Skip to main content

Galveston, September 8, 1900:
When The Hurricane Struck

July 2024
15min read

Weatherman Joseph L. Cline worked late in the austere quarters of the Galveston office Friday nicht, September 7, 1900. A twenty-nine-year-old bachelor, a nondrinkcr in a city where liquor Rowed, and a man who was fascinated by his work, Cline did not object to the hours. Furthermore, his own brother Isaac was in charge of the office and had helped him get the job; Isaac was, he reasoned, entitled to loyalty.

Still, Joseph (Mine was weary, and he was looking forward to sleep. In addition to handling his usual duties that day, he and his brother and a third observer, John D. Blagden, had become increasingly concerned about a tropical cyclone whirling somewhere to the southeast, over the tepid Gulf of Mexico.

The storm had first been reported to Galveston on Tuesday, the fourth, when the Weather Bureau’s central oilier in Washington. D.C., sent a terse wire: “tropical storm disturbance moving northward over Cuba.” In those days only the central office had authority to issue storm warnings; about all anyone else could do was watch the weather, telegraph his own observations, wait for central office advisories, and distribute them when the time came.

But it had seemed, for this disturbance, that the time would not come. On Tuesday the storm had rolled across Cuba and was travelling almost due north, apparently heading for Florida. On the following morning its center was a short distance northwest of Key West. On Thursday, however, the storm had veered almost due west, and by Friday the center was somewhere southeast of the Louisiana coast.

At 10:30 that morning Isaac Cline had received notification that Galveston should be included in the storm warning. Five minutes later he ran two signal pennants up the pole atop the Levy Building, where the Weather Bureau was located. They flapped in a seventeen-mile-per-hour wind. Most Galvestonians knew that the red Hag with a black center meant that a storm of “marked violence” was expected. Above that Hag fluttered a white pennant: the storm would corne from the northwest. Since winds of a tropical cyclone blow counterclockwise around a relatively calm center, or eye, the central office had thus evidently forecast that the hurricane would move inland somewhere east of Galveston. Isaac reflected that if this happened the city would be in less danger, studies having shown that cyclone damage was less on the left side than on the right, where the speed of the storm s advance is added to the storm’s wind velocity.

That Friday morning the Galveston weathermen had noticed the first clear signs of an approaching hurricane: an increasing Gulf swell, rolling in from the southeast, and feathery cirrus clouds. The cirrus, too, came from the southeast; there were only a few at first, but a trained observer would know that they presaged heavier clouds.

During the day, Joseph had become aware of this tropical storm, hut his increasing anxiety was not much more than a weatherman s usual concern for contributing to an accurate forecast—for providing advance notice of a weather change.

Neither were other Galvestonians especially worried. Theirs was, after all, a substantial city: with 37,000 inhabitants, it was the fourth largest in Texas—a flourishing commercial center, a tourist attraction, a seat of culture. Moreover, the residents of this island municipality had become familiar with tropical hurricanes; Galveston had survived many in the past. First Hoors of residences and business buildings were elevated several feet above the sandy ground level as a safeguard against “overflows,” tidal inundations of the city. An overflow was frequently an occasion for a holiday—clerks went home and youngsters splashed in the streets. The atmosphere was like that in a northern city during a snowstorm.

As the storm edged closer late that Friday night, Joseph completed his day’s duties. Working by the light of a bare electric bulb, he finished a weather map, the only task now keeping him from sleep. Then he left the building and walked through empty, breeze-cooled streets to the post office, where he deposited the map for dispatch on an early-morning train to the Texas interior. Roused somewhat by the exertion, he then hiked more than a mile to his brother’s home, four blocks from the beach, where he had a room. At one o’clock he sank into bed; his sleep was restless despite his weariness.

Isaac Cline’s sturdy, two-story frame house was situated on a lot that was 5.2 feet above sea level. It had been built to withstand Gulf storms—to withstand the worst storm, in fact, that its owner could imagine, and he had been in the weather service eighteen years, eleven of them in Galveston. The first floor was elevated above the high-water mark of Galveston’s most recent big overflow, a storm in 1875 that had brought with it an 8.2-foot tide.

The house reflected the dine brothers’ methodical personalities. Both were practical, serious, rather scholarly men of remarkable integrity. Both had earned Ph.D.’s from AddRan College, now Texas Christian University in Korl’ Worth. Both were tall, slim, active; they prided themselves on their good health, which they guarded carefully. Isaac and his wile, Cora May, had three daughters, aged twelve, eleven, and six.

While Joseph slept, the morning edition of the Galveston News was being printed. In it appeared a local weather story whose hopeful final paragraph noted that at midnight “the moon was shining brightly and the sky was not as threatening as earlier in the nighl. The weather bureau had no late advices as to the storm’s movements and it may be that the tropical disturbance has changed its course or spent its force. …”

But anyone who had observed the tide now thundering ashore to the south would have known the storm had not changed course. The swells had increased continuously, and they were rolling ever farther inland against a stiffening north wind that ordinarily would have tended to break them up.

Four blocks from the beach, in the room where Joseph slept, the roar of the breakers was audible; perhaps that explained why he slept so fitfully. At four o’clock he awoke, filled with what he later described as a “sense of impending disaster.”

“I sensed,” he said, “that the waters of the Gulf were already over our back yard. Une glance out of the south window … showed me that my presentiment was correct. I immediately awoke my brother.”

The two Clines decided on a division of duties: Joseph would return to the office to handle observations and to telegraph developments to the central office. Isaac would harness the horse to his two-wheeled cart and hurry to the beach to awaken residents and warn them back to higher ground. He was to keep an eye on the rising tide.

Before five o’clock, then, Isaac stood watching the dirty brown turbulence that was the Gulf—where only a few days earlier there had been crowds of tourists from all over the state enjoying late-summer relaxation in the clean sand and warm surf. He observed the swells, and the wind blowing ineffectually against them, and he drafted a message for the central office: “Unusually heavy swells from the southeast, intervals one to five minutes, overflowing low places south portion of city three to four blocks from beach. Such high water with opposing winds never observed previously.” Cline knew this was no ordinary storm tide.

Immediately he began a Revere-like ride up and down the beach, warning people to leave low areas. Comparatively few heeded his advice. Most residents, having experienced overflows before, were not worried. They were sure the Gulf was harmless. And some people simply never received any warning. By seven o’clock most Galvestonians were awake. Many had, in fact, already finished breakfast and were preparing for a full Saturday’s work; in 1900 the six-day week was routine. Many residents near the beach, however, stopped long enough to watch the tremendous display put on by the giant waves. It was a grand sight, they agreed, and the word began to spread across the city. Other citizens hurriedly dressed for wet weather and came to view the spectacle, arriving by horse and buggy, by streetcar, on foot. They watched, entranced, while enormous waves demolished amusement houses, a bathhouse, and piers.

At least one youngster viewed the scene with alarm—King Vidor, who later became a motion-picture director. Long afterward, he recalled that moment:
As we looked up the sandy street the mile to the sea I could see the waves crash against the streetcar trestle then shoot into the air as high as the telephone poles. Higher. My mother didn’t speak as we watched three or four waves.

I was only six years old then but I remember now that it seemed as if we were in a bowl looking up toward the level of the sea and as we stood there in the sandy street, my mother and I, I wanted to take my mother’s hand and hurry her away. I felt as if the sea was going to break over the edge of the bowl and come pouring down upon us.

The tide continued to rise during the rest of the morning. The water, encroaching from Galveston Bay to the north (forced ashore on the bay side by the prevailing winds), was coming in even larger volume from the Gulf side, where the waves were growing ever more tremendous. In the low areas of the city, water quickly covered the streets. The inexorable tide—and a rising, whipping wind—soon forced most of the curious at the beach to seek shelter.

At 10:00 A.M. Joseph Cline, at the Weather Bureau, received a telegraph order to change the storm warning from northwest to northeast. Hoisted within five minutes, the flag was soon ripped apart by the wind. Later the flagstaff itself was destroyed. The significance was not lost; the city might be on the storm’s immediate right after all. During the morning the wind in Galveston had been mostly from the north, varying from northwest to northeast, and any weatherman could realize that it would come later from the east, southeast, and south, that being the pattern for a tropical hurricane. And when the wind went to the east and southeast it seemed likely to throw the Gulf over Galveston Island. By noon the Gulf had crept halfway across the city in some places, and had submerged the two causeways linking the island with the mainland.

At 2:30 in the afternoon Joseph went up to the Levy Building’s roof. He found that the rain gauge had blown away. The last reading was 1.27 inches, but the Weather Bureau later estimated that a total of ten inches fell during the storm period. He had completed the rest of a special observation, to be telegraphed to Washington, and had returned to the third-floor office when Isaac, still warning people on the south side of the island, stopped long enough to telephone. He had realized by this time that “an awful disaster” was upon the city. He told his brother, “Half the city is under water.” Then he relayed some additional information for the central office, stressing the need for relief.

Joseph added his brother’s information to his own report and left for the Western Union telegraph office to dispatch it. He waded through the business section, through water swirling knee-deep in places, picking his way among floating wooden pavement blocks. When he reached the Western Union office he learned that the wires had been down for two hours.

He went to the Postal Telegraph office, a few doors beyond; its wires were also down. He struggled back to the weather office.

He finally managed to get a telephone call through to the Western Union office in Houston. Just as he finished reading his message, the telephone wire snapped, leaving Galveston isolated from the world.

Joseph then left the office in John Blagden’s care and struck out for the beach area to help his brother. Again he struggled through flooded streets, while gusts of wind frequently blew him off his course. Along the way he shouted warnings that the worst of the storm was still ahead. When he could not make his voice heard above the wind he pointed to the center of the city, urging people to go there.

Still, many residents stayed put. Some were confident that their houses could weather even this storm; and by now they had also realized that venturing out had become too dangerous. Slate sharp enough to decapitate a man was flying about, carried by a wind approaching one hundred miles per hour; bricks, lumber, and pieces of metal were raining down.

From late afternoon on, many residents were literally caught in a trap. Those in beachfront houses had delayed too long, but now they were afraid to leave.

At 5:15, while Joseph was nearing his brother’s residence, the wind gauge atop the Levy Building whirled to pieces. The last recorded velocity was eighty-four miles per hour, but the wind was gusting to at least one hundred. Isaac later estimated a velocity of “110 or 120 miles an hour”; some guesses went higher.

Joseph climbed the steps to his brother’s front porch. He motioned to several persons across the street to go into town; then he entered the house. His brother was already there, along with nearly fifty neighbors.

Joseph’s first concern, typically, was for his job. He reported to his brother that the barometer had dropped below twenty-nine inches. But when Isaac advised him to take the horse and return to the office, he refused. His usefulness there had ended, he had concluded; perhaps here he could be of some assistance.

Downtown, from Saint Mary’s Cathedral, the Angelus rang out in the six o’clock gloom. To Father James M. Kirwin, the pastor, it sounded like “a warning of death and destruction.” Suddenly the cathedral towers swayed. The two-ton bell was torn from its iron bands and clasps, and crashed to the floor. The Right Reverend Nicholas Gallagher, bishop of the diocese of Galveston, turned to Father Kirwin, gestured toward several other clergymen waiting in the room, and said, “Prepare these priests for death.”

Nearer the Gulf, the eastern and western portions of the city were being swept away. Roaring seas smashed houses to debris and hurled the wreckage against structures farther inland. Most survivors said that by the time the storm reached its peak they held out no hope of living through it. They watched as brick buildings were flattened by the undermining action of the water, and as victims were cut, bruised, or killed by debris. Worst of all, they heard their own buildings creak and groan. Most had resigned themselves to dying. They hoped it would happen quickly.

In one house near the beach a group of fifty hovered in a second-floor bedroom. Above the ceaseless din of the storm several of them heard a little girl’s voice ask, “Mamma, how can I drown?”

For her and for hundreds of other Galvestonians, the answer came just after six. A four-foot storm wave, sweeping ashore ahead of the hurricane’s vortex, crashed over Galveston Island, destroying many of the buildings yet standing.

About six blocks east of the Cline residence, Clarence Howth, an attorney, realized the effects of the wave. A new father, Howth was understandably concerned about the welfare of his wife and their hoursold baby. With them were Mrs. Howth’s father, Dr. John B. Sawyer, her brother, a nurse, and a maid.

When the water rose almost to their second-floor bedroom Howth supervised the transfer of his wife and child up the steep stairs to the attic. Soon the salt spray was coming in the attic window.

Mrs. Howth called to her father, “Papa, are we going to die?”

“No, daughter,” he answered. “It’s almost over now.” Within minutes the house collapsed.

“The crash threw me away from my wife, and I sank underneath the water,” Howth recounted. He struggled to the surface, grabbed a window frame, and clung to it while he was carried out into the Gulf and back again. Like many other Galvestonians, he had lost his family, his house—everything but his life.

Shortly before the storm wave struck, Isaac Cline had opened the front door a crack to watch the weather. While he was peering outside, the sudden rise of four feet sent water above his waist before he could move. The Gulf, now ten feet deep around his home, had reached a record tidal level of 15.2 feet. One hour later, the Cline residence stood alone; all nearby houses were gone.

The people in the Cline house were crowded into a second-floor room on the windward side; the Clines had reasoned that if the house were blown over, they would be on the top wall as it fell. Joseph warned them that collapse was imminent. Indeed, they heard and saw wreckage from other buildings crashing against the house; by 7:30 both the front and rear porches had been sliced off. Then they observed, bearing down upon them, a great piece of wreckage from what had been a streetcar trestle. Rails still held it together—it was a two-hundred-foot-long battering ram powered by more energy than man could ever hope to generate. As the trestle moved, it gathered random wreckage. It upset one raft carrying twentyfive persons and swept on toward the Cline house.

Some of the crowd became panicky. Many had begun to sing, in a prideful effort to discipline themselves, but others surrendered to hysteria. At impact, they felt the house shudder and move; it was afloat. The wind caught it and forced it into a slow forward roll; but before it capsized, Joseph grabbed the hands of two of his nieces and lunged backward through the window. He smashed through the glass and the storm shutters, and the momentum carried all three through the opening. The house rolled over, and then bobbed to the surface. Joseph and the two youngsters found themselves alone on the top side, clinging to the outside wall. To their knowledge no one else had survived. Rain drenched them, but they saw that the clouds had begun to break. They even had an occasional glimpse of the moon.

Joseph, remembering that drowning persons will seize any object within reach, crawled to the broken window and yelled “Come here! Come here!” into the darkness below. Then he lowered his legs through the opening and swung them back and forth in the water. There was no response.

The wall on which they crouched began to pitch. Under the pounding their insecure refuge was slowly breaking up.

Nearby, but unseen, Isaac and his youngest daughter were clinging to floating debris. He had seen his brother break through the window; but then a dresser had skidded across the room and pinned him and his wife and the daughter against a mantel. All three had been carried under water, and Isaac was certain he would drown. Despairing, he decided to take water into his lungs, and when he did blackness engulfed him.

But he regained consciousness. He realized that his head was above water and that several large, bobbing timbers were brushing against his chest. Nearby he saw his daughter, on a shattered piece of the roof, trying to raise herself, but a plank across her back held her down. He regained his senses in time to see a board careening toward her; he raised his hand and deflected it. Then he groped in the debris-littered water for his wife, but he could not find her.

Isaac crawled onto the piece of roof that held his daughter and took her in his arms. A few minutes later he discerned three human shapes bent low on pitching debris, about a hundred feet to windward.

“Who’s there?” he shouted into the storm. One of his daughters called back, “Who are you?” The Cline family were reunited about half an hour after the house had fallen—all but Mrs. Cline, of whom there was no sign.

They were forced to keep moving from one sinking piece of debris to another. At one time a floating house bore down upon them, but just before it struck, the two men grabbed for its top; their weight was enough to pull the top far enough down for all of them to scramble onto it. They huddled there for three hours.

Occasionally one of them would be knocked off the “raft” and would have to fight his way back through the water. Once, while drifting toward the city again, they heard cries from the second-story window of a house in their path. But they were helpless: their raft rammed into the house, and Isaac was hit by some falling timber. Luckily, he was not badly hurt.

At one point Joseph noticed a small girl struggling in the water—his youngest niece, he assumed, knocked off the raft. He grabbed for her dress and pulled her out. Several minutes passed before he realized that all three of his nieces had been accounted for and that this girl was a stranger.

The storm had begun to diminish noticeably. Bright moonlight occasionally illuminated the ghastly scene of destruction, and the southerly wind had rather suddenly become almost gentle. The five Clines and the young stranger felt their raft plow into other wreckage; it shuddered and stopped. They were “aground” in the midst of debris piled fifteen and twenty feet high.

They saw, about fifty yards away, a two-story house poking above the wreckage and decided that it offered the most immediate haven. Joseph went first, gingerly picking his way across the debris for a few feet, then turning and taking the children from his brother, who lifted them to him one by one. Thus they finally reached the house, where the occupants pulled them in through a second-floor window. They were amazed to find themselves only a few blocks from where their own house had stood.

By ten that night the storm was well past; the center had moved inland a few miles to the southwest of the city. The south wind, though now comparatively slight, pushed some of the water in the northern section of Galveston back into the bay. The area to the south, however, was not so fortunate. There the same wind tended to hold the flood on the island, and a line of debris several blocks inland, acting as a dam, also kept the water from flowing back into the Gulf.

An eerie stillness settled over Galveston as the water and wind relinquished their hold. Occasionally the dreadful quiet was broken by the cry of someone buried beyond help in the debris. But the cries soon ceased, and weeks—months—were required to recover the victims. The body of Isaac Cline’s wife was not located until October 3—under the very wreckage on which her family had drifted until it went aground. Many victims could not be identified. Others—and there were hundreds—were never found; they had simply vanished in a storm that took between six and eight thousand lives and cost seventeen million dollars in property damage. It was the worst recorded natural disaster that has befallen North America.

The catastrophe was so great that some Galvestonians were quite willing to abandon their city; but most residents at once involved themselves in rebuilding.

The recovery was astounding. The city built a sea wall seventeen feet above mean low tide, and over a foot above the 1900 storm level. Finished in 1904, the wall was put to the test eleven years later, when another hurricane and a fourteen-foot tide assaulted the city. Property damage was less than five million dollars—and only twelve lives were lost.

Galveston raised its ground level by as much as seventeen feet by pumping in sand from the floor of the Gulf. The process necessitated first raising buildings, telephone poles, streetcar tracks, and shrubbery; the heaviest building raised weighed three thousand tons.

A short time after the 1900 hurricane Galveston devised the city commission form of government. Its previous format—a mayor and twelve aldermen—had long been fiscally unsatisfactory and had been unable to cope with various specific duties in digging out from the storm. The city commission idea soon spread to other municipalities across the country. (In 1961 Galveston again switched its type of government, this time to the council-city manager format.)

Before the storm a favorite topic of conversation in Galveston had been the new century, and particularly the date it would begin. The Vatican, among other world authorities, had declared it would start January 1, 1901, and predominantly Catholic Galveston largely accepted this, although a few insisted the actual date was January 1, 1900. But the nineteenth century actually came to an abrupt end for the island city on September 8, 1900. Nowhere else was the changing of the centuries more noticeable, for the lives of virtually all Galvestonians had been vitally affected.

Clarence Howth, one of those to whom the storm had granted a grudging stay of execution, is a case in point. Two weeks after the hurricane he visited the lot near the beach where his home had stood—where, on the Friday night before the storm, he had been watering cauliflower plants in his back yard; it was just hours before he had become a father. Now there was only a torn piece of garden hose attached to a water pipe to mark the site.

“It seemed as a dream,” he mused, “of a thing that had never been.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.