On September 8, 1900, the greatest natural disaster to ever strike the United States occurred at Galveston, Texas. In the early evening hours of September 8, a hurricane came ashore at Galveston bringing with it a great storm surge that inundated most of Galveston Island and the city of Galveston. As a result, much of the city was destroyed and at least 6,000 people were killed in a few hours time. The following is the account of Isaac M. Cline, the senior Weather Bureau employee present at Galveston, of the events leading up to the storm, his personal experiences in the storm, and the aftermath. The horror of Galveston is only partly described in this work. He was probably somewhat still in shock when he wrote this report as he lost his wife when his house collapsed during the storm and virtually all of his possessions. In a later biographical work, he referred to the shooting of hundreds of looters by vigilantes in the aftermath of the storm and the cremation of hundreds of unknown storm victims who otherwise would have decomposed where they lay. This particular report is excerpted from the Monthly Weather Review for September, 1900.
SPECIAL REPORT ON THE GALVESTON HURRICANE
OF SEPTEMBER 8, 1900
By Isaac M. Cline, Local Forecast Official and Section Director
The hurricane which visited Galveston Island on Saturday, September 8, 1900, was no doubt one of the most important meteorological events in the world’s history. The ruin which it wrought beggars description, and conservative estimates place the loss of life at the appalling figure, 6,000.
A brief description of Galveston Island will not be out of place as introductory to the details of this disaster. It is a sand island about thirty miles in length and one and one-half to three miles in width. The course of the island is southwest to northeast, parallel with the southeast coast of the State. The City of Galveston is located on the east end of the island. To the northeast of Galveston is Bolivar Peninsula, a sand spit about twenty miles in length and varying in width from one-fourth of a mile to about three miles. Inside of Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula is Galveston bay, a shallow body of water with an area of nearly five hundred square miles. The length of the bay along shore is about fifty miles and its greatest distance from the Gulf coast is about twenty-five miles. The greater portion of the bay lies due north of Galveston. That portion of the bay which separates the island west of Galveston from the mainland is very narrow, being only about two miles in width in places, and discharges into the Gulf of Mexico through San Louis Pass. The main bay discharges into the Gulf between the jetties; the south one being built out from the northeast end of Galveston Island and the north one from the most southerly point of Bolivar Peninsula. The channel between the jetties is twenty-seven to thirty feet in depth at different stages of the tide. There are channels in the harbor with a depth of thirty to thirty-five feet, and there is an area of nearly two thousand acres with an anchorage depth of eighteen feet or more. The mainland for several miles back of the bay is very low, in fact much of it is lower than Galveston Island, and it is so frequently overflowed by high tide that large areas present a marshy appearance. These are in brief the physical conditions of the territory devastated by the hurricane.
The usual signs which herald the approach of hurricanes were not present in this case. The brick-dust sky was not in evidence to the smallest degree. This feature, which has been distinctly observed in other storms that have occurred in this section, was carefully watched for, both on the evening of the 7th and the morning of the 8th. There were cirrus clouds moving from the southeast during the forenoon of the 7th, but by noon only alto-stratus from the northeast were observed. About the middle of the afternoon the clouds were divided between cirrus, alto-stratus, and cumulus, moving from the northeast. A heavy swell from the southeast made its appearance in the Gulf of Mexico during the afternoon of the 7th. The swell continued during the night without diminishing, and the tide rose to an unusual height when it is considered that the wind was from the north and northwest. About 5 a.m. of the 8th Mr. J. L. Cline, Observer, called me and stated that the tide was well up in the low parts of the city, and that we might be able to telegraph important information to Washington. He having been on duty until nearly midnight, was told to retire and I would look into conditions. I drove to the Gulf, where I timed the swells, and then proceeded to the office and found that the barometer was only one-tenth of an inch lower than it was at the 8 p.m. observation of the 7th. I then returned to the Gulf, made more detailed observations of the tide and swells, and filed the following telegram addressed to the Central Office a Washington:
Unusually heavy swells from the southeast, intervals of one to five minutes, overflowing low places south portion of city three to four blocks from beach. Such high wate4r with opposing winds never observed previously.
Broken stratus and strato-cumulus clouds predominated during the early forenoon of the 8th, with the blue sky visible here and there. Showery weather commenced at 8:45 a.m., but dense clouds and heavy rain were not in evidence until about noon, after which dense clouds with rain prevailed.
The wind during the forenoon of the 8th was generally north, but oscillated, at intervals of from five to ten minutes, between northwest and northeast, and continued so up to 1 p.m. After 1 p.m. the wind was mostly northeast, although as late as 6:30 p.m. it would occasionally back to the northwest for one or two minutes at a time. The prevailing wind was from the northeast until 8:30 p.m., when it shifted to the east, continuing from this direction until about 10 p.m. After 10 p.m. the wind was from the southeast, and after about 11 p.m. the prevailing direction was from the south or southwest. The directions after 11 p.m. are from personal observations. A storm velocity was not attained until about 1 p.m. after which the wind increased steadily and reached a hurricane velocity about 5 p.m. The greatest velocity for five minutes was 84 miles per hour at 6:15 p.m. With two minutes at the rate of 100 miles per hour. The anemometer blew away at this time, and it is estimated that prior to 8 p.m. the wind attained a velocity of at least 120 miles per hour. For a short time, about 8 p.m., just before the wind shifted to the east, there was a distinct lull, but when it came out from the east and southeast it appeared to come with greater fury than before. After shifting to the south at about 11 p.m. the wind steadily diminished in velocity, and a t 8 a.m. on the morning of the 9th was blowing at the rate of 20 miles per hour from the south.
The barometer commenced falling on the afternoon of the 6th and continued falling steadily but slowly up to noon of the 8th, when it read 29.42 inches. The barometer fell rapidly from noon until 8:30 p.m. of the 8th, when it registered 28.48 inches, a fall of pressure of about one inch in eight and one-half hours. After 8:30 p.m. the barometer rose at the same rapid rate that had characterized the fall. The barograph trace sheet during this storm, from noon September 6 to noon September 10, is enclosed as fig. 1. On account of the rapid fall in pressure, Mr. John d. Blagden, Observer, took readings of the mercurial barometer as a check on the barograph, and readings are as follows:
Time. Readings. Time. Readings.
5:00 p.m………….29.05 6:40 p.m………….28.75
5:11 p.m………….29.00 6:48 p.m………….28.70
5:30 p.m………….28.95 7:15 p.m…………..28.69
5:50 p.m………….28.90 7:40 p.m………….28.62
6:06 p.m………….28.86 8:00 p.m………….28.55
6:20 p.m………….28.82 8:10 p.m………….28.53
These readings confirm the low pressure shown by barograph and indicate the great intensity of the hurricane.
Mr. Blagden looked after the instruments during the hurricane in a heroic and commendable manner. He kept the wires of the self-registering apparatus intact as long as it was possible for him to reach the roof. The rain gauge blew away about 6 p.m. and the thermometer shelter soon followed. All the instruments in the thermometer shelter were broken, except the thermograph which was found damaged, but has been put in working order.
Storm warnings were timely and received a wide distribution not only in Galveston but throughout the coast region. Warning messages were received from the Central Office at Washington on September 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. The high tide on the morning of the 8th, with storm warning flying, made it necessary to keep one man constantly at the telephone giving out information. Hundreds of people who could not reach us by telephone came to the Weather Bureau office seeking advice. I went down on Strand street and advised some wholesale commission merchants who had perishable goods on their floors to place them 3 feet above the floor. One gentleman has informed me that he carried out my instructions, but the wind blew his goods down. The public was warned, over the telephone and verbally, that the wind would go by the east to the south and that the worst was yet to come. People were advised to seek secure places for the night. As a result thousands of people who lived near the beach or in small houses moved their families into the center of the city and were thus saved. Those who lived in large strong buildings, a few blocks from the beach, one of whom was the writer of this report, thought that they could weather the wind and tide. Soon after 3 p.m. conditions became so threatening that it was deemed essential that a special report be sent at once to Washington. Mr. J. L. Cline, Observer, took the instrumental readings while I drove first to the bay and then to the Gulf, and finding that half the streets of the city were under water added the following to the special observation at 3:30 p.m.: “Gulf rising, water covers streets of about half of city.” Having been on duty since 5 a.m., after giving this message to the observer, I went home to lunch. Mr. J. L. Cline went to the telegraph offices through water from two to four feet deep, and found that the telegraph wires had all gone down; he then returned to the office, and by inquiry learned that the long distance telephone had one wire still working to Houston, over which he gave the message to the Western Union telegraph office at Houston to be forwarded to the Central Office at Washington.
I reached home and found the water around my residence waist deep. I at once went to work assisting people, who were not securely located, into my residence, until forty or fifty persons were housed therein. About 6:30 p.m. Mr. J. L. Cline, who had left Mr. Blagden at the office to look after the instruments, reached my residence, where he found the water neck deep. He informed me that the barometer had fallen below 29.00 inches; that no further messages could be gotten off on account of all wires being down, and that he had advised everyone he could see to go to the center of the city; also, that he thought we had better make an attempt in that direction. At this time, however, the roofs of houses and timbers were flying through the streets as though they were paper, and it appeared suicidal to attempt a journey through the flying timbers. Many people were killed by flying timbers about this time while endeavoring to escape to town.
The water rose at a steady rate from 3 p.m. until about 7:30 p.m., when there was a sudden rise of about four feet in as many seconds. I was standing at my front door, which was partly open, watching the water, which was flowing with great rapidity from east to west. The water at this time was about eight inches deep in my residence, and the sudden rise of 4 feet brought it above my waist before I could change my position. The water had now reached a stage 10 feet above the ground at Rosenberg Avenue (Twenty-fifth street) and Q street, where my residence stood. The ground was 5.2 feet elevation, which made the tide 15.2 feet. The tide rose the next hour, between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m., nearly five feet additional, making a total tide in that locality of about twenty feet. These observations were carefully taken and represent to within a few tenths of a foot the true conditions. Other personal observations in my vicinity confirm these estimates. The tide, however, on the bay or north side of the city did not obtain a height of more than 15 feet. It is possible that there was 5 feet of backwater on the Gulf side as a result of debris accumulating four to six blocks inland. The debris is piled eight to fifteen feet in height. By 8 p.m. a number of houses had drifted up and lodged to the east and southeast of my residence, and these with the force of the waves acted as a battering ram against which it was impossible for any building to stand for any length of time, and at 8:30 p.m. my residence went down with about fifty persons who had sought it for safety, and all but eighteen were hurled into eternity. Among the lost was my wife, who never rose above the water after the wreck of the building. I was nearly drowned and became unconscious, but recovered through being crushed by timbers and found myself clinging to my youngest child, who had gone down with myself and wife. Mr. J. L. Cline joined me five minutes later with my other two children, and with them and a woman and child we picked up from the raging waters, we drifted for three hours, landing 300 yards from where we started. There were two hours that we did not see a house nor any person, and from the swell we inferred that we were drifting to sea, which, in view of the northeast wind then blowing, was more than probable. During the last hour that we were drifting, which was with southeast and south winds, the wreckage on which we were floating knocked several residences to pieces. When we landed about 11:30 p.m., by climbing over floating debris to a residence on Twenty-eighth street and Avenue P, the water had fallen about 4 feet. It continued falling, and on the following morning the Gulf was nearly normal. While we were drifting we had to protect ourselves from the flying timbers by holding planks between us and the wind, and with this protection we were frequently knocked great distances. Many persons were killed on top of the drifting debris by flying timbers after they had escaped from their wrecked homes. In order to keep on the top of the floating masses of wrecked buildings one had to be constantly on the lookout and continually climbing from drift to drift. Hundreds of people had similar experiences.
Sunday, September 9, 1900, revealed one of the most horrible sights that ever a civilized people looked upon. About three thousand homes, nearly half the residence portion of Galveston, had been completely swept out of existence, and probably more than six thousand persons had passed from life to death during that dreadful night. The correct number of those who perished will probably never be known, for many entire families are missing. Where 20,000 people lived on the 8th not a house remained on the 9th, and who occupied the houses may, in many instances, never be known. On account of the pleasant Gulf breezes many strangers were residing temporarily near the beach, and the number of these that were lost can not yet be estimated. I enclose a chart, fig. 2, which shows, by shading, the area of total destruction. Two charts of this area have been drawn independently; one by Mr. A. G. Youens, inspector for the local board of underwriters, and the other by myself and Mr. J. L. Cline. The two charts agree in nearly all particulars, and it is believed that the chart enclosed represents the true conditions as nearly as it is possible to show them. That portion of the city west of Forty-fifth street was sparsely settled, but there were several splendid residences in the southern part of it. Many truck farmers and dairy men resided on the west end of the island, and it is estimated that half of these were lost, as but very few residences remain standing down the island. For two blocks, inside the shaded area, the damage amounts to at least fifty per cent of the property. There is not a house in Galveston that escaped injury, and there are houses totally wrecked in all parts of the city. All goods and supplies not over eight feet above floor were badly injured, and much was totally lost. The damage to buildings, personal, and other property in Galveston County is estimated at above thirty million dollars. The insurance inspector for Galveston states that there were 2,636 residences located prior to the hurricane in the area of total destruction, and he estimates 1,000 houses totally destroyed in other portions of the city, making a total of 3,636 houses totally destroyed. The value of these buildings alone is estimated at $5,500,000.
The grain elevators which were full of grain suffered the smallest damage. Ships have resumed loading and work is being rushed day and night. The railroad bridges across the bay were washed away, but one of these has been repaired and direct rail communication with the outside world was established within eleven days after the disaster. Repairs and extensions of wharves are now being pushed forward with great rapidity. Notwithstanding the fact that the streets are not yet clean and dead bodies are being discovered daily among the drifted debris, the people appear to have confidence in the place and are determined to rebuild and reestablish themselves here. Galveston being one of the richest cities of its size in the United States, there is no question but that business will soon regain its normal condition and the city will grow and prosper as she did before the disaster. Cotton is now coming in by rail from different parts of the State and by barge from Houston. The wheels of commerce are already moving in a manner which gives assurance for the future. Improvements will be made stronger and more judiciously; for the past twenty-five years they have been made with the hurricane of 1875 in mind, but no one ever dreamed that the water would reach the height observed in the present case. The railroad bridges are to be built ten feet higher than they were before. The engineer of the Southern Pacific Company has informed me that they will construct their wharves so that they will withstand even such a hurricane as the one we have just experienced.
I believe that a sea wall, which would have broken the swells, would have saved much loss of both life and property. I base this view upon observations which I have made in the extreme northeastern portion of the city, which is practically protected by the south jetty; this part of the city did not suffer more than half the damage that other similarly located districts, without protection, sustained.
From the officers of the U. S. Engineer tug Anna, I learn that the wind at the mouth of the Brazos River went from north to southwest by way of west. This shows that the center of the hurricane was near Galveston, probably not more than 30 miles to the westward. The following towns have suffered great damage, both in the loss of life and property: Texas City, Dickinson, Lamarque, Hitchcock, Arcadia, Alvin, Manvel, Brazoria, Columbia, and Wharton. Other towns further inland have suffered, but not so seriously. The exact damage at these places can not be ascertained.
A list of those lost in Galveston, whose names have been ascertained up to the present time, contains 3,536 names.
UNITED STATES WEATHER BUREAU OFFICE,
GALVESTON, TEX., September 23, 1900.
(The enclosures, figs. 1 and 2, referred to herein, are not published with this report.)
U. S. Department of Agriculture,
Office of Chief Clerk Washington, D.C. , October 5, 1900
The following letter is published for the information of the members of the Weather Bureau:
Washington D. C., September 28, 1900.
DR. ISAAC M. CLINE,
Local Forecast Official and Section Director,
Weather Bureau, Galveston, Tex.
I desire to most highly commend you and your two assistants, Messrs. Joseph L. Cline and John D. Blagden, for your heroic devotion to duty on the occasion of the hurricane that devastated Galveston on September 8, 1900. The record shows that you were all alert and vigilant from the time the first notice of the storm was received, making frequent observations of the instruments and the weather conditions and disseminating warnings, and that under great personal peril you remained at your posts as long as your services were of any value, performing all duties efficiently and intelligently; that Mr. Blagden, with great skill and courage, kept the wind recording instruments intact as long as it was possible to do so, and took ten-minute readings of the barometer, as a check on the barograph, during the most dangerous period of the storm, from 5:00 to 8:10 p.m. of the 8th; that Mr. Joseph L. Cline, after being on duty until midnight of the 7th, performed faithful and valiant service during the 8th, and after telegraphic communication was cut off, succeeded with great effort in sending by telephone a message to the Central Office containing a special observation, the last message sent out from the doomed city on that fateful day; and that you, from 5:00 a.m. until the wires went down at 3:30 p.m., were constantly on duty, taking tidal observations, preparing reports to the Central Office, and directing the work of the station. Through the efficient service of yourself and your assistants in the dissemination of warnings, thousands of people were enabled to move from the lower to the higher and secure portions of the city and were thus saved.
Your conduct in this terrible crisis furnishes an example of courage and fidelity to duty that every employee of the Bureau should be proud to emulate.
Approved: (Signed) WILLIS L. MOORE
JAMES WILSON Chief U. S. Weather Bureau.