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Echoes of the Storm

Aug. 28, 2000, 12:23PM


Unimaginable devastation

Deadly storm came with little warning

Houston Chronicle

On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 8, 1900, a horse without rider or saddle galloped through the rain-swept streets of Galveston.

Spooked by a fast-closing storm, the horse raced north on 12th Street, then turned east on Sealy, where it found a swinging gate and a front door left open by someone who had walked to the corner to look to the surging Gulf of Mexico.

The horse turned into the yard, passed through the house's open door and climbed the stairs to the second floor.

It remained there for three days.

The people of Galveston knew on Friday that a storm was approaching their thriving island city.

At 10:30 a.m., a red flag with a black center was hoisted atop a pole on the downtown Levy Building, where the U.S. Weather Bureau maintained an office and an array of weather-reading instruments.

The flag meant a storm was expected.

Above it, a white pennant that was intended to show the direction from which a storm was coming flapped in the north wind.

In the weather office, Isaac Cline, the mustachioed, 38-year-old chief of the bureau, read a telegram from headquarters in Washington, D.C., where all official hurricane warnings were issued.

There was a tropical storm, it said, south of Louisiana and moving slowly northwest. "High northerly winds tonight and Saturday with probably heavy rain."

Galveston had seen storms before and weathered them all. They called them "overflows" when storm tides rose above normal and spilled into the city's oyster-shell streets.

As the island's weather expert and chief of the weather bureau for Texas, Cline had reassured Galveston before that the island was not vulnerable to serious storm damage.

Delighting city boosters, he even had committed such forthright opinions to the local newspaper, writing once that anyone who thought massive destruction to Galveston was possible suffered from an "absurd delusion."

Though the city's highest point was a mere 8.7 feet above sea level, the Gulf's approaches to the island were simply too shallow for a major storm to generate enough energy to wreak catastrophic damage, the theory went.

On this Friday, though, Cline saw something he'd never before witnessed. In his telegram to Washington, he reported that he never had seen the water rise so high in the face of an opposing north wind.

He timed the deepening swells with a stopwatch.

Someone else also noticed the Gulf swells. As he stood on the beach at dawn Saturday watching the waves crash as high as the streetcar trestle that extended over the Gulf, Samuel O. Young, the secretary of the Galveston Cotton Exchange, concluded that a cyclone was imminent.

He hurried to the Western Union office to send his wife a telegram, telling her to get off the train that was bringing her to Galveston. Wait in San Antonio, he told her.

Few others had such premonitions.

The merchants downtown along The Strand were advised by Cline, the respected weather expert, to expect only some minor flooding. Move your merchandise 3 feet off the floor, he advised.

In the local newspaper that Saturday morning, the forecast, issued from Washington, predicted rain for the next two days, "followed by clearing."

To that extent, the forecast was correct.

The puddles of rainwater soon grew into pools. Galveston's children waded and splashed and plopped washtubs and homemade rafts into the water.

Adults, too, enjoyed the weather as the excitement of an approaching big storm took hold. By the hundreds, they wandered to the shoreline to see the waves roar ashore and crash into the piles that supported the bathhouses built on piers above the water.

It was a spectacular sight that gradually grew more ominous as the waves thrust farther and farther ashore, eventually reaching the souvenir stores and cheap restaurants on the Midway, a 10-block stretch of businesses along the beach. The cheaply built structures began breaking apart.

As Gulf waters pounded ashore from the south, water from Galveston's bay side, pushed by a stiff north wind, crept into downtown streets, eventually topping the high sidewalks just as the weather expert had predicted.

Men had gone to work that day, as Saturdays were considered workdays in 1900, while the women stayed home to watch their children and cook, occasionally peeking out a window to check the weather.

By 11 a.m., the Gulf water had reached Avenue K, about halfway into the city in some areas.

Some were growing concerned.

Mae Palmer, the wife of Judson Palmer, secretary of the Galveston Young Men's Christian Association, a hub of social life, stopped long enough in the kitchen to go outside. Then she telephoned her husband, who had decided not to come home for lunch because of the rain, and told him what she had discovered.

She had dabbed a finger into the water that covered their yard on Avenue P 1/2 at 23rd Street and found that it tasted salty.

"Come home," she said.

Palmer stayed at work for a while, and even joked with co-workers about the skittish ways of women, but eventually he followed his wife's wishes, catching a ride home on a delivery wagon.

Mae Palmer wanted to evacuate to the sturdy brick YMCA building downtown, but when her husband said he would stay home while she and their son waited out the storm downtown, she decided her place was with him.

Isaac Cline, the city's weather expert, decided to ride out the storm at his home, too. Wading down the street in a driving rain, he was flagged down by Judson Palmer, who asked if he should accede to his wife's wishes and go to the YMCA.

Stay home, he was told.

The water, by now, was waist deep in much of the city.

At the lunch hour, as the wind increased in velocity, the first deaths occurred.

At Ritter's Cafe and Saloon on Mechanic Street, a popular lunch spot for businessmen, a blast of wind tore the roof from the building, collapsing the ceiling onto the ground-floor dining room.

Desks, chairs and presses from the printing shop on the second floor crashed onto the diners. Five men were killed.

A waiter was sent into the storm to fetch a doctor but never came back. He drowned.

Word spread through the downtown business district. No one any longer could pass off the storm as just another overflow.

At 1 p.m., a baby fell from a window at 21st and Avenue N and drowned in the high water.

At 2:20 p.m., the rain gauge was blown from the top of the building that housed the weather office.

At 5:15 p.m., the weather bureau's anemometer was destroyed after registering winds of 100 mph.

At 5:30 p.m., the water was neck deep in some areas.

Cline, the confident weather forecaster who always was so reassuring about the perils of the Gulf, realized a disaster was indeed possible.

Others soon realized the same.

Louise Hopkins, a youngster who had been playing in the yard with a friend, came in from the rain and noticed the concerned look on her mother's face. Her mother had begun moving the sugar, coffee and flour to the second floor, and kept peering out the window to see if her two sons had arrived home from work on their bicycles.

Louise's Maltese cat was restless, too, following her throughout the house.

Then, without warning, Louise watched in amazement as her mother grabbed an ax, lifted it high and slammed it into the wooden floor over and over.

As the water rose, others likewise began chopping holes in their floors to allow the floodwaters in, thinking that would anchor their homes enough to keep them from being pushed off their pier-and-beam foundations.

People took refuge in buildings and homes they deemed safest. Those who had been at their jobs walked, waded or swam to reach their homes and families. Some had to float on the water and pull themselves along fence lines.

All the while, slate roof shingles blown from houses sliced through the air like knives.

"If anything happens to me, tell my wife I tried to reach her," an exhausted prescription clerk named Walter Fisher told a family who took him in to rest when they saw him struggling through the flood.

Fisher never reached his wife and three children.

On Church Street, Joseph Corthell and his brothers used a boat from their back yard to take their mother to St. Mary's Infirmary. For the next 12 hours, they plucked people from the swirling waters and ferried them to St. Mary's.

At the Judson Palmer home at 2320 Avenue P 1/2, considered one of the best-constructed on the island, four other families had sought sanctuary.

Water soon filled the first floor. The front door and its frame were blown out. Wind-driven water formed bubbles in the wallpaper that popped open like blisters.

"Dear Jesus," Palmer later recalled his son, Lee, praying, "make the waters recede and give us a pleasant day tomorrow to play, and save my little dog."

As windows shattered and plaster fell, the Palmers and the other families, forced to make decisions, split up. One family jumped out the bathroom window onto a floating, upended roof. Another stayed in an upstairs bedroom.

Palmer, his wife and son stayed in the bathroom.

They went underwater together as the house rolled over. Palmer emerged, gasping for air, without his wife and son, and climbed onto a pile of floating debris.

On the Bolivar Peninsula, 200 people crowded into the lighthouse before high water blocked its entrance. They sat on the spiral staircase, moving higher, step by step, as the water rose.

"Move up a step, please. You wouldn't want a man to drown before your eyes!" cried one.

Ten of the lighthouse refugees had disembarked from a train that had arrived from Beaumont and was scheduled to cross Galveston Bay on a ferry equipped to carry locomotives. The train headed back toward Beaumont with 85 passengers who elected to stay on board. It never arrived.

Inside the lighthouse, above the sounds of the storm, cannon fire could be heard throughout the night from Fort San Jacinto in Galveston. The soldiers were making a desperate call for help.

The Gulf of Mexico had joined the waters of Galveston Bay to completely cover the island.

Inside the Tremont Hotel (now the Tremont House Hotel), where hundreds sought safety, each report from late-coming stragglers was met with wails and prayers. The rising water forced the crowd up to the mezzanine level.

At 6 p.m., the bell at St. Mary's Church sounded the Angelus, the call to evening prayers, and then crashed to the ground.

"Prepare these priests for death," the bishop of the Galveston diocese, the Right Rev. Nicholas Gallagher, told Father James Kirwin.

At 6:58 p.m., the barometer at the weather service read 28.70. It bottomed, about an hour later, at 28.48, the lowest ever recorded at that time by a U.S. Weather Bureau station.

At 7:30 p.m., the wind changed, coming now from the south and bringing the final assault of the storm surge. A huge wall of debris was pushed farther into the city.

Winds exceeding 100 mph turned debris into projectiles, threw men across streets and knocked horses on their sides.

For those cast adrift, anything that floated was used as a life raft.

E.F. Gerloff, his wife, two children and 16 others scrambled aboard a sailboat after deciding the home in which they had taken sanctuary could take no more. The boat capsized and only Gerloff survived, staying in the air pocket between the water and the cabin deck.

At Lucas Terrace, a modern, brick apartment building on Broadway at 6th, neighbors who lived in more humble dwellings took refuge with people such as Daisy Thorne and her mother. Mrs. Thorne made coffee and biscuits for her guests until rising water forced the group upstairs.

Daisy Thorne, a schoolteacher visiting from out of town, initially watched the storm with fascination. In time, though, the building was surrounded by water and battered by flying debris and floating timbers.

One by one, the apartments crumbled until the Thorne apartment was the last one left. Marooned in a second-floor bedroom, they heard floating furniture bumping the ceiling below.

Mrs. Thorne read the 23rd Psalm.

The ceiling fell, leaving only the walls standing, while the men in the group pushed against the doors to hold back the tide.

The group held on to each other. Daisy, grasping a bag of $5 gold pieces that she and her fiance planned to buy furniture with, cast it away.

Isaac Cline faced the storm at his home at 25th and Avenue Q with his pregnant wife, three children, brother and dozens of others who had sought sanctuary in his well-built house. From the second floor, he saw that he was surrounded by open sea, broken only by the tops of telegraph poles and the rooftops of the houses that remained intact.

Behind his home, a ridge of wreckage some three stories tall and several miles long had been created out of shattered house timbers, pianos, ship hulls, furniture and bodies. Each wave inched the ridge farther north.

Cline and the rest waited in an upstairs bedroom.

A block away, Samuel Young, who had telegraphed his family that morning to stay away from Galveston, waited alone in the dark until water rose into his home's second floor, 33 feet above street level.

Neither Young's house nor Cline's could withstand the force. When Young's home succumbed, he pulled a door loose to use as a life raft.

Before the Cline home rolled over, Isaac Cline's younger brother Joseph grabbed the hands of Isaac's two older daughters and jumped through a window as the house slid from its foundation and began to list in the water.

Isaac Cline remained inside with his wife and 6-year-old daughter. When the furniture was thrown upon them, they were pushed underwater. Cline emerged, gasping for air, outside.

In the darkness, momentarily illuminated by lightning, he saw his 6-year-old and grabbed her, swimming away with her. He did not see his wife.

The father and daughter then saw three figures clinging to some floating wreckage.

"Who's there?" Cline called.

"Who are you?" came the reply.

It was his brother and two older daughters.

The five floated for hours, the men shielding the children from flying debris and, at times, hearing cries for help. A man who crawled aboard their float and tried to shove the girls aside was fended off with a knife by Joseph.

Then, the Clines' retriever suddenly appeared and climbed onto their raft, checking each family member until noticing someone was missing. The dog jumped back into the water, despite Joseph's admonitions, apparently to look for Cora Cline, Isaac's wife.

It was never seen again.

As the skies cleared, the full moon illuminated the horrendous destruction and death the storm had wrought.

Daybreak revealed all.

Some found corpses on their doorsteps. Bruised and mutilated bodies hung in trees, dangled from railroad trestles and lay buried under silt.

Children from St. Mary's Orphanage, who had been lashed together with clothesline and tied to the nuns, were found buried on the beach.

Out of 93 children at the orphanage, only three survived. Ten nuns also died.

A delegation was assembled to take the horrible news to Houston. They were advised not to exaggerate and to report that the death toll was about 500 so as not to cause undue alarm.

It was much worse, but some in Galveston were unaware.

During the night, after the worst of the storm had passed, Police Chief Henry Ketchum checked on noises heard outside and found a menagerie of cows, horses and mules on his porch, as well as a cow in his parlor.

"I'll bet four or five people drowned in this storm," he said upon returning indoors.

In Houston, a train carrying military officials, a journalist, an insurance representative and people with relatives in Galveston was dispatched. Bloated cattle carcasses, broken furniture and the shattered remains of houses dotted the landscape as the caravan drew closer to the coast. The train was forced to halt north of Texas City because of the debris.

Men had begun fishing bodies from the bay and placing them in shallow graves on the mainland shoreline. A lifeboat was commandeered from a British ship that had been blown from its berth on the island. As the expedition of military officials rowed toward Galveston, floating corpses of men, woman and children bumped against the hull.

In Galveston, survivors drifted toward the center of town, seeking landmarks or anything that would help them get their bearings. Some who had been stripped of their clothing by the tremendous winds and flying debris covered themselves with mud-caked blankets, tarps and other wrappings they could find.

Judson Palmer, the YMCA executive, went to the Ursuline Convent and was dressed in a shirt and skirt the sisters gave him.

Isaac Cline searched helplessly for his wife, knowing she must be dead.

Daisy Thorne emerged from her apartment -- the only one among the 64 apartments that still stood -- along with 21 others who had survived with her. They could still hear the muffled cries of people buried in the rubble.

A few days after the storm, Thorne wrote to a fellow teacher:

"If you could have looked out on that awful water rolling in as high as small hills -- turning a piano or a big porcelain bathtub over and over like a little bobbing cork -- you would have thought nothing could have stayed on the island. All that water rushed by us.

"A mountain of water would come rolling toward us and we would shudder, thinking our little room couldn't stand another shock," Thorne wrote. "Walls would creak and groan; the wind shrieked. We could hear nothing else. All would give up. Then the wave would roll on, and our little room still stood."

Samuel O. Young surveyed his neighborhood and saw that nothing remained. His family, which had been bound for Galveston by train, had received his telegram to stop in San Antonio.

Burying the dead was deemed too great a task. There were too many.

On Monday, with fear of disease spreading, it was decided to load the bodies on a barge, tie weights to them and dump them into the Gulf.

At gunpoint, soldiers ordered some 50 of the city's black men to load the bodies. They were rewarded with free whiskey scooped from a barrel after each trip into the barge's hold.

Though taken 18 miles offshore, many of the bodies washed back with the tide. City officials decided to burn them.

Funeral pyres were lighted on street corners, filling the air with the smell of burning hair and flesh, while "dead gangs" of conscripted men fed the flames with hundreds of corpses.

With martial law in effect, soldiers were ordered to shoot looters on the spot, and the saloons were ordered closed.

On Tuesday, the third day after the storm, Mayor Walter C. Jones made an appeal "to the people of the United States."

"It is my opinion, based on personal information, that 5,000 people have lost their lives here. Approximately one-third of the residence portion of the city has been swept away. There are several thousand people who are homeless and destitute; how many, there is no way of finding out.

"Arrangements are now being made to have the women and children sent to Houston and other places, but the means of transportation are limited. Thousands are still to be cared for here. We appeal to you for immediate aid."

Help came from everywhere. Among the contributions: $61 from the employees of the Cambria Steel Co. of Johnstown, Pa., where a flood 11 years earlier had stunned the nation.

Condolences arrived from the president of France, the king of Italy, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and other world leaders. Clara Barton of the Red Cross traveled to Galveston and reported that the people seemed to be in a daze.

"You will hear people talk without emotion of the loss of those nearest them," Father Kirwin explained. "We are in that condition that we cannot feel."

Galveston, a city that had boasted more millionaires per square mile than Newport, R.I., was no longer the "New York of the Gulf."

The total number of deaths from the storm in Galveston and the surrounding area was never determined, but estimates range from 6,000 to more than 8,000.

City streets once filled with the business of commerce now were traveled by wagons that carried the dead.

Some dreams, however, were fulfilled, and some fantasies were given birth.

Daisy Thorne, one of the survivors from Lucas Terrace, was married on Thursday, Sept. 13, at Grace Episcopal Church, its floor still caked in mud.

Later, she wrote a friend, "I feel that I have been given a marvelous blessing, to have been brought so close to the infinite and to see how small finite things are."

Isaac Cline, the weatherman who had proclaimed Galveston impervious to hurricane disasters, was transferred to New Orleans, but not before his boss in Washington declared him a hero.

Cline asserted that he had saved 6,000 lives by driving a horse-drawn cart along the beachfront to warn people of the impending storm. That claim, in time, was viewed suspiciously or discounted altogether.

Galveston's leaders, fearful of losing the battle for regional economic supremacy to Houston, refused to surrender to the storm. They decided to rebuild with two important additions.

One was a 17-foot concrete wall that separated the city from the sea. Such a seawall had been recommended over the years, but not until they saw the devastation wrought by the Sept. 8 storm did Galvestonians acknowledge the need for this protective barrier.

The second important feature was the raising of virtually the entire city. The enormous project began in 1904, when a canal was dug through the city. Sand was sucked up from the Gulf floor and dredges on the canal pumped it onto the land.

More than 2,100 buildings were jacked up so that the sand could be pumped under them. Everything else had to be raised, as well: streets and streetcar tracks, water pipes and fire hydrants, trees and shrubs. The grade of the city was raised almost 17 feet at the seawall, with a gradual downward slope to the north.

The first grade raising, for the area behind the 3.3-mile first section of the seawall, was completed in 1910. As the seawall was expanded over the years, more grade-raising work was done.

In the years since the 1900 hurricane, Galveston has taken powerful blows from other storms. Thanks to the hard lessons learned from that catastrophe, the Island City has been far better prepared to handle them.

IN Echoes of the Storm