Beyond the sand and surf, Victorian charm beckons

Ports Of Call Galveston

September 30, 2007|By Toni Salama | Toni Salama,Chicago Tribune

GALVESTON, TEXAS / / She was only a child at the time, but Bettie Brown's recollection of the hurricane of 1900 is still retold in vivid detail. She was standing on the staircase of her parents' Italianate mansion when the waters swept through the first floor, rising and bringing horrible things with it. Some reports would later say that the storm surge washed clear over Galveston Island.

Brown's mother acted on an inspiration to leave Ashton Villa's doors and tall, graceful windows wide open to the torrent, and so the only lasting effects the delicate-looking home sustained were a basement filled with sand and a wrought-iron fence rendered forever "shorter," the bottom few feet buried by the grade change.

This 1859 mansion, now on the National Register of Historic Places and open to daily guided tours, is one of the town's most engaging survival stories. But other historic houses have tales to tell. The castle-like 1888 Bishop's Palace and the turreted 1895 Moody Mansion are also on the tour-home circuit and, along with the boutique-filled buildings of the Strand National Historic Landmark district a few blocks away, they keep Gal- veston at the forefront of Victorian destinations.

That's probably not the image most of the nation expects at the mention of Texas, let alone Galveston.

Galveston's gulf-side beaches are the main reason spring-breakers and families vacation here. Many more come to embark from the port of Galveston on weeklong cruises to the Caribbean. But unlike many modern seaside communities, Galveston isn't a master-planned resort with coordinated color schemes or a unifying theme. Its attractions sprang not from a developer's blueprint but from the convergence of history, industry, philanthropy and -- you just can't avoid it -- that awful storm.

If people still talk about the 1900 hurricane, that's because it remains the most deadly natural disaster in U.S. history. Of the 35,000 or so people living here at the time, more than 6,000 on Galveston Island (and thousands more on the mainland) lost their lives. From a strictly geologic standpoint, the island served its purpose. It's basically a 2 1 / 2 -mile-wide sandbar, a barrier island that bore the brunt of nature so the continent wouldn't have to. From the human standpoint, the storm forever changed Galveston's fortunes from formidable seaport to languid township. To this day, it counts only some 60,000 inhabitants.

Thomas Edison himself filmed the recovery effort. In fluttering black-and-white scenes spotted with age, men relaunch a boat stranded ashore; a woman in a bonnet and long dress strolls up to watch. Another segment shows a man in a suit holding a clipboard and checking his watch as workers atop a haystack of shattered lumber pick through the rubble, looking for bodies.

To defy future tempests, Galveston promptly set about raising the grade of the city and building a sea wall. So far, at more than a century old and counting, the project has worked. The wall measures a few ticks over 10 miles, almost a third the length of the island, and is crowned by the stop-and-go traffic of Seawall Boulevard.

The sea wall doubles as a boardwalk. This is a breezy expanse where stone breakers push into the gulf at regular intervals. Fishing jetties and souvenir stands perch out over the water on spindly wooden legs. People stroll the wide concrete sidewalk or pedal fringe-topped surreys. There's always the scent of something on the wind -- salt, rain, seaweed --that fills the lungs with a strange sense of freedom.

Down below, at the base of the sea wall, the beach spreads in either direction, set with rental umbrellas here, volleyball nets there. Families gather around picnic baskets. Teens bob along the water's surface on inflatable toys. The water is shallow and usually gentle enough for toddlers to play chase with the surf. A perpetual mix of humidity, salt spray and sand as fine as face powder hangs in the air and clings to car windows. People who make Galveston a habit just wipe their windshields and go on about their vacation.

Despite the pizza joints and bikini shops and ragged, empty lots, the heart of Seawall Boulevard doesn't look all that different now than it did in postcards from the early 1900s. The most recognizable landmark was, and still is, the Spanish-mission architecture of the 1911 Hotel Galvez. The hotel -- heck, the whole town and the vast bay behind it -- took the name of a Spanish colonial governor of the 1780s, Bernardo de Galvez, who happened never to pay a visit.

Pirates frequented it, though. This was Jean Lafitte's lair after he was forced out of New Orleans (until the spring of 1820, when he was forced out of here, too). There's always someone who hopes to find the treasure he's said to have buried on Galveston. The forces of time and nature being what they are, it's hard to know where to look. But dig in the right places, and it's possible to unearth some of the island's naughtier secrets.

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