On September 8, 1900 Galveston, Texas was hit by the most devastating hurricane of the 20th century. Over 6,000 people died in a single night of surging seas and howling winds that reduced the Ellis Island of the west to stacks of splintered timbers and the Wall Street of the south to piles of rubble.
Galveston would rebuild. The port reopened to process tons of relief supplies and the Galveston Wharves Company would be handling cotton and sugar and sulfur and oil within the year. In 1901 the Texas Legislature approved the building of the Galveston Seawall which was financed with privately placed bonds for $1.6 million with the work completed in 15 months between 1902 and 1904 leaving Frank Putnam of The New England Magazine to call the city, “An Epitome of American Pluck”.
On August 17, 1915 Galveston was hit by another storm. A hurricane that formed off the Cape Verde islands, wrecked havoc across the Leeward Islands, Hispanola and Cuba and arrived at Galveston with 135 mile per hour winds and a 21 foot tidal surge. Thanks in large part to warnings before the arrival of the storm and the protection afforded by the Seawall fewer than 400 people died. There was $50 million dollars worth of damage, the equivalent of about $1 billion in today’s money, but more than this is told by the fact that the storm was called the 1915 GALVESTON Hurricane.
The United States had changed in those 15 years. McKinley, who was president at the time of the first storm, had been succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt and the United States had grown from a backwater to a world power in eight short years. More than that was the exuberance and optimism that underscored those years. By 1903 Fort Crockett had been rebuilt and re-garrisoned with new coastal artillery batteries. In 1904 the Rosenberg Library was built, in 1907 the City National Bank and Trust was founded and in 1912 the Galvez Hotel opened on the beach and has been staring down storms ever since.
By August 1915 Woodrow Wilson was dithering in the White House as only a progressive Democrat can dither. Europe had been torn asunder by war for a year. If the United States had joined the battle we were so unprepared that every third American boy would have been armed with a broomstick. Colonel House – a man with NO military experience – was the grey eminence of the Wilson White House and the great friend of Houston publisher and financier Jesse Jones. By 1914 the Port of Houston would open – built with matching funds from the federal government rather than being a private concern like the Galveston Wharves – and the long pre-eminence of the Port of Galveston would begin fading and with that the commercial prospects of the city would decline.
Galveston lives. No storm has ever killed her and no amount of political chicanery can suppress the vibrancy of her spirit. Like the oleander it is an evergreen. While the city was rebuilding between the storms families went on about the business of families and people’s every day lives continued apace.
One of these lives was Margaret Edythe Young (1884-1920) who was an artist. She was born on the Island and graduated from the Ursuline Academy and in her brief career produced landscapes and still lifes, portraits and painted tapestries. Her career effectively ended in July of 1915 when she put away her paints and pots to care for her new baby daughter. She would be dead of Krohn’s disease in 1920 and the sweet scent of the oleander would fade a little.
In addition to her paintings she left us a record of her family and friends and her of her daily life in an album. I am no art critic – I can tell if a frame is well dusted but that is about it – so I will not for the most part address the artistic aspects of her career. I do have a lifelong love of Galveston and the BOI’s that were my ancestors and for my children and grandchildren I will try to reanimate the people and the place in a time of hope and exuberance and an optimism that is distinctly American.