Galveston, county seat of Galveston County, was founded in 1838 by the Galveston City Company on the northeast tip of Galveston Island, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. The harbor of Galveston Bay, adjacent to the northeast tip of the island, had been recognized since the eighteenth century as the finest natural harbor along the Gulf Coast of Texas. Because the Mexican colonization law of 1824 forbade settlement or ownership of property by foreigners and immigrants within thirty miles of the coast, there was no permanent settlement on the island by the time of the Texas Revolution of 1835–1836, although a Mexican custom house had been established there in 1830.
The town plan was platted by engineer Abraham Groesbeck in 1837 for the Galveston City Company. It was extremely ambitious by Texan standards of the 1830s: a “broad street” plan consisting of a pair of intersecting boulevards—the east–west-oriented Broadway and the north–south-oriented Bath Avenue (now called Rosenberg Avenue)—and subdivided into a tier of city blocks on the northern (harbor) side of the island and a tier of suburban “outlots” on the southern (Gulf) side of the island. Public squares occurred at ten-block intervals north of Broadway. Because Galveston was the maritime gateway to Texas, it instantly became one of the most important cities in Texas and competed with San Antonio as Texas's largest city for most of the nineteenth century. The growth of Galveston's commission merchant houses, exporting sugar and cotton and importing and distributing equipment, implements, manufactured and consumer goods, and slaves until the Civil War, produced economic fortunes that began to be expressed in local architecture by the end of the 1840s.
The city's economy reached its peak in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1872, Irish-born architect Nicholas Joseph Clayton came to Galveston. Clayton, Texas's great High Victorian architect, would so impress the city with his exuberant sense of style that Howard Barnstone, in his book The Galveston That Was (1966), called the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Galveston “the Clayton era.”
During the 1850s, the entrepreneurial elite of Houston, fifty miles northwest of Galveston and linked to it by Galveston Bay and Buffalo Bayou, began constructing a fledgling network of railroads emanating from Houston. By the early 1870s, the threat this posed to Galveston's commercial supremacy was clear to Galveston's business elite. But the city's geographic location on an island meant that as the U.S. railroad grid penetrated Texas from the east and north, links to Galveston were most logically routed through Houston. When Dallas surpassed both Galveston and San Antonio in population by 1890 on the strength of its rail-borne trade, it demonstrated that rail connections were more important to urban economic development and growth in Texas than maritime connections. During the decade of the 1890s, Houston outgrew Galveston.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Galveston was devastated by a tropical hurricane, the Storm of 1900, which killed between 5,000 and 6,000 people, with commensurate destruction of property. Although the city was reconstructed, it fell in rank among Texan cities decade by decade during the first half of the twentieth century and after 1960 began to experience population decline, a Rust Belt city in the Sun Belt.
The architectural result was fortuitous: the preservation of Galveston's extraordinary nineteenth-century buildings. Beginning in the 1970s, Galveston formulated a new civic identity based on the rediscovery and conservation of its urban heritage. Under the leadership of the Galveston Historical Foundation and with the support of such institutions and individuals as the Moody Foundation, the Kempner Fund, and Houston oilman George P. Mitchell and his wife, Cynthia, Galveston experienced an urban renaissance. This has not alleviated the structural economic issue—that there have been no replacement industries, except tourism in the service sector and medical operations associated with the University of Texas Medical Branch, to rejuvenate Galveston—but it has meant that in a state where historic architectural preservation does not have a large constituency, Galveston is recognized nationally both for the caliber of its historic urban landscapes and the skill and imagination with which it now preserves them.
On September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike struck Galveston and the upper Texas coast. The Galveston seawall ( GV49) protected the city from the hurricane's storm surge but Galveston Bay flooded into the city, burying the Strand downtown under ten feet of water, with the water reaching a depth of five feet on Broadway, ten blocks south of the harbor, deep enough to flood “Ashton Villa” ( GV16) and to kill almost all the mature live oak trees along Broadway and in historic neighborhoods planted in the aftermath of the Storm of 1900. The flooding of the University of Texas Medical Branch did so much damage to infrastructure that there were calls to relocate the entire medical school to Austin rather than rebuild. Hurricane Ike entailed minimal loss of life in Galveston, but it demonstrated once again how vulnerable the city is to catastrophic flooding and how heavy the financial and social costs are every time this natural cycle recurs.
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