Chapter 4 - The Seawall Chronicles

A City on the Rise - The Galveston Grade Raising

By ???
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  Although the city had marveled at the ingenious plan set forth by the Board of Engineers, citizens of Galveston grew anxious as the Seawall neared completion and they were confronted with the mystery of how the grade would ever be raised. The New City Charter did include instructions for the administrative processes of the task, but ultimately that only meant that city officials would delegate the intricacies to others more qualified.

  The charter stated that the Governor of Texas shall appoint three resident citizens and qualified voters of the city to serve on a board for the comprehensive management, control, and direction of raising and filling the proposed areas, although all of their decisions, provisions, and contracts were to be approved by the Board of Commissioners.

  On May 15th of 1904, Texas Governor S.W.T. Lanham complied and officially appointed a Grade Raising Commission. The prominent John Sealy was named to the board and Captain J.P. Alvey, a Galveston businessman, was given the title of chairman. Edmond R. Cheeseborough, a diminutive man with an organized and efficient manner that well-suited the board’s needs, was appointed as secretary.

  The members of the Commission, each firmly established in their professional and personal reputations, still had little more than a vague notion of where to find the answers to the prospect of elevating over two thousand structures and filling underneath them. The most glaring speculation was how and from where they would obtain the estimated seventeen million cubic yards of fill needed for the project.

  Bringing it in from the mainland would be incredibly expensive, dredging it from the Gulf could negatively impact the beaches, and taking it from the west end would prematurely halt Galveston’s only path for expansion.

  The board opened the discussion up to the public and vetted many suggestions and probable solutions, yet at last wisely surmised that contractors who could actually perform the task were the best source for a solution. Thus they made a nationwide call for bids on the project, placing advertisements into every prominent technical and engineering publication across the country.

  In order to properly ascertain the scope of the project for possible contractors, the board hired Captain Charles S. Riche, head of the Government Engineers office in Galveston, to conduct a land survey. ‘The Advertisement, Instructions, Specifications, and Proposal for the Grade Raising of Galveston’ was fourteen pages long and included a thorough assessment of the project’s specifications, except of course the method to be used and the origin of the fill.

  On December 7th of 1903, the sealed bids were publicly opened. Surprisingly and much to the dismay of the board, only two bids were offered. However the winner was clear, and it seemed that no matter how many competing bids had been placed, the innovative ideas of the New York engineering firm of Goedhart & Bates would have outshone them all.

  The plan designed by P.C. Goedhart and Lindon W. Bates was as practical as it was novel, and the men’s confidence and vision was contagious. In their statement to the Grade Raising Board they won the hearts and minds of the small Island town, aided by their magnificent scheme that solved all of the mysteries and questions that had plagued the community for years. In one fell swoop Goedhart and Bates made the impossible, possible.

  They insisted that the fill be taken from the harbor, and were well-equipped with four state-of-the-art steel hopper dredges produced at their plant in Germany. The dredges were self-loading, self-propelled, and self-discharging, and they were capable of dispensing fill over long distances when they were docked and attached to lines of shore pipe, unlike a traditional dredge that could only drop its contents in place.

  Fill from the harbor would be 80-90 percent water, but after it was discharged into the designated area, the water would recede and leave the silt behind. The watery consistency of the fill not only allowed it to travel long distances, it completely eliminated the need for scrapers and levelers.

  Between the harbor and the areas to be filled was Galveston’s bustling downtown and port, not an ideal area to lay pipes that were up to 42 inches in diameter, but Goedhart and Bates had a solution for that, too.

  Before the filling commenced, a canal was cut across the city that ran parallel to the Seawall, exactly 100 feet behind it. The land excavated to cut the canal was used to fill in this space directly behind the Seawall, which aligned with the city’s desire to fill this most prominent area first so that work could begin on building Seawall Boulevard in order to more immediately restore the value and attraction of the beachfront area.

  The canal started at 8th Street and the harbor and followed the curve of the original Seawall down to the grade-raising boundary at 33rd Street. It was three miles long, twenty feet deep, and two hundred feet across, with two turning basins.

  The dredges careened down the canal and attached to docking stations nearest the area to be elevated, then the watery fill was released into the shore pipes. Inland, grade-raising districts were designated and levees built around each one that varied from two to ten feet high.   

  Homeowners were responsible for the task and expense of raising their houses, and also for dealing with the inconveniences as the watery fill swirled beneath their homes and then slowly drained, a process that was repeated until the solid fill reached the desired level.

  Boardwalks were built all across the city to facilitate pedestrians, and many of the pathways went through the front parlors of people’s homes. Sometimes the drains from the levees would become blocked, other times flash flooding would leave people stranded, and sometimes the water would stagnate and become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

  Despite the incessant onslaught of inconvenience, however, the project soon lost its novelty and became merely a way of life, a challenge graciously accepted by a community willing to sacrifice its own well-being for the prize of future security and safety. Out of 2,156 houses that were raised, not one condemnation suit was filed against the city.

  Homes and buildings were not the only things that had to be elevated, the entirety of the city’s infrastructure had to halted and moved or rebuilt. Sewers, water lines, telegraph lines, electricity poles, streetcar tracks, rail tracks, sidewalks, roads, streets, bushes, trees, topsoil, and fences all had to be torn up and then replaced. Yet all involved used these seeming inconveniences to their advantage.

  After the storm many homeowners had taken liberty with property lines when they rebuilt, showing little regard for city boundaries for public sidewalks and alleyways. All of this was reconciled via the grade-raising, and neighborhoods worked together to align their properties and fences to give the streets a sense of uniformity.

  The city also used the proceedings to its benefit, rectifying drainage problems and installing underground water lines that had previously been impossible at the island’s previous elevation. They also installed a proper underground sewer system and underground electric power lines to eliminate poles and wires in the prominent East End.

  Five years into the project, Goedhart & Bates had lost over a quarter of a million dollars, over five million by today’s standards, and left Galveston disheartened and bankrupt. Their brilliance and ingenuity laid the groundwork for one of the most monumental feats of civil engineering ever accomplished in the history of the United States, yet they were unable to finish the task and were ultimately forced to surrender the undertaking. The American Dredging Company was commissioned to complete the grade-raising, which at last came to a close in late 1911.

  The entire project, from the first hammer of the pile driver at the Seawall’s foundation to the day that the last house was re-positioned on the refilled canal path, had taken over nine years and cost the city of Galveston and her residents six million dollars, a sum that today would equate to over 140 million.

  But what was paid in both time and money was a price entirely justified in the eyes of the Islanders. The New York Press wrote about the city in 1903, saying “One has but to look at the growth of her commerce, at her private improvements; for where the city has spent millions, her citizens and the great railroads have spent tens of millions. Galveston is today a richer and busier city than before the storm.”

  Galveston commerce had not only survived near annihilation, it had risen with its city to new heights.