The Not-So-Boring History of Galveston
In a unique town that is brimming with charming elegance and beachside fun, Galveston holds a rare history that would fascinate even the most hesitant of history students. It is the illustrious port and gateway to the Southwest, with an interesting past.
It all started back in 1528, when the first European landed in what was then Akokisa and Karankawa Indian land. The Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca became shipwrecked on the island and lived among the native people for several years. Then, in the late 1700s, Galveston City and the surrounding bay were named after Bernardo de Gálvez, a Spanish colonial governor and general who sent Jose de Evia to the area to map out and chart the Gulf of Mexico. Gálvez died in 1786 before he could even lay foot on the land named after him.
Fast forward to the 19th century, Galveston was in a unique position. Its location on the Gulf of Mexico meant that it was able to receive goods, money, and treasures from across the globe. The city put its resources into continuing this trade to help accomplish its independence as a viable port city.
An Alternative to Ellis Island?
In 1836, Michael Menard was instrumental in buying land from the Republic of Texas, which at this time was not yet a state, but still very much the ‘Wild West.’ With outlaw shooting and cowboys trying to live off the land, Menard did what he could to create “one league and a labor of land,” and organized The Galveston City Company in 1838. Up until 1870, Galveston was a major port for European immigrants who wanted to bypass the insanity that was Ellis Island in New York and come to quieter environs in Texas. In fact, over a quarter million European immigrants arrived here on Galveston’s shores from 1840 – 1870.
Meanwhile, Texas’ succession from the Union, not to mention the Civil War, prompted the temporary halting of Galveston’s development. For 20 years after 1870, the fledgling city was the epitome of prosperity. What today is known as The Strand was actually the Wall Street of the Southwest. Fortunes were made in cotton, banks, mercantile houses, flour and grain mills, railroads, publishing and printing, and shipping.
Then, Tragedy Struck (as it often does)
But all good things obviously must come to an end, and the “Queen City of the Gulf” as Galveston quickly became known, ended with a humungous storm in 1900. A hurricane, it was, and it left 6,000 people dead, not to mention some 8,000 residents homeless. The fine officials of the City of Galveston responded in kind, and work began on a 16-foot high, 17-foot-wide seawall, in which the first section was completed in 1904. For added measure, 2,200 structures were raised about five feet.
This sort of devastation wasn’t going to happen again if the people of Galveston could help it.
But then, much like a jilted lover, the Houston Ship Channel was deepened in 1914, which stole much of Galveston’s shipping trade. The result was that Galveston turned into a sort of wide-open port city where gambling and all sorts of sordid amusements could be found. This continued until 1957 when the State Attorney General’s office cracked down on the illegal activities.
During the 1960s through the 70s, forward-thinking innovations took center stage. The Texas Maritime Academy, Galveston College, and the Marine Biomedical Institute were all established, giving a ‘respectable’ vibe to the city. The first ship container terminal opened in 1972, the Rosenberg Library was expanded, and the Galveston Arts Council was set up. In the east end, a lovely 40-block residential historical district was developed, lending a sophisticated air to the place. Things were looking quite rosy.
The Strand was even placed on the National Register. Today, the City of Galveston occupies nearly all of the 32-mile-long island, two miles off the Texas mainland. It is truly a world-class destination.