Orange County Branch Newsletter

September 2014

History and Heritage

History and Heritage - Vacation on Galveston Bay

By Carl Nelson, P.E.

In June 2014, Carl and Donna Nelson visited civil engineer friends who live at a bayside residence. We had the opportunity for a waterside tour of Galveston Bay. For vacationers  born and raised in Southern California where atmospheric pressure changes are measured in hundredths of an inch,  the  term “Storm Surge” is difficult to comprehend; whereas on the Gulf of Mexico atmospheric changes can occur in multiple inches. Not only is there ocean surf to contend with, Storm Surge on the gulf can exceed diurnal tide changes by several feet.

According to Google, in the nineteenth century, everything in Texas was done first in Galveston. Incorporated in 1839, Galveston quickly became the most active port west of New Orleans and the largest city in the state. A trestle across Galveston Bay, built from the proceeds of a Galveston County bond issue, was completed in 1860, for a rail line connecting Houston & Galveston. However, on September 8, 1900, Galveston was battered by what stands as the most deadly natural disaster to strike the US mainland, known 100 years later as the Great Storm.

Details of the Great Storm are regaled in Erik Larsen’s year 2000 book entitled “Isaac’s Storm”; so-named after US Weather Service’s Galveston Branch meteorologist, Isaac Cline. At the time of the 1900 Storm, Galveston had a population of 37,000 and was the fourth largest city in Texas following Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. One-third of the city was completely destroyed, more than 3,600 buildings. More than 6,000 people were killed; so many, in fact, that the bodies were too numerous for conventional burials.

Accordingly, Galveston’s hardy survivors under the leadership of engineer Henry Martyn Robert, (who also developed Robert’s Rules of Order) raised the entire level of the city by eight feet, 17 feet at the Seawall, slanting the ground so ocean wave-runup would drain toward the inland bay. The grade raising was so successful that when another hurricane as ferocious as the 1900 storm swept down on Galveston in 1915, the city was safe and only eight people were killed.

Galveston Island is approximately 20 miles long from east to west and about 2 miles wide. The island is separated from the Texas mainland by Galveston Bay which averages about 3 miles wide. To improve land transportation, the Galveston-Houston Electric Railway in 1912 completed a combined railroad and highway crossing of the bay replacing the former trestle which was destroyed in the Great Storm.

The Galveston Bay Causeway consisted of a multiple arch masonry bridge approximately 2 miles long. At mid-channel a 105 ft. span bascule-type drawbridge was provided to accommodate passage of freight barge vessels along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Houston and Galveston were linked from 1912 to 1936 by a high-speed interurban line, whose cars covered the 50-mile distance, downtown to downtown, in as little as 75 minutes. The Galveston-Houston Electric Railway eventually shared  tracks and facilities with the freight railroads of the era.  Although it cannot be compared to such great interurban systems as the Pacific Electric or the Illinois Terminal, as a single-line company the Galveston-Houston  ranks among the very best ever operated, both in terms of physical facilities and quality of service.

However, Galveston never returned to being the city it once was before 1900. Prosperous because of its port, Galveston commerce was eclipsed when Houston dug its Ship Channel with sea-going access in 1917. And, as with the experience of Pacific Electric; the American expansion of personal automobile ownership, flexibility of  freight trucks and government sponsored highway improvements along with economics of the great depression led to the termination of Galveston-Electric passenger service in 1936.

In 1939 a new, and separate highway causeway was constructed paralleling the original railroad (which still provides freight service to the Port of Galveston. In 2003 construction of replacement bridges for the Gulf Freeway causeway began with completion of the new northbound bridge in 2005. The construction of a new southbound bridge began in 2006, which was completed November 2008.

Within the past year a new railroad lift bridge has been completed, opening the Intracoastal Waterway span to 300 feet.

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