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The Great Storm of 1900

Center detail from Kurz & Allison lithograph (c. 1900) titled “Galveston’s Awful Calamity – Gulf Tidal Wave. September 8th 1900”

To understand Galveston, you must understand The Great Storm of 1900, the catastrophic hurricane that roared ashore on September 8, 1900, leaving unfathomable death and destruction in its wake and changing the course of Galveston’s history forever.


Map Showing Destruction After Great Storm of 1900
Map showing destruction after the Great Storm of 1900 (cross-hatched areas outside jagged line show total destruction; shaded areas inside jagged line show partial destruction) (courtesy Rosenberg Library)

While there have been many books written about this singular tragedy, there is nothing quite like a contemporaneous reporting of it.

On Thursday, September 13, 1900, a mere five days after the hurricane had passed, the presses of The Galveston Daily News began rolling out full editions of the newspaper. From Sunday through Wednesday, small editions were printed on a hand press.

What follows is the first article that appeared on the front page of the four-page September 12 edition. It provides both a gripping account of the storm itself as well as a valuable glimpse into the early aftermath as it was playing out, seen through the eyes of an unnamed reporter who was a witness to it.

Pause for a moment and be that reporter.

STORY OF THE HURRICANE WHICH SWEPT GALVESTON

Loss of Life Is Estimated at Between 4000 and 5000—Not a Single Individual Escaped Property Loss—The Total Property Loss From Fifteen to Twenty Million Dollars

REVIEW OF THE SITUATION

Galveston, Wednesday.—Galveston has been the scene of one of the greatest catastrophes in the world’s history. The story of the great storm of Saturday, September 8, 1900, will never be told. Words are too weak to express the horror, the awfulness, of the storm itself; to even faintly picture the scene of devastation, wreck and ruin, misery, suffering and grief. Even those who were miraculously saved after terrible experiences, who were spared to learn that their families and property had been swept away, spared to witness scenes as horrible as the eye of man ever looked upon—even those can not tell the story. There are stories of horrible deaths, thousands of stories of individual heroism, stories of wonderful rescues and escapes, each of which at another time would be a marvel in itself and would command the interest of the world. But in a time like this, when a storm so intense in its fury, so prolonged in its work of destruction, so wide in its scope and so infinitely terrible in its consequences has swept an entire city and neighboring towns for many miles on either side, the human mind can not comprehend all of the horror, can not learn or know all of the dreadful particulars. One stands speechless and powerless to relate even that which he has felt and knows.

Gifted writers have told of storms at sea, of the wrecking of vessels, where hundreds of lives were at stake and lost. That task pales into insignificance when compared with the task of telling of a storm which threatened the lives of perhaps 60,000 people, sent to their death perhaps 6,000 people and left other thousands wounded, homeless and destitute, and still others to cope with grave responsibilities to relieve the stricken, to grapple with and prevent anarchy’s reign, to clear the water sodden land of putrefying bodies and rotting carcasses, to perform tasks that try men’s souls and sicken their hearts. The storm at sea is terrible, but there are no such dreadful consequences as those which have followed the storm on this seacoast. And it is men who passed through the terrors of the storm, who faced death for hours, men ruined in property and bereft of families, who took up the herculean and well nigh impossible task of bringing order out of chaos, of caring for the living and getting the dead away before they made life impossible here.

The storm came not without warning, but the danger which threatened was not realized, not even when the storm was upon the city. Friday night the sea was angry. Saturday morning it had grown in fury and the wrecking of the beach resorts began. The waters of the gulf pushed inland. The wind came at a terrific rate from the north. Still men went to their business and about their work, while hundreds went to the beach to witness the grand spectacle which the raging sea presented. As the hours rolled on the wind gained in velocity and the waters crept higher and higher. The wind changed from the north to the northeast, and the water came in from the bay, filling the streets and running like a mill race. Still the great danger was not realized. Men attempted to reach their homes in carriages, wagons, boats, afoot, in any way possible. Others went out in the storm for a lark. As the day wore on the water increased in depth, and the wind tore more madly over the island. Men who had delayed starting for home, hoping for an abatement of the storm, concluded that the storm would grow worse, and went out in that howling, raging, furious storm, wading through water almost to their necks, dodging flying missiles swept by a wind blowing 100 miles an hour.

Soon the wind increased in velocity, even after it seemed impossible that it should be more swift. It changed from east to southeast, veering constantly, calming for a second, and then coming with awful, terrific jerks, so terrible in their power that no building could withstand them, and none wholly escaped injury. The maximum velocity of the wind will never be known. The gauge at the weather bureau registered 100 miles an hour and blew away at 5:10 o’clock. But the storm at that hour was as nothing when compared with what followed and the maximum velocity must have been as great as 120 miles an hour. The most intense period and the most anxious time was between 8:30 and 9 o’clock. With a raging sea roiling around them, with a wind so terrific that none could hope to escape its fury, with roofs being torn away and buildings crashing all around them, men, women and children were huddled in buildings, caught like rats, expecting to be crushed to death or drowned in the sea, yet cut off from escape. Buildings were torn down, burying their hundreds, and were swept inland, piling up great heaps of wreckage. Hundreds of people were thrown into the water in the height of the storm, some to meet instant death, others to struggle for a time in vain, and thousands of others to escape death in most miraculous and marvelous ways. Hundreds of the dead were washed across the island and the bay, many miles inland. Hundreds of bodies were buried in the wreckage. Many who escaped were in the water for hours, clinging to drift wood, and were landed, bruised and battered and torn on the mainland. Others were picked up at sea.

And all during the terrible storm acts of the greatest heroism were performed. Hundreds and hundreds of brave men, as brave as the world ever knew, buffeted with the waves and rescued hundreds and hundreds of their fellow men. Hundreds of them went to their death—the death that they knew they must inevitably meet in their efforts; hundreds of them perished after saving others—heroes, martyrs, men who exemplified that supreme degree of love of which the Master spoke:

“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”

Many of the men who laid down their lives in this storm did so in efforts to save their families, many to save friends, many more to save people of whom they had never heard; they simply knew that human beings were in danger, and they counted their own lives as naught.

It is the irony of fate that many of those who left their own homes to seek seeming safety in other buildings perished beneath ruins or in the water while their own homes remained standing. Scores and scores of people took refuge in the homes that had been deserted by their owners and were lost. Some who remained in seemingly insecure buildings, in structures long since deemed unsafe, escaped unhurt.

As the great danger of the storm was not realized in advance, neither was it realized by many even during its progress. Many slept while it was intense. And even the horror and extent of the storm was not realized when it had passed. As the days grow on the awfulness of the catastrophe is being ascertained and appreciated.

The waters fell even more rapidly than they came, but the wind did not abate sufficiently to quiet fears until about 1 o’clock Sunday morning. Then men ventured out—those who were not homeless—[and] saw an awful scene of wreckage. They learned that many buildings had been destroyed and that lives had been lost. They stood aghast, appalled; but they did not realize the extent of devastation and destruction. Sunday morning came and bright sunshine fell upon a wrecked city. Everywhere was wreck and ruin, everywhere was death and desolation. The streets were a tangle of debris, of broken timbers, brick and mortar, tangled wires and poles. Human bodies and the carcasses of animals lay all around. And yet the awfulness of the calamity was not felt. The mortality was estimated at 150 to 300; men put away the horrible thought that a greater number of their fellow men had perished. But every hour since then has brought fresh knowledge of the work of the storm, and estimates of the dead have passed into the thousands, until now it appears that the population of the city has been decimated.

Sunday the city was demoralized and little was accomplished toward the great work which had to be done. Citizens met and organized for relief work, for burying the dead and clearing away the debris, but no very effective work was done until the next day. On Sunday provisions were made for bringing the dead to improvised morgues, and committees were directed to bury the bodies. Then it was thought that hundreds would have to be buried. Monday morning it was realized that there would be more than a thousand. It was also realized that it would be impossible even to dig trenches to cover the dead, so filled was the ground with water. Corpses were decaying, carcasses were rotting. Then it was that the survivors from the storm began to appreciate that conditions of the gravest character confronted them. The city was being looted, dead bodies were shorn of fingers by human ghouls, thieving the jewelry. Not enough men could be gotten to dig the dead out from the ruins or to haul them. It was decided to take the bodies to sea, as being the most expeditious way to dispose of them. But men refused to touch the bodies…. Some few were secured to undertake the grewsome [sic] task by reason of the example set them by M.P. Morrissey, Alderman McMaster, Captain Charles Clarke, Captain Fred Chase, Mr. J.H. Johnston, Mr. Joseph Hughes and other citizens, who handled the putrefying corpses all day long, although their very souls revolted at the task.

Monday the city was practically placed under martial law. Soldiers and hundreds of special officers were placed on guard. The citizens’ committee sequestered all food supplies, and ordered that no able-bodied man should be allowed to eat unless he worked. Men were impressed at the point of the bayonet to do the work that must be done.

Quite a number … were killed for looting. No one was allowed in certain parts of the city without a pass, nor anywhere after 9 o’clock at night without a permit from the authorities.

Seven hundred bodies were buried at sea on Monday. When night fell it was known that there were thousands more to be disposed of. Many of them were lying on the beach; many others were buried beneath the ruins of buildings. They were decomposing rapidly and giving off a horrible stench. The situation looked desperate. On Tuesday morning the bodies had decomposed so greatly that it was absolutely impossible to handle them to send them to sea. Fortunately, however, the waters surrounding the island had receded somewhat, and the water in the ground had fallen so that it was possible in places to bury the bodies where found. The wind had also abated and the day was calm so that it was comparatively safe to set fire to some of the debris, although the waterworks were not in operation. Many bodies of human beings and animals were burned.

Several times on Monday and on Tuesday there were riots caused by the impressment of men to do the public work. But by Tuesday evening there was better organization all around; the law officers had a firmer grip on the city and authority was better respected. Still the situation was grave. The stench arising from human bodies, dead animals, damaged goods and wreckage of all kinds was terrible. The need of disinfectants in enormous quantities was keenly realized and appeals went out for help of this kind.

Fortunately there has been moonlight ever since the storm, otherwise the city would be in total darkness. All wires are down and the electric light plants are badly damaged, and the gas works torn. Fortunately also the water works supply pipe from the wells at Alta Loma remained intact, and thus has poured a steady stream into the receiving wells, where people could go for water. This was an encouraging feature, as it took away the horrible prospect of perishing for want of water. But the machinery of the waterworks was covered in the ruins of the building, and the pipes were torn in many parts of the city. It was impossible to distribute the water through the mains. It has been a godsend that there have been no fires. Water was badly needed for fire protection, and badly needed that the work of burning the wreckage could be carried on without endangering the entire city. Early this morning the force of men at work in restoring the plant succeeded in turning water into the mains from the receiving tank. The elevation was so slight and there were so many open service pipes that the water did not reach many premises. Work is being pushed, however, and the prospect is that the pumps will be going this evening.

Cut off from all rail communication, cut off from telegraphic communication, absolutely cut off from the outside world, the people of Galveston have gone ahead with their appalling task, confident that the world would come to their relief as speedily as possible. Houston came nobly to the rescue as quickly as possible. Beaumont and New Orleans sent relief, and now the cheering news is received that relief is coming from all quarters of the country. Help is needed and needed quickly. Money, provisions and disinfectants are needed. Brave men who will help are needed. But sightseers ought by all means to remain away. The congregation of hundreds or thousands of strangers here at this time would be unspeakably horrible. Provisions are needed for the thousands of destitute people here, and all the transportation facilities possible are needed to get the women and children out of the city. The people of the state will do Galveston a great kindness in keeping sightseers away from Galveston at this terrible time.

SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE:
  • John Edward Weems, A Weekend In September (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1957, 1980), 157.
  • “Story of the Hurricane Which Swept Galveston,” The Galveston Daily News, September 12, 1900, 1.

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