In the 19th century the mile posts in Galveston history seem to be the storms that devastated the Island. In the 20th century the mile posts became the storms it survived. In August 1915 Galveston was hit again by a hurricane with 120 mph winds, tides 9–14 feet above normal and a storm surge of over 16 feet. Although damaged the Seawall held and less than 50 lives were lost on Galveston Island but the storm changed the beach structure with almost the entire beach eroded to become an offshore sandbar – something that time and tide would cure albeit incompletely. The really important numbers were that there was six million dollars worth of damage on the island and only one million dollars worth of damage in Houston and worse than that required repairs to the Seawall raised the question of whether or not Galveston could survive two storms in the same season. Business generated by the First World War might delay the inevitable but the moving finger had not only written but it had moved on and no chamber of commerce could lure it back to cancel half a line and no receding tide would wash out a word of it.
When we left the Galveston of 1912 in our last entry we did so with an advertisement for the then new Magnolia Park – it had become an independent municipality in 1909 – that was the harbinger of the ascent of the Port of Houston. The 1916 advertisement shows how much it had grown, even allowing for developer hyperbole, but it was also undergoing a transformation of its own. Americans of Mexican ancestry had begun arriving settling in the area filled by sand dredged from the new turning basin and known as the Sands. Most of the new settlers worked as laborers, laying railroad tracks or dredging and widening the new ship channel. Others worked as stevedores on ships or in the rail yards while the women worked in jute mills, making bindings for cotton bales. These were industrious people who purchased lots, built family homes, and fostered an active cultural life – the problem for the developer was that they weren’t white.
Where Galveston as an island community with a limited amount of living space and being a good deal more cosmopolitan as a port city with a thriving international mix in its trade and its citizenry was more used to a homogenous society. Houston had room for sprawl and the nouvelle bourgeois aping the manners of the nouveau riche had no desire to be THAT cosmopolitan. By 1916 there were already 80 occupied homes in the new Park Place subdivision. Each home was built on a large lot with piped water and electricity supplied to every house – both as public utilities. Most importantly it was on the Interurban Line.
The Interurban Line ran from 1911 until 1936 and was an electric rail car service that originated on 21st Street, between Church and Post Office Streets in Galveston, and ran to stations on Texas Avenue in Houston. If you drive the Gulf Freeway [first US 75 and later I 45] between the two cities you have traversed the old Interurban route – by some strange historical coincidence Oscar Holcombe, then mayor of Houston [serving one of his eleven terms], bought the Interurban right of way just before it was selected as the route for the new highway between the cities. This new route was a departure from almost a century of development.
Originally the route from Galveston to Houston was by water. You sailed up Galveston Bay and entered the Buffalo Bayou watershed between Morgan’s Point and San Jacinto. From there it was an uncertain passage. Turns that changed fairly regularly in a channel of uncertain depth meant that many of the original barge transits were accomplished with the aid of deck winches and lines connected to the largest trees that could be found on the bank – if you could get through at all. Steam tugs may have improved things a little but the real transportation between the two cities was done by rail which followed the same basic route – north along what is now SH 146 then west along what is now SH 225 then northwest along what is now Harrisburg Street. It is like travelling two sides of a triangle and the Interurban route used the hypotenuse and changed the travel time between the cities from well over two hours to just over an hour and Park Place would have been less than an hour from Galveston and less than half an hour from downtown Houston.
If all of this sounds a little too much like news from the Duke of Dismal it is time to note that not all was lost. Galveston was no Indianola. It was – and is – still an important port and an important city. It was undergoing the same transitions as the nation as a whole and thanks to technology things were changing. There were still ships under sail and they made up an important segment of the port’s business but there were fewer of them and the tonnage that they represented had declined precipitously with the economies of scale realized with ever larger steel hulls that depended on steam for propulsion. The sail maker had to start making awnings, tents, wagon covers and for the newest technology auto tops and radiator covers.
There had been cars on Galveston Island for many years. Margaret Edythe Young’s father had owned a Cadillac since at least 1907 ( fours years after they started building them) and her wedding party in 1912 had travelled from the reception to Union Depot in his car – interestingly enough followed by guests in carriages on what was only about a two-mile trip. Ford had started the same time as Cadillac and in 1908 had begun production of the Model T while Studebaker – which had been a wagon manufacturer since 1852 – had begun its production of gasoline powered cars in 1904. But there was a problem with automobiles that may be best summed up with the old phrase, you can’t get there from here, and automobiles were still rare enough that the Galveston Daily News published the names of people receiving licenses to own them – rarely more than two or three a day.
In 1916 Texas had 194,720 autos registered and by 1929 there were only 18,728 miles of main highways in the entire state, of which only 9,271 miles was hard-surfaced. Thanks to John Young and Maurice Coffey much of Galveston, city and county, was paved with crushed oyster shells as was Houston thanks to the W. D. Haden family and, to a far lesser extent, John Young. Although they ceased production over eighty years ago Wichita Trucks, produced by the Wichita Falls Motor Company which was created in 1911 and was the most successful motor vehicle manufacturing business ever established in Texas, would have been very well-known to John Young.
Wichita provided heavy-duty, off-road vehicles known for their strength and durability and especially for road building equipment, such as dump trucks as first local then state and finally the federal government began huge road building programs. Sales extended around the globe, to as many as 86 foreign countries, and Young & Company had the stevedoring rights to the trucks exported via Galveston which during the First World War exceeded 5,000 units.
The combination of oyster shell – crushed or not – mud, gravel, plank and brick roads must have made long distance travel by automobile next to impossible and even short distances had to be an adventure. Starting in 1900 to supply pneumatic tires for wagons and buggies Harvey Samuel Firestone parlayed his friendship with Henry Ford in 1906 to become the original equipment supplier of Ford Motor Company automobiles. With the winner of the 1911 Indianapolis auto race – the first one to go 500 miles – won by a car running Firestone tires [Apropos nothing the winning car was a 6 cylinder (477 cu. in.) Marmon Wasp followed by a Fiat and a 4 cylinder Mercedes (583 cu. in.)] Firestone was in the even more lucrative business of supplying replacement tires. After all a car might last a lifetime but tires rarely lasted more than a year.
When you view a PBS show funded by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation before you reverence his philanthropy you must consider the fate of the Interurban Railroad – in which Firestone played a role as well. Unfortunately the entrepreneurial spirit so often seems to breed the monopolist fever and Firestone along with Sloan [General Motors], through their corporate personas, were charged and convicted of criminal conspiracy for their part in the Great American streetcar scandal which involved purchasing streetcar systems throughout the United States dismantling them and replacing them with buses.
Excelsior started out producing first parts and then bicycles. Their motorcycle production started in Chicago in 1905 and by 1910 they had introduced the engine configuration they would become famous for – the ‘X’ series. The engine was a V-twin measuring 61 cubic inches (1000 cc). Ironically another businessman with dreams of empire lurked over the horizon. Ignaz Schwinn’s company had been producing bicycles for some time, but the downturn in sales around 1905 (due in part to the popularity of motorcycles) convinced him to look at other markets and instead of designing and manufacturing their own, Schwinn decided to buy Excelsior Motorcycles.
It was 1911 before the Schwinn Company completed the purchase of Excelsior for $500,000. By this time, motorcycles were taking over from cycles in competitions, too. Many races took part between cities, state borders and even on motordromes. The motordromes, originally for cycle races, were high-banked ovals made from 2″ wide wooden planks. To publicize the brand, Excelsior entered many competitions and set a number of world records. One record set at this time was for a top speed of 100 mph. [The winner at Indy averaged less than 75 mph.] By 1914 the Excelsior brand was proving to be one of the most successful manufacturers of motorcycles in the world. A year later, 1915, Excelsior introduced a new model with the Big Valve X, a 61 cu inch V-twin with a three-speed gearbox. The company claimed this bike was the “fastest motorcycle ever.” Nineteen sixteen saw the Excelsior brand used by numerous Police forces, including Galveston’s, by Western Union Messengers and even the US military during Pershing’s campaign in Mexico.
Everybody sold tires – especially it seems the people who sold sporting goods which has a certain logic when you consider that a hunting trip might require several tire changes. They also sold kerosene, which along with ethanol or naphtha, was used to fuel the new cars, motorcycles and fishing launches. The store was owned by one of the numerous members of the Sweeney family that have been Galveston stalwarts for many years and who had the wit to use the old saying, “Tell it to Sweeney,” as part of his advertisement. The slogan itself is a corruption of the British navy usage, “Tell that to the Marines – the sailors won’t believe it,” the origins of which are reputed to be traceable to both Walter Scott and Byron and Sweeney is one of a group of Irishmen, like Riley, Kelsey, and Kilroy, whose names are used apparently for some humorous effect. I can not vouch for all of the etymology in this paragraph but I know I must have heard the phrase a thousand time from my dad while fabricating and elaborate “stretcher”.
The trend in hotels in Galveston was to have a property in the central business district for commercial travellers and one on the beach for the tourist trade. In addition there were residential hotels including the Hotel Moose which advertised that it was the perfect hotel for your wife, mother or sister and charged for the privilege with rates of rates of $0.75 to $1.00 for rooms without a bath to $1.50 to $2.00 for rooms with a bath. By comparison establishments like the Island City Hotel – without the sanctity of a ladies only policy – had rates of $0.50 to $1.00 and even such bastions of propriety as the Tremont offering steam heat, hot and cold running water and long distance telephones in every room for a mere $1.00 to $2.50 per night. All of the hotels with listings emphasize that they now operate on the European Plan – no meals included in their rates.
Galveston was still an important port, cotton was still king but the 1915 crop having been devastated by the hurricane other shipments were being made. In 1916 Woodrow Wilson was running for reelection on the slogan, “He kept us out of the war,” but John Young’s longshoremen were busy shipping 3,500 Wichita trucks to France and another 400 to Russia while his men also worked loading ships to help feed Europe with the products from John Sealy’s Seaboard Rice Milling Company. The newspaper may have been full of war news on the front pages but the real story was being told on the commercial pages where business was good from a war that had not touched America directly – yet.