When one ponders the earthly elements that have most impacted Galveston’s brief but multifaceted history, the first thing that comes to mind is water. The island is surrounded by it, harnesses it for economic use, and succumbs to its ire at least once every couple of decades. But long before Galveston grappled with a historic hurricane, fire had as much if not more bearing on the city’s early history and the evolution of the cityscape.
In Part I of this series, May 23, 1871 was stated as the date of the formation of the paid fire department, when this was in fact the date of the official reincorporation of the volunteer department after the Civil War. By the 1880s, more than twenty volunteer fire companies operated throughout Galveston. Although they all had served the city valiantly since the volunteer department was established in 1843, the city’s exponential growth over the latter half of the 19th century demanded a sanctioned municipal department.
The magnitude of destruction and suffering caused by the worst fire in Galveston’s history was undoubtedly catastrophic in measure, but the potency of its memory is further amplified by the eerie collection of circumstances surrounding it. Firemen were (and are still) deeply superstitious about the number 13 and the thirteenth day of the month - in the 19th century it was called “hoodoo day” (a form of voodoo).