Chapter 6 - The Seawall Chronicles

Trading Places, 1911-1919

By ???
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  The undeniable yet oft ignored rebound of Galveston's commercial pursuits after The Great Storm were due in part to the brilliant entrepreneurial minds in control of the port, but the other part was merely semantics. Galveston was the gateway to the West and Midwest, areas that were booming both in agriculture and industry, and it was the closest port to the origin of a multitude of exports by several hundred miles. No established port, not even New Orleans, could compete.

  Until Houston decided that it was going to try.

  A natural waterway running from the Bayou City to the Gulf, the entrance to which is only miles from the eastern tip of Galveston Island, was envisioned as a shipping channel as early as 1867, though at the time the financing of such an undertaking seemed ludicrous to a small town inhabited by only a few thousand people. But the notion became more believable as the century turned, when two consequential chinks in Galveston's armor were revealed.

  Despite the city's rapid recovery, The Great Storm did illuminate the potential peril of its position directly on the Gulf, but the exponential growth of exports from the western half of the country proved a Texas port necessary, largely because Galveston's closer proximity saved those regions upwards of thirty million dollars a year in shipping costs. Houston, however, could save them an additional one hundred miles per round trip.

  This knowledge added momentum to the idea of the channel, but at first it appeared that Houston would do little to thwart Galveston's meteoric rise to prominence, especially considering the rapid crescendo of its added allure as a resort town due entirely to the Seawall and its boulevard. Even after the residents of Houston voted in 1910 to approve the dredging of the channel to a depth of twenty-five feet for a cost of $1.25 million, Galveston's growth showed no signs of slowing down.

  In place of the since demolished Electric Park and Chutes Park, a resort pavilion called the Casino opened in the Spring of 1911. Brownie Amusement Company, led by president Leon Brownie, patterned the Casino after Young's Pier in Atlantic City. A self-contained smorgasbord of entertainment, the two-story monstrosity included a pool hall, skating rink, dancing pavilion, and a shooting gallery.

  The elaborate and exhaustive grade-raising was also completed in 1911, a colossal achievement that was most grandly celebrated by the June opening of the luxurious Hotel Galvez. The million-dollar hotel situated at the corner of 21st Street and the Seawall was dubbed the "Queen of the Gulf." The Galvez singlehandedly elevated the notability and status of Galveston's beachside attractions, while also serving as a symbol of the Island community's resilience and commitment to its future.

  At the close of the 1911 summer season, Seawall Boulevard was officially dedicated as a proper thoroughfare and opened to vehicular traffic on September 9th, although residents with automobiles had been driving the stretch since it was widened the year prior. When the original causeway opened on May 25, 1912 and allowed access to automobiles from the mainland for the first time ever, Galveston once again stood at the brink of invincibility as its popularity reached a fever pitch.

  A few months later on the evening of September 28th, the Brush Electric Company debuted their iconic slogan sign on the Seawall at the foot of 25th Street. Three thousand tungsten lights declared Galveston "The Treasure Island of America: Port and Playground, Growing Greater Grander."

  This unabashed announcement of the city's intention to remain a force both as a center of commerce and tourism was firmly backed by numbers. The combined imports and exports of the Port of Galveston for 1912 totaled nearly $300 million, second in the nation behind only New York, and a town that just a decade earlier had a mere spattering of overnight accommodations now boasted thirty-six hotels.

  But in one day, everything changed. On November 10, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the Houston Ship Channel open for commerce. Now instead of turning left into Galveston's natural harbor, the huge international steamers full of worldwide wares merely waved and cruised right on by, into the channel, and further on into the newly designated Port of Houston.

  Suddenly, Galveston's frenzied wharf grew quiet and lethargic. Businesses began to relocate, skilled laborers moved where their talents were needed, and they took their families with them. The prefaces to subsequent city directories, where once the entirety of fifteen pages had been used to expound upon Galveston's commercial and financial achievements, were now mere history lessons that chronicled, year by year, a steady decline in the resident population.

  Soon, however, the haze of the Houstonian-induced stupor began to lift. The Islanders that remained simply decided to play the cards as they were dealt, which meant going all in on the Seawall. In 1915 another hurricane struck and despite a storm surge that measured only a foot below the one in 1900, only eleven lives were lost, thus renewing Galveston's faith in its concrete savior. That same year would also prove to be a record year for construction, most of which was along Seawall Boulevard, demonstrating Galveston's willingness to embrace its new identity.

  Crystal Palace, by far the most extravagant of any Seawall construction thus accomplished, opened in 1916 at the intersection of 23rd Street. Over seven thousand people attended the grand opening of the three-story megaplex, which easily dwarfed the massive Casino not only in size but in offerings. Its most exhilarating inclusion was a 50-foot wide, 140-foot long swimming pool on the first floor, bordered by poolside seating for 700 people. Suspended above fresh saltwater pumped in from the Gulf were gymnastics rings and two diving platforms that rose fifty and seventy-five feet in the air.

  Incorporated into the upper two floors were 800 dressing rooms, a photo gallery, shooting gallery, roof garden, open-air amphitheater, bowling alley, cafe, live music, and a 9,000 square-foot dance floor. But perhaps the biggest spectacle of the Crystal Palace was the elevated promenade that stretched 68 feet from the second floor balcony over to the beach, rising sixteen feet above the boulevard.

  In 1918, construction began on the second extension of the Seawall. Recommended by a board of engineers in 1913 and authorized by the United States Congress in 1916, this extension began at sixth street (where the original wall curved northward towards the harbor) and would ultimately run eastward for nearly two miles to the Fort San Jacinto military installation.

  The initiation of the project was a statement that neither the local nor the federal government were complacent regarding Galveston's future need for viable land for expansion, and its completion would eventually make way for the development of the East End Flats and the Lindale Park subdivision, an area which had been used only as a trash dump since 1909.

  The last part of the decade welcomed yet another thrilling addition to Galveston's amalgamation of amusements, Joyland Park, via the Galveston Playhouse Corporation in 1919. Encompassing the block just across 21st Street from the Galvez, the first phase of the park included a theatre called The Orpheum and a Ferris wheel. Later, the theatre was converted into the Garden of Tokyo dance pavilion, and an airplane swing was installed along with an arena called the Great American Racing Derby.

  Most of the developments along Seawall Boulevard throughout this particular decade were ephemeral, as fleeting as fashionable fads and often a marionette in the hands of mother nature. But this era also marked the dawn of four familial and institutional legacies that are still an integral part of the Island today. Gaido's Seafood Restaurant (1911), Hotel Galvez, and Murdoch's Bath House (1910) all made their debut.

  Intriguingly, the fourth on that list was a barber shop housed first at Murdoch's and then the Galvez soon after it opened. It was owned by two brothers from Italy. In 1920 the United States would pass Prohibition, but fortunately for Galveston, Sam and Rose Maceo would quickly learn the art of making resource from restriction.