The Seawall had survived two wars, a depression, raids by the Texas
Rangers, and four hurricanes. But the sidewalk by the sea had grown weary under
the weight of its troubles. Galveston lost its
identity twice—first to the Port of Houston and next to the scruples of a selective
American morality—and the last three decades of the twentieth century would see
the Island community struggle yet again to
Even though Galveston
had always been a beach town, this was the first time in its history that it
was seen as only a beach town. The
glory days of the late 1800s were long since faded from generational memory,
and when Texas proved to Galveston
that it was not in fact “free” nor a “state,” the backlash decimated any
reputation the Island had among the
Gone were the braggart promoters hailing the “Treasure
Island of the South,” and their poetic trappings had been replaced
with an incessant murmur of unrest among the local population, as city
officials floundered to regain the Seawall’s footing as a prime destination
amid a tourist population that was growing in number but declining in quality.
Instead of planning new amusement parks and devising clever gimmicks to
draw crowds, the municipalities were instead consumed with managing the
bureaucracies of a town that was at the same time dependent upon and resentful
of its new classification as a place for a cheap daytime or weekend getaway.
Still, the struggles would turn out to be nothing but growing pains, and the
final trifecta of the 1900s would prove in hindsight to be the maker of a firm
foundation upon which the 21st century could build.
At the start of the 1970s, many of the businesses of the 60s that
emerged or rebuilt in the aftermath of Hurricane Carla remained, but as the
decade progressed the Seawall itself did not. The large hotels such as the
Seahorse, the Jack Tar, and the Buccaneer managed to still evoke moderate
interest, but no further developments of their kind were put in to motion. The
Seawall did, however, manage in some form to keep pace with the evolution of
The arrival of video games on to the scene generated much excitement,
and fast food was also steadily gaining market share among the nation’s
population. As the relevance of drive ins as a social activity waned, they were
replaced with the Galveston Arcade, as well as Galveston’s first Kentucky Fried
Chicken and Jack in the Box, the latter of which remains in its same location
In 1973, two plans for further extending the Seawall were examined. One
recommended building a wall to encircle the city limits, and the other was for
a westward extension. Backed by the Chamber of Commerce, the proposal for the
westward extension was most highly advocated.
At the time, the city limits still ended at 61st Street, but some moderate
development was taking place further west, mainly the modest homes of shrimpers
and others who made their living off the water. City officials argued that this
area, too, needed protection from a potential hurricane, but they were unable
to produce a sufficient benefit-to-costs ratio and the proposal was vetoed by
the Army Corps of Engineers, who protested that there was inadequate
justification for a project that would cost upwards of $55 million. In 1974 the
Corps’ definitive denial laid the issue to rest permanently.
By 1979, city records indicate that Galveston was welcoming over 4.5
million visitors annually, up from 2 million in 1970, but overall it appeared
that the Boulevard had transitioned from a destination full of sites and
adventures, to merely a place to hang out. In the February 1974 edition of Galveston Magazine, Jack Bushong,
President of the Galveston Convention and Visitors Bureau, lamented, “We do not
have enough recreational facilities in the daytime and without a doubt we do
not have enough nighttime entertainment.”
The rise of interest in Galveston
seemed mainly due to the steadily increasing popularity of skateboarding,
surfing, and roller skating. Only a novelty to some, by mid-decade professional
contests were being held nationwide for both skateboarding and surfing, and the
draw of these extreme sports carried over to the local amateur talents eager to
use the Seawall and Galveston beaches to hone their skills.
Stores opened along the waterfront in an effort to capitalize on these
new past times, such as various surf shops and the World of Wheels Skateboards.
Even the city was forced to keep up with the added intricacies brought by these
activities, and in 1976 council passed a complete ordinance dedicated to
surfing in the Gulf which included safety restrictions like designating
specific areas for surfing and demanding that surfers maintain a safe distance
from the jetties and fishing piers, many of which are still in place today.
As the clock struck 1980, the city formed the Seawall Beautification
Committee and made reasonable efforts to improve its appearance, such as
refurbishing Stewart Beach and the recently designated Appfel
Park on East Beach,
named after a former mayor. Still, Galveston
seemed inevitably relegated to a fate of surfers, skaters, partiers, and
loiterers, when suddenly the 1980s bestowed upon the Island
the vision of one of the city’s most revered champions, George P. Mitchell.
A Galveston native and a graduate of Texas A&M- Galveston, the
renown oilman/entrepreneur and inventor of fracking decided that his hometown
was worthy of his financial investment. Before it was popular, before it was
considered even a rational decision, Mitchell began to funnel money into what
would eventually become Galveston’s
designated Downtown Historic District, rehabilitating the Victorian commercial
buildings on The Strand and transforming them into a center of arts, shopping,
and urban residences. At the time of his death in August of 2014, George
Mitchell had provided over $300 million to the city through his restoration and
Previously hailed as the “90 Day Wonder,” a tongue-in-cheek slight
against its popularity only during the summer season, Mitchell’s efforts
infused a new life into the tired Island city.
tourism industry is winning its battle against an age-old stigma. On both the
home front and in faraway cities… people are discovering that there is more to
see and do in Galveston than visit the beach during summer” (Galveston Magazine, Summer 1985).
This growth jettisoned onto the Seawall, as Galveston
again found favor with the upper crust of Houston
society. Less than fifty miles away the Island proved to be a fantastic place
for a weekend or vacation home, and the demand for this interest was met by a
veritable building boon in the early 1980s, primarily in the form of
stretch of Seawall beyond 61st
Street, before barren and completely undeveloped,
soon became known as “Condominium Row.” The far eastern end of the Seawall also
garnered interest from the developers for the first time.
area was for all intents and purposes out in the middle of nowhere, yet a
pioneering development called The Galvestonian had sold over 60% of its units
by the time construction began in 1982. By 1984, the Seawall boasted over 3,000
condo units in total.
Even Hurricane Alicia, which struck in 1983, did nothing to deter
interest in beachfront construction, in part because the wall had again served
as a valiant protector. In fact, the immediate years following Alicia witnessed
the opening of the San Luis Resort (1984), another monolith of George Mitchell,
as well as several businesses that are now icons of the Seawall, such as
Mario’s Italian Restaurant (1983), Benno’s By the Beach (1983), and the first
Landry’s Seafood Restaurant (1986) which would eventually provide the namesake
for one of Galveston’s premier development companies of the 21st
But the Boulevard of the 1980s still had a glaring problem—alcohol
consumption among young people and teens was escalating, and they used both the
sidewalk itself and lots across the way, still vacant from Carla, to hold wild
Jan Coggeshal was elected mayor in 1984, she pushed for her vision of the
Seawall as an “urban park,” which meant encouraging visitors to line the
concrete wall with their beach chairs, boom boxes, and coolers full of beer to
party and sunbathe. But between the sitters, skaters, cyclers, and planter
boxes which had been installed in the 1960s, Coggeshall’s plan backfired
tremendously, and created a culture of disorderly conduct and a reputation that
not a safe place to visit.
Park, which had for
nearly a century served as a quiet respite for beachgoers, became overrun with
indiscriminate visitors. Year after year, the Galveston Daily News printed editorials and opinion pieces on the
“’monster’ seawall problems,” as locals expressed their disdain for the
lackluster efforts of the city to curb violence and crowds.
1984, a Seawall Task Force was created in an effort to devise a plan to
overcome these obstacles, but their initial recommendations seemed to fall on
deaf ears. An entire two years after they presented their findings to the
public, the most controversial of which was ban on alcohol, a sign was erected
in 1986 along the Interstate 45 corridor to Galveston that read “Appfel
Park—NOT FOR THE TAME,” much to the dismay of local residents.
On April 4th of 1988, City Council at last followed the Task
Force’s advice and approved a ban on alcohol, but it would not actually be
enforced until well into the next decade. In 1989, the News published a scathing account of the Seawall’s ongoing
situation, bemoaning stories of women “shaking from fear” at the sight of the
tumultuous crowds; business owners declaring that people “would be nuts to shop
down here;” and law enforcement who did not have enough “room in the jail for
all the people they’d have to arrest to make a difference down here.”
Finally in 1991, decisive action was taken to elevate the ambiance of
the Seawall. The alcohol ban was fully enforced to include both sides of the
Boulevard and the beach, and in order to facilitate foot and bicycle traffic
along the sidewalk, the planter boxes were removed and visitors were prohibited
from setting up camp on the sidewalk.
The remainder of the 20th century’s final decade would pass
with little incident, instead proceeding at a slow and humble pace of
development that would both deny the Seawall’s past and usher it in to the
future, all the while expanding further and further west.
Carpet Mini Golf, an amazing and creative spectacle that has defined the
western end of the Seawall for nearly thirty years, debuted in 1990, while the
Jack Tar that held that distinction for the eastern side was demolished. In
1998, Galveston’s first multiplex movie theatre opened at 89th Street,
and that same year a small restaurant called The Spot opened which would
eventually become one of the Boulevard’s most popular attractions.
1999, McGuire Dent
was constructed on the site of Menard
Park, and along with the
demolition of the Buccaneer hotel, the bygone eras were now officially nothing
but memories. Even still, the Seawall had proved itself to be as stoic as its Island community, although neither of them knew what the new millennia would bring.