Galveston is a coastal resort city and port off the southeast coast on Galveston Island and Pelican Island in the American State of Texas. The community of 209.3 square miles (542 km2), with a population of 47,743 in 2010, is the county seat of surrounding Galveston County and second-largest municipality in the county. It is also within the Houston–The Woodlands–Sugar Land metropolitan area at its southern end on the northwestern coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Galveston, or Galvez' town, was named after the Spanish military and political leader in the 18th century: Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, Count of Gálvez (1746–1786), who was born in Macharaviaya, Málaga, in the Kingdom of Spain. Galveston's first European settlements on the Galveston Island were built around 1816 by French pirate Louis-Michel Aury to help the fledgling Republic of Mexico fight for independence from Spain, along with other colonies in the Western Hemisphere of the Americas in Central and South America in the 1810s and 1820s. The Port of Galveston was established in 1825 by the Congress of Mexico following its independence from Spain. The city was the main port for the fledgling Texas Navy during the Texas Revolution of 1836, and later served temporarily as the new national capital of the Republic of Texas.
During the 19th century, Galveston became a major U.S. commercial center and one of the largest ports in the United States. It was for a time, Texas' largest city, known as the "Queen City of the Gulf". It was devastated by the unexpected Galveston Hurricane of 1900, whose effects included massive flooding and a storm surge which nearly wiped out the town. The natural disaster on the exposed barrier island is still ranked today as the deadliest in United States history, with an estimated death toll of 6,000 to 12,000 people. The city subsequently reemerged during the Prohibition era of 1919–1933 as a leading tourist hub and a center of illegal gambling, nicknamed the Free State of Galveston until this era ended in the 1950s with subsequent other economic and social development.
Much of Galveston's economy is centered in the tourism, health care, shipping, and financial industries. The 84-acre (34 ha) University of Texas Medical Branch campus with an enrollment of more than 2,500 students is a major economic force of the city. Galveston is home to six historic districts containing one of the largest and historically significant collections of 19th-century buildings in the U.S., with over 60 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, maintained by the National Park Service in the United States Department of the Interior.
Exploration and 19th-century development
Plan of the City of Galveston, Texas (circa 1845)
Map of City of Galveston (circa 1904)
Indigenous inhabitants of Galveston Island called the island Auia. Though there is no certainty regarding their route and their landings, Cabeza de Vaca and his crew were shipwrecked at a place he called “Isla de Malhado” in November 1528. This could have referred to Galveston Island or San Luis Island. During his charting of the Gulf Coast in 1785, the Spanish explorer José de Evia labeled the water features surrounding the island “Bd. de Galvestown” and “Bahia de Galvestowm” [sic]. He was working under the orders of Bernardo de Gálvez. In his early chart, he calls the western end of the island “Isla de San Luis” and the eastern end, “Pt. de Culebras.” Evia did not label the island itself on his map of 1799. Just five years later Alexander von Humboldt borrows the place names Isla de San Luis, Pte. De Culebras, and Bahia de Galveston. Stephen F. Austin followed his predecessors in the use of “San Luis Island,” but introduced “Galveston” to refer to the little village at the east end of the island. Evidence of the name Galveston Island appears on the 1833 David H. Burr.
The island's first permanent European settlements were constructed around 1816 by the pirate Louis-Michel Aury to support Mexico's rebellion against Spain. In 1817, Aury returned from an unsuccessful raid against Spain to find Galveston occupied by the pirate Jean Lafitte. Lafitte organized Galveston into a pirate "kingdom" he called "Campeche", anointing himself the island's "head of government." Lafitte remained in Galveston until 1821, when the United States Navy forced him and his raiders off the island.
In 1825 the Congress of Mexico established the Port of Galveston and in 1830 erected a customs house. Galveston served as the capital of the Republic of Texas when in 1836 the interim president David G. Burnet relocated his government there. In 1836, the French-Canadian Michel Branamour Menard and several associates purchased 4,605 acres (18.64 km2) of land for $50,000 to found the town that would become the modern city of Galveston. As Anglo-Americans migrated to the city, they brought along or purchased enslaved African-Americans, some of whom worked domestically or on the waterfront, including on riverboats.
In 1839, the City of Galveston adopted a charter and was incorporated by the Congress of the Republic of Texas. The city was by then a burgeoning port of entry and attracted many new residents in the 1840s and later among the flood of German immigrants to Texas, including Jewish merchants. Together with ethnic Mexican residents, these groups tended to oppose slavery, support the Union during the Civil War, and join the Republican Party after the war.
During this expansion, the city had many "firsts" in the state, with the founding of institutions and adoption of inventions: post office (1836), naval base (1836), Texas chapter of a Masonic order (1840); cotton compress (1842), Catholic parochial school (Ursuline Academy) (1847), insurance company (1854), and gas lights (1856).
During the American Civil War, Confederate forces under Major General John B. Magruder attacked and expelled occupying Union troops from the city in January 1863 in the Battle of Galveston. In 1867 Galveston suffered a yellow fever epidemic; 1800 people died in the city. These occurred in waterfront and river cities throughout the 19th century, as did cholera epidemics.
The Beach Hotel catered to vacationers until a fire in 1898.
The city's progress continued through the Reconstruction era with numerous "firsts": construction of the opera house (1870), and orphanage (1876), and installation of telephone lines (1878) and electric lights (1883). Having attracted freedmen from rural areas, in 1870 the city had a black population that totaled 3,000, made up mostly of former slaves but also by persons who were free men of color and educated before the war. The "blacks" comprised nearly 25% of the city's population of 13,818 that year.
During the post-Civil-War period, leaders such as George T. Ruby and Norris Wright Cuney, who headed the Texas Republican Party and promoted civil rights for freedmen, helped to dramatically improve educational and employment opportunities for blacks in Galveston and in Texas. Cuney established his own business of stevedores and a union of black dockworkers to break the white monopoly on dock jobs. Galveston was a cosmopolitan city and one of the more successful during Reconstruction; the Freedmen's Bureau was headquartered here. German families sheltered teachers from the North, and hundreds of freedmen were taught to read. Its business community promoted progress, and immigrants stayed after arriving at this port of entry.
By the end of the 19th century, the city of Galveston had a population of 37,000. Its position on the natural harbor of Galveston Bay along the Gulf of Mexico made it the center of trade in Texas. It was one of the nation's largest cotton ports, in competition with New Orleans. Throughout the 19th century, the port city of Galveston grew rapidly and the Strand was considered the region's primary business center. For a time, the Strand was known as the "Wall Street of the South". In the late 1890s, the government constructed Fort Crockett defenses and coastal artillery batteries in Galveston and along the Bolivar Roads. In February 1897, the USS Texas (nicknamed Old Hoodoo), the first commissioned battleship of the United States Navy, visited Galveston. During the festivities, the ship's officers were presented with a $5,000 silver service, adorned with various Texas motifs, as a gift from the state's citizens.
Hurricane of 1900 and recovery
Memorial marker along the Strand Historic District indicating a building that survived the 1900 hurricane.
On September 8, 1900, the island was struck by a devastating hurricane. This event holds the record as the United States' deadliest natural disaster. The city was devastated, and an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people on the island were killed. Following the storm, a 10-mile (16 km) long, 17 foot (5.2 m) high seawall was built to protect the city from floods and hurricane storm surges. A team of engineers including Henry Martyn Robert (Robert's Rules of Order) designed the plan to raise much of the existing city to a sufficient elevation behind a seawall so that confidence in the city could be maintained.
Sunset Route, Seawall, Galveston, Texas (postcard, c. 1907)
Despite attempts to draw investment to the city after the hurricane, Galveston never returned to its levels of national importance or prosperity. Development was also hindered by the construction of the Houston Ship Channel, which brought the Port of Houston into competition with the natural harbor of the Port of Galveston for sea traffic. To further her recovery, and rebuild her population, Galveston actively solicited immigration. Through the efforts of Rabbi Henry Cohen and Congregation B'nai Israel, Galveston became the focus of an immigration plan called the Galveston Movement that, between 1907 and 1914, diverted roughly 10,000 Eastern European Jewish immigrants from the usual destinations of the crowded cities of the Northeastern United States. Additionally numerous other immigrant groups, including Greeks, Italians and Russian Jews, came to the city during this period. This immigration trend substantially altered the ethnic makeup of the island, as well as many other areas of Texas and the western U.S.
Though the storm stalled economic development and the city of Houston developed as the region's principal metropolis, Galveston economic leaders recognized the need to diversify from the traditional port-related industries. In 1905 William Lewis Moody, Jr. and Isaac H. Kempner, members of two of Galveston's leading families founded the American National Insurance Company. Two years later, Moody established the City National Bank, which would become the Moody National Bank.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the city re-emerged as a major tourist destination. Under the influence of Sam Maceo and Rosario Maceo, the city exploited the prohibition of liquor and gambling in clubs like the Balinese Room, which offered entertainment to wealthy Houstonians and other out-of-towners. Combined with prostitution, which had existed in the city since the Civil War, Galveston became known as the "sin city" of the Gulf. Galvestonians accepted and supported the illegal activities, often referring to their island as the "Free State of Galveston". The island had entered what would later become known as the "open era".
The 1930s and 1940s brought much change to the Island City. During World War II, the Galveston Municipal Airport, predecessor to Scholes International Airport, was re-designated a U.S. Army Air Corps base and named "Galveston Army Air Field". In January 1943, Galveston Army Air Field was officially activated with the 46th Bombardment Group serving an anti-submarine role in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1942, William Lewis Moody, Jr., along with his wife Libbie Shearn Rice Moody, established the Moody Foundation, to benefit "present and future generations of Texans." The foundation, one of the largest in the United States, would play a prominent role in Galveston during later decades, helping to fund numerous civic and health-oriented programs.
Post–World War II
The end of the war drastically reduced military investment in the island. Increasing enforcement of gambling laws and the growth of Las Vegas, Nevada as a competitive center of gambling and entertainment put pressure on the gaming industry on the island. Finally in 1957, Texas Attorney General Will Wilson and the Texas Rangers began a massive campaign of raids which disrupted gambling and prostitution in the city. As these vice industries crashed, so did tourism, taking the rest of the Galveston economy with it. Neither the economy nor the culture of the city was the same afterward.
Downtown Galveston as viewed from the air
Playing Chess on the Strand
The island's economy began a long stagnation. Many businesses relocated off the island during this period; however, health care, insurance and financial industries continue to be strong contributors to the economy. By 1959, the city of Houston had long out-paced Galveston in population and economic growth. Beginning in 1957, the Galveston Historical Foundation began its efforts to preserve historic buildings. The 1966 book The Galveston That Was helped encourage the preservation movement. Restoration efforts financed by motivated investors, notably Houston businessman George P. Mitchell, gradually developed the Strand Historic District and reinvented other areas. A new, family-oriented tourism emerged in the city over many years.
With the 1960s came the expansion of higher education in Galveston. Already home to the University of Texas Medical Branch, the city got a boost in 1962 with the creation of the Texas Maritime Academy, predecessor of Texas A&M University at Galveston; and by 1967 a community college, Galveston College, had been established.
In the 2000s, property values rose after expensive projects were completed and demand for second homes by the wealthy increased. It has made it difficult for middle-class workers to find affordable housing on the island.
Hurricane Ike made landfall on Galveston Island in the early morning of September 13, 2008 as a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 110 miles per hour. Damage was extensive to buildings along the seawall.
After the storm, the island was rebuilt with investments in tourism, shipping, and continued emphasis on higher education and health care. Notably the addition of the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier and the replacement of the bascule-type drawbridge on the railroad causeway with a vertical-lift-type drawbridge to allow heavier freight.