Galveston's Beneficial Giants

How Granite Shaped Galveston's Destiny

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The humble granite block- it sits silently, faithfully serving this island city. For most people these blocks are little more than convenient platforms extending into the surf, places to enjoy the sights and sounds of crashing waves. They benefit fishermen on sunny mornings and the aquatic sea life living in their crevasses. They tend to blend into the scenery, and little thought is given to them.

  The story of Galveston’s granite holds much more significance than its silent presence indicates, but its place in island history is usually overlooked. Etched in this seaside stone is the story of a city's perseverance and the dreams of powerful men.

Placeholder image  It begins over 130 years ago, deep in the Texas hill country near a place now called Marble Falls. It was here that a quarry was established to extract pink granite from a 200-foot-tall geological dome formation. This formation, the remains of ancient volcanic activity, would be given the name Granite Mountain.

   In the early years, the quarry brought in skilled stone cutters from Scotland, and teams of convict laborers, to mine pink granite for the construction of the Texas state capitol. But the same quarry a short time later would host another team called the Galveston Company, arrived to mine stone for an amazingly large project.

  Their job was to cut tens of thousands of giant blocks weighing between three and seven tons to build Galveston's north and south jetties. The south jetty at the extreme east end of Galveston Island would eventually be five miles long, while the north jetty at the tip of Bolivar Peninsula would extend an incredible six and a half miles into the Gulf of Mexico.   

 Placeholder image After the huge blocks were mined from Granite Mountain, they were loaded onto rail cars and delivered to the coast. Rail trestles were built miles out over the water where the stone blocks were carted and carefully placed into their positions, creating the jetties. The Jetties are composed of a sandstone core and covered by the giant granite blocks. Jetty construction was completed in 1898.

 Political Will And Money Come Together

  The struggle to acquire these jetties was long and uncertain but completely necessary for the city's economic survival. In these early years, Galveston's seaport was its beating heart. It was the driving force of the city's economy as well as the city's very identity.

  By the 1870s, this thriving seaport enabled Galveston to become one of the wealthiest cities in the nation, per-capita. However, by the late 19th century, it was clear that future success of this seaport was becoming increasingly less certain.

  The times were changing. The industrial age had arrived, steamships were replacing sailing ships, and ships were getting bigger. The introduction of larger vessels revealed an underlying problem, quite literally - sandbars. Galveston became increasingly reliant on lightering, the practice of anchoring a ship in deeper water offshore and unloading the cargo into smaller vessels to get it to the docks. Lightering is an expensive and inefficient process.

  Subsequently, competition grew among the nation’s seaports to attract the business of these modern-era shipping lines, and soon, a rating standard was set into place. A first-class rated seaport had a depth of 26 feet or deeper. A second-class seaport had a depth of 20 to 25 feet, while a third-class port was less than 20 feet deep.  

  Galveston's sandbars restricted the depth to a humbling eight feet of water at low tide. The proud island city, with its wealth and opulence on full display, refused to be humbled by lowly sandbars, and could not suffer the indignity of being labeled a pathetic third-class seaport. Something had to be done.

  This was the moment for leaders to lead. One man stood up to the challenge, Colonel William L. Moody. This former civil war officer who had made his fortune in cotton and banking would now lead a committee of men which included some of the city's most successful and influential residents. John and George Sealy, Harris Kempner, Colonel Walter Gresham, and other members of the city's ruling elite were assembled to brainstorm the problem. They met at the old Cotton Exchange Building and were titled the Deep Water Committee, or the DWC.

  The sandbar problem was nothing new, and in preceding years, other attempts had been made to combat the problem, from driving pilings under water, to using gabions, which were large, submerged, sand-filled baskets. These were feeble attempts and complete wastes of money.

  The DWC knew that realistically, at least two things would be needed to insure permanent deep water. First, they would need stone jetties, and second, federal dollars to acquire them.

  Soon, the DWC embarked on a political crusade for deep water that in the end lasted more than ten years before it finally succeeded. In the beginning, they were motivated by the recent success of New Orleans, which had its own deep-water battle to conquer. The DWC set out to do exactly as New Orleans had done and hired the same engineer.

  First, however, they would need the federal subsidies. In the 1880s it was not that common for the federal Government to freely pass out millions of dollars. In their quest, members of the DWC would spend years lobbying within Texas, as well as in neighboring states, campaigning for congressional support for a deep-water bill.

  Colonel Gresham was sent to Washington, D.C. to do the same. It was an uphill battle as other cities were competing for the same money.

  Placeholder imageThe bill was so important to Galveston that eventually, members of the DWC felt that in order to sway favor with a republican congress, they would need to elect a republican to congress. This was pure politics.

   The American Civil War was not that distant in the past and these former Confederate army officers would ordinarily want nothing to do with the hated Republican Party, the party of Lincoln. Eventually, they did succeed in getting Republican R.B. Hawley elected to congress - the first Republican elected south of the Mason-Dixon Line since before the civil war.

  In another reach for influence, a member of the DWC had informed President Grover Cleveland of the excellent fishing in Galveston and invited him to come down and enjoy the experience. In a stroke of good luck, Cleveland accepted the invitation.

  The Galveston Harbor Bill was finally passed by the senate in 1890 and shortly after was signed by President Cleveland. With this news the city burst into celebration. A holiday was announced, and whistles were blown jubilantly throughout the city.

  Placeholder imageOver the following years, thousands of granite blocks were railed to the coast. By 1896 much of the Jetty project had been completed and the mouth of Galveston was dredged to measure between 27 and 40 feet deep.

  That year, Galveston's Artillery Company gave a one-thousand cannon salute on the beach to celebrate the arrival of world’s biggest cargo ship, the Algoa. Shipping soon doubled and in less than a year, Galveston had become the world’s second biggest cotton port, second only to Liverpool, England.

  Meanwhile back at Granite Mountain, the quarry remained a busy place as Galveston's appetite for granite was not yet satiated. A few short years after the jetties were completed, the 1900 Storm devastated the island, and the quarry once again came to the city's aid as tons of crushed granite was needed for the aggregate of the new concrete seawall.

  As the 20th century progressed, Galveston was changing more and more. The Port of Galveston no longer had the prominence that it had held in the prior century, and it risked being overtaken by the Port of Houston.

  Galveston was now transforming into a tourism destination. With the addition of the seawall, visitors were now coming to Galveston to enjoy the beach, and this demographic was becoming a mainstay of the city's economy.

 Placeholder imageBy the 1930s, it was becoming clear that the city needed a way to preserve and even increase beach sand for the enjoyment of the visitors. In the 1960s, granite blocks were once again brought in to create small jetties along the seawall known as groins. The purpose of these was to preserve beach sand and collect it from the flowing currents.

  The groins have served their purpose satisfactorily, and in addition, they have added an interesting and curious aesthetic to the Galveston beach-going experience.

  The efforts of William L. Moody and the Deep Water Committee have been both long-lasting and far-reaching. After 130 years, it is apparent that the results of the Galveston Deep Water Bill have greatly magnified to benefit the entire region, particularly to Galveston's old rival. The increased Gulf access has benefited the Port of Houston greatly as it journeyed to become one of the largest seaports in the nation and propelled Houston to becoming the fourth largest city in the country.