When I was a romance obsessed pre-teen, my favorite books came from the Sunfire series, a series of historical fiction teen romance novels with all of the silliness of adult bodice rippers and none of the sex. It was that series that led to a side trip to the Johnstown Flood National Memorial many years ago when my husband and I traveled to Gettysburg (Jennie), it increased my interest in the Alamo after my first visit to San Antonio (where I picked up a copy of Victoria at the mall), and it introduced me to the 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston Island in the book Darcy.
I had no idea that 25 years later I would live in the very region where that destructive hurricane took place.
While we live only an hour and a half drive from the Gulf of Mexico, we don’t make the trip through downtown Houston very often to visit the island. For one thing, I’m more of a northern lake girl myself. (I firmly believe that you should stay out of water that has things in it that want to kill you.) For another, it is a drive through a lot of traffic that we typically want to avoid.
But I wanted to explore the history of the Island, something the rest of my family is less interested in doing, so I decided to take some time to explore it myself. I had a small window (nothing opens until 10 and I wanted to be home in time to pick up the kids from school), so I had to be selective and move fast. That really only allowed me to explore in-depth a couple locations as I walked around the historic district and took in the sights, but this is what I was able to see.
Pier 21 Theater
A friend who had visited Galveston a couple years ago for her son’s city project suggested that I start at the Pier 21 theater and watch The Great Storm, a short documentary about the 1900 hurricane that devastated the island. Although I had learned minimal facts from historical fiction 30 years ago, this in-depth explanation of the storm and the aftermath showed just how far we have come in engineering against destructive storms. The theater has two other documentaries available, The Pirate Island of Jean Laffite and Galveston: Gateway on the Gulf, but if you only have limited time, they show The Great Storm with regularity and it gives visitors important history before exploring.
I found the Grand 1894 Opera House, which is currently under renovation and is closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. I then found the US Customhouse, which had served as a post office, custom house, and courthouse for over a century.
I worked my way to Broadway and walked over a mile down the strip. I passed the Texas Heroes Monument, donated in the 19th century by philanthropist Henry Rosenberg. It honors those who served in the 1836 Texas Revolution. On the opposite end of the civil rights spectrum, I also walked past Ashton Villa, which tradition states had a significant role in the Juneteenth announcement that informed the last remaining slaves in the United States that they were officially freed. While there is no hard historical evidence to show that the Ashton Villa location was central to the event, annual celebrations are still held on the grounds.
The history buff in me couldn’t leave the island without taking an in-depth tour of at least one historical site.
W.L. Moody, Jr. built one of the nation’s great business empires in the early 1900s. He purchased the 31-room mansion in 1900 and his family moved in shortly after the hurricane. His daughter Mary ensured that the home would be restored to its original state and used as a museum for the people of Galveston to show what life was like for people in the early 20th century. The basement, which originally housed the kitchen and servant’s quarters, is now home to the Galveston Children’s Museum. The main house is open for self-guided audio tours.
This gorgeous home was the highlight of my trip and the audio tour was full of history of both the island and the family. I highly recommend spending the $15 if island visitors aren’t headed straight to the beach.
Surrounded by history
I love old cities that have maintained their historic charm even with modern changes all around. Historic downtown Galveston has plenty of shops and restaurants (which I’m sure will fully recover once the pandemic is past us) all housed in old buildings that have been around since before the turn of the 20th century.
The area around historic downtown feels a lot like New Orleans, houses and storefronts with balconies, blooming plants all year round, and the strong feeling of stepping into the past. While Galveston is more seaport Victorian than French Creole, it continues to embrace that history, even new construction trying to blend in with the surroundings. That can be seen in the churches, stores, and homes.
A final interesting note was all of the fun sea turtles that were all over downtown, reminding me of many of the fun sculptures that show up on the bluff near my parents’ home in Southwest Michigan. Sea turtles are important to the Gulf ecosystem and the many artistic portrayals of life on the island were fun to see.
It became abundantly clear to me that I would need to visit the island another time if I wanted to capture more of the history, only this time perhaps I’ll drag my family along for the journey.