Note – This blog is about a day trip we took to the charming Gulf Coast city of Galveston a few years ago.
Visitors to Galveston, Texas may be confused because the friendly little city seems to have a split personality, it being both southern and western. The residential neighborhoods with their stately Victorian homes are brightened by oleanders of every color. The island’s beaches and luxury hotels draw visitors from around the world. And yet, Stetson hats and boots are just as common as tanning lotion and flip flops. There’s a reason many residents refer to it as the Republic of Galveston Island because it is so unlike the rest of Texas.
Galveston has a long and colorful history. Home to Akokisa and Karankawa Indians who camped, fished, and hunted here, the first Europeans landed on the island in 1528. Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked on the island and lived among the Karankawa for several years as a medicine man and slave. In the late 1600’s, French explorer Robert Cavelier La Salle claimed the area for King Louis and named it St. Louis.
The Spanish ousted the French, and renamed Galveston for colonial governor and general Bernardo de Gálvez. In 1817, pirate Jean Lafitte established the colony of Campeche on Galveston island, which numbered about 1,000 residents at its peak. Tired of him preying on shipping throughout the region, authorities eventually forced Lafitte to leave, and he burned the town behind him. Lafitte would not be the last colorful rascal to call Galveston home.
Incorporated in 1839, Galveston quickly became the most active port west of New Orleans, and the largest city in Texas. The city was home to the state’s first post office, first opera house, first hospital, first golf course, and first country club, to name just a few.
For generations the rich and famous came to Galveston to do business and to play, but the island has seen its share of hard times as well. By 1900, Galveston had a population of 37,000 and was the fourth largest city in Texas, following Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. On September 8, 1900, Galveston was battered by what stands as the most deadly natural disaster to strike this country. A third of the city, more than 3,600 buildings, was completely destroyed, and over 6,000 people were killed. There were so many bodies that they could not all be buried. Many were weighted and buried at sea, and later the corpses washed ashore. From that point on they were burned on funeral pyres all over the city.
Those who survived the storm were determined it would never happen again, and they raised the entire level of the city by eight feet, slanting the ground so water would run off into the bay, and erected a seawall to hold back future storm surges. In 1915, another vicious storm hit the island, but due to the improvements, only eight people were killed and no major damage occurred.
While Galveston rebuilt, it never returned to being the city it once was. Its busy port fell into disuse and Galveston’s economy was hit hard when Houston dug its Ship Channel in 1917.
Prohibition brought an unsavory reprieve, and bootleggers turned Galveston into a gambling and drinking resort town. The good times continued after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933, and during the swinging era of the 1940s and ’50s, the Balinese Room was legendary as the Gulf Coast’s premier nightspot. The swanky club was situated at the end of a 75-foot pier over the Gulf of Mexico and drew famous performers such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Sophie Tucker, and the Marx brothers to its stage.
Gambling flourished in the fancy nightclubs frequented by high society and the cheap saloons that attracted sailors and roughnecks, in spite of the best efforts of lawmen to shut it down. The Texas Rangers tried repeatedly to bust the gambling at the Balinese, but every time they raided the place they had to make their way through six heavy glass doors and down the long length of the pier, which was nicknamed “Ranger Run.” By the time they finally made it to the nightclub, all the gaming tables had been converted to backgammon, the slot machines folded into the wall like Murphy beds, and the poker chips were hidden in the kitchen The house band would even play The Eyes of Texas in honor of the frustrated Rangers, and the club’s patrons would rise to their feet as a show of their Texas patriotism.
The good times came to an end on June 10, 1957 when the Texas Rangers raided the entire city, shutting down the gambling halls and chopping up the slot machines and gaming tables with axes.
After years of languishing, Galveston underwent a rebirth in the early 1980s, and the marvelous old homes in the Historic Downtown District were restored. Currently, more than 2,000 buildings in town are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These days, more than half a million people flock to the island for the city’s annual Mardi Gras celebration.
Tragedy struck Galveston once again in 2008, when Hurricane Ike slammed into Galveston with winds of over 110 mph that destroyed everything in its path. At least 40 people were killed and ten feet of water stood in the downtown area, severely damaging or destroying many homes and historic structures. But once the winds died down and the water receded, the folks in Galveston rolled up their sleeves and began rebuilding their city once again.
Many trees were killed by the hurricane, but instead of simply chopping them down, artists created beautiful sculptures from the stumps of some of the trees and they can be seen all over town. When you live in a town as cool as Galveston, you learn to roll with the punches and accept what many people would consider a tragedy as nothing more than a speed bump in the road of life.
This monument, located near the sea wall, honors the victims of the 1900 storm, but I think it shows the resilience of all the good people of Galveston.
We spent quite a bit of time in the old downtown area a few blocks from the beach, admiring the handsome commercial buildings and the many beautiful homes. This oversize coronet is attached to the side of one building but I haven’t been able to figure out why. Was the place once a dining hall or nightclub? Who knows?
One of Galveston’s grandest buildings is the Bishop’s Palace, with its carved ornaments, rare woods, stained-glass windows, bronze dragons, and tower. Built by Colonel Walter Gresham in 1886, this Victorian castle has several fireplaces, including one lined with pure silver! The American Institute of Architects named it one of the 100 most important buildings in America.
Galveston Island is one of the top locations for birding in the nation. More than 200 species of birds pass through during the fall and spring migrations.
Other than the beach, another top destination for Galveston visitors is the 242 acre Moody Gardens. Part theme park, part educational and rehabilitative facility, part pleasure garden, Moody Gardens is lush with tropical plants and boasts three glass pyramids that house a ten-acre rainforest, one of the world’s largest aquariums, and an educational discovery museum.
Other museums include the art deco Railroad Museum at the foot of The Strand, the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum on Pier 20, the Lone Star Flight Museum, and the Texas Seaport Museum on Pier 21, featuring the tall ship Elissa.
RVers can find campsites at Galveston Island State Park and several privately owned RV parks that range from comfortable to rustic.
There was a lot we didn’t get to see and do in our day trip to Galveston because there just wasn’t enough time. But Terry and I always say that’s a good thing because it gives us an excuse to go back! And you can bet Galveston is one place we will return to again.
Thought For The Day – Whatever you do, give 100%. Unless you’re giving blood.