Our first post of this new year will look at some of the activity on Galveston Island at the apogee of its influence during a year when it would tragically experience the 1900 Storm that would begin its long eclipse. On Monday, the 1st of January 1900 the Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C. predicted that Texas, New Mexico and the Indian Territory would enjoy fair conditions Monday and Tuesday with light northerly winds. In Galveston itself the temperature record as shown by the United States Weather Bureau on the roof of the Levy Building showed the temperature to be in the mid forties all day which under pleasant skies is a delight but when it is raining can chase you to the poles in search of warmth. Ominously – at least with hindsight, which seems to be the only way that omens work – a huge storm was interfering with shipping interests off of South West Pass [New Orleans] with sea-fowl and fishermen freezing and ships seeking the lee wherever they could find it. But Galveston, in the protection of the West Gulf, was bustling, booming and building.
There had always been featured advertisements for architects in the directory and 1900 was no exception. Patrick Rabitt, Jr. had been the junior partner in the firm of N. J. Clayton and Company from 1890 until 1899 but in 1900 had decided to hang out his own shingle. Whether he did so to escape the problems caused by Clayton’s litigation over the construction of the 1897 Galveston County Courthouse – which would lead to Clayton’s bankruptcy in 1903 – or for other reasons we do not know as this ad seems to be his single moment and even at that it features as its artwork the old Beach Hotel which was built by Clayton eight years before they had become partners and which had burned to the ground two years before this ad was published.
Although Rabitt was not a significant presence on the Galveston architectural scene his former partner was one of the deans of Victorian architecture in Galveston and, in many ways, the dominant designer of his time. Some of the building to the credit of Nicholas J. Clayton were:
His most significant competition came from Alfred Muller whose buildings were characterized by picturesque massing, exaggerated profiles, and heavy but vigorously modeled ornamental detail. As if to underscore the health hazards of living on the island Muller had died of typhoid fever on the 29th of June 1896 in Galveston and was buried at Lakeview Cemetery. Among the buildings to his credit were:
While these represent some of the landmark buildings of the city there were many lesser structures going up for both commercial and residential purposes and one of the new buildings for 1900 was the Avenue Hotel.
At 25th and Market this was a businessman’s hotel with a large number of permanent lodgers but perhaps the most interesting thing about it was the proprietor. In 1858 a Comanche and Kiowa raid at a mesa about two miles south of Iredell in northwestern Bosque County resulted in the death of Peter Johnson and the capture of his son, Peter, who spent a short time with the Indians before escaping. The summit was thereafter known as Johnson’s Peak but the younger Peter would give up its elevation of 1,223 feet to come down sea level, run a hotel and dine out on his celebrity as one of the last to see the days of Indian raids in Texas.
Of course Cathedrals and hotels were not the only things being built. From a mere toe hold on the east end of the island the community had grown along the north side of Broadway to about 4oth Street by the last quarter of the 19th century and had spilled further west and south by the beginning of the 20th century. This building boom kept the architects busy at the high-end and the carpenters busy constantly and unbeknownst to many a casual visitor a good many of the frame bungalows and row houses actually arrived on the island as kits. Ships would arrive at ports from Portland to Baltimore carrying heavy industrial goods. Once discharged they would load houses – Maine pine was a favorite – proceed to Galveston, discharge the houses and back load cotton for Europe. It was every ship owner’s dream – a cargo from every port – and it provided business to the ancillary services as well.
This building bonanza not only kept the port busy but as the people who worked there needed houses they needed furniture to fill them. Now before you proclaim Kauffman, Meyers & Company to be the discount furniture kings of their age consider that the average annual wage in the United States in 1900 was $438.00 – for teachers it was $328.00, for nurses $256.00 and for government workers $590.00 [the TEA party is too little too late!]. A longshoreman – especially a screwman – might earn as much as $18.00 a day, WHEN he worked, but even the $65.00 needed to furnish a home was the rough equivalent of $6,500.00 today and there we no big screen TV packages available.
While wages may have been short and furniture dear the cost of staples was not so bad with butter at 26 cents a pound, eggs 23 cents a dozen and rice 7 cents a pound you could feed a family on less than a dollar a day. If you didn’t walk, or take the street car for a penny, and were willing to invest $16.00 you could own a bicycle and for entertainment there was Murdoch’s:
From the days before the seawall until after Hurricane Carla  destroyed it for the last time Murdoch’s Bathing Pavilion was as much a Galveston landmark as the “monument” [the Louis Amateis memorial to Texas independence at 25th and Broadway upon which ALL Galveston directions are based – i.e.; “go two blocks beyond the monument and turn right,” or “three blocks before the monument turn left” (great instructions for first time tourists!)]. A multi-storeyed frame building that stood on pilings over the Gulf of Mexico where for 25 cents you and your family could use the facilities to change out of your street clothes and into your bathing costumes in an age when it was unthinkable that you would be seen anywhere other than the beach in such attire it was regularly washed away and rebuilt after every hurricane. After a brisk frolic in the surf you could bathe to wash away the salt and sand before dressing anew and going to the dining terrace for a romantic dinner à deux or to join the Knights of Pythias in an oyster roast that might last until the wee hours. Even after Carla the gift shop and restaurant were rebuilt and the Guyette family has kept at least this part of the tradition alive.
While there was never a time in Galveston – including the years of the ascendency of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and later Prohibition – when the desirous and the thirsty couldn’t find the choicest products of the brewer’s and distiller’s arts, not to mention the fruit of the grape, there were powerful forces arrayed against the possibilities of enjoyment. One of the responses to the increasing campaign against alcohol was the increase in carbonated beverages – Coca Cola had its original “original” formula changed and was introduced as a response to prohibition in Fulton County [Atlanta], Georgia in 1886 – and in Galveston the favorite seemed to be Sassafras Beer which we would call root beer. While Coca Cola was rumored to have cocaine as an ingredient [it was actually a coca wine] safrole is a precursor for the manufacture of the drug MDMA (ecstasy), as well as the drug MDA (a psychedelic and entactogenic drug), so you may drink nonalcoholic beverages at your own peril. Most of the Galvestonians of my acquaintance have always put adequate portions of ardent spirits in carbonated beverages to improve the taste of both.
In 1900 Galveston was known as the Wall Street of the South because of its dominant role in shipping – most especially cotton – and many liner services used it as a feeder port to get goods to the U. S. East Coast for transhipment at rates cheaper than rail service. Not that the position of the shipping companies was all that adversarial with the railroads. Hudson’s bank reference of Hutchings, Sealy & Company makes a good deal of sense. John Henry Hutchings and George Sealy owned not only the Mallory Line but most of the railroads that serviced it. Even after the 1900 Storm when the “good government” league took over the city Robert Waverly Smith – their éminence grise – was married to Jennie Sealy, the daughter of John Sealy [brother and partner of George]. In Galveston the old order may pass but the old money keeps a very tight grip on things!
1900 was a time of transition in Galveston that is true of the shipping business as well. An indication of this is that the largest number of port calls were still made by ships under sail however the greatest amount of tonnage was carried by ships under steam. Businesses had to adapt in order to survive and nowhere is this more in evidence than with a company like Henck. Where ten or fifteen years previously they could ignore the non-shipping market they had been caught up in the housing boom and were making awnings – a thing much in demand in an age before air conditioning – as well as flags and banners.
Galveston was also a commercial fishing port. Not just the mosquito fleet of 75 boats or so huddled around Pier 19 but hundreds of boats cramming in among the ocean-going ships and competing to get their catch off loaded, iced and put on a fast freight for the interior. It was not only red snapper but shrimp and oysters kept the barrel factories busy and supplied table as far away as Kansas City. Almost all of the decent seafood in Houston and Dallas would come from Galveston and in an early innovation there were satellite sales at the Interurban stations near the beach as well as at Virginia Point to make sure that no opportunity to sell to the tourists from Houston, who were reputed to arrive on the island with one shirt and a five dollar bill – and never change either, was not missed.
Theodore Roosevelt may have been the source of the declaration that Maxwell House coffee was, “good to the last drop”, but as the point of import for most of the coffee, tea and spices coming into the Southwest, Galveston was the natural location for coffee-roasting and at least two major factories operated there throughout the first half of the 20th century. The Strand was the center of these activities but they declined as containerization made it possible to ship larger quantities farther inland and as the developers turned actual working shops into artists galleries, restaurants, boutiques and other quaint destinations for the chattering classes. By 1938 the petrochemical plants at Texas City accounted for half of all industrial employment in Galveston County and the number hasn’t fallen below that since.
The alma mater of Margaret Edythe Young and her sisters was the Ursuline Academy at Galveston which had been founded in 1847 at the request of Galveston’s first bishop, Jean M. Odin. The school as pictured above was one of the architectural masterpieces of Nicholas J. Clayton and was advertised as having ample accommodation for over two hundred more pupils including being supplied with hot water, electric lights and everything conducive to health, comfort and safety. Offering a course of studies composed of all branches of solid and refined knowledge the terms were $100.00 per term of five months with music and painting extra. Although this building had been completed and opened in 1896 it was still the marvel of the Island at the beginning of 1900.
When the Storm of the 8th of September 1900, struck Galveston, Mother Mary Joseph directed her community to open its buildings to more than a thousand refugees, black and white, to calm their terror and meet their needs. At the risk of their own lives the nuns pulled many persons from the floodwaters. Mother Mary Joseph ordered them to strip the convent of linens and give up their own wardrobes to clothe the refugees, and to share what food was spared by the tidal wave. For several weeks after the storm she kept the homeless in what was left of the convent buildings. The Houston Post stated at this time in a nationally reprinted story: “A fearful catastrophe like that of September 8 brings out all that there is in a human being…and when all the noblest attributes…are brought out in one individual, and that a woman, mere words become too weak…to do her proper honor. Such a woman is Mother Mary Joseph. She is the heroine of the storm.”
Ironically Mother Mary Joseph has something in common with so many prominent Galvestonians – she was born somewhere else [Oberhausen, Baden] and she is buried someplace else [Rome]. Both the Houston Post and the Ursuline Academy are gone, Mother Mary Joseph Dallmer is buried in Rome where she had gone when she was elected American assistant to the mother general of the order. There is however a memorial to her at the back of the Ursuline Cemetery that holds the remains of so many of the nuns who served the island for so long. It is located behind the diocesan school that finally replaced the Academy and, like the convent bell that she rang that fateful night, it is a wonderful point to reflect on the true nature of service.