The Great Storm of 1900

Galveston's disaster was once a spectacular show across the country.

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Today, when we hear about a tragedy or major news event, we don’t need to go any further than our televisions, computers or phones to find endless details and videos of the occurrence. People in years past were no less inquisitive, but with motion pictures still in their infancy and limited newspaper photographs, their curiosity was often less than satisfied. 

The Great Storm of 1900 Strikes Coney Island, New York

  At the turn of the century, New York’s famous Coney Island had plenty of showmen who were happy to capitalize on this somewhat morbid curiosity by providing visual spectaculars that immersed the viewer into reenactments of the world’s greatest calamities. In those days, visitors to Luna Park on Coney Island could take make-believe journeys around the world and experience recreations of the massive disasters they had read about in the news or in books.

  On any given day, one could witness a staging of the Boer War featuring real Boer War veterans, a recreation of the destruction of Pompeii by its legendary volcanic blast, relive the frightening effects of a San Francisco earthquake, or view a village of the headhunting Bontac tribe of the Philippines with actual tribesmen on display.

  Among the earliest of these shows was the “Galveston Flood,” created in 1902 by the Imperial Amusement Company to re-enact the horrors of the 1900 Great Storm, which had killed thousands of people here in Galveston only two years earlier.

  In the show’s opening year, the Broadway Weekly gave the “Galveston Flood” rave reviews, stating, “In all the years that ambitious efforts have been made to reproduce historical scenes, there has never been anything which approaches such perfection, in realization of all the harrowing details, as the Electro-Aqua Scenic-Mechanical Exhibition of the Galveston Flood at Coney Island.”  

 Placeholder imageThe show was housed in an immense white building on Surf Avenue, which dwarfed the surrounding structures. The auditorium stage, said to be the largest in the country at the time, measured 125 feet wide by 90 feet deep.

  Galveston and its harbor were meticulously recreated in miniature with intricate lighting, individual model buildings, working railroad cars, streetcars and ships all electrically powered to portray the goings-on of an average workday. The mechanics required a large amount of electricity and were so advanced for their time that they were featured in national electrician magazines of the day.

  Each half-hour, crowds poured into the auditorium to witness the tragedy for themselves. As a narrator explained the sequence of events, visitors would watch the progression of the storm, hundreds of buildings being washed away by torrential rains and wind, and fires erupting among the ruins of the city.

  Audiences watched with terror and excitement as actors portraying Galvestonians risked their lives to rescue fellow victims, and parents sacrificed their lives to save children. The force of the show’s waters was quite treacherous, and during at least one performance workers were hurt badly enough to have to close the show and rescue the injured, making the news the next morning. 

 Placeholder imageOn August 16, 1904 the New York Times reported a special one-time addition to the show. “The managers of the Galveston Flood Coney Island entertained 50 Texans yesterday. Three of them are survivors of the big deluge that destroyed so many lives in Galveston a couple of years ago. One of the three replaced the lecturer for a few minutes and told about his experiences at the time of the flood.”

  At the end of each performance, crowds left the building with the complex model in a state of apparent demolition, and rushed to purchase “before” and “after” scenes from the show on postcards to send home. Massive electric pumps then drained the water from the stage and the city was “reborn” for the next audience. 

 Placeholder imageFor those patrons who had not witnessed enough destruction, the owners of the Galveston exhibit even offered free shuttle service over to the “Johnstown Flood” disaster show.

  The “Galveston Flood” structure survived the devastating Coney Island fire in 1911 and spent its last remaining years as a dime museum and arcade. It was eventually demolished in the 1950s to make way for the aquarium that is located on the same spot to this day- the New York Aquarium. 

The Great Storm Engulfs the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair

  Two years after Coney Island debuted the “Galveston Storm,” the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis followed the trend with its own version. Located in the Pike area of the fairgrounds, the exhibit, which opened on May 20, was designed by E.J. Austin and took 100 people to operate the mechanical and electrical effects.

  For just 25¢ adult admission and 15¢ for children, families could witness the catastrophe every hour of the day. As it was at Coney Island, the city was recreated in miniature and was destroyed by the forces of wind and water amid flashes of lightening and thunder. A man narrated the events in melodramatic tones, while a young lady played mood music on a piano set at the side of the stage. Only the gruesome deaths were omitted from this performance.

  One major difference occurred in the St. Louis show that hadn’t drawn attention on Coney Island: Galvestonians took issue with the fact that the show ended on such a downtrodden tone.

  C. R. Kitchell and John Reymershoffer, representing the Galveston Chamber of Commerce, and George Sealy, representing the Galveston Business League, went to St. Louis and attended two performances of the “Galveston Storm” and alleged that it did not represent Galveston as rehabilitated and improved. The city representatives specifically cited that the new Seawall was depicted as shorter than it actually was.

  Placeholder imageAccording to the Galveston Daily News on June 25, 1904, the show management agreed to make some improvements and additions to avoid litigation over the matter. “Mr. Kitchell said that the management received the committee very cordially and expressed themselves desirous of doing everything possible to represent Galveston in its true light. The also offered to insert any statements in the lecture or eliminate any feature the committee deemed improper. The management agreed to build the balance of the wall and also to show Galveston as it will appear when the grade is raised.”

   By the next day, when the three men attended a show at the invitation of the management, an entirely new ending had been scripted, complete with uplifting music and the appearance of a painting of the rejuvenated city at the end of the performance. The changes seemed to be popular ones with the audiences as well, and the exhibit brought a profit of nearly $200,000 for investors.

  Whether considered morbid curiosity or the “need to know,” human nature hasn’t changed much in the last century. Crowds still flock to learn all the grisly details about tragedies such as the sinking of the Titanic or to view Ground Zero in Manhattan. The catastrophe of the Great Storm of 1900 proved to be just the ticket for out-of-state amusement event managers seeking a profit, as well as for curious crowds seeking horrors and thrills.