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Galveston 1900: Storm of the Century


This PSA utilizes primary sources written immediately after the 1900 hurricane, presenting historians with both advantages and disadvantages. Some advantages are the immediacy of the information, the authors' personal connection with the event, and the use of interviews and oral histories as sources. The disadvantages are that the authors may have been "too close” to the subject matter and had no time to gain a historical perspective on the event. Also, the narrative may be guided more by personal passion than fact. This PSA allows students to gain an understanding of the hurricane’s devastation and how the citizens of Galveston reacted and rebuilt.

    To explore the hurricane that destroyed Galveston in 1900, students will use period maps and photographs, along with contemporary accounts Clarence Ousley’s Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, and Paul Lester’s The Great Galveston Disaster to recount the history of America’s greatest natural disaster. The learner will gain an understanding of what precautions were taken, the scale of the damage, and what city government and engineering changes resulted from the disaster. Galveston images

    Worksheet questions stem from a variety of learning styles so that each student has the opportunity to shine. Teachers may also modify and easily incorporate these worksheets into their predesigned lesson plans.

    The web links provided will help each instructor prepare, present, and highlight primary sources.

"Galveston, oh Galveston, I still hear your sea winds blowin'" --Glenn Campbell

The Galveston office of the U. S. Weather Bureau later recalled: “Sunday, September 9, 1900, revealed one of the most horrible sights that ever a civilized people looked upon. About 3,000 homes, nearly half of the residence portion of Galveston, had been completely swept out of existence, and probably more than 6,000 people had passed from life to death during that dreadful night. The correct number of those who perished will probably never be known, for many entire families are missing. Where 20,000 people lived on the 8th, not a house remained on the 9th, and who occupied the houses may, in many instances, never be known.”


Galveston 1900: Storm of the Century

by Vale Fitzpatrick


On the morning of 8 September 1900 Galveston was a growing and flourishing port city of 37,000. By the evening of 9 September nearly 3,600 homes were destroyed and an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 residents were dead. Even a century later the Galveston hurricane is regarded as the worst natural disaster ever to strike the United States.

Despite the devastation dealt by the 1900 hurricane it is crucial to understand that Galveston was not unprepared for hurricanes. The city had suffered through eleven hurricanes in the nineteenth century, including a severe one in 1875. Tracking the 1900 hurricane began early as the Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C., sent out daily reports tracing the storm’s path. During its first week of life, the storm crossed south of Puerto Rico, through the West Indies, curved northward over Cuba, and brushed the western side of Florida, before returning to sea, where it strengthened-moving parallel to the coast until reaching Galveston. The city received warning messages from the Central Office in Washington on September 4 through 8. With severe storm warnings on the 8th it was necessary to keep one man constantly at the telephone to give out information. Hundreds came to the Weather Bureau seeking information.1

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Galveston in 1899 was the third richest city in the United States in proportion to population, and the city had emerged as a key deepwater port serving Texas and states west of the Mississippi.2 All major railroads served Galveston. In 1899-1900, the city handled sixty-seven percent of the Texas cotton crop, valued at over seventy million dollars, and over fifteen million bushels of grain found their way to foreign ports through Galveston. The hurricane, however, would change everything. Isaac M. Cline, a local official for the Weather Bureau, took detailed meteorological readings. The barometer began to fall rapidly on the 8th. At 5:00 p.m. it read 29.05 inches, and it fell more rapidly until 8:10 p.m., when the barometer read 28.48 inches.3 Around 8:00 p.m. the wind speed reached 120mph, and the rain gauge and thermometer were blown away around 6:00 p.m. Additionally Cline recorded his experiences in surviving the hurricane, which destroyed his home and killed his wife. His account became a valuable part of the historic record.

It is unknown exactly how many people died on Galveston Island and the mainland. The estimate is between 10,000 to 12,000. Galveston itself suffered 6,000 killed. Actual property losses were incalculable in precise terms, but individual losses, and losses in public property, such as paving, water works, schools, hospitals, and churches, were estimated to easily amount to $30,000,000. The city suffered the loss of 3,600 homes, and it is estimated that 97.5 percent of the remaining houses were damaged.

Clean up after the disaster involved more than just removing the debris and rebuilding. The large number of corpses made sanitation a critical priority. The thousands of casualties made burial unfeasible; funeral pyres were constructed and barges were used to commit the dead to the sea. Next for the survivors was the crucial task of securing water, food, and shelter.

Paul Lester’s work, The Great Galveston Disaster reported that looting and vandalism were rife upon the island. The few soldiers they had were exhausted and unable to properly guard the city; more were sent by the governor. Cases in which the fingers of women had been cut off so as to deprive them of their rings, and their ears cut to get the earrings were common, with 125 people shot for lootings.4 Later historians dispute such statements, blaming the inflated number on rumors, coupled with a few instances of individuals executed for looting. David G. McComb found that no more than six were killed for “ghoulish” looting.5 For the most part, the entire male population, white and black, laborers and office workers, were enlisted in rescue operations and disposing of the dead.

Clara Barton and the Red Cross arrived late on September 17 and issued appeals for nationwide donations. The Central Relief Committee received $1,258,000 in donations from around the world. After six months no one depended upon relief. Commerce had revived and the population possessed the necessities for living.

One of the most far-reaching changes resulting from the hurricane was a new form of city government created in 1901, the “Galveston Plan,” which created the commission form of city government. Under a commission plan voters elect a small governing commission- usually between five and seven members-on an at-large basis. The city commissioners serve as a legislative body responsible for taxation, appropriations, ordinances, and other general city functions. Individually each commissioner is in charge of a specific aspect of municipal affairs, such as finance, public safety, or public works. One commissioner is designated mayor or chairman, but those duties only entail presiding at meetings and serving in ceremonial capacities. The commission form of city government proved highly successful in rebuilding Galveston and was quickly adopted by other cities. Between 1907 and 1920 nearly 500 cities nationwide adopted the “Galveston Plan.” It was eventually replaced by the Manager-Council form of city government. In 1960 Galveston adopted the Manager-Council Government, and, by 1993, no commission forms of government existed in Texas. 6

The new commission form of government acted decisively to rebuild and ensure the city’s safety. For future protection the city constructed a seventeen-foot sea wall, raised the grade level of the city by using sixteen million cubic yards of fill, and built an all weather bridge to the mainland.


1Ed. Clarence Ousley, Galveston in Nineteen Hundred, (Chicago: The Lakeside Press, 1900), 42.

2Through a Night of Horrors: Voices from the 1900 Galveston Storm, Ed. Casey Edward Greene and Shelly Henley Kelly, (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000), 3.

3Ousley, 151, 28.

4Lester, 169, 208.

5David G. McComb, Galveston: A History, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 129

6Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "COMMISSION FORM OF CITY GOVERNMENT," (accessed October 17, 2005).