Galveston Gallivanting – Part I
Stay well, stay safe, stay home.
The events in the following post took place before the pandemic lock down.
Even though Galveston Island is only 32 miles long and two and a half miles wide (about 1/5 the size of Rhode Island), it offers a lot for visitors to see and do as we quickly learned at the local Visitor’s Center. Whether you love swimming, walking or just sitting on the beach, shopping, dining out, studying architecture, soaring over the Gulf of Mexico on a ride at Pleasure Pier, strolling down the sidewalks of a historic district, or learning something new at local museums, there’s something here for everyone.
The backbone of Galveston Island is the Galveston Seawall which lies between the beach and Seawall Boulevard, the main thoroughfare on the island. That seawall has a lot of history connected to it having been built after the devastating Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history (even surpasses Katrina), in which Galveston was totally annihilated. An estimated 6000 (documented) to 12,000 people died and 4100 homes were destroyed, resulting in approximately $30 million in damage (obviously a big deal at the time).
The 10 foot tall bronze sculpture named “Place of Remembrance” in the photo below was created as a memorial by fourth-generation Galvestonian artist David Moore in 2000 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the storm.
In the hopes of preventing such devastation from ever occurring again, construction of the seawall began in September 1902 with the initial segment. At 3.3 miles long, it was elevated 17 feet above mean low tide and completed on July 29, 1904. Hard to imagine that “materials used in constructing the original seawall included 5200 railway carloads of crushed granite; 1800 carloads of sand; 1000 carloads of cement; 1200 carloads of round wooden pilings; 4000 carloads of wooden sheet pilings; 3700 carloads of stone riprap; and 5 carloads of reinforcing steel.” Amazing!
From 1904 to 1963, the seawall was extended from the original 3.3 miles to over 10 miles, today making it the longest continuous sidewalk in the country. The wall is unique in that it features a curved face to direct wave action upward and additional riprap at the base to absorb wave energy.
What’s even more astounding is that not only was the seawall built, but also at the same time from 1903-11, the elevation of the Island itself was raised to provide support for the seawall and to facilitate drainage and sewage systems. This required pioneering new materials and methods which have since been recognized by the American Society of Engineers as one of the most brilliant feats of civil engineering in the history of the nation. According to this website, “work was accomplished in quarter-mile-square sections and involved enclosing each section in a dike and then lifting all structures and utilities such as streetcar tracks, fireplugs, and water pipes. Around 2,000 buildings were raised on hand-turned jackscrews. The sand fill was dredged from the entrance to Galveston Harbor and then transported to the residential district through a 20-foot deep, 200-foot wide, and 2.5 mile long canal using four self-loading hopper dredges. After the fill was discharged in the areas to be raised, new foundations were constructed on top of it.” Check out this video which talks about the construction of the seawall and the raising of the elevation – quite interesting! Guess they did something right because in the past 100 years there has been very little damage or loss of life on Galveston Island from hurricanes.
More history can be found along the the Seawall. Fort Crockett Park is a tribute to a historic fort built after the great storm of 1900 and used in WWII for artillery training and coastal protection. A total of 650 German POWs were detained at the camp until it was deactivated in 1946. Nearby is a 6 foot tall bronze sculpture, also by David Moore, of two dolphins.
East End Historic District – Tree Sculpture Driving Tour
The island has several historic districts, one is the 50 block East End Historic District which has one of the best-preserved and largest concentrations of 19th-century residential architecture in Texas. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the architecture includes a variety of styles and periods, featuring Victorian, Greek Revival, Queen Anne and other architectural styles dating back to the mid-1800s to early 1900s.
Another reason to visit the East End is to follow the tree sculpture driving tour which allows visitors to enjoy whimsical tree sculptures nestled in the gardens and side yards of private homes. Hurricane Ike, on September 13, 2008, covered most of Galveston Island in a tidal surge. That surge along with powerful winds broke or uprooted many of the city’s majestic oak trees, ultimately leading to the demise of over 35,000 trees. The sculptures were created out of the stumps and remnants of the defunct trees. Created by local artists, the sculptures were paid for by private residents. What fun it was driving around this district trying to spot the sculptures.
From a brochure about the tree sculptures, we learned that Galveston definitely worked hard to turn “lemons into lemonade”. Besides the sculptures, 100% of the remaining “Iked” wood was kept out of landfills and used for recycling purposes. Over 100 tons of former Galveston trees were selected for the restoration of America’s only remaining whaling ship and another 200 tons went to Malaga, Spain to be used in the completion of a full scale replica of the Brig “Galveztown”.
Texas City Dike
The port of Galveston is the fourth busiest cruise ship home port in the United States with departures from Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Lines with almost 2 million passengers either embarking or disembarking at the cruise terminus. There were several cruise ships docked there during our stay. Amazing how huge those ships are when you are up close to them.
Along Skyline Drive on the way to the dike is a replica of the Half Moon Shoal Lighthouse. The U. S. Government erected the original lighthouse in 1854 in the bay two miles east of Shoal Point at Half Moon Shoal. The light and fog warning bell were decommissioned during the Civil War to ensure that the Yankees couldn’t use it as a guide. The lighthouse was returned to service in 1868 and provided hazard warnings until the disastrous 1900 storm, when a steamship broke free from its mooring and drifted into the structure, destroying it and killing keeper Charles K. Bowen. After that, a beacon was put in place to replace the fated light.
In addition to being a popular cruise ship terminus, cargo ships, tankers and barge traffic abound. Galveston Bay connects to the Houston Ship Channel, one of the nation’s most important commercial waterways, connecting the Port of Houston and the Gulf of Mexico.
Visitors are able to view the shipping traffic from the Texas City Dike. The dike is not on Galveston Island but across Galveston Bay in Texas City and is the longest man-made fishing pier in the world, stretching 5.3 miles into the Bay. Although the Dike was originally designed to reduce the impact of sediment accumulation along the lower Bay, it has turned into one of the most popular boat launch and fishing areas on the entire Texas gulf coast due to it’s location and ease of access. It also has great amenities like Dike Beach, restrooms, fish cleaning stations, picnic shelters, a huge playground, hike & bike trails, bike rentals, an 18-hole disc golf course and more.
During the summer months (first weekend in March to last weekend in October) there is a $5 charge per vehicle to enter the dike on weekends. It is free during the winter months and summer weekdays (Mondays through Thursdays — unless they are holidays). On holiday weekends (Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday on the Fourth of July and Saturday, Sunday and Monday on Memorial Day and Labor Day) the fee will be $10 per vehicle per day.
Wow, everywhere we looked there was a tanker, a barge, a tug or some other vessel. On our phones we have an app called “Vessel Radar” which uses AIS (automatic identification system) and is intended, primarily, to allow ships to view marine traffic in their area and to be seen by that traffic.
Each dot represents a vessel that is at anchor, arrows indicate vessels that are currently underway. If looking at the website or at the app on your phone, clicking on one of the dots or arrows will yield all sorts of information about it – a photo of the vessel, what type of ship, the name, the size, current location, speed, heading, home port, destination, etc. Look at all those ships that we could see!
The Strand Historic District
Another fun area to visit is the historic district known as the Strand which is a National Historic Landmark District comprised of mainly Victorian era buildings that now house restaurants, antique stores, and curio shops.
According to this website, “it began as just one humble street, formerly known as Avenue B according the city’s original 1830’s plat. The name change, a switch from the mundane to the fanciful, occurred when local German jeweler Michael William Shaw adopted “Strand” as his Avenue B address, hoping to imbue his location with a little more prestige. “Strand” means beach in German (an appropriate substitute for an avenue that parallels Galveston Bay) and was a popular term in Victorian England for suggesting a more “top drawer” location.” Today the Strand Historic District encompasses not just “Avenue B” but a five block area of downtown.
On the day that we chose to walk around the district, the area was bustling! It was after all, time for the Mardi Gras festivities being held from February 14th – February 25th. Since they were expecting an influx of over 300,000 people and we tend to not like crowds, we decided to lay low. No catching of beads for us!
Unbeknownst to us, on the first weekend of Mardi Gras beginning at 5:01 a.m. Thursday until 5:00 a.m. Sunday, overnight parking is allowed along Seawall Boulevard so it tends to fill up with RV’s. But you better be the early bird first thing Thursday morning to catch an available space.
Back to our leisurely stroll around the Strand district. In front of many of the buildings was a historic marker explaining the history of the building. The Hutchings-Sealy building is one of the earliest examples of steel frame-based construction in the state.
Then if you want a bit of nostalgia and a reminder of the days when there were soda fountains, there’s Star Drug Store, the oldest drug store in Texas.
The Grand Opera House which was built in 1894 is one of the few remaining theaters of its era in Texas and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
And then there is the Trumpets Building which is a two-story restaurant space in historic Old Galveston Square. Completed in 1870, the historic building is well known for its huge sculptured trumpet (it actually is a cornet) which once greeted the guests at the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans but was relocated to Galveston in 1986 for the opening of a Jazz restaurant. It is made from a mixture of steel and concrete and measures 14 feet tall by 26 feet in length.
Not too far from the historic district and nestled next to several seafood restaurants on Pier 19 is Katie’s Seafood Market.
Fresh Red Snapper, Grouper, Tilapia, Flounder, Oysters, Shrimp, and Blue Crabs caught by local fishermen and shrimpers were on display in this very small market. Not only do they sell directly to the public but they also provide seafood to regional markets such as HEB and Central Market, and numerous restaurants throughout the state of Texas. We couldn’t resist making a quick stop to pick up a couple of pounds of fresh raw shrimp for dinner that night, fresh off the local shrimp boats. Fresh shrimp steamed in beer, seasoned with Old Bay and dunked in spicy cocktail sauce. Yummy!
This was just a few of the highlights of our visit to Galveston but there’s a lot more that we did. More to come…..
“Texas is a state mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.” – from “Travels With Charley: In Search of America” by John Steinbeck
Once Texas adopts you – or you adopt Texas – you will forever be a Texan first and foremost, no matter where you were born or where you now lay you head at night. ¡Viva Texas!