Unbeknownst to many who today seek the shores
of Galveston for respite and relaxation, Texas’
sunniest city was not recognized nor promoted
as an entertainment destination until the first section of
the seawall was built between 1902-1904. During the
19th century, Galveston was primarily concerned with
commercial pursuits and the growth of its port, and
although the eastern portion of the island’s coastline was
simultaneously lined with bathhouses, “surf-bathing” was
not necessarily considered a family-friendly activity at the
time. Galveston’s beachgoers garnered a reputation as the
unsavory sort and the bathhouses became notorious as
centers of illicit and sometimes even violent activity.
Local Galvestonians with vested interest in beachfront
business, including famed bathhouse icon George
Murdoch, viewed the construction of the seawall as a
chance to overhaul the reputation of the city’s Gulf side.
Murdoch himself contributed by purchasing a string of
real estate on the beachside between 23rd and 27th
Streets to exert a positive influence on its reestablishment
as a safe and wholesome offering to the public.
This sentiment, shared by other business owners and
residents, led to aspirations of Galveston becoming the
“Coney Island of the South,” and their collective vision
included talks of an amusement park to help advance
Galveston’s reputation and draw a more refined clientele.
Amusement parks, a concept born from an
amalgamation of traveling carnivals, pleasure gardens,
and world fair exhibitions, gained significant ground in
the 1850s and 60s after a surge of mechanical innovation
led to the invention of mechanical rides including the
carousel. These industrial advancements, coupled with
the rise of a working class who now possessed expendable
income for entertainment (heretofore not the norm),
ushered in the seemingly eternal era of modern fun fair
rides that continues to this day.
In the early 1900s, amusement parks were fast becoming a staple of seaside cities to attract day-trippers while other towns viewed their construction as a tribute to economic and industrial advancement, but Galveston had alternate motivations. In 1902, the Snug Harbor Hotel was built on the corner of 22nd Street between Avenue Q and the line of the future seawall. It was only the second hotel ever built on the southern side of the city, the first on the seawall, and the first since the 1900 Storm.
Suddenly, the prospect of overnight visitation was ignited for the first time since the famous Beach Hotel mysteriously burned down in 1898, prompting Galveston planners to latch onto an entirely different marketing strategy for their amusement park.
Their scheme was also likely inspired by the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, considered the immediate predecessor of the American amusement park for its introduction of the “midway” and an imaginative template that was a cross-section of engineering, entertainment, and education. Simultaneously, the Columbian Expo awed visitors with its roaring display of electric lights, earning it the nickname “The White City.”
Secretary of the Galveston Business League William Gardner adamantly proposed that visitors to the island would be more likely to stay overnight if the city could persuade them to stay after dark. The key was electricity, a cutting-edge technology viewed at the time as a novelty and a luxury. It was not distributed commercially until 1882 and progressed only gradually; by 1925, only half of U.S. homes had electricity.
To ensure that no mistake was made regarding the allure of its main attraction, the name of Galveston’s first foray into the amusement park industry was simple yet sensational— Electric Park.
Built in the spring of 1906 concurrently with a construction boom along the Galveston coast that included two roller rinks, additional bathhouses, and several more hotels, Electric Park spanned the entire city block between Seawall Boulevard, Avenue Q, 23rd, and 24th Streets. It was anchored at the corner of the seawall and 24th by the Crab Pavilion, a massive two-story, open-air space with seating and concessions built in 1905 and leased to the Galveston Electric Park and Amusement Company for incorporation into their park.
The central attraction was the Aerial Swing. The cables attached to each chair were studded with bulbs like strands of Christmas lights, and as riders rose up like a flare over the center of the park, the cables transformed into a massive strobe light that lit up the seawall for blocks. Other amusements were a roller coaster called the Figure 8 and the Cave of the Winds, a ride through a dark cavern rigged with various blowers that sent gusts and blasts across the cars as they passed.
Adhering to the educational facet almost always included in amusement parks of the time, Electric Park presented Hale’s Tour of the World, an early version of a moving picture show that depicted places of interest from across the globe. Adjacent to this was the Electric Theatre that featured a slate of live performances. Later, in a frighteningly prophetic move, the theatre’s name was changed to the Casino.
Placed throughout the rest of the park were shooting galleries, ice cream parlors, gift shops, walking paths, concession stands, benches, carnival games, and a bandstand where musicians provided a live soundtrack
that wafted through every crevice of the park, over the
seawall, and onto the beach. To complete the multi-sensory
experience, all of the structures were painted bright white
to further amplify the glow of more than six thousand lights.
Thus, Electric Park offered ambiance to more than just
its patrons. Couples and friends were known to enjoy the
spectacle from the beach, bathing not in the water but in
the luster and music that emanated from the seawall.
Construction delays postponed the opening by two weeks,
but the park was still completed in less than three months
for a stunning cost of $51,560, nearly $1.5 million today. On
the evening of May 26, Electric Park made its debut.
From 6-11pm, hundreds of invited guests roamed the
grounds, partook of various sundries, and participated in
the carnival games. The Galveston Daily News reported,
“Several thousand light bulbs completely encircling the
Crab Pavilion…gave the scene an imposing appearance and
caused the minds of many to revert to the scenes at the St.
Louis World’s Fair two years ago.”
No rides were open at the formal preview, however.
That honor was reserved for the public when Electric Park
officially opened the next day, May 27, 1906.
Unfortunately, only two of the rides were functional
even on that day, but regardless, Electric Park immediately
accomplished its purpose. The News reported that
although business along the beach was steady throughout
the daytime, the crowd along the seawall swelled after
sundown. Not all of them were necessarily patrons of the
park, and many of them were locals.
“From 7:30 till after 10 o’clock there were thousands of
people walking the seawall, bathing, walking along the
sands, or visiting the various resorts and attractions.”
Electric Park lit up the seawall, both figuratively and literally,
and added an entirely untapped dimension of nightlife to
the Galveston scene.
In 1907, notable improvements were made to the park.
Since its perimeter was surrounded by developed land and
expansion was impossible, the park was instead rearranged.
Several attractions were removed and replaced with new
ones, the most anticipated of which was the Ferris Wheel.
Adding to the excitement of the summer of 1907 was the
opening of Electric Park’s new neighbor, Chutes Park.
This new addition served not only to “appease the
American’s thirst for hazardous pastimes,” but also to
solidify Galveston’s fast-growing reputation as the premiere
resort city in the South. The main attraction of Chutes Park
was the Mystic Rill, a water ride that traversed a beautifully
landscaped waterway stretching more than one thousand
feet, wrapping around the Figure 8 of Electric Park and back.
At the end of the ride, the boats traveled up a steep incline
before being shot down a watery hill and concluding with a
huge splash. This was an early version of a popular ride at
the beloved but lost Astroworld called the Bamboo Shoot.
It seemed almost antiquated against a backdrop of gravitydefying
steel roller coasters, but back in 1907, “shoot-thechutes”
were the pinnacle of fun fair innovation.
Chutes Park also incorporated the educational element
with a theatre, first called the City of Yesterday and later
the Edisonian Theater, which presented titles such as “An
Astronomer’s Dream of the Other World.” Elsewhere,
a German-themed garden called Happy Land provided
concessions, picnic tables, and live vaudeville shows, the
Illusion Theater put on magic shows, and the Palace of Wonders used the same early moving picture technology as
Hale’s Tour of the World.
Other attractions of unknown design were the Giggle Alley
Castle, Katzenjammer Castle, the Klondike, Happy Island
Gardens, the New World’s Scenic Railway, the Witches’
Cave, and Wedding in Fairyland.
Finishing touches included 14 different concession stands,
electric fountains and waterfalls, and thousands of electric
lights. Together, Chutes Park and Electric Park brought an
amount of fun, entertainment, and aesthetic to Galveston’s
beachfront that was unparalleled in the south, making it a
The News described, “By day, they are white, clean and
spotless and by night a gorgeous mass of lights…a hodgepodge
of sounds, some melodious, others somewhat
discordant, but none entirely disagreeable, for they tell that
something is doing ‘in the old town tonight.’”
Unfortunately, both Electric Park and its companion were
ill-fated and short-lived, but in the end, they were a worthy
sacrifice with a lasting legacy. In late October 1907, a
severe thunderstorm blew through the island and caused
significant damage to the parks, but they were quickly
repaired and in full operation by the following summer.
In 1908, Electric Park gained a ride called the Tickler with
cars that bounced gleefully as they traveled up and down a
series of inclines, and then the park miraculously survived a
hurricane that struck on July 21, 1909.
After that summer, however, the trademark aerial swing
was sold, dismantled, and moved to the newly minted Surf
Park at 32nd Street in an event that foreshadowed Electric
Park’s ultimate demise. Electric’s escape from destruction
during the July storm was an anomaly—nearly every other
structure along the seawall was decimated. This forced city
officials to make a decision that determined the park’s final
When the seawall was completed, the city of Galveston
set about achieving what it still considered one of the most
monumental feats of civil engineering ever accomplished in
the history of the United States—the grade-raising.
To facilitate the self-loading hopper dredges that were
tasked with transporting the fill dredged from the harbor over to the grade-raising districts on the opposite side of
the island, a temporary canal was cut parallel to the seawall
all the way to 33rd Street. The earth dug out for the canal
path was used to fill in behind the 17-foot-high seawall in
order to elevate the stretch of land that would become
The Board of Engineers who designed the seawall and
proposed the grade-raising originally suggested that the
embankment behind the seawall measure 200 feet. Wanting
to limit the number of houses that had to be moved for the
canal, city officials vetoed the board’s recommendation and
instead limited the boulevard’s right of way to 100 feet. But
the damage left behind after the 1909 storm forced city
leaders to rethink their decision, and hoping to minimize
future destruction, they acquiesced to expanding the
boulevard to the suggested 200 feet.
Electric Park was thereby no longer prime beachfront
real estate but instead found itself directly in the path of
expansion. In the fall of 1910, the rides were disassembled,
and the buildings were demolished to make way for
completion of the grade-raising.
For unknown reasons, planners spared the carousel
and the Crab Pavilion which underwent substantial
improvements prior to the 1910 summer season. A pool
hall with eight billiards tables was placed at the east end of
the pavilion, the café’s kitchen was updated, and the entire
structure was repainted and retouched.
In one of the final steps of the seven-year-long graderaising,
the pavilion and carousel were raised along with
other remaining seawall structures so that the embankment
could be widened and leveled. They remained for several
more years until the carousel was destroyed in the
hurricane of 1915. The pavilion survived albeit barely, but
the price of repairs finally came to outweigh sentiment and
it was demolished the following year.
The last remnants of Electric Park were erased from the
map more than a century ago, yet it remains forever present
in the tradition of Galveston.