Few were left unscathed by The Great
Depression as tremors from the crash of the United States stock market were
felt all over the world. Galveston,
however, proved somewhat impervious to the collateral damage from international
economic collapse, for what it lost by way of a population with diminished
expendable income for beach vacations, it gained through its provision of an
escape from reality along with the hope of a lucky hand.
On the structural side, the funds to complete the first filling of the
East End Flats were finally made available in 1931, after being tied up in
litigation for nearly two years. Contention arose from the fact that the area
between the original, eastern border of the Seawall (currently 6th Street)
and the eastward extension down the coastline was privately owned, but
taxpayers were expected to put up the funds for its development.
They showed themselves willing to do so for the first 358,000 cubic
yards of fill needed to partially raise the grade of the swampy “mosquito farm”
in the interest of public health, but henceforth they battled city officials
for nearly two decades, stubbornly unwilling to foot the bill for what they
believed to be the landowners’ responsibility.
Due to the crippled state of the economy, 1932 saw the end of Splash Day
and with it went the International Pageant of Pulchritude. That year the beauty
competitions became a statewide affair, but the brilliance of William Roe’s
concept would prove timeless. His promenade of beauty down the shores of the Gulf Island
went on to become what is still known today as the Miss Universe pageant.
Later that summer, a Category 4 hurricane struck the small town of Freeport on August 15th.
Along the small stretch of coast between the direct hit and Galveston Island,
forty lives were lost and the total damage surmounted nearly $8 million, but
the Seawall remained stoic and the city itself sustained only minimal damage
and no casualties.
The destruction did prove enough to renew interest in the re-opening of
the Maceo’s stake on the Seawall. The brothers’ gulf-side restaurant, the
Grotto, was forcibly shut down in 1928 due to gaming violations, and the
building at 23rd and Seawall remained vacant as the Depression
stifled most people’s ability to pursue beachfront luxuries. Its loss was
cushioned by the brothers’ Hollywood Dinner Club on 61st Street that provided all
of the “accommodations” of the Grotto, but since damage to the Seawall property
made repairs inevitable, Sam and Rose rolled their own proverbial dice.
By this time, the pair had assumed almost complete control of Galveston’s underground
undulations of booze and gambling, as any previous rivalries had either been shut
down, bought out, or forced to leave town. So they spared no expense in the
reclamation of their business on the Seawall and executed a splendid remodel of
the interior with décor inspired by the Orient.
Upon completion the Sui Jen Café was
hailed as one of the most beautiful establishments in the nation, and its debut
in late 1932 confirmed the Maceo’s reputation as the penultimate hosts. They
provided elegant atmospheres, world-renown entertainment, and unlimited vice
with the added benefit of discretion, all of which drew spectators and
participants from all across the United States.
In 1933 Prohibition was lifted, although liquor by the drink was still
illegal, nevertheless the bootlegging continued as did gambling and
prostitution. The Island community’s seemingly
invincible and pompous attitude towards its criminal underpinnings eventually
earned it the nickname, “The Free State of Galveston.”
Further bolstering Galveston’s
nationwide draw was the 1933 release of the song “My Galveston Gal,” written by
one of the members of Phil Harris’s band. The tune was a regular on the
playlist at Harris’s radio station, and the attention it garnered soon
established the Island city as a year-round
attraction. Construction boomed all over town, but especially on the Seawall.
Business listings at the time read like a kaleidoscope of entertainment
that changed every year, featuring novelties such as Japanese Rolling Ball, a
Penny Arcade, The Great American Racing Derby, the Whoopee House, the Choo Choo
Train, Boulevard Bingo, and The Crazy House. The Boulevard also boasted several
Sportlands full of athletic amusements, skating rinks, and shooting galleries.
increasing popularity created such a traffic problem on the Seawall that the
woes it induced were a perpetual source of conversation among city officials
and residents. Much of the debate surrounded the parking along the south side
of the wall.
Angled parking was argued by many to be an impediment to moving traffic,
but parallel parking would reduce the number of available spaces. The city also
considered installing parking meters for the first time in 1936, an idea
quickly squashed by local business owners. During the summer of 1939, parallel
parking was initiated on a trial basis with a two-hour time limit from noon to
midnight, but a mere two months later it returned to the angled system.
As the decade drew to a close and the United
States began its slow ascent back into the fold of a
prospering financial situation, Galveston
continued to thrive and make firm its foothold as a national interest. At the
recommendation of the Beach Erosion Board and the Army Corps of Engineers,
Congress authorized the construction of a groin system to reinforce the toe of
the Seawall and prevent erosion. From 1936-1939, fourteen 500 foot-long groins
were constructed at 1,500 foot intervals.
Of course the rise of Galveston
in name and notoriety during the 1930s, and its ability to survive with
grandeur the greatest economic collapse the world has ever seen, was due almost
entirely to the illicit but ingenious entrepreneurial endeavors of Sam and Rose
Maceo. City directories from the era in no overt way acknowledge the full scope
allure at the time, but they cannot help but reflect the upward trend of demand
for the city’s highly sought-after escapades.
As the frivolous beachfront businesses were subject to the latest fads
and engaged in all the comings and goings of a carousel, the Sui Jen Café
remained steadfast. The number of hotels continued to grow year after year, but
not as quickly as the number of residents. The directories do go so far as to
mention that “the city has the reputation of having a most contented
population.” This at a time when the rest of the country was 25% unemployed and
standing in bread lines. Contented, indeed.