By Sara G. Stephens, Managing Editor
Although perhaps in excess of 12,000, the exact count of people who died in Galveston on September 8, 1900, will never be known. “The death toll is the reason the Great Storm stands apart from all other hurricanes,” says Casey Greene, head of Special Collections at Rosenberg Library, Galveston. “The 1900 storm is an object of continuing fascination because it is the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States.”
It was September 8, and the population of Galveston was 37,000, marking it as the fourth largest city in Texas. On this night, the number dropped drastically. Not only were 3,600 buildings demolished, but so many people were killed that their bodies exceeded the capacity of conventional burials. Many were weighted and buried at sea, only to wash ashore later. Funeral pyres lighted the town of Galveston, flashing desperate memorials to the deceased. Eventually, the numbers became so great that residents were permitted to bury the bodies of storm victims however they saw fit.
One hundred years later, this disaster is known as the Great Storm. Present-day contractors continue to dig up unmarked graves of storm victims.
Galveston Island managed to make a relatively swift recovery from its unprecedented tragedy. “To protect Galveston against future hurricanes, Galveston adopted the commission form of local government in 1901,” Greene reports. “The construction of the Seawall took place beginning in 1902, followed by the grade raising starting in 1904.” The city was raised by eight feet, seven feet at the Seawall, slanting the ground to facilitate the runoff of water into the bay. When the next hurricane hit in 1915, Galveston was prepared and safe; the storm caused only eight deaths.
Still, how could such widespread devastation not leave a permanent mark on the soul of a city? It’s precisely from such history that legends are born. The ghost of Sister Katherine is one such legend.
St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum housed 93 children, who were cared for by 10 nuns, sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. The orphanage was run by Sister Katherine. The children who lived there had been orphaned primarily as a result of yellow fever epidemics.
On September 7, 1900, a hurricane quietly entered the Gulf. By the next day, however, the storm had gained power. The nuns at St. Mary’s, in a desperate attempt to save their young charges, relocated the children from the boys’ dormitory to the new girls’ dormitory. From there, they watched the boys’ dormitory succumb to the relentless winds and water.
Prayers and hymns served as the only comfort for the terrified group. Round after round of “Queen of the Waves,” a hymn sung by French fishermen during storms, carried their spirits for some time, but by nightfall, it was clear that more deliberate actions must be taken.
As winds raged at 150 mph, the nuns decided to tie a piece of clothesline around each of their waists and then around the wrists of about six or eight children. They surrendered their fate to God’s will. Soon after, the mighty storm lifted the girls’ dormitory off its foundations, causing the building’s bottom to fall out and sending its roof crashing down, trapping its inhabitants.
Only three children survived the catastrophe—the boys wound up in the water and awoke to find themselves clinging to a tree, upon which they floated for nearly a day. They were later rescued at sea by a small boat and returned to town, where they discovered the gruesome fates of the orphanage, the 10 nuns, and the other children in their care.
Bodies were found—many children were still attached to the sisters via the clotheslines–and buried.
St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum reopened at 40th and Q streets in Galveston City in 1901 and remained there until closing in 1967.
The Hotel Galvez was built on the asylum’s original site on Galveston Island in 1911. A grand hotel, exquisitely furnished, blossomed as a tourist attraction and host to many celebrities, including actors and U.S. presidents. Fondly, the hotel became known as “Queen of the Gulf.”
LEGEND & FOLKLORE:
To this very day, many Galvestonians speak of a figure dressed in nun’s clothing walking along the shore as though to warn of incoming storms.
Guests of the Hotel Galvez, regarded as the most haunted building in the U.S., report significant poltergeist activity, including doors opening and closing and lights turning off and on by themselves. The legend is that the spirits of the St. Mary’s orphans linger in the spots where their lives were taken on this fateful day, over a hundred years ago.
Rosenberg Library (www.rosenberg-library.org). 2310 Sealy, Galveston, Texas
The library’s website offers a wealth of information, oral histories, archives, and photos on the Great Storm. In the site’s Special Collections section, you can check out Rosenberg Library’s fascinating presentation of The 1900 Galveston Storm in Google Earth, an educational and entertaining project conceived and developed by Thomas Green in collaboration with the Galveston and Texas History Center. According to the library’s website, “The project lends geographic organization to the History Center’s outstanding collection of images that depict the aftermath of the Great Storm. The project also records the city’s efforts to protect itself against future storms through the construction of a 17-foot seawall and the raising of 40 city blocks.” The 1900 Galveston Storm in Google Earth requires installation of free software on your computer—Google Earth 5.0 or later. Buttons in the software’s navigation pane activate each of three modules that map images of Galveston before the 1900 Storm, immediately after the hurricane, and during the grade raising. In addition, there is a map overlay that provides a view of what Galveston was like after the storm. After you have installed Google Earth, download the Galveston Storm presentation on the Rosenberg Library website. (download the software at https://sites.google.com/site/galvestonstorm/Home/GalvestonStormV3.kmz?attredirects=0&d=1)
The Galveston Historical Foundation operates a public program that identifies buildings as 1900 Storm Survivors. Many houses and buildings carry survivor plaques. The 1900 Storm Monument is located on the Seawall. More information can be found at http://www.photohome.com/photos/texas-pictures/galveston/storm-of-1900-statue-1.html.
Christine Hopkins, Hotel Galvez Director of Communications, recommends “Ghost Stories” on The Travel Channel, as a show that ties in the Hotel Galvez’ ghosts to the St. Mary’s orphanage. Find it at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1687429.
For the complete dramatic story, the film The Great Storm (shown daily at Pier 21 Theatre in the Strand district) is “well worth seeing,” says Casey Greene of the Rosenberg Library.
The 1946 autobiography When the Heavens Frowned features Meteorologist Joseph L. Cline, who with his brother Isaac Cline, played a pivotal role in Galveston during the hurricane.
Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, a brilliant chronicle using Cline’s own telegrams, letters, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and the latest understanding of the science of hurricanes, Erik Larson builds a chronicle of one man’s heroic struggle and fatal miscalculation in the face of a storm of unimaginable magnitude. This book tells the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets the great uncontrollable force of nature. Find it on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Isaacs-Storm-Deadliest-Hurricane-History/dp/0375708278).
Ain Gordon’s play A Disaster Begins was written in 2009 by Ain Gordon and is based on events of the Great Storm of 1900.