There are three cities that predominate what the Confederacy identified as the Department of the Trans-Mississippi. San Antonio with its sphere stretching south to Corpus Christi and west to El Paso – and even older roots that go throughout the ancient Spanish empire in the Americas – is forever the witness and the gateway to a large part of our Spanish Heritage. New Orleans whose sphere predominates as far east as Mobile and as far north as Natchez joins us near the Calcasieu and gives us our French connections. Both are very old for North American cities founded by Europeans. Much older than Galveston – which may have been cursorily grazed by the Spanish and slightly less cursorily exploited by Lafitte and Menard representing French culture if not the French crown – these great cities continue as cultural centers.
Between these two centers is Galveston – no less influential historically than either of them – it is the root from which not only Houston but also Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin grew and in spite of being a gateway through which Europe flowed into the Southwest as well as one of the great cities of nineteenth century America it was, and is, the quintessential Southern city. The largest single factor that made the South different from every other part of the country was cotton. A crop that was a vital as it was unique – although Cyrus McCormick would invent his mechanical reaper for grain in 1831 there was no equivalently successful cotton combine before 1942 – it was labor intensive from plowing to planting to picking as well as from ginning to baling to shipping and Galveston was a town built on shipping and especially on shipping cotton.
Ralph Waldo Emerson writing in his journal in 1855 said, “I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must. If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.” With the American genius for hyperbole – to say nothing of marketing – by 1890, with the sage dead for nearly a decade, the quotation had metamorphosed into, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door,” and the 1890’s offered the proof as well as the pudding – which was probably tinned for the first time.
America at the end of the 19th century – and Galveston with it – were embarking on a new stage of their long love affair with the labor-saving device that may have had its origins in Jefferson’s use of Charles Willson Peale’s polygraph machine to produce multiple copies of a letter simultaneously and has not ended yet. In tandem with invention was the exponential increase in the amount of power that was being made available for the first time. The electrification of the cities was the largest and newest improvement in civil engineering since the introduction of public sewers in ancient Rome. And not only was it available to the city it was available to the city dwellers. America had not only caught up with Europe but the new world had leapfrogged the old and had truly become the New World.
Try not to snicker at how dated some of these machines appear and be humbled by the fact that your great grandparents saw more progress in a decade than you have seen in a lifetime. Enjoy the genius of the age.
If you drew a line on a map of Texas from Orange [Beaumont for non-Texans] to Del Rio almost everything south of that line would have been rich agricultural land in the 19th century and in many cases that would have meant cotton. Galveston was the leading cotton port – and cotton was the leading cargo – in the western Gulf of Mexico. It was also the leading commercial center for the machinery of the trade being a natural point of import for machinery from the U. S. East Coast as well as from abroad. One of the most remarkable pieces of equipment in the history of American invention is the cotton gin.
Technology has a very nasty history of biting back. No one could have foreseen that the application of mass production techniques on simple interchangeable musket parts during the American Revolution would someday lead to the AK-47. In the same way all of the compromises of the founders designed to allow slavery, which was losing all economic viability in the late 18th century, to wither and disappear as an institution were set to naught when Eli Whitney produced his cotton gin. Suddenly the separation of cotton fibers from their seeds ceased to be time and labor intensive and the fiber could be inexpensively separated and marketed. The seeds were available for the next planting and cottonseed oil could be used as everything from fuel to a cure for arthritis. Massive amounts of unskilled labor were still required for planting, plowing and pickings but the gin remained the machine that made large-scale cotton production commercially viable – and still does.
While Galveston may have been a center for the importation, marketing and financing the gins most of the plants themselves were operated as farmer’s cooperatives in the growing country itself. The Brown Gin advertised here was manufactured in Georgia and was the direct – if vastly improved – successor to Whitney’s original machine, the original company having been acquired by Franklin Hadley Lummus who had turned the New York Cotton Gin Co. into the Lummus Corporation which is still in business today.
While cotton gins may have been located in the farming communities cotton compresses were commonplace in Galveston and the Moody Compress is still visible on the north side of Broadway as you arrive on the island. After his arrival from the Azores, Manuel Francisco Bettencourt – Margaret Edythe Young’s future father-in-law – found work in one of the compresses when he arrived from the Azores with his sons and eventually would become supervisor of the yard.
Ironically it was the cotton compress – which reduced the cubic of a bale of cotton by up to 50% – that largely reduced the need for screwmen and put an end to John Young’s first job on the Galveston waterfront while at the same time greatly increasing the tonnage available for shipping from interior points by rail to the port. Loading the cotton for export by water was the making of his second career as a stevedore.
The Texas Railroad Commission [which would serve as the model for OPEC] was created in 1891 to regulate the shipping of cotton by rail and was instrumental in encouraging the manufacture of cotton compresses throughout Texas. The commission supplanted the old cotton factor system that had dominated the industry since before the War and gave rise to the exchange system where it was traded as a commodity. John Young and William Moody were only two of the people who were able to adapt and prosper as machines changed the times.
While cotton may have been the number one crop in terms of both volume and dollar value it was by no means the only crop – or cargo – that was important to the Port of Galveston.
Today filibuster is used as a verb to describe a procedural technique used to delay legislative action. In the late eighteenth century the term originated from the French flibustier, which was first applied to pirates who pillaged the Spanish colonies in the West Indies and in the mid-nineteenth century the Spanish filibustero, denoted adventurers who incited revolution in Latin America. Galveston had served as a base for both the flibustier and the filibustero both when it was a sparsely populated anchorage in Spanish Texas and when it was the principal port of the growing Republic of Texas. While these actions may have officially ended with the treaty of annexation in 1845 the island still served as a financial center, supply point and finally a trading partner for the fruits – literally – of the filibustero.
Bluefields Banana Company took its name from Bluefields, Nicaragua which – appropriately enough – took its name from the flibustier, the seventeenth century Dutch pirate, Abraham Blauvelt, who had used the bay there as a refuge while plundering the Spanish galleons. The area would go from Spanish to English to a joint English and American protectorate under the indigenous Miskito monarchy until it was finally ceded to Nicaragua in 1894. Who the titular owners were made very little real difference since the land was operated by English and American interests as banana and tree plantations.
The strategy behind the Bluefields operation was an effort to continue trade when droughts, floods, or political upheavals were disrupting one or another of the harvesting lands. From the late nineteenth until well into the twentieth century, the company operated principally in Nicaragua, and Panama, though shipments also came from Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras. The governments of these Central and South American countries were eager to develop but were unable to finance the construction of railroads and ports but for American companies who were able to buy inexpensive land and do the building themselves, the situation offered unimaginable potential. Although the Galvestonians faced some competition, mainly from New Orleans, for all practical purposes, Bluefields became the Texas company and guided not only the economic but also the political developments in the countries it had invested in.
There would not be a dedicated refrigerated cargo vessel until 1903 so in these early days of the trade the cargoes had to be small, the ships fast and loading and discharge went on 24 hours a day, rain or shine, no Saturdays, Sundays or holidays excluded. Limited ice production may have been available in Bluefields but the ice plants in Galveston worked around the clock so that these cargoes could be iced and shipped out on fast trains to the interior and one of the first jobs that Toni Luis Bettencourt had – Margaret Edythe Young’s husband [after his name had been Americanized to Anthony Lewis Bettencourt] – was as a cashier for a wholesale ice company. Although Bluefields has become part of Chiquita and Freeport has taken much of the trade there are still Del Monte vessels calling at Galveston even if there are not quite so many wholesale fruitiers.
Back in the dark ages when this author was apprenticed to a steamship company we typed bills of lading on mimeograph stencils, produced multiple originals all of which might be negotiable and more copies for a distribution list that seemed endless – and one ship on one voyage could have from one to hundreds of bills of lading. In addition to this there was the paperwork to get the ship entered and cleared through customs and immigration as well as satisfying the coast guard that all of the documentation was in order. Then there was the port log – a record of the vessel’s time in port – as well as the stevedoring time sheets, laytime calculations, demurrage calculations if allowable laytime was exceeded and an endless string of reports to owners and charterers reporting on everything from the weather to the expectations for the next vessel call. We were all told that the short cut to a captaincy was being able to type 60 words a minute and while that may have been apocryphal we were all aware of a certain captain who had lost his command because he insisted that the ship should sail and the paperwork should follow.
As much as ships sailed on a sea of paper fifty years ago we at least had typewriters – quite often of the manual variety since NO shipping company ever spent money unnecessarily. In the late nineteenth century almost all of the paperwork was done in pen and ink much the way that scriveners had done it since time immemorial. The increasing demands for documentation and the prompt transmittal of information gave rise to a huge increase in the demand for clerical help that was trained in the specific needs of the shipping company, or the railroad, or the customs house broker or any of a dozen other institutions all of whom had their own forms and procedures.
The Conyngton Business College was one of the many franchised for profit schools that would take students who could read and write and teach them to become clerks. The tuition was often not inexpensive but the rewards were considerable – a white-collar job that would provide an income that would support a family and put their foot on the first rung of the ladder of middle class respectability. Both John D. Rockefeller and Thomas Alva Edison were graduates of this type of college and while the select few that were lucky enough to graduate from an institution like Ball High School in Galveston – like Anthony Lewis Bettencourt – were ready and able to move directly into clerical positions – he started out as a cashier for an ice merchant and wound up as a bank auditor – many others found their positions through these schools.
These were not the hopeless, hapless, subsidized degree mills that today are just one more means of cheating the poor. Nor were they that state supported secondary and post secondary extended child care services that produce clerks who are still functionally illiterate and innumerate but are entitled to put a BA behind their names. These were make it or break it schools whose graduates were known to possess a skill set that was in demand AND had been taught to express themselves in an intelligent manner through a course that taught grace with grammar and punctiliousness with punctuation.
Galveston was never a dry county in any sense of the term but in this particular case we refer to the availability of the convivial, cool, refreshing beverages that wash away the dust of the compress, the sweat of the cargo hold or the cramp of the pencil held too long. Those factors and the need to lubricate the cogs of business and politics in conjunction with being a port where the best of everything arrived first supplied the bon vivant, the epicurean and the just plain thirsty with supplies for their favorite watering holes and their homes.
Mary Anne Adams – Margaret Edythe Young’s grandmother – had remarried after David Adams had been lost for the Cause. Her second husband had owned at least one saloon and when he was taken by the fever outbreak that followed the War she inherited the place. Her third husband – Maurice Coffey – had started out as a bartender there and had introduced his immigrant friend, John Young, to the landlady’s daughter, Mary Ann, and they became the parents of Margaret Edythe Young and her siblings. Maurice Coffey would be a saloon keeper, labor contractor and political activist – and for the Irish these were complementary professions – all of his life and John Young himself would be the proprietor of the family saloon for two years while Maurice was “away”.
The Beach Hotel was a gingerbread and lattice playground for wealthy northerners to escape winters and a year round fun house for the locals to enjoy their prosperity and summer entertainment including fireworks, high-wire walkers, bands and just about every celebrity to visit the island. Nicholas J. Clayton was the architect of this four and a half story marvel crowned by an octagonal roof that housed the fresh water tanks – baths were of the health giving salt water type! – and with its paint job that included large red and white stripes, and eaves trimmed in a golden green it must have looked like an Italian dessert at the edge of the water.
The hotel was built at the direction of William H. Sinclair who also owned the Galveston Streetcar Company – which may have been why electric trolleys passed it every five minutes – and who was anxious to increase Galveston’s appeal as a tourist destination. The hotel had all of the features that would allow it to compete with any resort including fine dining and a “grand staircase” where the grand could be seen coming or going or it could serve as a tableau for the most impressive of social occasions that could be provided.
The one thing the hotel did not have was regular service from a sewage contractor and when a city inspector discovered that the hotel had been flushing its cesspits into the Gulf of Mexico via a pipeline the hotel was shuttered until acceptable arrangements could be made. Sinclair had been a union colonel and then head of the Texas Freedman’s Bureau after the war. Before the “absolutely disgusting and disgraceful”, to use the health official’s language, sewage issue could be resolved the hotel was destroyed by a mysterious fire in which the fire trucks could not reach the hotel because of the beach’s sand. The cause of the fire was never determined and we hear no further from Col. Sinclair.
The Tremont Hotel was the great business hotel of Galveston. The third building – the first had opened in 1839 with a great ball to celebrate the victory at San Jacinto while Texas was still a republic and the second had burned at the end of the War for Southern Independence – wound up as a collaboration between Nicholas J. Clayton who had been sent to Galveston to build the Presbyterian Church and the hotel and Fred S. Stewart who took over after the original company went broke during construction and who was responsible for the top floor and the mansard roof.
The original plans – on which the illustration is based – had called for an even grander building with five storeys while the actual hotel has only four. That did not stop it from hosting United States Presidents Rutherford Hayes, Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, James Garfield, and Chester Arthur. Nor did it prevent hundreds of people from taking refuge there during the 1900 storm and Clara Barton of the American Red Cross stayed there when she came to Galveston after the storm to help with the recovery.
If the Beach Hotel was the playground the Tremont was the establishment address where Sam Houston warned that “fire and rivers of blood” would result from the South’s efforts to secede from the Union. The year following Governor Francis R. Lubbock advocated laying waste to Galveston, except for fortifications, so that when the “vandal hordes” arrived they would find neither potable water nor shelter. Although the results of the War of Northern Aggression were more horrific than either speaker could have imagined there is still a Tremont Hotel and it is still in business.
If you live in Galveston and have a gas stove, grill or heater the probability is that you turn a dial or a switch and an electronic ignition system ignites natural gas that has come from a salt dome one hundred miles away or more and in an instant you or your food is warming. You may have gas lights in your front yard or on your patio but these are largely ornamental affectations that require no more work than your gas appliances. This is really a development of the last half century – gas in Galveston in the 1890’s was manufactured and while it was not thought of as any less marvelous that natural gas is thought of today it was very different.
The first gas light in the United States occurred in 1796 when fireworks makers made experiments with gas illumination at Philadelphia. Later, illuminating gas was exhibited in a sideshow in 1802 by Benjamin Healy at the Haymarket Gardens in Richmond, Virginia and David Melvile, of Newport, Rhode Island, experimented with as lights at his home in 1806 and at light houses around 1810. All of this gas began with coal and even though the beginnings of commercial coal production were starting in Texas just before 1890 most of the coal used to light Galveston came in by water from England on ships that took cotton on the homeward passage.
Making gas out of coal was a simple process but one that was produced huge amounts of environmentally hazardous wastes and could be incredibly dangerous. Coal in a closed tube called a retort was heated in a furnace. The gasses given off passed through a water trap (“hydraulic main”) and were then cooled in a condenser, where tar and other liquids were removed. The gas then passed through a purifier to remove sulphur compounds and other impurities before being used or stored in a gas holder. Late in the 19th century, steam-driven exhausters were introduced to pump the gas through the gas works and into the mains system which is what made civic gas lighting possible.
To manufacture enough gas to light a city took a huge plant and getting connected to the mains and using gas domestically was a very expensive proposition. Set the costs against demand and in every case the market will find a solution. In this case the solution was to manufacture your own gas. Most of the family homes had an outbuilding that housed the wood burning stove which was probably in constant use to boil water for domestic use as well as cooking. These stoves were housed in an outbuilding both to keep heat out of the house during a summer that runs from April until October and to lessen the fire hazard that was all too real where hundreds of frame houses were built so closely together.
Having the wood burning stove in constant use was half the battle to manufacturing your own gas and kits were available to do just that. John Young had one at his house at the corner of Winnie and 35th Streets. They were incredibly dangerous. In 1898 a maid and a stable hand were loading a cylinder with gas to bring into the house for use with the new gas range and it caught fire and set their clothes on fire. They rushed into the house and Edythe’s older sister, Annie, got the stable hand outside and then went back in to the now burning house to look for the maid – neither servant survived and Annie died from smoke inhalation two days later. There is furniture in this house from that house. It has blisters where the varnish was melted by the heat and over a century of cleaning has not removed them yet.
Brush Electric was Galveston’s first light company. The gas works remained although their share of energy provided would continue to shrink as the consequences of the pollution that the manufacturing process created became more apparent. This pollution was responsible for the passage of the Federal Refuse Act of 1899 which empowered the Army Corps of Engineers to defend the nation’s navigable waterways from discharge of industrial wastes. Electricity used coal as well but it used it to heat water to create steam which drove first the motors and later the turbines that supplied the power – all of the waste went into the atmosphere and became tomorrow’s problem. Because it was less volatile than gas and provided better light at lower temperatures and costs it became the energy for the nation. Rural Texas would not be completely electrified until after the Second World War but starting in the 1890’s almost every part of Galveston was well lighted and on its way to being connected.
Magnolia Willis Sealy, wife of George Seal, was an avid garden who helped initiate the idea of Galveston as “The Oleander City.” It would be another 40 years before their son, George Sealy II, would truly turn Galveston into the Oleander City breeding some 60 varieties on the grounds behind his cotton compress. But plants were not new to the island which was tropical in both climate and foliage. German immigrants had organized the Galveston Garten Verein as early as 1876 and the eternal battle of every immigrant to get the plants, shrubs and trees as well as the flowers and fruits of his homeland take root in foreign soil began in earnest.
North of the sea breezes in Alvin, Wright’s Floral Garden and Nursery was producing home-grown reliable stock so that the homeowners could begin adorning their new homes with evergreens, ornamentals and flowering shrubs and no home, social event or public function would ever again be bereft of green.
In 1824 John Dickinson paid twenty pesos for a strip of land a mile wide between League City and Galveston Bay and in April 1825 he and John Sarver bought a league [One league = 5,000 varas square = 13,889 feet square = 4,428.4 acres per the Texas Land Bank] on the south side of Clear Creek from John K. Williams. He was a cotton factor and wholesale and retail merchant in Houston who accumulated a fortune and whose widow toured England and Europe with her children after the Civil War, gave them French and dancing lessons, and visited her husband’s relatives in Scotland, though she had to dip “into the principal” of her estate to do so. And so began the town of Dickinson.
Enter Ebenezer B. Nichols prominent citizen of Galveston, partner in the Galveston Wharf Company and a director of the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad, which was built right through Dickinson. Acquiring property from the widow he built a summer estate on Dickinson Bayou and was followed by other prominent Galvestonians who built rural retreats there and established the Oleander Country Club.
In the 1890’s his son and his partners organized the Nicholstone City Company to market more of the land whose great draw was the local soil’s proven suitability for growing. Their advertisement stated that strawberries would yield up to $700 an acre and the Texas Agricultural Extension Service tells us that the current number is between $1,800 and $2,500 per acre which would have made them an incredibly valuable crop. Of the 100 acres set aside for public use 40 came from the Nichols summer home and the race track that was built there often saw offerings from Maurice Coffey’s stable pounding the turf.
By September 1868 the Southern Pacific had come under the control of Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker. Two existing Texas railroads, the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway running between Galveston and San Antonio and the Texas and New Orleans Railroad from Houston to Orange, fit into Huntington’s plans and although he had not acquired an interest in either company he and Thomas W. Peirce of the GH&SA had been working together since 1878 on plans to construct a line between San Antonio and El Paso.
When the Southern Pacific forces reached El Paso they continued building eastward under the GH&SA charter while the GH&SA resumed track laying westward from San Antonio. At this time the revitalized Texas and Pacific under Jay Gould was also building across West Texas toward El Paso but the race to occupy the best route through the mountains east of El Paso was won by the GH&SA. Huntington and Gould signed an agreement which granted the Texas and Pacific rights between Sierra Blanca and El Paso and in turn the Texas and Pacific agreed not to build west of El Paso and relinquished its survey across New Mexico and Arizona to the Southern Pacific.
Huntington had also acquired control of the Louisiana Western Railroad Company, and in early 1883 the Southern Pacific controlled a southern transcontinental line from California to Vermillionville, Louisiana. By mid-1883 the “Big Four” and Peirce had bought Morgan’s Louisiana and Texas Railroad and Steamship Company extending the railroad to New Orleans and completing the Sunset Route of the Southern Pacific.
Galvestonians had always had greater mobility than most thanks to being in a port city. They could and did frequently travel to the destinations across the Gulf, throughout the Caribbean and along the east coast and on to Europe on both business and pleasure. Until the late 1880’s it wash probably about a wash between taking a fast steamer to New York and taking the train. By the 1890’s the train had become faster by far. This advertisement shows 56 hours from Texas to New York – which was a very fast train considering that the train from Galveston to San Antonio could take 20 hours – and that was travelling in relative luxury with fine dining, sleeping accommodations and “conditioned air”. With the invention of the automobile and the airplane passenger trains would eventually become a novelty item but from the 1890’s until the 1950’s there was not a better way to go.