You are enjoying a moonlit stroll on a sandy beach. To your right, the waves are lapping gently at the shore. To your left, and immense wall towers over you, separating you from the clamoring traffic in the city above you. A sudden movement in the shadows ahead draws your attention. A figure approaches. It is roughly the size and shape of a man, but before you can see any more than that, HE DISAPPEARS.
What have you just seen? What did you just encounter?
Welcome, my friend to the Ghosts of Galveston.
History of the Island
In the early 1800s, the island was the headquarters of Jean Lafitte, the notorious “privateer” and slave trader. In 1821, the American Warship Enterprise ordered Lafitte to leave the island. He was never seen in Galveston again.
During the Texas revolution, the island served as the naval headquarters for the rebel fleet. After the battle of San Jacinto, Santa Ana himself was held prisoner on the island. He was released very quickly. Galveston the city was founded in 1836 by Michel B. Menard. By chance, it’s neighbor and chief competitor was founded the same year by the Allen Brothers. Of course, I am referring to Houston, which was just a settlement on the banks of Buffalo Bayou at the time. Galveston made a name for itself as a seaport, and its primary export was cotton.
During the Civil War, the island changed hands twice. Many buildings on the island served as infirmaries for wounded on both sides of the conflict. In 1867 the island was struck by an epidemic of Yellow Fever so bad that many bankers refused to give loans – not knowing if their debtor would drop dead before making the first payment. It was the same epidemic that struck Houston to the north, filling many graves in City Cemetery before Jefferson Davis Hospital was built over it. The epidemic was so bad that Galveston (along with Houston and tiny little Navasota) was quarantined.
Of course, any discussion of the history of Galveston island would be incomplete without covering the one event that most defines that city. The 1900 Storm is still on the record books as the worst natural disaster in US history. The death toll was estimated in the 6,000-8,000 range, with 4,000 homes and buildings leveled by wind and water. Barometer readings taken during the storm set an all-time low record for the entire United States. Before the Weather Bureau’s anemometer was destroyed, it registered wind speeds of 100 MPH.
When the storm began, the Weather Bureau assured the people that because the Gulf was so shallow, no storm could destroy the island. On the morning of September 8, the oncoming storm was greeted with excitement as children played in the puddles and pools and adults gazed at the Gulf in awe. Their awe soon turned to terror when they realized what was coming. Trains were turned back only to be lost at sea. Hundreds of people sought refuge in the Tremont Hotel (now the Tremont House Hotel). From a second floor window of the Ashton Villa, Miss Bettie and her sister threw lifelines to anyone who floated past, offering to drag them into the house and safety. As homes collapsed, floated off of their foundations, or were overturned by the tide, people grabbed onto anything that would float – doors, overturned roofs, anything at all.
When the waters finally receded the next day, bodies were removed from the wreckage and hauled out to sea. Within a few days, the bodies began to wash up on the beach by the thousands. The bodies were moved to the mercantile district – now known as The Strand – and stored for burning. Pyres burned day and night. In some cases, the bodies never made it to the pyre. It is not uncommon for a Strand shop to rip out a wall and find a storm victim’s bones behind the plaster. In an effort to prevent another disaster, a 17-foot wall was erected on the Gulf side of the island. Behind the wall, the entire island was raised in one of the single most incredible engineering feats of all-time.
The ghost of Jean Lafitte has been reported up and down Galveston Bay. A Menard daughter who fell down a flight of stairs and broke her neck haunts the historic Menard home. Of the Civil War soldiers who died on the island, many have stayed behind to haunt the infirmaries where they spent their last days. It is not uncommon to be walking up the stairs of a Strand building only to find a Confederate soldier standing in your way.
The sheer devastation of the Storm, though, seems to have provided the island with a large number of ghosts. In one Strand shop, a body is sometimes seen floating back and forth along the rafters – perhaps it drifted in during the storm and got caught under the ceiling. One of our visitors has reported seeing a phantom on one of Galveston’s beaches – perhaps a Storm victim still trying to get home? Due to the numbers of bodies placed in Strand buildings, burned in pyres along The Strand and forgotten about in the closets and crawlspaces, it seems that nearly every single building on The Strand has a ghost or two.
Could that be you on the beach? Perhaps, if you’re lucky (or maybe unlucky, depending on how you look at it). Could an avid ghost hunter find a spirit on the island? Probably, if you know where to look.
For information on the Ghost Tour of The Strand, contact Dash Beardsley at 409-949-2027.
Information for this article was found in: “Forever Changed/Unimaginable Devastation/Deadly Storm Came With Little Warning” by Steve Olafson, The Houston Chronicle; September 3, 2000; Special section, page 3. Roadside History of Texas by Leon C. Metz; Mountain Press Publishing Company; Missoula, Montana; 1994.