Sunday, September 8, 2013

SEPTEMBER 8 = Hurricane of 1900 Wrecks Galveston

"Queen of the Waves, look forth across the ocean
From north to south, from east to stormy west,
See how the waters with tumultuous motion
Rise up and foam without a pause or rest.
"But fear we not, tho' storm clouds round us gather,
Thou art our Mother and thy little Child
Is the All Merciful, our loving Brother
God of the sea and of the tempest wild." 
("Click on the Blue words "Queen of the Waves" to hear the song in children's Choral version) 

These are the first two verses of "Queen of the Waves", an old French Hymn sung by the children of St. Mary's Orphanage as the storm waters of the Gulf of Mexico carried them to their deaths at the height of the Hurricane of 1900 which ravaged the city of Galveston, Texas on today's date 116 years ago.  The poor children of this orphanage were but one of many such tales to arise from this deadly storm, which descended on Galveston and whipped it mercilessly for some twelve hours that day; the picture at the top of this posting doesn't begin to tell the story.  Before it had spent its fury between 6,000 and 12,000 people had been killed, making it the deadliest natural disaster in United States history. And some 20 million dollars in damage had been sustained.

Galveston, Texas: Rich, Prosperous and Exposed....

Sitting as it did at the entrance to a bay which lead to Houston, deep in the heart of Texas, Galveston was the fourth wealthiest city per capita in the United States and the second biggest grain shipping port in the country, taking in some $300 million in imports and exports per year. And sitting as it did on a four mile wide sand bar that was barely five feet above sea level the city was dangerously exposed to the fickle winds of the Gulf of Mexico. But city leaders pointed to the fact that past storms had always veered to the northeast as an excuse not to build a hurricane wall. Indeed, Meteorologist Issac Cline had dismissed the thought that a hurricane could seriously damage Galveston as "a crazy idea."

Issac's "Crazy Idea" Comes Tragically to Life

But the "crazy idea" as Issac (pictured below) called it came tragically to life. By 10:00 am the wind was rudely shoving rain bursts into the island at 30 mph.  And ships at anchor began tossing against splintering piers.  The business section of town which faced the bay soon found itself flooding with four feet of water surging down Market Street.  The Cline brothers (Issac and
Joseph) took it upon themselves to issue a Hurricane warning without consulting with the National Weather Bureau in Washington, as well as issuing other warnings in the area.  But claims later made by Issac that he hitched a wagon and rode down to the beach to warn people there are not supported by any eyewitnesses. Nevertheless, Issac did record: "The water rose at a steady rate from 3 until 7:30 pm when there was a sudden rise of about four feet in as many seconds." Cline was himself nearly drowned, but his pregnant wife was drowned.  He saved one of his daughters and Joseph saved the other two.                                                                          

Some of the Tales of Horror and Escape.

Father James Kerwin of St. Mary's Cathedral, which lost a five ton bell which had been pealing out a warning of the storm, had many stories to relate that were told him by parishioners.  One was of a man named Meyer, who was a butcher. Meyer had already lost his own wife and child in the storm.  He was floating along on a raft when he saw two children struggling to make it in the torrential flood.  He grabbed them and realizing that they would pull his raft under if he took them on it, he pulled the children along and put them in a stable which had lodged itself against a telegraph pole.  He then floated off in his raft, and exhausted, fell asleep.  Awaking he found himself on a dry street and a day later remembered the children, and returning to the stable found the two kids crying... they turned out to be his sister's children.

The disaster struck rich and poor alike.  The beautiful Miss Sarah Summers, one of the most eligible young women in the city had refused to leave her elegant home.  According to newspaper reports, she was found later, "....near her home, the corner of Tremont Street and Avenue F, her lips smiling, but her features set in death, her hands grasping her diamonds tightly."

Richard Spillane, a Galveston newspaper reporter filed the following report:

"Very few if any buildings escaped injury. There is hardly a habitable dry house in the city. When the people who had escaped death went out at daylight to view the work of the tempest and floods they saw the most horrible sights imaginable. In the three blocks from Avenue N to Avenue P, in Tremont street, 
I saw eight bodies. Four corpses were in one yard. The whole of the business front for three blocks in from the Gulf was stripped of every vestige of habitation, the dwellings, the great bathing establishments, the Olympia and every structure having been either carried out to sea or its ruins piled in a pyramid far into the town, according to the vagaries of the tempest. The first hurried glance over the city showed that the largest structures, supposed to be the most substantially built, suffered the greatest. "  One of those larger buildings on which Mr. Spillane then reported was St. Mary's Orphanage.

The Children and the Nuns of St. Mary's

Of all the tragic stories of that horrific night, there were none that were sadder than the destruction of St. Mary's Orphanage.  The Orphanage was made up of two wooden structures built less than 100 yards from the beach.  Many of the children there had lost their parents in the Yellow Fever epidemics, and it was thought at that time that the cool and clean ocean breezes would make that location safe from the dreaded Yellow Fever.  But some 90 children and 10 Nuns perished that night.  The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the order that ran the orphanage in 2000 published an account of the 1900 storm to commemorate the 100'th Anniversary of the tragedy:

"Recognizing the severity of the storm, the sisters brought all of the children into the girls dormitory, because it was the newer and the stronger of the two.  To calm the children the sisters had them sing 'Queen of the Waves', and old French Hymn, traditionally sung during storms by fishermen and friends seeking the protection of Mary, mother of Jesus, Queen of the Waves.  

"Late that afternoon, the waters of the gulf filled the first floor of the dormitory.  In an effort to protect the children, the sisters tied the orphans to themselves with clothesline.  Each sister tied to herself six to eight children. It was a valiant yet sacrificial effort. With the winds howling the sisters and children heard the loud crash of the boys dormitory, as it gave way to the flood waters.  Again they sang the hymn.  Eventually, the girls dormitory was lifted from its foundation by the rising waters, and sank. Only three boys were able to escape."

What follows are the remaining verses of the Hymn:

"Help, then sweet Queen, in our exceeding danger,
By thy seven griefs, in pity Lady save;
Think of the Babe that slept within the manger
And help us now, dear Lady of the Wave.
"Up to thy shrine we look and see the glimmer
Thy votive lamp sheds down on us afar;
Light of our eyes, oh let it ne'er grow dimmer,
Till in the sky we hail the morning star.
"Then joyful hearts shall kneel around thine altar
And grateful psalms re-echo down the nave;
Never our faith in thy sweet power can falter,
Mother of God, our Lady of the Wave."

As Mr. Spillane wrote at the time:

"The city rose from its ruins as if by magic. Street after street was cleared of debris. A small army of men worked from early morn until the shadows of night descended, to lift the city from its burden of wreckage. Then, when danger of epidemic seemed passed, attention was turned to commerce. The bay was strewn with stranded vessels. Monster ocean steamers weighing thousands of tons had been picked up like toys, driven across the lowlands, and thrown far from their moorings. One big steam ship was hurled through three bridges, another, weighing 4,000 tons, was carried twenty-two miles from deep water, and dashed against a bayou bluff in another county. The great wharves and warehouses along the bay front were a mass of splintered, broken timbers. But the mighty energy of man worked wonders. Marvelous to say, under such conditions, a bridge 2% miles long was built across the bay within seven days and Galveston, which had been cut off from the world, was once more in active touch with all the marts of trade and commerce. An undaunted people strove as only an indomitable people can strive, to rehabilitate the city."

Wrecked Galveston City Center =

Artistic Images =


"Darkest Hours" by Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, New York, 1977


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