For millions of people who flock to Galveston each year, a trip to the island wouldn’t be complete without a visit to its famed Seawall Boulevard.
Built after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which today still ranks as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history– an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people lost their lives – the seawall is pure fun and excitement.
From the time the initial segment was completed in 1904, Seawall Boulevard has become a prime social spot for Galvestonians old and young, rich and poor, to gather, said Galveston historian Richard Breaux.
“The Seawall was a social gathering place. It was where people went and you walked,” said Breaux, who operates the popular Galveston Remembered website on Facebook. “It’s a place where mothers took their children. The island was safe. You were not going to get robbed."
“At night you’d walk out there and go to the amusement park and to the restaurants, which were all accessible by foot so everybody gathered there,” he said. “The Seawall is more than just protection. The Seawall originated to protect the island, and became a social venue, a place where people gathered.”
But the road to success was paved with unimaginable tragedy. Imagine, if you will, that you were standing on the sand on September 8, 1900, soaking up the gulf breeze in a city that had become known worldwide as the Wall Street of the South.
“Some went out to watch the big breakers coming in,” said Breaux, a native Galvestonian. “There was no seawall and the tide was really high, covering the island. On most high tides, people would walk to work in the water. But on that day, they were swept out to sea.
“The 1900 Storm took out Galveston,” he said. “There were little over 30,000 people, and one out of six died because there was no seawall and no way to report the hurricane. At St. Mary’s Orphanage on the West End – it’s roughly where 69th Street is now – there were 10 nuns, 93 children and one maintenance worker who all died. After the storm, the bodies of two of the nuns were found in Texas City.”
At the end of the 19th century, Galveston, Texas was booming with a population of approximately 40,000 residents. It was the largest city in the state of Texas, and it had become a thriving commercial port.
Since the city’s formal founding in 1839, Galveston had weathered numerous tropical storms, all of which the city survived. On September 8, 1900, however, the Great Galveston Hurricane roared ashore, devastating the island with 130-140mph winds and a storm surge in excess of 15ft. In its aftermath, approximately 8,000 people (20% of the island’s population) lost their lives, making the hurricane the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history up to that time. Thirty-six hundred buildings were destroyed, and damage estimates exceeded $20 million (in 1900 USD; $516 million in 2009 USD).
That was then. Today’s Galveston Seawall is the Phoenix that rose from the ashes, and is home to some of the top restaurants and hotels in the Texas, as well as the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier amusement park that juts out over the gulf at 25th Street.
In the words of the 1968 Phillip Morris advertising campaign, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
I couldn’t agree more.