Galveston Texas
A Magical Island Kingdom
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A Brief History of Galveston

The first recorded inhabitants of Galveston Island were the Karankawa Indians. They enter the historical record in 1528 when Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca, and his ship-wrecked party, were stranded on the Island for six years. Although the tribe practiced cannibalism, they only ate their enemies, so de Vaca ended his stay in Galveston without becoming their dinner.

In 1685 a French expedition, led by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, established Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek near Matagorda Bay. La Salle claimed the whole Texas coastline for King Louis, even though he did not set foot on The Island. That was the full extent of the French influence in the area.

A few years later, what would become Texas was once again under Spanish rule and control. Spanish colonial governor, Bernardo de Galvez, sent Jose de Evia on an expedition to chart the Gulf of Mexico from the Texas Coast to New Orleans. On 23 July 1786, de Evia mapped a bay along the Gulf Coast, and named it Galveston Bay, in honor of de Galvez. Unfortunately, Bernardo de Galvez died the same year, so he never had a chance to visit the area. In later years, The Island and The City took their names from the bay named after Governor de Galvez.

The first European settlement on this island was Campeche. It was founded by the Pirate Jean Lafitte, and his band of merry men, in 1817. When the United States government told them to leave, in 1821, for attacking an American ship, they threw a big party and burned the whole place to the ground! Certainly something of that defiant pirate spirit remains today, and the Jolly Roger still flies over some of the bars on The Seawall!

In 1836, a group of entrepreneurs discovered the world-class deep-water port, and by 1839, the City of Galveston was incorporated. This port was an unparalleled economic engine that created great wealth and prosperity for The Island. By the mid to late Nineteenth Century, Galveston was one of the richest cities in the world, on a per capita basis! It was an island port and trading center that was very much like Hong Kong, in its heyday!

Millionaire's mansions lined Broadway, grand houses were scattered throughout the neighborhoods, and the middle class and working class lived quite well in their charming homes, too! It was a very nice lifestyle for everyone.

Unfortunately, much of the "magic" was destroyed when the 1900 Storm (hurricane) damaged a good deal of the City, and killed 6,000 residents (about 15% of the population). This event is still the worst disaster in American history! However, the resilient inhabitants rebounded by building a Seawall, raising the height of The Island behind it, with a massive dredging project, and rebuilding the city!

What the Storm didn't destroy, the competition from the new port in Houston eventually did! The Houston Ship Channel opened in 1914, but the Directors of the Port of Galveston believed that few ships would travel 60 miles further north to save a "few dollars". Unfortunately, they were wrong, and more and more ships sailed past Galveston for the cheaper rates that Houston offered. As the years went by, those who ran the Port still refused to offer competitive rates, and the Port of Galveston continued its long decline!

As Houston began to dominate the region, Galveston was temporarily rescued by its status as an "Open City". This was a time when illegal gambling, and other vices, flourished in The Island's world-class nightclubs, and other "adult entertainment" venues. This brought tourist dollars pouring into The City's economy, that offset declining revenue from The Port. However, the era of "Las Vegas on the Gulf" ended in 1957, when the new sheriff shut down the clubs, and another period of economic decline began.

Ironically, the decline of The Port, and the closing of the Open City was probably what saved the unique environment that exists today! If The Port had continued to prosper in the 20th Century; when WWII was over, many of the old buildings, probably would have been torn down and replaced by skyscrapers, office buildings and new subdivisions. Galveston easily could have become a smaller version of Houston! If the Open City had not been closed down, the character and nature of The Island could have gone in a much seedier direction.

Galveston needs enough economic activity to keep it going, but too much will not be good for its soul. If it began to grow again around a vibrant port, and/or became a posh tourist destination, it would force it to change in ways that would not maintain the current ambiance and way of life. It has to retain the delicate balance that allows enough economic activity to prevent it from becoming an economic backwater, but yet does not generate so much growth that it forces it to become a modern 21st-Century city. There are only so many people who can live here, and visit this Island Kingdom, without changing its character. So far, the population remains about the same as it was over 100 years ago, and that's about right!

The closing of the Open City ushered in difficult times in the 1960s and 1970s, and Galveston was in a steep decline! With little activity at The Port, and tourism mostly limited to day trippers on the beach, economic activity was anemic. This left hundreds of buildings to decay and fall apart! Residents eventually became appalled by the crumbling historical infrastructure, from The City's grander days, that was on the verge of disappearing. Finally, a few visionaries saw the value of saving what had been built in the 19th Century, so historical preservation and rehabilitation became a serious business.

This is what saved and created what exists today; the remains of a small 19th-Century Southern city, upgraded with today's conveniences, and integrated with modern structures. This cityscape, on the eastern end of Galveston Island, is situated at the convergence of the Gulf of Mexico, miles of beaches, a very active ship channel, and a working harbor. All of these elements inspired an eccentric and quirky population to create a Magical Island Kingdom, with a rich and diverse live music scene, theaters, art galleries, nightclubs, restaurants, and antique shops. Only in such a place can a very unique way of life flourish. One that is like no other!

The magic was back!!

Some residents have gone so far as to say that this Island Kingdom is "Paradise"; that there is no better place in the world to live! This place is many things, but "Paradise" is not the word that comes to mind; "Magical" is much better. The people who live here are bound together by the common vision and memory of what this place was, and what kind of life you could lead here in the Nineteenth Century, which allows them to experience some of The Island's storied past each day. They are surrounded by the pieces of that era that remain, and that sets the tone and atmosphere of their daily life. At the same time, they are able to fully experience and enjoy the good things that life offers in the Twenty-first Century. They are an island people with one foot in the 19th Century and the other in the 21st.

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Galveston: A History

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Isaac's Storm

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The Galveston That Was

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Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories

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Historic Galveston
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Mythic Galveston: Reinventing America's Third Coast
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Galveston: A History of the Island
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