889, which claimed 2,200 lives.

Galveston Island is a long, narrow barrier beach that runs parallel to the Texas coast some two miles away across Galveston Bay. The City of Galveston occupies the eastern end of the island. In 1900, the only connections to the mainland were "the longest wagon bridge in the United States" and 3 wooden railroad trestles.

A city of sand

Galveston is literally a city built on sand. In September 1900, the sand was only 8.7 feet above sea level at the highest point. In most residential areas, street levels ranged from 4 to 7 feet, with an average elevation of only about 4.5 feet.

The census of 1900 put Galveston's population at 37,789. There were 40 miles of street car line, 2,028 telephones, and 2 automobiles.

In the words or Clarence Ousley, editor of the Tribune , Galveston was "a city of splendid homes and broad clean streets; a city of oleanders and roses and palms; a city of the finest churches, school buildings, and benevolent institutions in the South."

That was on Saturday, September 8, 1900.

On Sunday, September 9, Galveston was "a city of wrecked homes and streets choked with debris and six thousand corpses. It was a city whose very cemeteries had been emptied of their dead as if to receive new tenants."

A safe city?

Ironically, physical geographers had said that because of the long, gentle slope of the adjacent sea bottom, Galveston was safe from the full fury of tropical storms. And experience seemed to support their claim. Galveston had been hit fairly hard by major storms in the past-particularly in 1875 and 1886-the loss of life had been very small.

The storm that was to prove the geographers wrong was born about 4,000 miles away, over the tropical Atlantic west of the Cape Verde Islands on about the 27th of August.

The disturbance moved to the west-northwest, gaining size and strength. On the 31st, the storm center passed just south of Puerto Rico, and, early Sunday morning, September 2, had crossed the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

On the 3rd and 4th, the still-growing tropical storm curved northwestward and crossed Cuba, heading for the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf Coast. About 4 p.m. on the 4th, the Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C., issued its first telegraph advisory: "Tropical storm disturbance moving northward over Cuba."

A full-blown hurricane

On Wednesday, September 5, as it raked the Florida Keys, the tropical storm became a full-blown hurricane.

The steamer Louisiana, encountered the hurricane on Thursday the 6th, passing through the eye of the storm some 600 miles east-southeast of Galveston at about 1 p.m. The ship's barometer read 28.75. The captain estimated the winds at more than 100 miles per hour.

On Friday the 7th, Captain J.W. Simmons of the steamer Pensacola, which was en route from Galveston to its namesake city, watched as the ship's barometer fell to a low of 28.55. In 800 trips across the Gulf, Simmons had never seen the glass that low before. He dropped the ship's anchor, and the Pensacola hove to, struggling to stay afloat in towering seas.

Back in Galveston, the temperature was in the 80's, the sky was overcast, and a heavy swell was rolling in from the southeast. Crashing waves would soon drive bathers from the warm Gulf waters.

The swell increased during the night. By 4 a.m., several inches of sea water covered streets up to four blocks in from the beach on the Gulf side of the city. By 5 o'clock the tide was already 4 1/2 feet above normal, despite a 15 to 17 mile per hour north wind. Blowing offshore against the incoming water, a north wind should have caused a low tide at Galveston.

By 7:45 a.m. Saturday it was raining. As the morning progressed, people living in lightly built houses near the beach moved to more substantial buildings nearby, or visited relatives living on higher ground to await the end of the overflow.

At 10:10 a.m., the Weather Bureau in Washington telegraphed that the storm center was now expected to pass west of the city, which would put Galveston in the dangerous right semicircle of the storm.

By noon, the wind was blowing out of the northeast at more than 30 miles per hour and increasing steadily. The barometer was dropping rapidly, and heavy rain was falling. The Gulf was now 3 to 5 feet deep in many streets near the beach in the eastern and southern sections of the city. Galvestonians coming home for lunch had to wade through water up to their waists and sometimes their chins to reach their houses.

At about this time, a number of lightly constructed cottages near the beach in the eastern end of the city were washed off their foundations and began to break up. The wagon bridge and train trestles connecting Galveston to the mainland were now submerged under the rising waters of the bay, which were flooding inland over the wharves along the northern side of the city.

It was now too late to get off the island.

Gulf rising rapidly

By 2:30 p.m., the wind was blowing from the northeast at 42 miles per hour, and the rain was "exceptionally heavy."

By 4 p.m., the wind had reached full hurricane force. Sometime between 4 and 5 p.m., the waters of the bay met those of the Gulf, and the entire city was flooded. By 5:15, the wind was blowing at 84 miles per hour with gust to 100 miles per hour, and the wind gauge had blown away. The wind was rolling up tin roofs and toppling telephone poles. In the business district, large chunks of masonry were crashing into the flooded streets. Near the beach, homes were being pounded to pieces by wind, water, and racing debris.

The water, racing rapidly from east to west, continued to rise steadily until about 6:30, when it suddenly rose 4 feet. The Gulf was now 10 feet above the street, which was 5.2 feet above sea level. During the next hour, the water rose another 5 feet.

Winds at 120 miles per hour

It was dark by 7 p.m., and the wind was howling at an estimated velocity of 120 miles per hour or more.

Flood brings death

The rambling wooden buildings of St. Mary's Orphanage stood on the beach 3 miles west of the city. They housed 10 Roman Catholic Sisters of the Incarnate Word, 93 orphans, and a workman.

By 10 o'clock Saturday morning, the water was already 3 feet deep. Later, as the storm worsened, the sisters took the children to the chapel on the first floor of the girl's building. They stayed there praying until rapidly rising water drove them to the second floor. From there they watched the boy's building break up in the storm.

About an hour later, the roof of their own building collapsed. With death threatening, the sisters tied the children together in groups, then to themselves, attaching ropes to their waists.

Only a few scattered bricks from the foundations marked the site of the orphanage after the storm. Ninety bodies were found nearby, including those of two of the sisters. The bodies of two other nuns, Sisters Raphael and Genevieve, were found at Texas City, on the mainland. Six more were found elsewhere on the island and mainland. One nun still had nine small children tied to her body; another was holding a child in each arm.

Only three orphans, all boys, survived the storm. Somehow they got out of the building and onto an uprooted tree sweeping by on the surging water.

The wind and water did not win all the battles. In the western part of the city, a carpenter's home sheltered some 50 people. As the building creaked and swayed and threatened to collapse, the owner drove the occupants to brace and bar walls, windows, and doors. They fought the storm for 6 hours. They were aided in their struggle by a telephone pole which fell nearby, wrapping its wires around the house and helping to hold it together and in place. One occupant died when he left to seek a safer refuge.

Surrounded by wall

The Ursuline Convent and Academy provided shelter for almost 1,000 storm victims. Occupying 4 city blocks (Avenues N to O and Rosenberg Avenue to 27th Street), the grounds were surrounded by a massive, 10-foot brick wall. The wall was destroyed by the storm, which washed debris from demolished homes-and their occupants-into the convent yard.

People were plucked from treetops and from roofs and wreckage with long poles and ropes and pulled into the convent. Family members torn from each other's arms by the storm were reunited in the convent yard.

Even as the death wails of thousands joined the storm's grim chorus, the struggle for life continued. Four women gave birth in nuns cells.

Horror of dawn

If the night had been terrifying, the dawn brought horror. In the area of total destruction, all that remained of thousands of homes and of many of the people who had lived or sought shelter in them was a 3-mile long mound of wreckage jammed with bodies forming a semicircle around the business district. Outside this arc not a building was standing, not a street was outlined. Wind and water had restored the land to primal beach.

Many of the bodies and many survivors were naked or near naked, their clothes torn or ripped off by protruding nails, jagged pieces of wood, broken glass, and flying debris of all descriptions. Hundreds of whole families had perished, and almost every family had lost at least one member. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 survivors were homeless. The bay was clogged with hundreds of human bodies, and the corpses of cows, horses, chickens, and dogs were everywhere.

By Monday morning, undertaking parlors and temporary morgues were jammed with bodies. In most cases, identification was impossible. As more and more bodies were uncovered, the survivors began to realize the true scope of the disaster. Regular burial was impossible. A mass solution was needed, and burial at sea was suggested.

By Monday night, about 700 bodies had been hauled to the 12th Street wharf, put on barges, and taken out to sea. The corpses were weighted and thrown into the Gulf. Many, however, floated back onto the beach with the incoming tide.

Sunday and Monday had been hot. The health of the living now demanded immediate action. On-the-spot burial or burning were the most practical solutions. On Tuesday Galveston became a city of funeral pyres. A dark pall of smoke hung over the island for weeks as the grim work continued.

On October 3, almost a month after the hurricane, the body of Cora May Cline, identified by her engagement ring, was discovered under the wreckage which had carried her husband and children to safety. She was buried in Galveston Cemetery.

Galveston seawall

Galvestonians learned from the hurricane that they needed a seawall. Flood waters of up to 20 feet, perhaps higher, had swept the eastern and southern parts of the city seaward of the barricade of wrecked homes and debris thrown up by the storm. This barrier apparently had acted as a breakwater, absorbing the terrible destructive force of the waves and catching wreckage before it could flatten buildings behind it, where most of the survivors had taken refuge. So Galveston built a seawall. The first pile was driven on October 27, 1902; the wall was completed on July 29, 1904. It was 3.3 miles long and rose 17 feet above mean low tide. A solid 16 feet wide at the base and 5 feet across at the top, it was strengthened against undermining and erosion by a loose layer of rough granite blocks that extended 27 feet seaward.

Galvestonians also decided to raise the level of the city by pumping in sand from the floor of the Gulf. This meant raising 2,146 buildings-every house, school, church, and store-as well as water pipes, fire hydrants, streetcar tracks, trees, shrubs, flowers-in short, everything. When this was accomplished, 14 million cubic yards of sand were pumped in under the raised structures from a 20-foot-deep canal dug lengthwise through the city behind the seawall. The street level was raised to 17 feet behind the seawall. The street level was raised to 17 feet at the seawall, sloping to 10 feet at Broadway. The massive undertaking was not finished until July, 1910.

On the night of August 16, 1915 the city was tested by another great hurricane that followed closely the track of the 1900 storm. It brought winds of 92 miles per hour with gusts to 120 miles per hour, 10- to 14-foot storm tides, and 21-foot waves. This time, however, thanks to the seawall and the raising of the grade, fewer than a dozen people were killed in the city.

The 1900 Galveston hurricane killed about 6,000 people in the city, at least 2,000 more elsewhere; some estimates total as high as 12,000. Yet, it is not the most severe hurricane ever to hit the United States; there have since been a dozen others of approximately equal severity and two that were more intense-a hurricane that struck the Florida Keys in 1935 and Hurricane Camille, which hit the Gulf Coast in 1969.

A typical block in Galveston after the storm

The ruins of St. Patrick's Catholic Church

The scene at 21st and Avenue O on Sunday morning September 9, 1900, which was typical of the destruction in the city

The Galveston seawall

Galveston's Sacred Heart Church, a haven for 400 refugees on the night of the hurricane, after the storm had passed

1900 Galveston Hurricane Aftermath No. 1

1900 Galveston Hurricane Aftermath No. 2