"Protection from storms is not
only required for the preservation of life and property, but also, and in
hardly les degree, to give confidence to the people of Galveston, and to others
who may be drawn here by business interests, in the absolute certainty of the
safety of the city against the re-occurrence of such catastrophe as the one of
1900." — Board of Engineers Official Report.
Galveston was among the first of
prominent, wealthy cities in the United States. Incorporated in
1838, this small island town off the coast of Texas took full advantage of its easily
accessible port and attractive beaches, and was home to a diverse, open-minded,
and ever-expanding population during the dawn of a conservative Victorian Era.
At one point, it surpassed Ellis Island as the largest center for immigration
in America, and as a fierce
entrepreneurial spirit invaded Galveston
in the 19th century so did the influences of cultures from around the world.
The cotton trade lined the pockets of local businessmen, and Galveston became the second wealthiest city per capita in
the nation, second only to Newport,
Rhode Island, home of the
Vanderbilts. Stunning architecture, palatial homes, and all of the most modern
of technologies were commonplace. Visitors enjoyed the finest European
restaurants, luxurious accommodations, the calm and tepid waters of the Gulf
and countless amenities.
The city seemed invincible but precarious was her perch in the Gulf of Mexico, and her defiant stance against the powers
of nature would be severely examined on Sept. 8, 1900. A hurricane with
estimated 120 mile per hour winds and a storm surge that reached a documented
15.7 feet struck the unsuspecting Island
community, and the Wall Street of the South was brought to her knees. Thousands
of bodies lay buried under debris and strewn about the city, lives spent as
sacrificial offerings to the unrelenting Neptune.
Moving water is the most powerful force on the face of the planet, and
as the Gulf plowed its way in from the beach it laid to waste over 3,000
buildings and homes, tearing them from their foundations and pushing them into
a 20-foot high, three mile long wall of rubble that encircled downtown. Nearly
two-thirds of the Island was scraped clean.
Even before The Great Storm, the local government was in a state of
disarray. The mayor at the time of the disaster, Walter C. Jones, although not
entirely inept and ineffective in his duties, certainly had the reputation of
City financial records were practically nonexistent, and many landowners
and city officials used this knowledge to their advantage and rarely paid their
taxes. The city was bankrupt, her bonds were depreciated, and there was no
hope, especially in the current state of things, to release more no matter how
desperately the city needed to finance its recovery.
This mass governmental chaos was seen by some as the perfect opportunity
for the change Galveston
so desperately needed. I.H. Kempner, affectionately known as "Ike,"
was an outspoken advocate for change at the city level. Prompting the town to
wholeheartedly believe in what he coined, "The Spirit of Galveston,"
he also stoked the fire under his peers and they joined with him in his efforts
to reform the city government. They petitioned the state government to annul
the current city charter and set in place the New City Charter, a progressive,
all-encompassing approach to rebuilding the city.
The New City Charter changed the structure of the governing body to a
commission form of government, which not surprisingly resembled that of a
business governed by a board of directors. But it also dealt directly with
recovery efforts, setting forth precedents for the fortification of the Island.
The authors and purveyors of the New City Charter were adamant and
persistent that all means and monies possible should be expended to forever
prevent the horrors of September 8th from ever happening again, even if it put
the financial welfare of the city at risk.
The commonality of suffering and symbiotic heartache that still
resonated within the survivors of that day had given rise to a steely
One of the first actions taken by the newly elected Board of
Commissioners under the New City Charter was to appoint a Board of Engineers, a
collection of three of the best and brightest civil engineering minds in the
country. Assigned to this board was the distinct task of examining the current
geological profile of the Island, and to
suggest ways to protect it from future storms.
Gen. Henry Robert, H.C. Ripley and Alfred Noble were appointed by the
Commissioners on Nov. 22, 1901. The three men readily accepted, as they were
all enticed not only by the stature and prominence of the Island
city, but also by the sheer magnificence of the challenge before them.
Per the charter, the duty of the Board of Engineers was to report
"plans and specifications with estimates of the costs," for the
safest and most efficient ways to protect Galveston
from the insurgence of the Gulf. The three members met continuously over the
course of two months, and released their report on Jan. 25, 1902.
It amazed everyone.