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How hurricane in 1900 forever changed the Texas shipping industry

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This story originally published on Sept. 21, 2021.

On Sept. 8, 1900, a Category 4 hurricane smashed on shore in Galveston, an island city of about 38,000 people on the Gulf Coast of Texas. 

The hurricane had maximum winds surpassing 135 miles per hour and a storm surge that inundated as much as a third of the city with 5 to 12 feet of water.

The wind and storm surge killed as many as 12,000 people along the Gulf Coast and at least 6,000 on Galveston Island. It remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history in terms of loss of human life.

The hurricane reportedly destroyed more than 7,000 buildings and left Galveston Harbor in ruins. Some 16 ships anchored in the harbor suffered extensive damage. After the storm, debris reportedly clogged the Gulf Coast for miles. The damage to the city in 1900 is equal to more than $720 million in today’s dollars.

During most of the 19th century, Galveston — with a harbor situated between Houston and the Gulf of Mexico — was the Lone Star State’s busiest seaport.

The port at Galveston was founded in 1825, when Texas was still part of Mexican territory. That year, Mexico designated Galveston a port of entry and a few years later established a customs house to handle trade. 

Galveston is still the second-oldest continuously operating U.S. port in the Gulf of Mexico, behind the Port of New Orleans.

“Galveston grew on the strength of the port; cotton moved outward and farming supplies and immigrants came in. The city served as a transfer point for oceangoing vessels and coastal steamers, which ran a route through Galveston Bay and Buffalo Bayou to Houston,” according to the Handbook of Texas.

By the 1880s, Galveston was the largest city in Texas with 22,248 people. The city reportedly had the first structure to use electric lighting, the first telephone and the first baseball game in the state. 

By the late 1890s, Galveston was still the state’s top trade port over Houston, Dallas, Beaumont and other cities.

Boats and barges had been making their way to Houston by way of Buffalo Bayou as early as the 1830s, but the waterway was shallow. Large cargo had to be taken off ocean ships in Galveston Harbor and loaded onto barges for the rest of the trip to Houston.

“In the beginning, Galveston actually laughed at Houston because we wanted to be a deepwater port,” Tom Kornegay, a former executive director of the Port of Houston, told news outlet KHOU in 2014. “They were the deepwater port at one time.”

The hurricane of 1900 changed the course of Galveston and Houston. 

In the aftermath of the hurricane, the Port of Houston, which was farther inland, was seen by many as a safer long-term option against future storms over Galveston, according to Port Houston’s website.

Since the 1890s, U.S. Rep. Tom Ball had been pushing the federal government to build a deepwater channel to Houston. After the hurricane, his plan gained more attention. Ball’s proposal would eventually become the Houston Ship Channel, which opened in 1914.

Another blow to Galveston occurred four months after the hurricane with the Spindletop oil strike near Beaumont. Oil quickly overtook cotton as the chief export out of Texas and helped expedite the dredging of the Houston Ship Channel to the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, Port Houston is a 25-mile-long complex of nearly 200 private and public industrial terminals along the 52-mile-long man-made Houston Ship Channel, which connects the port to the Gulf of Mexico.

Port Houston is the sixth-ranked port of entry among the nation’s 450 international gateways for trade and is the third-ranked seaport, behind Port of Los Angeles and Port of Newark, according to the latest Census Bureau data analyzed by WorldCity.

While the hurricane may have vaulted Houston to the top spot among Texas ports in the ensuing years, the people of Galveston responded to the 1900 hurricane as quickly as they could. Just three weeks after the storm, freight began moving through Galveston Harbor again, according to historians.

City leaders of Galveston also invested in two major projects — building a seawall in 1904 and raising the island’s elevation in 1911 — that have helped protect the island against a repeat of the storm of 1900.

The Port of Galveston is currently the 91st-ranked port of entry, according to WorldCity.

FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. If there are topics that you think would be of interest, please send them to [email protected]

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