GALVESTON
ISLAND
LIFE ON A SAND BAR
But where on earth is Galveston island ? Before to live in the USA, I had never heard of it. Well, Galveston island is a small sand bar located at 29°16'52" North and 94°49'33" West which means that you will find it in the gulf of Mexico, 50 miles South of Houston (Texas).

Galveston island's history started in the XVIth century when adventurer Cabeza de Vaca (1490-1557) shipwrecked on the island and claimed it for the King of Spain. The island is more filled with history than most cities in North and South America. After Cabeza de Vaca, the French claimed it with La Salle (1685), then another Spaniard named Bernardo de Galvez, Spanish vice-Roy in Mexico, sent an explorer to chart it (1786), then French pirates Michel Aury (1816) and Jean Lafitte (1817) established the island and its deep sea port as a base for their infamous business.

Lafitte ousted by the US Navy

Eventually, Lafitte was kicked out of the island by the American Navy in 1821. In 1836 a French Canadian, Michel B. Menard, who had made his wealth as a fur trader, established the city of Galveston. The only geographical asset of Galveston is its deep sea port, a characteristic that had been underlined as soon as 1825 by Stephen F. Austin, then a stallwart colonist in Mexican Texas. But in thoses times where sea was the main mean of communication, it was a huge asset.

When, in 1836, the island became part of the Independant Republic of Texas, Michel B. Menard incorporated the city of Galveston. In 1845, Texas joined the Union and Galveston started to become the booming city of the South.

Its climate is hot and humid in the summer with winter highs of 61-65 F (16-18 C) and lows of 44-46 F(7-8 C). Spring is warm (49-85 F/9-29 C) and slightly humid but comfortable. Summer temperatures average 72-95 F(22-35 C), with humidity levels at 58%-94%. Winter can bring terrible freeze (it snowed on Christmas'Eve in 2004) and hurricanes periodically hit the island : 1766, 1817, 1867, 1900 that destroyed 80% of the island (see poster above), 1915, 1919, 1943, 1961 (hurricane Carla), 1983 (hurricane Alicia) et 1986. In the XIXth century, yellow fevers due to mosquitos striked several times, each time killing a big chunk of the population.

Living on the island is living dangerously. A prominent Galvestonian once wrote :" it is true that living on a potential disaster spot has tended to develop in its citizens a philosophy which is at the same time nonchalant, fatalistic, imperturbable, stoic and wit a sort of paternalistic pride in the blows that nature can give and that 30 miles of sand bar can take...".

Forgotten by the Gods, the island where we live since 2003, my texan wife Ann, me Michel the Frenchman and our dog Pagnol, has been known as "little Ellis Island" because it was the second port of entry for immigrants after New York City or "the richest city in Texas", its main street "THe Strand" was dubbed the Wall Street of the Southwest, but it is now mainly remembered for the site of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history when the 1900 hurricane destroyed a third of the city and killed over 8,000 people.

A booming prosperity

Galveston was named for Bernardo de Galvez and when, in 1836, Michel B. Menard purchased a "league and labor" of land for $50,000 from the Austin Colony to establish the City, Galveston started with an area of seven square miles.

In 1837 Congress made Galveston a port of entry and as Galveston grew, it became the site of many Texas' firsts, including: the first post office (1836), first naval base (1836), the first chapter of the Masonic Order (1840), the first military company (1841), the first cotton compress (1842), the first law firm west of the Mississippi River (1846), the first Catholic convent (1847) & first Cathedral (1847), the first railroad locomotive (1852), the first insurance company (1854), the first use of telegraph (1854), first private bank (1854), the first real estate firm (1857), the first hospital and trade union were opened here in 1866. The first drug store, Star Drug Store, was opened in 1867 and still stands. Galveston was a booming city.

Other significant Texas' firsts include the opera house (1870), cotton exchange (1872), orphanage (1876), telephone (1878), electric lights (1883), black high school (1885), medical college (1886) , electric street cars (1893), school for nurses (1894), golf course (1898) and first country club (1898).

In 1900 Galveston was prospering. It boasted being the "third richest city in the United States in proportion to population" and efforts were being made to increase its sea port value. All major railroads served Galveston and 60% of the state's cotton crop was exported through its port.

Tehn the worm turned : Galveston's prosperity was suddenly taken to a halt on September 8, 1900, when the deadliest natural disaster in United States history hit Galveston Island. A storm with winds over 120 miles per hour and tidal surge devastated the island and killed over 8,000 people. More than 3,600 homes were destroyed and the added toll on commercial structures created a monetary loss of $30 million ($700 million in today's dollars). At the time of the 1900 storm, Galveston had a population of almost 38,000 and ranked fourth in the state. One-third of the city was completely destroyed. Today Galveston is ranking 30th in the State of Texas. It never recovered from the aftermath of the storms of 1900 and 1915.

Construction of a seawall

The storm also caused survivors to move inland into the city of Houston. Although Galveston is an anchor city for the Houston Metropolitan Area, it has largely been overshadowed by the city of Houston. Still, Galveston remains a port of entry and a destination for cruise ships : in 2004, the port welcomed its 1,000,000th passenger since the reopening of the Carribean cruises dock in 2000.

To prevent another huge natural disaster from devastating the island again, the city built a seawall 10.4 miles long and 17 feet high and began a tremendous grade raising project. Galveston's Seawall now extends 54,790 feet, one-third of Galveston's ocean front. Total cost was $14,5 millions. Furthermore, the city complete a grade-rising from 1902 to 1910 that elevated the land by 8 to 22 feet depending on the concerned area. The bill was footed by the taxpayers for a huge amount of $8 millions dollars of the time.

A bridge to the mainland was finished in 1860. The bridge opened the opportunity for railroad expansion. Now we have also a cause way for cars more than 2 miles long between the East of the island and the mainland and a bridge on the West end at San Luis pass.

As of the census of 2000, there were 57,247 people versus 61,000 in 1980, 23,842 households, and 13,732 families residing in the city. The racial makeup of the city is 58.66% White, 25.49% Black, 0.42% Native American, 3.21% Asian : 25.77% of the population are Hispanic. The median income for a household in the city is $28,895, and the median income for a family is $35,049. Galvestonians are not rich even if some of the biggest fortunes of the US originated in the island with family names like Moody, Sealy, Kempner and Rosenberg.

A meagre load of economic and touristic activities

There are little job opportunities in the island, the main employer being the UTMB Hospital (University of Texas Medical Branch) with some 15,000 staff but some oil refining, shipbuilding, metal fabricating, printing, seafood processing, and the manufacture of steel containers do not procure thousands of jobs. Hopefully, Galveston is also a beach and fishing resort with a flottilla of shrimp boats, called the Mosquitos fleet, which employs around a thousand people. Tourism helps but wages are generally low and lots of Galvestonians have left for Houston or outside Texas during the last twenty years. It is obvious that if you want to make a career you better leave the island.

Nevertheless Galveston's historic downtown, majestic avenues and beautiful beaches are major tourist destinations. The island is famous for its pink and white oleanders, bougainvillea, and other subtropical blooms which have won her the name of the "Oleander city".

Wealthy Houstonians and visitors from around the world purchase beach homes and condominiums and make Galveston their second home. Since 2003, the real estate market is booming and everybody and their brother have put for sale their residence in the hope to make a substantial profit. The buzz is that casino gambling, closed for good in 1957, is going to reopen and the rumor feeds a speculative trend that most Galvestonians enjoy.

Some of them however shrug off the rumor and point out that casino gambling re-opening has already been turned down by a referendum in the early 80s. Others say that the great and ole "families" then objected to the reopening of the gambling but they are not anymore in a position to do it. Nevertheless, the island is now the last piece of land offshore in the US where you can buy a very nice house for less than $200,000.

On a touristic stand, Galveston has many attractions : notably its historical district that, to my opinon, looks more genuine and is more architecturally beautiful than the New Orleans "French Quarter" with tens of nice bars, galleries and antiques dealers. Other attractions include the splendid Moody Gardens and their awesome pyramids visible from Interstate I45, the Galveston Island Railroad Museum, the Lone Star Flight Museum and a lot of historical homes that witness of the splendor and the wealth of their owners.

But don't have huge expectations for the local beaches here although there are over 20 miles of them. They are muddied by the Mississippi river to the East. The sand is white and nice but the waters are yellowish and in time you can be bitten by a shark or stung by a jellyfish. Waves are good for surfers but it's nothing like the West Coast either. If you want crystal clear seas go West towards Corpus Christi. Galveston is also home to several historic ships: the tall ship Elissa at the Texas Seaport Museum, and USS Cavalla and USS Stewart, both berthed at Seawolf Park on nearby Pelican Island.

Galveston has been the home of the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), a major teaching and indigent-care hospital which now encompasses 84 acres (340,000 m²), since 1891. UTMB is the largest employer in Galveston County, creating over 15,000 jobs and bringing about $300 million into the local economy.

There is one public high school in Galveston, Ball High School. The city is also home to three post-secondary institutions: Galveston College, Texas A&M University at Galveston, and University of Texas Medical Branch.

Galveston is home to a symphony orchestra and a small ballet company. Film maker King Vidor and singer Barry White were native of Galveston. The Galveston County Daily News, the city's main newspaper, is the oldest continuously printed newspaper in Texas (since 1842). American National Insurance Company, one of the larger life insurance companies in the United States founded in 1905 by William Lewis Moody, Jr. and Moody National Bank are headquartered in Galveston.

Born on the island (B.O.I.)

Eventually, people are not supposed to live on a sandbar. If they do, it is a choice, like people who live on the slopes of Mt Vesuvio or Stromboli in Italy. They are a bit crazy, wild and they are not afraid of premature death. It tells you something about them. They have, like most islanders, a certain snobishness about the fact that they choose to live on a dangerous sand bar exposed to hurricanes, floods and tropical storms. Maybe they think of themselves as indestructible, like the French "immortels" of L'Académie Française, who knows !!! And finally they think of themselves as B.O.I. (born on the island), a sort of aristocratic snobishness (sic) denied to N.B.O.I. (non born on the island).

Well, maybe Galvestonians love danger and risks which makes them more relax, more layback, more tolerant to eccentricities and eccentrics. To quote a famous Galvestonian, lets conclude that "People who putatively may die together learn to live together." (Harris K. Kempner, member of one the wealthiest Galveston families).

Welcome to my sand bar. Do not miss the unique charm of the island of Galveston and its historical ambiance. Something really unique in this planet. And if you really want something official, you still can browse to the official Galveston website. It is well done.




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