Galveston: Destruction and Reconstruction As many as 6,000 people died in the 1900 hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas. Patricia Bellis Bixel, who wrote about the storm and how the city was rebuilt, details the operation for Debbie Elliott.
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Galveston: Destruction and Reconstruction

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Galveston: Destruction and Reconstruction

Galveston: Destruction and Reconstruction

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On September 8th, 1900, what may have been the deadliest hurricane to ever hit the United States decimated the burgeoning city of Galveston, Texas. As many as 6,000 people died and more than two-thirds of the city's buildings were destroyed. Patricia Bixel wrote about the years' long reconstruction of Galveston in a book, "Galveston and the 1900 Storm." She teaches at the Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine, and joins us from the studios of Maine Public Broadcasting. Welcome.

Ms. PATRICIA BIXEL (Co-author, "Galveston and the 1900 Storm"): Thank you.

ELLIOTT: So in the days and weeks that followed this catastrophic hurricane, there must have been some conversations going on about `Should we rebuild?,' `How do we do it?,' `Is there money available?' Can you sort of take us there and what people were saying and thinking?

Ms. BIXEL: Immediately after the storm within a matter of days, gentlemen from the city go out and they--first of all, they make sure that the channel is still there. Galveston is a barrier island and Galveston is the only port--the only deep-water port on the western part of the Gulf of Mexico. It's not until 1915 that you have the Houston ship channel. So it's pretty clear that the city will be rebuilt simply because there's too much of an investment there and you just have to be able to move goods in and out of that part of the country.

So the decision to rebuild was a pretty easy one, but the question is: How do you rebuild and how do you rebuild safely and do so in such a way that people feel secure about coming back and rebuilding their homes, investing money? This is the progressive period and there's a great faith in the expert opinion, and so they put together a commission of engineers and the engineers come back with a three-part system for rebuilding the island. Their system includes: building a sea wall; raising the island itself, raising the city--the city of Galveston.

ELLIOTT: The raising that we're talking about here, are you talking about actually going in and tearing down everything that was there?

Ms. BIXEL: No, they lift...

ELLIOTT: Or are you talking about building it back up?

Ms. BIXEL: They lift it. They lift the things that are already there. The company that wins the bid comes back and says, `OK, here's how we're going to do it.' They get very large ocean-going dredges that are self-propelled. Those are people who live in seaports see dredges all the time. Well, they're...

ELLIOTT: It's like a barge with a big pipe on it that sucks the sand out of the bottom of the channel.

Ms. BIXEL: Right. And the plan is that these dredges are going to come and they're going to go out in the Gulf of Mexico, going to pick up sand. Usually, you know, dredges clear sand from channels. Well, these dredges are going to go out, they're going to pick up sand and they're going to come through a canal that's going to be dug down the center of the island and they will bring their loads of sand and silt from the Gulf of Mexico in and, in marked off areas, they will then deposit those dredge spoils and elevate or raise the island.

ELLIOTT: So they actually elevated the city by several feet by pumping in tons of sand?

Ms. BIXEL: Yes, that's how it worked. Records show that the largest structure that was raised up was St. Patrick's Catholic Church and this is a very substantial stone building just off of Broadway in Galveston. It required, according to the documented reports, about 700 jack screws. And the way this all worked was that the house elevator would tunnel under the building and very carefully place these jack screws that were--would then be very evenly and very slowly turned to raise the structure. And then, once the structure was raised up as high as it needed to go, the fill would be pumped in underneath. And, you know, records show that St. Patrick's Catholic Church was a building that weighed about 3,000 tons. It takes many, many years, obviously, to accomplish this. It finally finished in 1911.

ELLIOTT: So over that 11-year period, what happened to the society of Galveston? What happened to the town?

Ms. BIXEL: The storm itself had a lot of consequences, intended and otherwise. Galveston, very early in the process, sort of looked at its politics and realized that no one would trust them with that amount of money it would require. Their government didn't have a great deal of credibility, so they completely changed their form of government. They go from a mayor alderman system to a commission system.

Galveston was a southern city, so, of course, there were racial issues in 1900 during this time, and the descriptions and the accounts of the storm immediately after 1900 depicted blacks in the Galveston community--and blacks at that time made up 15 to 20 percent of the population. And the depictions of African-Americans tended to be either as criminals, as looters or vandals, or as being childlike or infantile and not being able to sort of handle the stress. If you depict a certain chunk of your population that way, then it's that much easier in the next five to 10 years after that to pass Jim Crow legislation. And that was something that hadn't been present in Galveston prior to this period.

Interesting things happened with the sort of social relations in the city. Women, who had taken a leading role in providing relief during and after the storm--once that's done and the great raising and sea wall are being done, they moved to other things. They want a better sewer system. They want better public sanitation. They want to purify the milk supply. And it doesn't take them very long before they realize the best way to accomplish all this is to get the vote, and one of the really interesting things you see is an almost direct trajectory between women who worked in relief and these social service volunteer efforts after the storm moving into the suffrage movement, both in Texas and on a national basis.

ELLIOTT: You know, I have an image of Galveston at the turn of the century as this really bustling port city. Did it ever come back?

Ms. BIXEL: It's interesting because people think that the storm was the reason for Galveston's decline, and I think you can make an argument against that. Because, in fact, the census of 1900 shows the population of Galveston about 38,000. Even then, it is not the largest city of Texas, but it's by far one of the wealthiest. By 1910, after the storm, after all of the deaths, after people have left the island, the population is still about 38,000 to 40,000 and the port has come back because, again, the Houston ship channel is not dredged until 1915. So there's still a very active port economy there.

And, actually, what has more to do with Galveston's decline is the dredging of the Houston ship channel; the discovery of oil at Spindletop, in east Texas, which happens about six months after the Galveston storm. You need a port to provide services that really can't be fulfilled by Galveston. But, you know, that was al--those were all things that sort of happened after the storm. The reality is that, you know, Galveston did rebuild after the storm and, up until the teens and '20s, was a very active and very growing port and economy for that part of the state.

ELLIOTT: Patricia Bixel co-authored "Galveston and the 1900 Storm." She joined us from the studios of Maine Public Broadcasting. Thank you very much.

Ms. BIXEL: You're welcome.

ELLIOTT: You can see pictures and read an excerpt from "Galveston and the 1900 Storm" and find NPR's extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina at our Web site,

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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