It is impossible to tell if there were clouds of doubt looming in the head of Isaac Cline on the morning of September 8, 1900 while he looked out at the troubled Gulf. Surely, he must have harkened back to the article he had written a decade earlier for the Galveston News. In it, he had confidently argued, “the coast of Texas is, according to the general laws of the motion of the atmosphere, exempt from West Indies hurricanes.” He was the official representative of the National Weather Bureau in the boomtown of Galveston, Texas, and was considered one of the best and brightest in that early generation of meteorologists. He had studied the history of tropical storms and knew the contours of wind, tide, and coastline. In 1891, when he published his piece on the probabilities of hurricanes, he had felt certain that any fear of a serious storm ever damaging Galveston was “an absurd delusion.” As the barometer continued to drop and swells from the sea pounded the shore in ever-greater heights, one wonders if those waves also began to pound at his long declared certainties.
The city of Galveston was built on a long spit of land at the south end of a 30 mile tidal bay and at its highest point, this barrier island was only 8.7 feet above sea level. To the untrained eye, this city might have seemed very vulnerable to storm surges, but the best minds of the day believed that the geographic layout of the Gulf of Mexico made hurricanes a nearly impossible threat to the entire Texas coast. In his piece, Isaac Cline had even argued that the local geography of the bay, tidal backwater, and island had made the city particularly predisposed against danger. Early settlers of the island, foreshadowing the hubris of a later era, had believed that the uniquely gentle slope of the seafloor off the coast of Galveston Island offered “especial protection” for ships and an ideal location for a thriving port city.
Such arguments for geographic favorability were important for residents of Galveston in the year 1900. At the time, Galveston was booming with shipping and commerce and growing exponentially. Just a year before, it had passed New Orleans as the top exporter of cotton in the nation, and by 1900, it was the third busiest port in the United States. The city had more millionaires per square mile than any southern city. Newspaper endorsers nicknamed it the “New York of the Gulf” and northeastern interests raced to put capital on the thriving sandbar.
Nevertheless, competition was fierce between Gulf ports, and investors were pouring money into other places as well. New Orleans still loomed as Galveston’s traditional rival for hegemony in the Gulf. Closer still, a burgeoning Houston just 50 miles up the coast threatened to unseat Galveston in a bid for commercial supremacy of the Texas coast. Detractors of Galveston argued for the other cities in terms of geographic determinism—Galveston was troublingly near sea level, and lacked any natural protection from the sea. Defenders of the boomtown, like Cline, however, argued for unique geographic favoritism in order to assure investors their capital was safe on the island.
The storm that Cline watched build on September 8, 1900 put all such claims to rest, but in so doing, demonstrated that nature, and geography, can indeed conspire to shape human history. By 2:00 pm the winds began to roar down from the north as the waves pounded from the east. This combined assault caused the water from Galveston Bay to push onto the island in a flood surge that acted as a destructive vanguard for the oncoming storm. The initial torrent from the north covered the city streets and flooded hundreds of homes. It also served to weaken many structures before the full force of the hurricane ever hit. When the storm finally made landfall later that evening, the island was already totally submerged, and with the swells rolling in from the Gulf, water levels reached to fifteen feet across the city.
In the maelstrom that followed the storm’s landfall, a steamer broke loose from its moorings along Galveston’s wharves. The storm surge propelled the steamer down the west end of the island, where it came into direct collision with the bridges to the mainland. As the storm pushed across the island and onto the coast, it propelled the large ship six miles inland, carrying with it remains of the bridges—Galveston residents’ only escape route.
Cut off from the mainland and huddled in the upper floors of homes, the residents of Galveston tried to ride out the storm, many singing hymns, praying, and counting the hours until daybreak. As wind and wave battered the already weakened buildings, however, many began to collapse. An estimated 3,600 homes crumbled during the night, leaving thousands of people stranded and clinging to debris in the storm surge
Isaac Cline, hunkered down in his own home with his immediate family and brother, could not escape the fate he had scoffed at years before. At 7:00 pm, a 220-foot length of twisted steel trestle from the rail line rammed into the southwestern side of the house, ripping the side of the building open. As the water poured into the upper levels of the house, Isaac and his brother Joseph scrambled to collect the three children and Isaac’s wife, who was already months pregnant with their fourth child. The power of the surge was too much, and while Joseph pulled the children aboard a floating piece of debris, Isaac failed to reach his wife before the current pulled her under. Clinging desperately to their makeshift raft, the five surviving Clines tossed on the waves for nearly two hours before finding an intact house and other survivors with which to wait out the storm.
By the next day, the storm had thundered further inland and the seas began to subside. As hellish as the tempest had been, the aftermath was worse. The city lay in ruin and bodies of livestock and humans lay intermingled in the muddy streets. As looters cut rings from corpses’ fingers and raided ruined stores, one observer described “human nature at its worst,” displaying “its meanest passions of survival and profit.”
But looting was not the worst of it. An estimated 6,000-8,000 bodies littered the streets and beaches. Still more lay bloated and floating offshore where sharks and gulls gorged themselves. Clara Barton, who arrived several days after the storm to lead her last Red Cross effort, described the scene as a “monstrosity of nature, which defied exaggeration.” The sandy soil of Galveston and the sheer number of bodies made burial in such large scale impossible. As the Texas heat beat down, the scale of decay became a public health concern for survivors. At first, barges hauled loads of corpses out to sea and sunk them en masse. When hundreds washed back up with the tide, Galveston residents resorted to incinerating them in massive funeral pyres that burned for days along the beaches. Ships a hundred miles offshore reported the ghastly smell of carrion and burning flesh on the breeze.
People in Houston also caught whiffs of decay lingering in the smoke over the bay. The scents that signaled mounds of burning corpses along the Texas coast also signaled the fate of the region’s commercial future. Millions of dollars had been lost by investors in the tragedy. A full fifth of the island’s population lay rotting on its beaches. It was clear that Galveston would not recover anytime soon. Within months of the disaster, shipping and construction interests had shifted their attention to Houston, which blossomed into the thriving city it is today—the technological, metropolitan, and commercial hub of the Texas coast.
The same geographic features that Cline and city leaders had cited as the providential determinants for a thriving Galveston had combined with nature’s forces to destroy the city and its future as a commercial dynamo. Its placid tidewaters had raged across the island as a deluge from the north while its gentle inclining seafloor had allowed a powerful buildup of waves before the surge made landfall against the island’s eastern shore. To date, the Galveston hurricane remains the costliest disaster in human life the U.S. has suffered in its 300 year history.
Isaac Cline and the people of Galveston had predicted that geography would determine their beloved city’s fate, and in a tragic way, they were correct. The devastating effect of tempest meeting the geography of the Galveston coastline created the uniquely destructive storm surge that would lay Galveston low. This natural disaster brought down ruin on Galveston while insuring commercial opportunity for its competitors. Geography and nature came together to shape the history of at least two cities and thousands of individuals along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Nature, geography, and the environment all have a role to play in our understanding of history, and while overplaying their influence can distort the narrative, they must be taken seriously as contributing historical actors all the same.
“The Local Forecaster on the Galveston Hurricane, Scientific American, (1900, Oct 27).
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