Letters recall the great Galveston hurricane of 1900

At a summertime party, my dinner companion turned out to be none other than the incomparable Barbara Sealy Mallory Hathaway, one of my favorite people, whom everyone calls "Bunny."

At some point in the evening, table talk turned to shipwrecks (she's from an old New England shipping family) and other disasters, both manmade and natural.

Bunny, who lives in Owings Mills, had recently been going though some old family files and mentioned that she had letters written by relatives who had survived the great hurricane that swept into Galveston, Texas, on Sept. 8, 1900.

She asked if I would be interested in reading them, and I said I couldn't wait. I've always found such firsthand accounts riveting.

Local residents still refer to the hurricane as the "1900 Storm" or "The Great Storm," and it's still the worst natural disaster to ever visit the United States. By today's standards, it would have been classified as a Category 4 hurricane.

Hurricanes in those days were not named, and the storm that eventually wrecked Galveston had been spawned off the western coast of Africa in late August.

The storm later moved over the Leeward Islands and Santiago, Cuba, where it dumped 12.58 inches of rain in 24 hours.

By Sept. 5, it barreled over the Florida Keys and began racing across the Gulf of Mexico, where it made a direct hit three days later on Galveston.

Winds were estimated to have reached 135 mph when the storm hit the city at 8 p.m., and residents were terrified as a storm surge of more than 15 feet swept over the island, which rises only 8 feet above sea level.

In a fateful decision made not too many years earlier, Galveston residents had rejected a plan to build a sea wall to protect the island.

By the time the storm left Galveston, after exacting seven hours of terror that most residents thought would not end, an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 were dead, with many of the missing washed out to sea.

More than 4,000 buildings were destroyed, railroads and public utilities were wrecked, eight steamships were torn from the moorings and stranded in the bay, and the city and its environs were cut off from the outside world.

Hollywood director King Vidor, a Galveston native, whose debut film in 1913 was "Hurricane in Galveston," recalled the storm years later.

"I could see the waves crash against the streetcar trestle, then shoot into the air as high as telephone poles. Higher," Vidor wrote. "My mother didn't speak as we watched three or four waves. I was only five then, but I remember now that it seemed as if we were in a bowl looking up toward the level of the sea. … I felt as if the sea was going to break over the edge of the bowl and come pouring down upon us."

Open Gates, the home of Bunny's maternal grandparents, George Sealy, a successful banker, railroad executive and philanthropist, and his wife, Magnolia Willis Sealy, stood at Broadway and 25th Street in the city's Strand District. It became a place of refuge for some 400 storm-tossed refugees who gathered there during the height of the storm as water poured into its basement.

Some refugees tied their boats to fences that surrounded Open Gates and swam to the house.

"From the latest reports, which are considered reliable, the disaster at Galveston and along the coast has not been exaggerated. The waters of the Gulf and bay met, covering the island from a depth of six to twelve feet," The New York Times reported three days later.

"Many of the dead have been uncovered. Others are still under debris; others carried out to sea," reported the newspaper.

Nearly a week after the storm, funeral pyres were ignited to burn the decaying dead.

"Bonfires are burning all over the city. These are the funeral pyres of 1,000 bodies which were cast upon the shore by the tides," reported The Sun. "Cremation has become a necessity to prevent epidemic."

The Sealys' daughter, Ella Sealy, recalled in a letter to her sister, Margaret Sealy, seeing piles of dead bodies, horses and cows being burned alongside the road as she journeyed to Galveston. Freight cars loaded with cotton had been torn open and their contents spread all over surrounding fields.

"Most of the telegraph poles were down but one was standing, and on the cross piece was hanging a lot of debris, clothing etc, showing that the water had been that high," penned Sealy. "The living as well as the dead were nearly all demented during the storm."

She reported seeing a coffin of a man who had died a week before the storm some 15 miles away from the cemetery where it had been buried. And sand piles were the only trace left marking where houses once stood alongside now-vanished streets.

Sealy's mother had invited Clara Barton, who had arrived in Galveston to aid in the relief efforts, to Open Gates, in order to give a short address to a few "ladies she had invited."

"She is very old — 73 years of age — and is quite feeble; she dresses very old fashioned, but speaks beautifully," Sealy wrote. "She stays at the Tremont Hotel but doesn't go out much. She may stay with us next week. She is just recovering from La Grippe."

Hennie, who had been a family servant, wrote to Magnolia Willis Sealy four days after the storm.

"Just a line to let you know that I am living. By a hard struggle I saved my life, my sister, her husband and baby are all safe, we left our house in the evening thinking it would be down on us every minute, we were drifted along from house to house until mid-night, but we managed to pull through," she wrote.

"Oh, everything is a total wreck, people, houses, cattle, all gone, all my uncles and wives are drowned and all my friends are lost for ever more, we have no food or money, Galveston is no more."

Miraculously, her small cottage survived the storm, "a miracle of God," she wrote. "I had to sit down and cry when I first got into the house, as I thought I would never put a foot there again."

In a plaintive farewell, she signed it, "Good-bye, from Hennie."

George Sealy Ewalt, a Galveston businessman and cousin, wrote in a letter that the city morgue was taxed beyond capacity and a larger building was taken over for that purpose.

"All day Sunday they brought the dead people to be identified, they all lay out in rows, battered, bruised and swollen up four times their size," he wrote.

"Scarcely any of them had a stitch on them, completely torn off. People had to step over the corpses and turn many of them over to see their faces," he wrote.

By Sept. 21, reported Agnes Campbell in a letter, life was returning somewhat to normal.

"You cannot imagine how the beauty of the place has been marred, but the energy and pluck of all is amazing," Campbell wrote in a letter to Margaret Sealy. "People do not stop to grieve they try to help others."

In a letter she wrote on Sept. 24, Ella Sealy reported that while the gas mains were still ruptured and postal service still remained suspended, electric lights had returned and mule-pulled streetcars were making their way through the streets.

"Everything much better now. … The other day we heard a boy whistle on the street as he walked along and we all stopped to listen, it was the first joyous sound we had heard; anything gay or bright in dress, or manner, seems utterly out of place," she wrote. "Dante's Inferno with Gustave Dore's illustrations couldn't describe scenes everyone says."

Open Gates, a Romanesque-styled brick building that was designed in 1889 by noted architect Stanford White, remained in the Sealy family until it was donated in 1979 to the University of Texas.

It wasn't until 1911 that every surviving building was jacked up and construction of a seawall was completed.

Correction: In my column of Sept. 5, I misidentified Charles S. Roberts' great-great-uncle. It was Thomas Swann who was president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad from 1847 to 1853, and not Charles Swann Roberts.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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