Out of the West: Glory faded by sands of time

GALVESTON - Drive down here on a luminous August afternoon, along Interstate 45 through the lush, green country south of Houston, Texas, and hurricanes are the last thing on your mind.

The approach to Galveston is one of the great sights of the US. As the flatland turns into marshes along the Gulf shore, the island city built on a sandbar comes into view, shimmering like a mirage in the haze. So why on earth should the car radio be crackling with news about a storm called Andrew, over 1,500 miles away in the Atlantic? Then you remember. Once upon a time a similar storm, in this very place, caused the greatest natural calamity in American history.

Few sites have the exotic pedigree of Galveston. The first inhabitants were the Karankawa Indians, cannibals whose fearsome doings were relayed in the terrible tales of French and Spanish explorers. Pirates and smugglers followed, before land- grabbers, speculators and immigrants turned it into a boom town boasting, inter alia, the finest natural harbour in Texas.

In the slave trade and then the cotton trade, Galveston briefly ruled the world. In 1874, when Houston and Dallas were little more than prairie settlements, newspapers called it the New York of the Gulf.

Today, Galveston's is a faded glory. True, spurred and financed by the handful of old monied families who never left the island, the city fathers are busy restoring as much as they can. Many of the stately homes are now museums. The 1894 Opera House has been refurbished; and from the Strand, the old commercial street that again looks handsome, you can take a tram or horsedrawn carriage to see the sights.

But every effort to recapture the past only makes it more remote. To all intents and purposes, the old Galveston died almost 92 years ago.

Even then disasters, including fires, at least two epidemics of yellow fever, and hurricanes, were not new. Nothing though compared with what happened on 8 September 1900, when an unnamed forebear of Andrew swept out of the Gulf on to a defenceless Galveston.

A city built on sand was literally swept away. More than 6,000 people died: what remained of its wealth was scavengers' booty. The bodies were so swollen by the floodwaters that thieves chopped off hands to obtain the victims' rings and jewellery. In the sodden earth, burial was impossible. For fear of the plague, the corpses were simply piled on the beach and burnt.

Heroically, Galveston tried to recover. The original city had stood 10ft above sea level. In a gigantic civil engineering project, they brought in tens of thousands more tons of sand to raise it a further 6ft on average, to accommodate a 17ft seawall running seven miles along the island's southern shore.

But the world had moved on - to Houston, which had built its own port, and whose oil industry by then was creating riches of which Galveston could only dream. Under Prohibition, there was a renaissance of sorts, as the rum smugglers returned, and mobsters and movie stars flocked to the wickedest resort in the US.

Bordellos and gambling dens lined the streets and seafront; for a while, Havana had moved within America's own frontiers. But in 1957 that ended, too, when God-fearing citizens cried enough, and the Attorney General ordered the Texas Rangers to close every joint in town.

And thus Galveston today. Maybe the facelift and a country's search for its past will lure the tourists. But their pursuits will be perforce innocent; the Balinese Room, the most celebrated gambling haunt of all, stands a boarded-up derelict monument on the pier where 21st street meets Seawall. For serious sinners, the recently introduced Texas state lottery is no substitute.

Today Seawall is where the world ends, a treeless boulevard on the edge of a seemingly tranquil ocean, lined on its landward side by clapboard houses raised on breeze blocks, tacky souvenir shops and fly-blown motels.

But even on a midsummer afternoon the promenade is almost empty - just the odd jogger, a few bathers, and the mingled odours of beachside resorts anywhere, of salt and fish and suntan oil. It is a place of few hopes, scant illusions, but of one abiding fear: that once again primeval nature will turn on Galveston and destroy it. And suddenly, as Hurricane Andrew was whirling across the Gulf this week, the past was anything but remote.

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