Attractions old and new make historic Galveston appealing to tourists

August 08, 1993|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,Knight-Ridder News Service

GALVESTON, TEXAS — Galveston, Texas--All of a sudden, things are perking up in this historic Gulf Coast city.

A tropical rain-forest exhibit encased in a glass pyramid 10 stories tall has just opened. A new tourist attraction, hotel and restaurant have been built on the waterfront.

And just a 35-minute drive away, NASA's new $70 million attraction, Space Center Houston, is packing 'em in.

All of which is good news for this historic port city, whose fortunes have ebbed and flowed more than once.

Once the biggest and richest city in Texas, Galveston today pins its fortunes on tourism. Millions of visitors come to this Gulf Coast island to enjoy its 33 miles of beaches, its Victorian ambience, its plentiful seafood and growing roster of attractions.

It was not always thus. Cotton, not tourists, was Galveston's raison d'etre at the turn of the century. At that time, the city was Texas' only deep-water port, and Galveston charged a pretty penny to cotton shippers -- some say its port charges were outrageously high.

Wealthy Galvestonians built lavish mansions. The downtown Strand, modeled after London's financial street, became known as the "Wall Street of the Southwest."

Then came the Great Storm of 1900, a hurricane as vicious as last year's Hurricane Andrew, that leveled the city. Thousands of Galvestonians died when wind-borne waters of the Gulf of Mexico smashed through the city.

But you have to hand it to the people of Galveston. They started rebuilding right after the hurricane. Knowing they could easily see a repeat, they built a 17-foot-high sea wall and raised the entire city behind it at least 8 feet, a Herculean undertaking that meant jacking up hundreds of structures and filling in earth underneath them.

It paid off . . . for a while.

While Galveston was rebuilding, marine engineers were digging. 1908 they had completed the Houston Ship Channel, a canal that bypassed Galveston. The city suddenly lost the main source of its income.

Galveston lapsed into an economic coma, then turned to vice. Illegal gambling as well as bootleg liquor and speakeasies blossomed, earning Galveston the sobriquet of "Sin City of the Gulf." The speakeasies did not close until 1957.

Today, Galveston's tourism is based on a more solid -- and legal -- foundation.

Its Gulf front, bulwarked with that 17-foot-high sea wall, has become a promenade of sorts for windblown tourists fascinated with the sight, smell and sound of surf. There's not much beach along the sea-walled shore, but beyond it, at both ends, are beautiful sandy strands. (Galveston is seeking financing for its planned beach restoration.)

Downtown's Strand houses bars, boutiques and restaurants instead of the banks and brokerages that lined the thoroughfare at the turn of the century.

A block away, on the Galveston Channel harbor front, stands the Texas Seaport Museum and tall ship Elissa, a three-masted iron bark that is open to visitors. The square-rigged Elissa is not simply a museum ship, however; she regularly goes to sea. Shrimpers, party and fishing boats dock just a hundred yards away.

New on the harbor front is Pier 21, site of a tourist complex built by George Mitchell, a Galveston-born oilman who is largely responsible for much of Galveston's resurgence. Along with a hotel, a restaurant and a marina, Pier 21 houses the Great Storm, an audio-visual show that tells the harrowing story of the 1900 hurricane in words and pictures.

Close by are the Railroad Museum, the Galveston Historical Foundation's visitor center, the Grand 1894 Opera House, Strand Street Theater and many restored Victorian structures, all part of a compact and walkable downtown. Many other mansions and other Victorian homes are found in the residential areas, among them the Bishop's Palace, a stone mansion with towers and gables.

But getting the most attention has been the new Rainforest Pyramid, a 10-story glass structure that shelters an acre of tropical plants, animals, fish and exotic birds. It is part of Moody Gardens, a large recreation complex developed in the past few years. Opened along with the pyramid is a 3-D IMAX theater, the first of its kind in the Southwest.

Within the pyramid are replicated rain forests of three regions: Asia, Africa and South America. Plants from South America -- thick climbing vines, philodendrons and spices such as vanilla and cloves -- are gathered around a reproduction of a Mayan colonnade. Mandarin ducks paddle in bamboo-lined ponds in the Asian exhibit. Behind a waterfall, a passage takes visitors into a crystal cave, where geodes of quartz and amethyst glow in recesses.

Moody Gardens encompasses several other attractions, including Palm Beach, a white-sand beach and lagoon, and Seaside Safari, an exotic animal petting zoo.

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