The big one: 108 years ago, the nation's worst natural disaster nearly destroyed Galveston

Survivors search through debris after the Galveston hurricane of  1900.
Survivors search through debris after the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Rosenberg Library

On the morning of Sept. 8, 1900, Galveston residents awoke to rising tides and blustery winds, but with little sense of alarm. The city had weathered hurricanes before and was confident it would survive this one, too.

But in less than 24 hours, Texas’ most dazzling city — the first to have electricity and telephones, the most cultured and exciting — was almost destroyed by a horrific storm that took more than 6,000 lives.

The Galveston hurricane remains the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

As Clara Barton, founder and president of the American National Red Cross, wrote when she arrived to offer assistance: "It was one of those monstrosities of nature which defied exaggeration and fiendishly laughed at all tame attempts of words to picture the scene it had prepared."

A staggering catastrophe

Galveston was a city in ruin. The sand island, 30 miles long and 1 1/2 to 3 miles wide, was 97 percent damaged or destroyed. About 3,600 buildings were demolished.

Some Galveston historians believe that the death toll estimate of 6,000 is woefully low. An estimated 37,000 people were on the island when the storm struck. Weeks later, 12,000 of them were still missing. Many families simply packed up what little they had and left.

Many Galveston residents say that such disasters as the Johnstown flood, the Chicago fire and the San Francisco earthquake have a greater place in American history than the Galveston storm because the people of Galveston were not eager to broadcast their plight.

Alice Wygant, publicist for the Galveston Historical Foundation, says she believes that the city didn’t want the world to know what happened because "it’s hard to promote a city as a resort when people know they could be blown away at a moment’s notice."

Little time to plan

And at the turn of the century, there was never much notice. The U.S. Weather Service was in its infancy, and there were no ship-to-shore communications to alert cities like Galveston of impending storms.

When hurricanes blew up from the Caribbean, Cuban authorities would notify U.S. officials who were often condescending to their Latin counterparts, paying them little attention.

Dr. Isaac Cline, chief of the Galveston Weather Bureau, received notice of the impending storm as early as Sept. 4. But the weather service believed that the storm was heading for Florida.

On Sept. 7, Cline raised the black-and-red hurricane warning flag above the city, but few people paid attention. Galveston and its residents had little respect for hurricanes. Since its founding in 1839, Galveston had been hit by only a couple of storms and the city quickly rebounded from the limited damage.

Then it hit

But by daylight on Sept. 8, the morning winds were driving the waves onto the beach with unusual force, flooding the south beach area. Along the shore, the elevation was only 2 1/2 feet above sea level. Downtown was 4 1/2 feet. The highest point in the city was only 8.7 feet.

By 6 a.m., Cline was on the beach and was quickly becoming fearful. The north wind was still blowing, but huge swells were rolling in from the south. As one Galveston resident recalled, "If we had a north wind, you could usually walk half way to Cuba."

Not on Sept. 8. The hurricane was beating the Gulf of Mexico into a frenzy and the north winds were building a wall of water on the city’s north side. Eventually, the two forces would meet and the entire city would be awash.

By midmorning, a nurse at John Sealy Hospital wrote in a letter to her lover: "It does not require a great stretch of imagination to imagine this structure a shaky old boat out at sea, the whole thing rocking. ... Like a reef, surrounded by water ... water growing closer, ever closer. Have my hands full quieting nervous, hysterical women."

At 2:30 p.m. Cline called his brother Joseph at the weather bureau. "The Gulf is rising rapidly. Half the city is under water," he said. He told him the city was fast going under water and that great loss of life would result. "I stressed the need for relief," Cline said.

Joseph Cline tried to relay the message to Houston, but the telegraph lines were down. His last opportunity was the long-distance telephone line, but the operator told him that thousands were waiting ahead of him. He asked for a supervisor and pleaded his case. His call was put through. Moments after he hung up, the line went dead.

The island loses contact

Galveston was cut off from the rest of the world.

The nurse at John Sealy wrote: "Am beginning to feel a weakening desire for something to cling to. Should feel more comfortable in the embrace of your arms. You hold yourself ready to come to us should the occasion demand?"

Between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., the two walls of water — one from the Gulf, the other from the bay — met in the heart of the city, and, as one journalist wrote, "the waters joined in a bacchanalian dance through the streets."

Large brick buildings were swept from their foundations, flattened. Victims who weren’t drowned were killed by debris rocketed by the 150-mph winds. Survivors later said they thought of their impending deaths, not in any frenzied, delirious way, but calmly and rationally.

Expecting to die

They planned to open their mouths and fill their lungs with water when death seemed imminent.

The Rev. Judson Palmer, secretary of the local YMCA, remembered his feelings as much of his home collapsed around him and water inched up his legs, to his neck and finally near his mouth. He clung to his son, Lee, with one arm, and a shower pipe with the other.

"Just then, the whole north end of the house fell in; the roof settled on us, and we went into the water together," he recalled. "I thought, ’It takes so long to die.’ I was possibly unconscious for a time. Then I had another thought: I wonder what heaven will be like."

Palmer lost his son and wife. For three hours, he drifted atop a floating shed.

The nurse at Sealy wrote: "Darkness is overwhelming us, to add to the horror. Dearest, I reach out my hand to you — my heart, my soul."

The surge of water from the sea reached a height of 15.7 feet.

Trying to save the orphans

At St. Mary’s Orphanage, near the south beach, 10 nuns from the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word gathered the more than 90 orphans who lived there. The sisters tried to calm the frightened children by singing an old French hymn,

Queen of the Waves.

As one of the dormitories collapsed under the pounding storm surge, the sisters moved the children to the remaining dorm. Each sister took lengths of clothesline and tied themselves to the orphans in an effort to protect them.

As the surge reached its peak and the violent winds whipped the shore, the dormitory was lifted from its foundation, floated a short time, then sank, killing everyone inside.

Today, sisters of that order, wherever they are in the world, pause on Sept. 8 to sing

Queen of the Waves.

"Galveston Swept by Tidal Wave, The City Said to Have Been Wiped From the Face of the Earth," cried the

Fort Worth Morning Register

on Sept. 9. The next day it reported, "City A Desolate Ruin Where Dead Outnumber the Living."

Word spread quickly of Galveston’s ruin, and city leaders immediately met to begin restoration. By 11 a.m. Sunday, the day after the storm, six men set out for Houston to tell of the city’s condition. They took a boat to Texas City, found a rail hand-car and pumped 15 miles to League City, where they hailed a train to Houston. At 4 a.m. Monday, 250 volunteers boarded a rail car filled with provisions and headed for Galveston.

Bodies everywhere

Dealing with the dead was the foremost problem, one that turned men’s heads. One Roman Catholic priest, a temperance man, resorted to giving whiskey to workers so they could steel themselves against the ghastliness of their jobs.

Bodies were stacked on wagons and carts and taken to a temporary morgue for identification, but the September heat hastened the decay. Bodies could not be buried in the water-filled sand. In fact, the floods had caused many of the already-buried to be floated from their graves.

Burial at sea was considered the only possibility and three barges were loaded with 700 bodies and towed 18 miles out in the Gulf. Many of the bodies were weighted with chains before being dumped into the sea.

Most of the bodies washed ashore.

One woman wrote: "The sea as though it could never be satisfied with its gruesome work washed these bodies back upon the shore, the waves being the hearses that carried them back to be buried under the sand."

But they could not be buried in the sand. Nevertheless, people tried. The sight of their loved ones being tossed onto funeral pyres along with island livestock was more than they could stand, and many stole the bodies of their kin and tried to place them at rest under the sodden sand.

"There were so many dead, you would sink into the silt onto a body at every other step," P.G. Tipp wrote. Later, after he helped tend the fires that incinerated as many as 12 corpses at a time, he wrote that he had "done so much burning, and so much work that I just gave out. I was sick for a long time. I can still smell the dead, and the burning bodies, like burnt sugar. I will never forget those days."

Fannie Ward, a Red Cross worker, recalled: "The peculiar smell of burning flesh, so sickening at first, became horribly familiar within the next two months, when we lived in it and breathed it, ate it and drank it, day after day."

The Associated Press wrote: "The City of Galveston is wrapped in sackcloth and ashes. She sits beside her unnumbered dead and refuses to be comforted. Her sorrow and her suffering are beyond description. Her grief is unspeakable."

A massive rebuilding effort

Galveston did recover, although many people lost everything. A sea wall was built to protect the city from another catastrophe, and an impressive and exhausting plan to elevate much of the city was undertaken.

More than 2,000 structures of various kinds were elevated, including heavy, majestic churches and public buildings. Channels were cut through town so dredge boats could bring sand from the Gulf into the city and pump the fill under homes and buildings that had been raised on timbers and jacks.

The "grade raising," as it was called, was not officially completed until 1926, but by 1911 the city claimed itself ready to open for business again by building the luxurious Galvez Hotel.

"A group of businessmen built the hotel," said Wygant of the Historical Foundation. "It was their way of saying, ’We’re back and we think the city is safe enough to make this huge investment.’"

The rebuilding effort took "incredible tenacity," said Michael Doherty, chairman of the 1900 Storm Commemoration Committee. "I think the sea wall and grade raising are among the greatest municipal feats of all time."

The community decided that it wasn’t going to be beaten down, Doherty said. The people realized what a wonderful port this was, what a great place it was to live and they decided not to give it up.

"They still take pride in the recovery," Wygant said. "People take pride in how many generations of their families have lived here. People run for office on a platform of how many generations their family have been B.O.I. (born on the island). Some people actually wear jewelry that says B.O.I. on it.

"It is kind of a funky, odd place. It’s not your homogeneous suburb. Galveston, whether you like it or not, is different. It’s laid back. Probably because of that storm."

Sources: Isaac’s Storm,

by Erik Larson;

A Weekend in September,

by John Edward Weems;

Galveston and the 1900 Storm,

by Patricia Bellis Bixel and Elizabeth Hayes Turner; Galveston Historical Foundation; Galveston County Historical Museum;


archives; Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word