R.C. Trimble and William Lindsey, Galveston Island, 1837, Map #1954, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

A “Bulwark Against the Sea” — the Galveston Seawall

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George W. Boschke, Map of a portion of the City of Galveston, Texas showing proposed location of Sea Wall and Right of Way to be obtained, 1902, Map #73625, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

On September 8, 1900, the booming and vibrant port city of Galveston was struck by a devastating hurricane. With average sustained winds of 84 miles per hour (with gusts estimated at more than 120 miles per hour) and a massive storm surge of over 15 feet, Galveston Island was battered.[1] All bridges to the mainland were severed, over 4,100 homes were destroyed, and estimates on total property damage ranged from $18 million to $30 million at the time, the equivalent of approximately $500 million to $800 million when adjusted for inflation.[2] Tragically, approximately 6,000 to 12,000 residents lost their lives, making this hurricane the deadliest natural disaster in North American history. Galveston, then the fourth largest city in Texas and one of the busiest ports in the United States, was, in effect, annihilated.

Map detail including a portion of the proposed Galveston seawall with a statement from the Galveston County Engineer.

The survivors of the disaster wasted no time in getting to the important work of rebuilding the city. After the triage period of collecting and disposing of dead bodies, and the rescue and treatment of tens of thousands of wounded and displaced citizens, the city united behind a cause of restoring Galveston to its former glory. The endeavor was led by a coalition of wealthy local businessmen known as the “Deep Water Committee,”[3] who helped convince the governor of Texas to appoint a five-person commission to govern the city through the rebuilding efforts.[4] Perhaps the most important aspect of this rebuilding included measures undertaken to prevent or mitigate similar damage from future hurricanes, some of which can be seen on maps of Galveston Island in the General Land Office Archives.

C.G. Wells, Map of the City of Galveston, Texas, 1904, Map #73269, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

The city commission considered and approved two massive engineering projects that were conceived to prevent future destruction. These projects were funded by the issuance of bonds by the new Galveston city commission, and in a fantastic showing of the unity and spirit of the survivors, almost every Galveston resident, from the wealthy to the working class, purchased a bond to aid with the redevelopment of their beloved home island.[5]

Detail showing cross sections of the Galveston seawall.
Detail partially showing the proposed fill and sloped embankment leading back from the seawall

The first project was a plan to build a massive seawall, described by the Army Corps of Engineers as a “bulwark against the sea,” to create a barrier from rising seas and destructive storm surges.[6] Work on the seawall commenced in September of 1902. Initial plans called for an approximately four-mile wall that stretched from the jetty on the easternmost end of the island to the southwest edge of the city, along the Gulf side. The wall would rise 17 feet above the mean low tide level, was 16 feet wide at the base, and tapered concavely to a width of about 5 feet at the top. The wall was constructed of concrete that was poured onto a foundation of timber pilings and planks.[7] A “rip-rap,” or apron, made from giant granite boulders extended about 27 feet from the gulf-side of the wall into the water, which created an additional barrier against high tides and storm surge. Construction on the first four-mile segment of the wall was completed in July of 1904, less than 18 months from the start of the project. Over the next several decades, the wall would be extended in both directions, with the final section completed in 1963 to stretch the length of the wall to about 10 miles.[8]

Additional view of the Galveston seawall under construction. Image courtesy US Army Corps of Engineers.
This undated photo shows construction on the Galveston seawall. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

The second ambitious project after the seawall was to literally raise the elevation of the city of Galveston. Working in quarter-mile sections, entire blocks of buildings and utility structures were enclosed by dikes, and then the structures within the dike were raised by hand-operated jackscrews.[9] Using sand dredged from the Gulf of Mexico and guided to the work sites by canals built for the project, the spaces under the raised structures were filled in and new foundations were laid on top of the sand. Some 2,000 buildings covering about 500 city blocks were raised in this manner using about 16.3 million cubic yards of sand. This project began in 1903 and was completed in 1911.[10]

Image of a section of the Galveston seawall. Image courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.
Concrete pouring during the expansion of the seawall in 1959. Image courtesy US Army Corps of Engineers.

Despite the measures taken after the horrific storm, Galveston never fully recovered to its pre-hurricane stature. For many who chose to leave the island, the seawall project and grade raising of the city did not assuage the fears of the damage another similar storm could bring. Also during this time, Houston had grown into a vibrant city, and with the opening of the first parts of the Houston Ship Channel in 1914, soon overshadowed Galveston as the busiest and most important port in Texas. Still, the resolve and determination of the residents of Galveston Island in the wake of such a tragic natural disaster was admirable.

Since the devastation of Galveston in 1900, the measures taken by the city have worked to minimize casualties and damage, even after later hurricanes such as Alicia and Ike struck the island. Yet today, continually protecting Galveston Island and the other coastal Texas communities and assets is always on the minds of leaders, and improvements can always be made.

In April of this year, Commissioner Bush, along with over 60 other co-signers, sent a letter to the President advocating for a new coastal barrier to further protect Galveston and other vital ports along the Texas coast.[11] By continuing to augment coastal defenses it is hoped that tragedies such as the great hurricane of 1900 and the more recent devastation from hurricanes in the Gulf can be averted.

[1] Weems, John Edward, “Galveston Hurricane of 1900,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed April 28, 2017, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ydg02

[2] “Galveston Seawall and Grade Raising Project,” American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed April 28, 2017, http://www.asce.org/project/galveston-seawall-and-grade-raising-project/. Inflation figures from http://www.in2013dollars.com/1900-dollars-in-2017.

[3] Rice, Bradley K., “Commission Form of City Government,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed April 28, 2017, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/moc01

[4] This created an all-new form of city government called a “commission form of city government” and this unique, non-partisan structure served not only Galveston well, but was adopted by many communities throughout Texas and the United States. Due to political opposition, the appointed commission members were later elected.

[5] Austin, A., “Galveston, the City Reclaimed,” Pearson’s Magazine, March, 1905, Vol. XIII №3

[6] For an in-depth look at the history of the Galveston seawall, see: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Galveston’s Bulwark Against the Sea, history of the Galveston seawall, rev. 1981.

[7] Each linear foot of the wall was estimated to weigh about 40,000 pounds.

[8] “Galveston Seawall and Grade Raising Project”, American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed April 28, 2017, http://www.asce.org/project/galveston-seawall-and-grade-raising-project/

[9] Buildings were raised as little as 11 inches to almost 18 feet above their previous grade depending on their location on the island.

[10] “Galveston Seawall and Grade Raising Project”, American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed April 28, 2017, http://www.asce.org/project/galveston-seawall-and-grade-raising-project/

[11] “Cmr. George P. Bush sends letter cosigned by 60+ Texas leaders to President Trump advocating for Coastal Barrier,” Texas General Land Office, April 25, 2017, http://www.glo.texas.gov/the-glo/news/press-releases/2017/april/cmr-george-p-bush-sends-letter-cosigned-by-60-texas-leaders-to-president-trump-advocating-for-coastal-barrier.html