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Galveston's Heritage: A Downtown Guide for History Buffs

Updated 1066 days ago

From the island’s namesake – Spanish colonial governor Bernardo de Gálvez – to the pirate Jean Lafitte and the tides of 19th and 20th century immigrants stepping onto its shores, Galveston has a rich history that visitors today can trace through historic homes, museums and some attractions.

Just a short walk in and around the historic Strand District, step back into history with a visit to the following:

Bryan Museum
1315 21st St.

Through rare documents, artifacts and art, the world-class Bryan Museum offers visitors a glimpse of what helped shaped the history of Texas and the Southwest. The extensive collection has 70,000 items spanning more than 2,500 years, with artifacts from the pre-Columbian period to the present. Treasures range from Native American cultural artifacts dating back to antiquity, to 21st century items, including documents in several languages, saddles, spurs, antique firearms, western clothing, rare books and maps.

Galveston Railroad Museum
2602 Santa Fe Pl.

With Galveston being a port city, visitors are often surprised to learn there’s a railroad museum – the largest in the Southwest – right in the heart of the Strand District. Key attractions include the twin locomotives restored to look like Santa Fe F-7 Super Chiefs, known as Warbonnets because of their signature red, yellow and silver patterns. The flagship of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, the Super Chiefs and their streamlined silver passenger cars were known as “The Train of the Stars” due to the many celebrities they once whisked between Chicago and Los Angeles. Exhibits include 50 or so railroad cars and locomotives on five acres, including cabooses, a couple of steam locomotives, diesel locomotives, passenger cars and a post office car, and the restored depot, once Galveston’s original Union Station built in 1933.

Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast
2313 Harborside Drive

With artifacts, costumed manikins and tour guides dressed in pirate garb, the family-friendly Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast museum highlights the cultured and debonair Jean Lafitte and his sinister comrades who came from New Orleans and established a colony known as Campeche on Galveston Island in 1817. The museum also showcases Lafitte’s brother Pierre as well as other Caribbean pirates including the likes of Blackbeard, Calico Jack and Henry Morgan. Artifacts include part of a flintlock pistol and bottles unearthed from Lafitte’s Louisiana campground area.

Rosenberg Library
2310 Sealy Ave.

With its wide-ranging collection of manuscripts, maps, artifacts, books and other printed items, the Rosenberg Library opened in 1904 and is the oldest public library in the state in continuous use. Holdings include Gulf of Mexico charts and maps, rare books and first editions, paintings of Galveston residents and more than 250,000 books.

Texas Seaport Museum and Elissa
2200 Harborside Drive

Along the water’s edge, the Texas Seaport Museum highlight’s Galveston’s commerce and immigration history, and it’s where visitors can look for ancestors through a computer database containing the names of more than 133,000 immigrants entering the U.S. through the island, once known as the “Ellis Island of the West.” The museum’s key exhibit, the 1877 iron barque Elissa, is docked alongside the museum. Originally a 19th century British cargo ship, Elissa is one of only three pre-20th century sailing vessels in the world that have been restored to full sailing capacity.

The Moody Mansion
2618 Broadway

The Moody Mansion brings early 20th century grandeur and a bit of Southern style to visitors wanting to learn more about the port city. With white stone trim, the red-brick house was completed in 1895 and has 32 rooms. The 28,000 square-foot, four-story structure was last lived in by financier and philanthropist Mary Moody Northen, daughter of Galveston financial and insurance businessman William Lewis Moody, Jr. W.L. Moody bought the house in 1900, a short time after the Great Storm pummeled the island to rubble. The home has several different styles including French rococo revival, renaissance revival and colonial revival furnishings.

Bishop’s Palace
1402 Broadway

With more than 65,000 visitors each year, the Bishop’s Palace is one of Galveston’s top tourist attractions. It was built in 1892 for Walter and Josephine Gresham, and then bought by the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese in 1921 as a home for Bishop Byrne. The Historical Foundation purchased the home in the summer of 2013.

Michel B. Menard House
1604 33rd St.

Built in Greek revival architectural style, the 1838 Menard House is the island’s oldest. The home is named after Michel B. Menard, one of the founders of Galveston, and passed between Menard and Houston founders John and Augustus Allen, thus making it the only building to be owned by both the founders of Galveston and Houston. Most of its furnishings date from the first half of the 19th century, while carpets, drapes and upholstery fabrics are 1830-1850 period reproductions. The home is now operated as a museum through a partnership with Galveston Historical Foundation.

Pier 21 Theater
2100 Harborside Drive

This small theater shows three movies:

  • THE GREAT STORM, the story of the 1900 hurricane that hit Galveston Island, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

  • THE PIRATE ISLAND OF JEAN LAFFITE highlights the legendary pirate and his time along the Gulf.

  • GALVESTON-GATEWAY ON THE GULF is a documentary telling the story of immigration between 1835 and 1935, when more than 200,000 immigrants from all over the world entered the United States through Galveston.

Article written by Richard Varr

Richard Varr is a well-rounded freelance writer with more than 25 years writing experience. A member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), he specializes in travel, feature and business writing and is the author (main contributor) of the Dorling Kindersley EYEWITNESS TRAVEL GUIDE TO PHILADELPHIA AND THE PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY. Richard currently lives in Houston and contributes to a variety of magazines and websites, with particular focus on highlighting destinations for cruise and RV publications. Visit his own blog at

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