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A History of the Island
By Gary Cartwright
TCU PressCopyright © 1998 Gary Cartwright
All rights reserved.
I NEVER GO back to the Island without sensing the ghosts. I can't think of a place where they run thicker. The cannibalistic Karankawa Indians occupied the Island at least as far back as 1400. Cabeza de Vaca, La Salle, and Jean Lafitte all visited it before Texas was a republic. The Battle of Galveston wasn't the greatest sea battle of the Civil War, but it was one of the most poignant. Galveston has about 550 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and many more that could be. When I visited the Island in the late spring of 1990, I had just about completed this book, but I wanted one more look at the Island—Galvestonians always use a capital I—one more frolic with the spirits, just to make sure I hadn't missed anything or dreamed all this up.
Coming down the coastal prairie from Houston on Interstate 45, you can smell the ghosts before you see or hear them. They smell sweet and moldy, like the unfocused memory of some lost sensation jarred unexpectedly to mind. It's the scent of tangled gardens of jasmine, honeysuckle, and magnolia, maybe. Or the smell of decaying timbers of shipwrecks half—buried in sand, or the weathered, salt—caked planking of abandoned cotton warehouses stretching between the highway and the wharves. Encoded in the smells are secrets so ephemeral that just thinking about them causes them to vanish.
Off to the left like the bleached bones of some hideously deformed reptile are the petroleum refineries of Texas City, and off to the right, at the water's edge, small sailboats and a few derelect shrimpers. The causeway humps up and over marshlands and bayous, and then begins to span the bay. Galveston Bay is enormous, a body of water seventeen miles wide and more than thirty miles long. It is fed by numerous creeks and bayous and two major rivers, the San Jacinto and the Trinity. The causeway spans the narrowest part, about three miles from mainland to Island. It is the Island's umbilical cord. Except for the Bolivar Ferry and the toll bridge across San Luis Pass, the causeway is the only way on or off the Island.
At the crest of the causeway you can see the Island, or at least some of its major landmarks—the American National Insurance Company (ANICO) Building, the sprawling University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), the cranes and elevators of the port of Galveston, the superstructures of some of the ships tied up there, one or two high-rise hotels on Seawall Boulevard. The Island itself is flat as a penny, a thin string of sand thirty miles long and so narrow you can walk across its widest part in half an hour. It runs northeast to southwest, parallel to the Texas coastline, part of an almost unbroken chain of barrier islands that stretches ten thousand miles, from the south shore of Long Island, down the Atlantic coast, around the tip of Florida, and west all the way to Mexico. Galveston Island sits at the mouth of Galveston Bay like half of a double gate, its backside to the mainland and its face toward the Gulf of Mexico. The other half of the gate is Bolivar Peninsula. Between the Island and the peninsula is a gap through which the ships of the world pass, called Bolivar Roads. Because the bay is so large, Bolivar Roads appears as a tiny cut between barrier islands, but in fact it is nearly a mile across. Except for San Luis Pass, which was used by a few shallow—draft blockade runners during the Civil War, Bolivar Roads is the only passage from the Gulf to the bay.
When the Spanish navigator Hervía charted Galveston Bay in 1783 he reported that people were living on the Island, though he didn't say if they were Indians or white men. Hervía named the bay "Galvestown" in honor of the viceroy of Mexico, Don Bernardo de Gálvez, who never saw the Island. People are not supposed to live on a sandbar, and the fact that they choose to live on this one tells you something about the collective psyche. These are people who like to be different, who see themselves as select, and maybe even a little invincible. There is an unmistakable attitude of tolerance on this Island, too, similiar to the liberal atmosphere one experiences in San Francisco—another seaport that survived a devastating natural disaster at the turn of the century. "People who putatively may die together learn to live together," remarked one of Galveston's great civic leaders, the late Harris K. "Bush" Kempner.
There is also an unmistakable snobbishness in Galveston society. Indeed, the provincialism of these people gives one a rough sense of the infinite. A bride is expected to send wedding invitations to total strangers if her grandparents spent the night with their grandparents during the 1900 storm. There is even an acronym to set natives apart—BOI, meaning "born on the Island." The local newspaper uses BOI without further definition. A friend of mine, Gail Rider, moved to the Island twenty-nine years ago and is still viewed with suspicion by some of the old families. Her social standing is assisted only slightly by the fact that her great-great-great-grandfather was Thomas Borden, who with his brother Gail ran one of the first newspapers in Texas and helped finance the Texas War of Independence. When a historical group decided to erect a plaque beside an oak tree in front of Gail Borden's family home on 35th Street (it was one of the few trees to survive the 1900 hurricane), Gail Rider and her lawyer husband were invited, because she was a Borden. But the group didn't choose to invite the current owners of the house on 35th Street, whose tree was being celebrated.
Islanders are resourceful, too, and resilient. They are the descendants, literally and spiritually, of eight generations of Europeans, Asians, Hispanics, Africans, and Creoles who somehow made do on this small sandbar where there is no drinkable water and hardly any agriculture. It is easy to forget, but the weather here can be relentless and cruel. Islanders claim that the temperature is usually ten degrees more comfortable than it is on the mainland, and that's true, as far as it goes. What they forget to mention are the occasional Arctic storms, called blue northers, that roar down the plains and slam into the coast with the force of runaway trains. Some winters are so severe the bay freezes over. In the summer the wind blows straight out of the tropics, hot, wet, and mean. West Indies winds bring hurricanes, tornadoes, and brain-boiling heat and humidity. Major hurricanes wrack the Island on an average of one every twenty years—the last big one was in 1961 and Islanders are still waiting. It's a game they play with death.
* * *
THE CAUSEWAY empties onto Broadway, and the ghosts take form and begin to murmur. Broadway runs down the spine of the Island, flanking a handsome esplanade of palms, oaks, and oleanders, separating the bay side from the Gulf side. Along the way are monuments to the war dead, dating back to the Texas Revolution.
Things change slowly in Galveston, when they change at all—a pace that gives Island life its musty old-wine flavor. It is a few minutes after ten on a weekday morning. I tune my car radio to station KGBC—AM (1520) and retreat into my reverie as Frances Kay Harris plays big—band music of the 1930s and tells women whether they'll need furs for transatlantic cruises. You wouldn't know it by listening to her today, but Frances was one of the movers and shakers of the civic—reform movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Galveston was one of the most progressive cities in Texas.
On the bay side you pass rows of warehouses where families like the Sealys and the Moodys made their fortunes. As you head toward downtown, the street numbers diminish—45th, 44th, 43rd. The city was laid out in a simple, easily understood gridiron pattern in 1837 by eccentric surveyor and inventor Gail Borden, who rode around town on a pet bull, and tried to market jelly made out of the horns and hooves of oxen. Over the years the names of some of the lettered or numbered avenues and streets have been altered to flatter the Island's ruling families—for example, 21st Street is now Moody Street, 22nd is Kempner, and that part of Avenue I in the downtown district is Sealy. There is a Borden Street, but it's way out in the boondocks.
The old city cemetery, on Broadway (Avenue J) between 43rd and 40th, predates the Civil War. I stop there to seek the grave of a Union officer, Lieutenant-Commander Edward Lea, second in command of the gunship USS Harriet Lane. Lieutenant-Commander Lea's death was one of many sorrows of that tragic and stupid war. He died at the Battle of Galveston, in the arms of his father, Major A. M. Lea, a Confederate engineer under General John B. Magruder, whose forces had just disabled and captured the Harriet Lane. As he died, the young lieutenant-commander whispered to one of his mates, "My father is here." Those words are supposedly carved on his headstone.
On this particular day I can't locate the grave of Lieutenant-Commander Lea. But old cemeteries can't be still, and soon I'm hearing new, unsolicited tales. In the oldest part of the cemetery, near the 40th Street entrance, I squat to read the faded inscription on a modest headstone: MARGARET ANN, WIFE OF STEPHEN KIRKLAND. She died May 30, 1844, at the age of twenty-one. On the adjacent grave is an identical headstone: MARY W. KIRKLAND, SECOND WIFE OF STEPHEN KIRKLAND. She died June 30, 1847, at twenty-two. A few feet away I discover a fifteen-foot high marble, phallus-shaped monument, marking the grave site of Stephen Kirkland, who died in 1859, at forty-four. Apparently, the monument was erected (no pun intended) by his third wife, Mary A. Kirkland, who died in 1906, at the decent age of seventy-eight. You may be surprised that there are so few headstones from September 8, 1900, considering that on that terrible weekend more than 6,000 Islanders died in the most devastating hurricane in American history. Many of the bodies were never recovered, and those that were were hurriedly dumped at sea or burned in giant funeral pyres.
Islanders have a passion for monuments—and mansions built to look like monuments. The old Moody Mansion, at 26th and Broadway, purchased for ten cents on the dollar after the 1900 hurricane, sits vacant, soon to be a museum. The impressive structure rising from the corner of 24th and Broadway is the Sealy Mansion, designed by the famed New York architect Stanford White. At 25th Street (also called Rosenberg), the statue of Victory atop the Texas Heroes Monument points toward the bay, and past that, toward the San Jacinto Battlegrounds on the mainland. Generations of young men who visited the Island in the thirties, forties, and fifties believed that the statue was positioned to point the way to the old Postoffice Street red-light district.
Turn north at 24th, toward the bay and the Strand. A hundred years ago, the Strand was the greatest banking and finance center between New Orleans and San Francisco—the Wall Street of the Southwest. Today it's a tourist street of souvenir and antique shops, boutiques, art galleries, bars, and restaurants. But the feeling is timeless. The Strand was—is—one of the country's finest examples of Victorian architecture. The late Howard Barnstone, critic and professor of architecture, wrote that while the Strand never achieved the urban quality of the Avenue de l'Opéra in Paris, "it came as close to this sense of city as anything in Texas and, probably, as anything in the west." Fifteen years ago the Strand was skid row, but since then many of the great buildings have been restored. You can read the names of Galveston's ruling families on the parapets and cornices—the Hutchings, Sealy & Company Building, the W. L. Moody Building (one-story shorter since the 1900 hurricane sheared off the top floor), the Marx & Kempner Building (one story shorter since the 1915 storm did likewise). My favorite is the Trueheart-Adriance Building, on 22nd, just off the Strand. Wedged between two larger buildings, this little crazy-quilt gingerbread structure is right out of Dickens: you almost expect to see Scrooge and Marley looking out one of the narrow Romanesque windows.
I always suggest that visitors get oriented at the Strand Visitors Center between 21st and 20th streets. They've got free maps and pamphlets describing points of interest, and there is always someone available to answer questions or give directions. I need directions to a famous grove of oaks known as Three Trees. I first read about the grove in Cabeza de Vaca's diary. When the Spaniards washed up somewhere on West Beach in 1528, they discovered an Indian camp beside a grove of trees, on a ridge near the center of the Island. Three Trees is the Island's earliest landmark: for at least three centuries it was a gathering place for the Karankawas. In the fall of 1817, according to my research, the tribe fought a bloody three-day battle there with Jean Lafitte's pirates. In 1821, after Lafitte abandoned Galveston, a twenty-man party headed by a doctor named Purnell came to Three Trees looking for buried treasure. Instead, the treasure hunters found a hundred Karankawas, dancing and singing. Assuming that the Indians had found the treasure and were celebrating, Purnell attacked, and once again the earth beneath the grove was soaked with blood.
I have been looking for Three Trees for a long time. So have a lot of others, I learn at the Visitors Center. "Legend has it that Lafitte buried some gold there," said a young historian named Richard Eisenhour. "People spent so much time digging out near 13-Mile Road that for years there was a deep trench. I think it's overgrown by now. But nobody ever found the location of Three Trees." I make a note to drive out West Beach. If Cabeza de Vaca's ghost is there, I'll know.
The Visitors Center is part of a group of buildings called Hendley Row, the oldest commercial block (1855) on the Island. During the Civil War it was, at various times, a lookout post and headquarters for both Union and Confederate troops. Islanders claim you can still see marks of cannonballs on the 20th Street side, though I've never been able to find them. Hendley Row is owned now by Sally Wallace, a leader in the Galveston restoration movement and owner of the Hendley Market, where you can browse through an amazing collection of old maps, books, bottles, buttons, lace dresses, shawls, and silk-trimmed frock coats. The building once housed a cotton-factoring firm, owned by Colonel Moody. Notice the impressive skylight. The old cotton factor's offices upstairs are now apartments. For the first three months that I was researching this book, I lived up there, with a fun-loving crowd of would-be actors, writers and musicians, and the ghosts of the Sacred Order of the JOLO (nobody knows what the letters signified) who stood watch on the roof of the Hendley Building during the Civil War.
While you are in this part of town, walk over to 20th and Post-office, to the 1894 Grand Opera House. It was modeled after the great opera houses of Europe, and on its scale it is the equal of any of them. Sarah Bernhardt and Al Jolson performed here, and so did the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova.
At its west end, the Strand dead-ends into the old Santa Fe Building, now known as Shearn Moody Plaza. While you're here, take time to tour the Railroad Museum, a time-warp experience where you almost inhale history. In the waiting room are life-size, ghost white statues of men, women, and children in 1930s dress, reading newspapers, checking luggage, frozen in the postures of daily life. In the yard outside, vintage locomotives and passenger cars sit for inspection. Have lunch in Dinner on the Diner, the museum's stainless-steel Pullman dining car. Better yet, have dinner: the service is more elegant at night, with soft lighting and piano music. Also, the feeling that you are actually moving through the countryside is not interrupted in the evening by touring groups of schoolgirls pressing their faces against the window.
Excerpted from Galveston by Gary Cartwright. Copyright © 1998 Gary Cartwright. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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