Galveston, oh Galveston
I still hear your sea winds blowing
I still see her dark eyes glowing
She was 21
When I left Galveston
“Galveston,” a song written by Jimmy Webb, was made hugely popular when released by country music star Glen Campbell in 1969. It was the CMA song of the year, and has gone on to be recorded by more than 27 different artists since. Originally, people thought it was a Vietnam protest song, but Webb insisted that it was “…just about a guy who who’s caught up in something he doesn’t understand and would rather be somewhere else.” Aren’t we all…
My husband had a landmark birthday last weekend, and so we decided to mark the occasion on a “family field trip” with our son to Galveston for a few days. None of us had been there in quite some time, and things have changed since the last major hurricane, which was Ike in 2008. There is something comforting and refreshing about returning to a place you know. Because Galveston was familiar, we felt no compulsion to kill ourselves sightseeing, and had no big plans except to relax and be together. I rented a condo on the water with the hope of reducing my own anxieties about venturing out among all the “post-pandemic” travelers/revelers, and besides, how crowded could it be in a coastal town the week after Easter and before the onslaught of summer vacation?
Galveston is a fairly small city, with a population of only about 53,000 people on the island. It is on the Gulf and near Houston, within easy driving distance for many Texans, even for day trips. But it is not a sleepy little little “bay town” like many others farther south along the Gulf Coast. Besides fishing and beach-bumming, there are unusual activities and points of interest derived from the City’s long and interesting history. Having been founded in 1785 and named “Galvez Town” after a Spanish military leader, the City became home to French pirates such as Jean Lafitte, rebelled against Spain and was annexed into Mexico, then was part of the Republic of Texas (and even its capitol for a short time), all before joining the United States and then being subsumed into the Confederacy. All of these groups and all of these historic events left indelible influences that can still be seen and experienced today.
By the mid 1800s, Anglo-Americans had begun migrating to the City bringing (or purchasing) their enslaved African-Americans with them. Soon, Galveston also became a bustling port of entry for foreigners, especially German and Jewish immigrants who, together with Mexican residents, were conservative, religious, and anti-slavery. (My own ancestors from Alsace came to South Texas through Indianola in the 1840s.) On June 19, 1865, almost three years after the Emancipation Proclamation, a general of the Union Army informed the enslaved people of Texas in Galveston that they were free. Thus, a federal holiday now commemorates Juneteenth, which was being celebrated when I was growing up long before it was officially given a national designation by President Joe Biden last year.
Galveston was a real success story during Reconstruction. The Freedmen’s Bureau was headquartered there, the business community promoted progress and integration, and unions, including one of black dock workers, were formed. There were many firsts during this period: an opera house (1870), an orphanage (1876), telephone lines (1878), and electric lights (1883). By the end of the 19th century, Galveston had a population of about 37,000 people. It was the largest cotton port outside of New Orleans and new immigrants from all over poured in. It was known as the “Queen City of the Gulf” — that is, until the hurricane hit.
The infamous Galveston Hurricane of 1900 (Category 4) still holds the record as the deadliest natural disaster in the United States. Some 8-10,000 people were killed on the island (roughly 20 percent of the population), damage was estimated at more than $700 million (in today’s dollars), and a massive storm surge almost wiped out the town altogether. Just about everything Galveston had built over one hundred years was destroyed, including her allure and reputation.
I still see her standing by the water
Standing there looking out to sea
And is she waiting there for me?
On the beach where we used to run
It took time, but the City did ultimately revive and rebuild to emerge, once again, as a major Gulf port and tourist destination. Port-related industries today contribute to over $3 billion annually to the Texas economy. Galveston handles dry and liquid bulk cargoes, hosts a robust shipyard to service the offshore oil industry, and has the only cruise ship departure terminals in Texas. Which then, of course, means that the City really is a major tourist destination. Did I actually think that a coastal town couldn’t be crowded the week after Easter and before summer vacations?
Drive down the Seawall on any sunny day, even mid-week, and try to forget that this isn’t spring break somewhere in Florida. Go to any of the fabulous restaurants (and there are many) for seafood any evening and tell yourself that the pandemic never really existed. Tour the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum off Pier 21 (my personal favorite, pictured above) during the week and learn something along with throngs of school children, or visit the Pleasure Pier and relive your younger days in Santa Monica. If you’d really rather not deal with routine tourists, how about coming for Mardi Gras in February (dating from 1867), which attracts as many as 250,000 visitors, or the more literary, less rowdy “Dickens on the Strand” street festival (since 1974) in December, which only draws about 35,000 Victorian/Steam Punk enthusiasts, including one or two descendants of Dickens himself. To be sure, it’s all great fun, but pack your patience.
I don’t mean to be glib. Galveston is an interesting city with a unique blend of history and cultures that defy many of the usual coastal stereotypes. We enjoyed our visit there, as we have in the past, and we will no doubt return again. But it was not exactly the cautious, low-risk re-entry into impolite society that I was hoping for this time. Four days after we got home, the Birthday Boy suddenly started coughing violently and decided to take a Covid test.
Galveston, oh Galveston
I am so afraid of dying
Before I dry the tears she’s crying
Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun
At Galveston, at Galveston