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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Support Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Support Engineer is required to join a well-...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Administrator - Swedish Speaking

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an awa...

Recruitment Genius: Facilities Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Facilities Manager is required to join the m...

Recruitment Genius: New Business Sales Consultant - Mobile - OTE £35,000

£14000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent telecoms compa...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum