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  • Nancy Webb

Galveston Part 1: Accidental Tourist in my Hometown of Galveston

Updated: Aug 6, 2022

While I had to put travel on pause during the Pandemic, I took the opportunity to explore my hometown of Galveston. I was guilty of going about my daily schedule without appreciating the history and natural beauty that was all around me.

When I travel on adventures, I absorb every detail so that I can capture the essence of my destination. It starts with the journey from the airport to my abode for the night. I absorb the tiniest details – the landscape, the people, the houses, and even the businesses. How amazing would it be to see my hometown with the same sense of wonder - so I did just that!

So, let me introduce you to my Hometown of Galveston!

If your knowledge of Galveston Island is through Magnolia Network’s Restoring Galveston, or boarding a Cruise Ship, be pleasantly surprised by what this Island has to offer. As there is so much to discover, I am going to write four posts covering – Galveston History, Where to Dine, Where to Shop, and What to Do and See – so let’s get started.

Galveston has a History

Galveston is a classic example of a barrier island formed about 5,000 years ago by deposits of sand and shell piled up by waves and long-shore currents. As stabilization increased, the Galveston Bay system was fully formed behind the island and is an important estuary and a nursery ground for hundreds of marine species. As it stands now – the sandy, flat island is 30 miles long and 1 – 2 miles wide.

During the 16th Century, the Karankawa Indians called this Island home. The first tourist was in 1528 by the name of – Cabeza de Vaca. He was a shipwrecked Spanish Explorer and was forced to live as a medicine man.

Later tourists included the infamous Pirate Jean Lafitte. Around 1817 he started using Galveston as a base to raid Spanish Merchant ships that passed through the Gulf of Mexico. When he left – the legend is that he buried his Pirates Booty somewhere on the island - which remains undiscovered to this day.

In 1825 Galveston became an established port under the Mexican government. It was the only deep-water port between New Orleans and Tampico, Mexico. It was in 1836, the year that Texas gained its independence from Mexico that the City of Galveston was born. Galveston served as the state’s primary port and was a major hub for immigrants. Ellis Island is known as the most familiar point of entry for immigrants to the United States. But before Ellis Island opened in 1892, hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrived through Galveston from the 1840s – to the 1920s. If you are curious if your people came through Galveston, The Galveston Historic Seaport has computerized a listing of those immigrants. It was also during this time period that Galveston became a major U.S. commercial center and one of the largest ports in the United States. By 1885, it was the largest and richest city in Texas, fueled by the exportation of cotton and wheat and the importation of sugar from Cuba.

Battle of Galveston

On New Year’s Day, 1863 the Civil War Battle of Galveston was fought. Confederate forces on “cotton -clads” (river steamers with bales of cotton placed aboard to protect gunners and sharpshooters) attacked (successfully) Union Gunboats in the harbor and captured the Union garrison. By the end of the Civil War, Galveston had been blockaded, besieged, captured, occupied, recaptured, and defended. When the Confederacy was finally defeated, surrender terms were formally signed on June 2, 1865. On June 18, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with 2,000 Federal troops to occupy Texas. On the following day, he officially announced that the war was over and that the enslaved African American population in Texas was free. Locally and nationally, the event became known as Juneteenth. The year following 1865, freedmen in Texas organized the first of what became the annual celebration. In the ensuing decades, Juneteenth commemorations feature music, parades, barbecues, and prayer services. As people migrated from Texas to other parts of the country the Juneteenth tradition spread. In 2021, the mural “Absolute Equality” was painted by public artist Reginald C. Adams on an exterior wall at the corner of Strand and 22nd Street. This 5,000-sf mural is adjacent to the very site in Galveston where Gen. Granger announced that all enslaved people in Texas were free.

The Storm

On September 8, 1900, a hurricane struck Galveston Island. The storm packed 140 mph winds and a storm surge of 15.7 feet. At its highest, the Island was 8.7 feet, and when Galvestonians emerged from their shelters, 6,000 of the city’s 37,000 residents were dead, and 3,600 buildings were totally destroyed. This unnamed Storm is still considered to be the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. In order to protect the island from future storms, a 10-mile 17-foot-high seawall was built. To this day – it is a major landmark on the Island.

World War II

When we think of World War II, images of the Beaches of Normandy, the London Blitz, or Pearl Harbor come to mind. Little did we know, that in 1942 and 1943 there were 24 German U-Boats right here off the coast of Galveston in the Gulf of Mexico. The U-Boats were in the Gulf for one reason and that reason was sinking oil tankers. The Galveston, Houston, and New Orleans Port were the largest oil export terminals. Records show that 56 vessels were sunk and 14 damaged in the Gulf due to U-Boats. Coastal defenses included protecting the ports with mines and anti-submarine nets hunting and sinking U-Boats as well as shore batteries encased in concrete. There are two of the old batteries still visible, in Galveston at Fort Crockett and then Fort Travis on the tip of Boliver Peninsula just a ferry ride away.

Despite the efforts to track and sink U-Boats, the US can only document the sinking of two in the Gulf. The toll was much heavier for the U.S. than for the Germans. What really solved the problem was building an oil pipeline from Texas to New Jersey call the “Big Inch.” Completed in 1943, the 24-inch pipeline ran from Longview, Texas to Phoenixville, PA, where the line changed to a 20-inch diameter, and then the oil terminated at refineries in New Jersey. The Oil Tankers no longer made the trek from the Gulf to the East Coast – and the U-Boats went on to other targets.

The Modern City of Galveston

Today’s Galveston has a diverse economic base driven by maritime, healthcare, education, and tourism. Six and a half million tourists visited the Island in 2021, and no wonder – there is a lot to see and do. Galvestonians (there are 50,000 full-time residents) are committed to protecting the beaches and have prioritized the preservation of commercial and residential historic properties. Galveston is home to more than 80 year-round festivals, special events, museums, and attractions. My favorite time of the year to explore Galveston is October – April. The weather will change day to day or even hour by hour. However, count on it being hot and humid from May – to September, which is perfect beach weather. There is always a special event right around the corner. I am going to list just a few – but please go to the City of Galveston Website – for the complete list and lots of the details. Dickens on the Strand, 2-week Mardi Gras Celebration, Lone Star Rally, Weekly Farmers Market, Ironman Triathlon, Juneteenth Parade, 4th of July Parade and Fireworks, Old Smokey Through Down, Spring Bird Migration, and my favorites – the Historic Home and Garden Tours[NW1] .


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