Letters recall the great Galveston hurricane of 1900

September 18, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

At a summertime party, my dinner companion turned out to be none other than the incomparable Barbara Sealy Mallory Hathaway, one of my favorite people, whom everyone calls "Bunny."

At some point in the evening, table talk turned to shipwrecks (she's from an old New England shipping family) and other disasters, both manmade and natural.

Bunny, who lives in Owings Mills, had recently been going though some old family files and mentioned that she had letters written by relatives who had survived the great hurricane that swept into Galveston, Texas, on Sept. 8, 1900.

She asked if I would be interested in reading them, and I said I couldn't wait. I've always found such firsthand accounts riveting.

Local residents still refer to the hurricane as the "1900 Storm" or "The Great Storm," and it's still the worst natural disaster to ever visit the United States. By today's standards, it would have been classified as a Category 4 hurricane.

Hurricanes in those days were not named, and the storm that eventually wrecked Galveston had been spawned off the western coast of Africa in late August.

The storm later moved over the Leeward Islands and Santiago, Cuba, where it dumped 12.58 inches of rain in 24 hours.

By Sept. 5, it barreled over the Florida Keys and began racing across the Gulf of Mexico, where it made a direct hit three days later on Galveston.

Winds were estimated to have reached 135 mph when the storm hit the city at 8 p.m., and residents were terrified as a storm surge of more than 15 feet swept over the island, which rises only 8 feet above sea level.

In a fateful decision made not too many years earlier, Galveston residents had rejected a plan to build a sea wall to protect the island.

By the time the storm left Galveston, after exacting seven hours of terror that most residents thought would not end, an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 were dead, with many of the missing washed out to sea.

More than 4,000 buildings were destroyed, railroads and public utilities were wrecked, eight steamships were torn from the moorings and stranded in the bay, and the city and its environs were cut off from the outside world.

Hollywood director King Vidor, a Galveston native, whose debut film in 1913 was "Hurricane in Galveston," recalled the storm years later.

"I could see the waves crash against the streetcar trestle, then shoot into the air as high as telephone poles. Higher," Vidor wrote. "My mother didn't speak as we watched three or four waves. I was only five then, but I remember now that it seemed as if we were in a bowl looking up toward the level of the sea. … I felt as if the sea was going to break over the edge of the bowl and come pouring down upon us."

Open Gates, the home of Bunny's maternal grandparents, George Sealy, a successful banker, railroad executive and philanthropist, and his wife, Magnolia Willis Sealy, stood at Broadway and 25th Street in the city's Strand District. It became a place of refuge for some 400 storm-tossed refugees who gathered there during the height of the storm as water poured into its basement.

Some refugees tied their boats to fences that surrounded Open Gates and swam to the house.

"From the latest reports, which are considered reliable, the disaster at Galveston and along the coast has not been exaggerated. The waters of the Gulf and bay met, covering the island from a depth of six to twelve feet," The New York Times reported three days later.

"Many of the dead have been uncovered. Others are still under debris; others carried out to sea," reported the newspaper.

Nearly a week after the storm, funeral pyres were ignited to burn the decaying dead.

"Bonfires are burning all over the city. These are the funeral pyres of 1,000 bodies which were cast upon the shore by the tides," reported The Sun. "Cremation has become a necessity to prevent epidemic."

The Sealys' daughter, Ella Sealy, recalled in a letter to her sister, Margaret Sealy, seeing piles of dead bodies, horses and cows being burned alongside the road as she journeyed to Galveston. Freight cars loaded with cotton had been torn open and their contents spread all over surrounding fields.

"Most of the telegraph poles were down but one was standing, and on the cross piece was hanging a lot of debris, clothing etc, showing that the water had been that high," penned Sealy. "The living as well as the dead were nearly all demented during the storm."

She reported seeing a coffin of a man who had died a week before the storm some 15 miles away from the cemetery where it had been buried. And sand piles were the only trace left marking where houses once stood alongside now-vanished streets.

Sealy's mother had invited Clara Barton, who had arrived in Galveston to aid in the relief efforts, to Open Gates, in order to give a short address to a few "ladies she had invited."

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