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Galveston Island has a long and colorful history.Home to the Karankawa and Akokisa Indians in the early 1500s, it was also the 1528 shipwreck site of Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca who is said to have spent 6 years living on the island among the natives. Explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle claimed the island for France in the late 1600s; but it was not until 1785 that the Spanish explorer José de Evia charted the gulf coast and named the island Gálvez-town or Gálveztown in honor of General Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish colonial governor.
The first European settlements formed in the early 1800s when Texas was still part of Spain, and later Mexico.In 1817 notorious French pirate, Jean Lafitte, took up residence after having been expelled from his stronghold near New Orleans. He built his new headquarters on the east end of the island and called it Campeche.Legend has it that Lafitte's treasure is still buried somewhere on or near Galveston Island.
Mexico, having gained independence from Spain in 1820, established the Port of Galveston in 1825 and erected the first Galveston customs house in 1830. Later, during the Texas Revolution, Galveston served as the main port for the Texas Navy which successfully blocked the delivery of supplies to the Mexican army, thus helping Sam Houston defeat Mexican General, Santa Ana, at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. Shortly after Texas gained independence from Mexico, Galveston temporarily served as the capital of the Republic of Texas when interim president, David G. Burnet, relocated his government here.
Also in 1836 Canadian fur trader and land speculator,Michel B. Menard, purchased 4,605 acres of land for $50,000, formed the Galveston City Company, and founded the town that would become the modern city of Galveston. Plots began selling in April of 1838 and in 1839 the city of Galveston was incorporated by the Congress of the Republic of Texas. Throughout the Civil War, Galveston managed to remain in confederate hands.The Battle of Galveston was fought in Galveston Bay and on the island on January 1,1863, when Confederate forces under Major GeneralJohn B. Magruder attacked and defeated Union troops. Galveston remained a Confederate stronghold even beyond the remainder of the war.In fact, news of the Emancipation Proclamation wasn't made public in Texas until the Union's Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to announce it on June 19,1865 (now known as Junteenth), more than two years after President Lincoln signed the proclamation.
Despite the interruption of the Civil War, Galveston grew and prospered.By the late 1800s its port was Texas' busiest seaport. The Strand, a downtown street named after the famous one in London, was also known as "The Wall Street of the Southwest." Galveston was not only an important commercial center but a center of culture and learning as well. The University of Texas Medical School -- the oldest medical school west of the Mississippi -- was established in Galveston in 1891, and the Grand Opera House (now listed in the National Register of Historic Places) was completed in 1894.
Another moniker for 19th century Galveston was "little Ellis Island." It earned the nickname because of its importance as an immigration center for the multitudes of European immigrants that arrived here between 1850 and 1920. At the turn of the century, Galveston's population was nearly 40,000 (remarkably close to what it is today!).
As the new century approached, Galveston's importance and soaring prosperity seemed invincible.But an unnamed hurricane that swept across the island on September 8, 1900 -- known now as The Great 1900 Storm -- proved otherwise.To this day, the storm is still ranked as one of the most devastating natural disasters in the history of the United States.
Residents knew a storm was coming but did not realize how high and how fast the water would rise; more than 6000 people lost their lives when the entire island was inundated by storm surge.Following the devastation, which left few structures standing, determined survivors transformed and rebuilt the island.It was an amazing engineering achievement which required lifting existing structures, constructing the landmark,17-foot-high seawall (1902-04), and raising the city's grade by 13 feet (1904-10); a new causeway was also built (1912).
As Galveston recovered from tragedy, its status as the jewel of Texas diminished and nearby Houston grew. While Galveston was burdened with its resurrection, Houston was expanding its rail and shipping capacity and a new industry -- oil -- was emerging with Houston as its headquarters.The Houston Ship Channel was completed in 1914 and by 1948 the Port of Houston ranked second in the nation for total tonnage. No longer was Galveston the state's premier seaport.
Meanwhile, the early to mid-twentieth century brought notoriety of another form to Galveston -- vice!After Texans adopted a prohibition amendment to the state constitution in 1919, Galveston became famous for rum running and bootlegging. Even after the repeal of prohibition in 1933, illegal gambling clubs, slot machines and bordellos continued to operate openly in Galveston, earning the city two more nicknames:"The Free State of Galveston" and "Sin City of the Gulf."
In the 1950s, speakeasies and posh "clubs" -- where illegal gambling took place -- drew famous entertainers and well-to-do patrons from all over the country.The Balinese Room, Sam Maceo's infamous club built at the end of a wooden pier that ran out over the Gulf of Mexico (destroyed by Hurricane Ike in 2008), was infamous for its gambling equipment that would suddenly fold up and disappear when police would attempt to raid the club.The Texas Rangers finally and definitively shut down Galveston's illegal gambling trade in the late 1950s.
Galveston has had a council-manager form of government since 1960 when community activists revolted against the old, corrupt commission-form of government by getting themselves elected to the commission and then writing and campaigning for a new city charter. Later that year voters elected Ruth Kempner as Galveston's first female mayor and T.D. Armstrong as Galveston's first black leader.Today Galveston has a mayor, elected at large, and a six-member council elected by district; all serve two-year terms. The City Manager, appointed by council, is the chief city administrator.
It wasn't until the ' 70s, when the Galveston Historical Foundation under the leadership of determined civic leaders, rallied to save the city's impressive Victorian architecture.Since then Galveston has slowly experienced a cultural renaissance. Today there are over 500 Galveston buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
Restoration efforts coupled with Galveston's beautiful natural assets have made the Island a leading Gulf Coast destination. Fishermen, birders, kayakers, surfers, sailors and outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds flock to the island for its beaches and waterways, and to enjoy the beautiful sub-tropical environment. Today the Port of Galveston hosts one of the nation's top-five cruise markets. The island also has many family attractions, including a Schlitterbahn Water Park and Moody Gardens. Popular annual celebrations are Mardi Gras, FeatherFest and the Lone Star Bike Rally.
Although Galveston is best known for its beaches and historical neighborhoods, many industries besides tourism contribute to the local economy -- maritime and offshore industries, commercial fishing, and medical research to name a few. American National Insurance Company, one of the largest life insurance companies in the U.S., has its corporate home in Galveston. Two of the state's largest universities have campuses in Galveston -- University of Texas Medical Branch (founded here in 1891) and Texas A & M at Galveston (TAMUG).
From its early beginnings in 1839, municipal Galveston has grown from a city of seven square miles to one with neighborhoods spread all throughout the 32-mile-long island. Today, with the exception of the incorporated West End community called Jamaica Beach, the entire island is within the City of Galveston's boundaries.
With high gasoline prices forcing families to vacation closer and closer to home, Galveston is now more than ever "Houston's Number One Playground."Second home buyers from Houston and all over the nation are making Galveston their second home. Over the past few years new resort communities have been built at both ends of the island -- Pointe West on the far West End, and Beachtown on the far East End. Also new are several high-rise beachfront condominiums including Palisade Palms -- a set of two 28-story towers on East Beach, and Diamond Beach Resort and Spa on West Beach where the Seawall ends.
On September 13, 2008 another powerful hurricane left an indelible mark on Galveston's history. Taking a path similar to the Great 1900 Storm, and ironically also striking at a time of prosperity and growth for Galvestonians, 2008's Hurricane Ike roared ashore flooding 75% of the island. As the eye of the storm passed over the east end of the island, flood waters from the bay surged as high as 10 feet in some neighborhoods. Like their ancestors and predecessors, Galvestonians wasted no time rolling up their sleeves and taking on the arduous task of clean up and rebuilding. In spite of the widespread destruction, one year after the storm, most of the island had already recovered. Once again Galveston is proving its legendary resiliency with a renewal effort that would make our turn-of-the-century predecessors proud!