Galveston in the 1880s was booming. It was the nation’s busiest cotton port, and only Ellis Island in New York was a more heavily traversed point of entry for immigrants. The railroads were bringing more business to the Island and street for street, the city had more millionaires than any other city in America. A walk along what we now call Seawall Boulevard would have reflected Galveston’s rising position as one of the most desirable vacation destinations in the country.
In 1883, one of the Gulf Coast’s grandest resort hotels opened. Designed by noted Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton, the Beach Hotel opened its doors and gave Galveston another reason to celebrate the summer season.
The beautiful, four-and-a-half story, wood-framed Beach Hotel with an octagonal dome and trademark red-and-white-tiled roof cost an estimated $260,000 to build and was located between 23rd and 24th Streets just south of where the Seawall is today. It extended into the Gulf another block or two in an area that no longer exists due to the Great Storm of 1900. But at the time, the Beach Hotel sat across from the popular Pagoda Bathhouse and was a hub of summer activity.
The beautifully appointed, 200-room hotel designed in the shape of an E had three interconnected pavilions and quickly became the most sought-after venue for wedding receptions and parties. President Benjamin Harrison stayed at the Beach Hotel when he was visiting Galveston in April 1891, adding to the rising fame and prestige of the hotel.
A bandstand on the hotel’s front lawn attracted locals and visitors alike. The Beach Hotel had a lunch counter and a souvenir shop filled with shells and curios for guests to purchase treasured mementos of their time in Galveston. The hotel also featured a saloon, a shooting gallery, and a barber shop. Ladies descended to the lobby via a grand staircase—a necessity to make an entrance to an elegant party.
Behind the scenes, the Beach Hotel was designed and built with the foremost technology and efficiency at the time. The grounds boasted electricity and gas lighting, chicken houses, greenhouses, a laundry room, and even an elevator.
Tourists arrived in droves and spent lazy summer days on the lawn enjoying the best views in Galveston, meeting friends in one of the many parlors or billiard rooms or renting a bathing suit from the Pagoda to go “surf bathing.”
The idea for a beachfront resort hotel was first proposed by Col. W.H. Sinclair, President of the Galveston Streetcar Company, but his attempt to increase tourism to Galveston was not met with enthusiasm. The project was finally realized through a huge investment by the Galveston City Railway Company, and it was one of the major attractions on the beach.
It should have been a gold mine for those who owned it and invested in it, but all was not as it appeared at the Beach Hotel. The summer months naturally brought an influx of visitors to the island, but the winter season severely deflated visitation to the island. At one point, the hotel was closed and sold, but troubles worsened further for the fated beachfront novelty.
A lien against the hotel for $15,000 was recorded in January of 1896 - the property and school taxes had not been paid for nine years. The financial troubles, combined with Galveston’s unforgiving salt air and humidity, began to wear on the physical structure as well. The building had deteriorated significantly over the years, and in March of 1896 it was sold at auction to Col. W.E. Hughes of Dallas for a paltry $16,000.
However, less than two months after the sale on May 4, 1896, the Galveston Daily News reported that there was a “startling metamorphosis” taking place on the Gulf Coast. Mr. Clarence Gueringer, who was the hotel’s new lessee, said that the hotel was being renovated and that furnishings would be of the best quality.
“I propose to run this place first class in every respect,” he said. “It will hustle us to get through by June 1, but we hope to be ready for business at that time.”
The Daily News reporter said that Gueringer had given him the interview while watching the painters with one eye and taking in samples with the other while giving orders in between. “The Beach Hotel is the Most Spacious and Comfortable Hotel in the South,” said one headline. “The Beach Hotel is the Finest and Best Regulated Hotel on the Coast,” said another.
Once again, the Beach Hotel became the most fashionable Gulf Coast hotel, a haven for honeymooners, and the most correct summer address. Galvestonians watched with great interest as their beachfront jewel was revived and breathed again. Its presence in Galveston helped catapult the city to becoming one of the leading resort destinations in the nation.
As beautiful as it truly was on the outside, a look under the surface would have revealed some ugly truths. In 1898, Galveston’s city health officials discovered that the hotel was not on the city’s sewage line. The hotel had been flushing its cesspools directly into the Gulf.
The city issued an extremely stern warning to the Beach Hotel, calling them “absolutely disgusting and disgraceful” and threatened to close their doors if they did not immediately connect to the city’s sewage system.
The July 4 issue of the Galveston Daily News reported that a small, suspicious fire broke out at the Beach Hotel. It was quickly put out, but it was an omen of worse things to come. That month, the Beach Hotel was completely booked by the statewide Democratic Convention. Rallies and meetings would be held there and each room in the hotel had been reserved far in advance.
Closing it due to fire would have been disastrous. If it had become public knowledge that the sewage was going out into the Gulf, it would have spelled both financial disaster and public humiliation for the hotel.
And so, the hotel was seemingly doing its best to recover in time for the convention slated for the end of the month. Then strangely, the hotel’s dogs who were trained to alert to smoke and fire, suddenly disappeared without a trace on July 22, 1898.
Early the very next morning, the hotel was on fire for the second time in three weeks. Despite a valiant effort from the Galveston Fire Department, the hotel burned to the ground in less than thirty minutes. If there was anything for which to be grateful amid this disaster, it was that the hotel had not yet opened and was nearly empty. Had the members of the Democratic Convention been in residence, the death toll could have been catastrophic.
“Beach Hotel in Ashes!” screamed the headlines in the next day’s Galveston Daily News. “Galveston’s Magnificent Seaside Hostelry was Burned to the Ground Yesterday Morning - Origin of the Fire Unknown but Supposed to be Incendiary.” The fire was more than suspicious, given the city’s threat, the earlier fire, and the disappearance of the dogs.
The hotel carried minimal fire insurance, but fortunately no fatalities occurred because the hotel had not fully reopened yet. However, that was also a factor in the timing of the fire and added to the suspicion of arson. It appeared that the responsible party was more intent on damaging the structure than killing people.
The Daily News reported that the fire chief had done all he could, but it was hopeless. “The fire department got there in a hurry,” reported Chief Ernest Wegner.
“The first company was there before the waterworks whistle blew, but the moment I got there and saw how things were, I knew there was no hope of saving the building. I realized that our energies would have to be devoted to preventing the flames from spreading to the surrounding structures. Hot? Great heavens, it was fearful. It was one of the hottest and fiercest fires I have ever seen.”
After the flames finally subsided, almost nothing whatsoever was left of the beautiful Beach Hotel. The suspicious nature of the Beach Hotel fire was the major scandal of its day in Galveston, but the culprit was never caught.
As the most sought-after destination on the beach, the loss of the Beach Hotel greatly impacted the cityscape, thus talk of building a new Beach Hotel commenced almost immediately after its destruction. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortuitously, those plans were not finalized before the Great Storm of 1900 changed everything for the island city. If the fire had not destroyed it in 1898, the storm certainly would have.
The Beach Hotel played a significant role in Galveston during one of the most prosperous times in its history. The true origin of the fire, as well as the identity of the one who set it, remains one of Galveston’s most compelling unsolved mysteries to this day.