From the moment we crossed on to Galveston Island, Texas, Glen Campbell’s voice was stuck in our heads. We didn’t even know the words past “Galveston, Oh Galveston,” but that didn’t stop the tape loop in our craniums. Once we found our campground and parked BAMF, we got to Googling and found a copy of the song to relieve our brains. Thank you “The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour” YouTube page!
Jimmy Webb wrote the song during a visit to the island, conjuring up the story – a Spanish-American War soldier dreaming of his girl back home in Galveston – while sitting on the beach. He chose that time period because of its importance in the city’s rich history. With the song still ringing in our ears, we mounted up on our trusty two-wheeled steeds and headed out for a first hand look at that history.
The story of a seafaring town begins at the harbor, so did we. A natural haven for ships, the port was first ruled by pirates. After helping Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans in The War of 1812, pirate Jean Lafitte set up shop on Galveston Island. He declared himself the head of the government of his new pirate kingdom, Campeche. Arrrgh! That had to be a wild thing to behold.
In 1821, the United States Navy ran Lafitte off and the newly liberated Mexican government officially established The Port of Galveston. Mexican rule was short lived, as The Republic of Texas broke away in 1836 and used Galveston as their major naval base and briefly it was the capital of the republic. When Texas joined the Union, the U.S. Navy took over this important strategic spot.
Throughout the 1800s Galveston grew to be one of America’s busiest ports. With all of this hustle and bustle, a booming town sprouted up. The area near the harbor known as The Strand became the city’s main business center, so active it was known as the “Wall Street of the South.”
By the twentieth century prostitution and ignoring prohibition had given Galveston a new moniker, “Sin City of The Gulf,” and things were wild once again. The townsfolk seemed to embrace the misconduct, referring to their island as the “Free State of Galveston.” The Strand is now one of Galveston’s six historic districts, and is the entertainment hub of the city. Bars, clubs, restaurants and, of course, the ever present crap shops make it more Bourbon Street than Wall Street, perhaps proving that wild is its natural state.
One big reason for the change in The Strand’s business focus was The 1900 Storm when Galveston was nearly destroyed. This hurricane was the deadliest in American history, a sad tally that holds to this day. Our next stop was the memorial for this disaster.
David Moore sculpted the ten foot tall bronze statue in memory of the over six thousand that perished. Titled “The Great Storm,” the monument was unveiled on the hurricane’s 100th anniversary in 2000.
From the memorial, we decided to check out the remaining damage from the most recent storm to batter the island, Hurricane Ike. Even though the day was foggy and cool, a ride along the beach is always high on our agenda.
We rode along the huge seawall that was built after the 1900 tragedy, so when Ike roared ashore in 2008 most of the damage was confined to beachside structures. The Flagship Hotel, which sat out over the water, still stands in ruins and many of Galveston’s famous piers are sadly gone forever, but most of the damage has been cleared or rebuilt.
The waterfront businesses tucked safely behind the seawall all seem to have come back, one in particular caught our eye. Salsas proudly advertised “WELCOME CHEERLEADERS BALL HIGH THURSDAY NIGHT.” Not wanting to know what the sign was referring to, we declined the invitation. Bringing “Sin City of The Gulf” back, we suppose.
Our ride continued through the East End Historic District at the center of the island. There are several stalwart structures that have survived many a storm tucked away there, perhaps the most stunning being The Bishop’s Palace.
This ornate Victorian house, built in 1887, was originally known as Gresham’s Castle, after the first owner, Walter Gresham. In 1923, the Catholic Diocese of Galveston bought the house, located next door to Sacred Heart Church, and used it as the bishop’s residence. The Galveston Historical Foundation provides guided tours on weekends, but we made due with peeking in the windows
A much less famous home in the district tickled us more than any million dollar mansion could. Attached to a three pawed wooden dog out front, a sign had been erected: “Reward $50 For Dog’s Paw / $500 For Hand of Thief.”
Wanting to be a part of justice, Texas style, we kept an eye peeled for a wooden paw, or better yet, the thief of the wooden paw the rest of the way.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com