In the days when Jean Lafitte used Galveston as a refuge there was a small island – no more than a few hundred feet of dry soil in a salt water marsh – called Pelican Island. An adjoining marsh was called Pelican split and both of these combined to shelter the docks on the back side of Galveston Island from Galveston Bay. Over the years the site was used for dredge spoil from channel improvements and it is today a considerable island connected to the main island by a causeway.
The Confederate general, John Bankhead Magruder, in 1863 installed six casement guns on Pelican Island and eight more at Fort Point on Galveston Island and secured the channel and the island against union capture for the remainder of the war. [Texas and Galveston were the last places to surrender during the War for Southern Independence.] But it was after the war that the island may have become the greatest defense of the island with the addition of the Quarantine station.
During the early months of 1866 measles appeared “in nearly every house” in Galveston and Galvestonians experienced at least nine yellow fever epidemics between 1839 and 1867. During Galveston’s last yellow fever epidemic in 1867, thousands were afflicted and hundreds had died by early September including Mary Ann Adams second husband – her first, David Adams, having been lost for the Cause – and he now lies in an unmarked grave in the “fever cemetery” along Broadway.
The Galveston that Margaret Edythe Young was born in was not a healthy place. Infant mortality was high and cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, dengue fever, measles, influenza, diphtheria, and whooping-cough afflicted the population of what was little more than a sand bar dotted with swamps. The fact that it also happened to offer a sheltered anchorage and deep water port served by rail lines was what kept the city going – that and people who clung to it tenaciously out of both necessity and affection.
Galveston’s doctors established a quarantine camp in 1899 to house some of the thirty-seven residents afflicted with smallpox and the public health service established the quarantine station on Pelican Island. Inbound ships were boarded and crew members examined for any trace of illness and ships could be delayed or refused entry to the port. Despite these efforts Galveston remained a profoundly unhealthy place until well into the 20th century when James Martin Kirwin provided the leadership that cleaned up the town in every sense of the word.
Where the old quarantine station stood and the launch SEAWAY carried the doctors and inspectors to ships anchored in Bolivar Roads, where the ferry now crosses, is now the pavilion at Seawolf Park. On permanent display there are the USS CAVALLA and the USS STEWART and the remains of the World War I tanker S.S. SELMA, the largest concrete ship constructed, are visible off the pavilion. Each of these ships has a history and an importance to Galveston that we will examine but before we do you need to know something of the history of the USS SEAWOLF.
USS SEAWOLF, a 1450-ton Sargo class submarine built at Kittery, Maine, was commissioned in 1939 and following a shakedown cruise that included a port call at Galveston she joined the Asiatic Fleet. Immediately after war with Japan began in December 1941, SEAWOLF made her first war patrol and later left Manila to transport critical personnel to Australia, returning in late January 1942 with a load of ammunition. On SEAWOLF’S next patrol, in defense of the Dutch East Indies in February-April, she torpedoed several enemy ships and for the rest of 1942, the submarine had three productive combat cruises that cost Japan six ships.
After a West Coast overhaul, SEAWOLF operated out of Hawaii from April 1943 to January 1944, making five patrols which resulted in the sinking of thirteen enemy ships that made her among the Navy’s most productive submarines of World War II, both in total number of ships sunk and in tonnage. In June 1944 she departed Pearl Harbor on an intelligence gathering mission to the Palau Islands, which would be invaded by U.S. forces a few months later and then went on to Fremantle, from which she made a trip to Tawitawi to recover an agent. SEAWOLF left Brisbane on her fifteenth patrol in September, assigned to take U.S. Army agents and supplies to Samar, in the Philippines. While en route, breakdowns in communications caused U.S. anti-submarine forces to mistake her for Japanese. On the 3rd of October 1944, after being forced to dive by an air attack, SEAWOLF was depth charged and sunk by an American destroyer escort. All her crew and passengers, nearly a hundred men, were lost with her.
Similar to the SEAWOLF the CAVALLA (SS-244), a 1,526 to submarine Gato was launched in 1943 by at Groton, Conn and on the 31st of May 1944 she put to sea, bound for distant, enemy-held waters. It was on her maiden patrol that she rendered the distinguished service that earned her a Presidential Unit Citation. En route to her station in the eastern Philippines, she made contact with a large Japanese task force on the 17th of June 1944. CAVALLA tracked the force and relayed invaluable information which contributed heavily to the overwhelming United States victory scored in the Battle of the Philippine Sea – the famous “Marianas Turkey Shoot” on the 19th and 20th of June 1944. With this great service completed, CAVALLA continued her pursuit, and she caught the carrier Shokaku landing planes and quickly fired torpedoes that sent the Jap carrier to the bottom. She joined the fleet units entering Tokyo Bay on the 31st of August and remained for the signing of the surrender on the 2nd of September 1945. She would remain in service until 1969 and in 1971 was transferred to Texas Submarine Veterans of World War II and made a museum ship at Seawolf Park in Galveston.
Ironically enough alongside the CAVALLA is the USS STEWART which was built by Brown Brothers shipyard at Houston – ironically because it is the same class of vessel that sank the SEAWOLF – but unlike either of the submarines it spent almost its entire service with the Atlantic Fleet [it is pictured below with camouflage paint applied. While the USS STEWART and the Gato class submarine CAVALLA were donated by the U.S. Navy to the city of Galveston for use as part a memorial to the Texans who lost their lives in World War II over the years, a lack of maintenance and the elements had left them in extremely poor condition. In 1996, the Navy was considering reclaiming the vessel and placing it in the care of the Carnegie Institute with the intention of moving the ship to Pittsburgh, on the condition that a metallurgical analysis found that the hull was in sufficient condition to be re-floated. In October 1998, the Parks Board announced its intention to scrap both vessels and turn SEAWOLF Park into an RV park. Fortunately true Texans rose the occasion and conducted a protracted public battle forcing the Parks Board to allow the CAVALLA Historical Foundation to raise funds for the restoration and preservation of the vessels and the park remains exactly what it was intended to be.
Visible off the end of Pelican Island is the disintegrating hull of the SS SELMA at 6,826 gross ton tanker built during the first world war entirely of concrete due to the steel shortage of the time. Launched in 1919, too late to serve in the war, she was put into service in the Gulf of Mexico but in 1920 she hit a jetty in Tampico, Mexico. With a 60 foot gash in her side she was towed to Galveston for repairs and after she was found to be a total constructive loss no one wanted to buy her – how much scrap value is there in a concrete hull? In order to dispose of the ship and get some value from her hull as an erosion barrier a channel was dug off the eastern shore of Pelican Island and the hull was towed there and scuttled.
Still serving harbor tugs and shipyards with the Texas Maritime Academy at one end and SEAWOLF park at the other Pelican Island continue to be an integral part of Galveston and her history and is certainly worth a visit.