Galveston Hurricane: The Deadliest Day In American History

By | December 13, 2020

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Removing dead bodies to the barges for burial at sea. (NOAA Photo Library/Wikimedia Commons)

September 8, 1900 became the deadliest day in American history when Galveston, Texas experienced one of the most destructive hurricanes to ever hit the Gulf Coast. Streets were flooded, homes were destroyed, and between 8,000 and 12,000 people lost their lives.

A Storm A-Coming

More than a week before the hurricane, a ship about 1,000 miles off the coast of the West Indies noted that the weather seemed "unsettled." That's not exactly a warning sign, but that unsettled weather soon became disastrous when it reached North America. Storms hit the Caribbean and brewed off the coast of Florida, but they were nowhere near as bad as what hit the Gulf of Mexico.

It didn't help that America was only two years removed from the Spanish–American War, which ended with Spain relinquishing claims on Cuba. The Caribbean country had become a top authority in storm-tracking, so out of jealousy, the American Weather Bureau's director "shut off the flow of data from Cuba to the U.S." That meant no warning that the storm—which the Weather Bureau had predicted would move up the East Cost—was coming for Galveston. It was a real "cutting off your coast to spite a completely different country" situation.

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Floating wreckage near Texas City. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

No Warning

By September 6, authorities finally had some inkling that the storm was headed for Galveston, but by that time, heavy winds had knocked down the city's telegraph lines, so there was no way to warn them. The one message that got through was from Captain Halsey of The Louisiana, who had left New Orleans that day and noted the movements of the hurricane he encountered there.

When the local media got around to publishing information about the hurricane, they reported it as nothing more than the usual summer storm. In a tragically ironic twist, Weather Bureau official Isaac M. Cline told the public the storm waves weren't powerful enough to cause substantial damage and ended up losing his wife to the hurricane. Katherine Vedder Pauls remembered seeing the wall of water off the coast:

Everyone went about their usual tasks until about 11 a.m., when my brother, Jacob, and our cousin, Allen Brooks, came from the beach with the report that the Gulf was very rough and the tide very high ... About half past three, [her brothers] came running, shouting excitedly that the Gulf looked like a great gray wall about 50-feet high and moving slowly toward the island.