Galveston Texas
A Magical Island Kingdom
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The Galveston Seawall

The Texas coastline, and Galveston Island, have been visited by hurricanes since the beginning of time. Obviously, when the City was founded in 1839 these storms continued to hit this new outpost of civilization. However, for many years this vulnerable and unprotected island seemed to dodge the worst that Mother Nature could generate in the Gulf. This attitude changed, to some degree, after the hurricanes of 1886, so there was some discussion about building a seawall and raising the elevation of The Island, but there was no follow through, and no one knew how such a project would be financed.

Everything changed after The 1900 Storm that killed 6,000 residents, and leveled a good portion of the City. At that point, a seawall seemed necessary for the City to continue. Without it, the survivors may have packed up and left for good!

The manner in which
The 1900 Storm damaged the City also seemed to prove the case for a seawall. As the storm surge hammered the buildings near the beach, they broke up into pieces that floated inland and eventually formed large piles of rubble. About six blocks from the beach the rubble collected to such an extent, that the barrier it formed spared the buildings behind it from total destruction! The survivors could see for themselves that the debris fields from The Storm formed a natural seawall that really worked!!

1900 Storm; Legs Sticking Out of the Rubble - Galveston, TX
Debris fields form natural seawall

The Deep Water Committee took control of the seawall project and appointed three engineers to develop a proposal. Henry M. Robert was retired from the Army Corps of Engineers. While based in Galveston, he had been instrumental in helping to deepen the harbor.

H.C. Ripley, another member of the Army Corps of Engineers, had designed the wagon bridge from the City to the Mainland. Alfred Noble was an engineer from Chicago who had a very broad range of experience, including a breakwater and grade raising in his home town
.

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The plan that the engineers suggested featured a reinforced concrete seawall that would be 17 feet above sea level, and the height of the island would be raised to that level behind the wall, with a downward sloping grade all the way to the Harbor. At the time of
The 1900 Storm, the highest point on The Island was only 9 feet above sea level. Most of it was much lower!

The Committee accepted the plan and hired J.M. O'Rourke and Co. of Denver to build it. The principals bought the needed machinery in Chicago, and moved to The Island to get started. The City's credit was shaky after The Storm, so Galveston County stepped up to sell the necessary bonds.

The design called for a foundation to be excavated 3 feet deep and 16 feet wide. Into this space, pine pilings would be driven into the sand 40-50 feet deep. The pilings would be protected with planking driven down 24 feet.

The Seawall - Galveston, TX

On top of this foundation, wooden forms would be built 60 feet in length. These would be 15 feet thick at the base, 5 feet wide at the top and 17 feet high. The top would then be capped with a sheet of granite.

The Seawall - Galveston, TX

The side facing the Gulf would be concave to allow the waves to hit it, and then let the force curl upward and dissipate. Four foot square blocks of granite, known as rip rap, would be placed at the base of the seawall, on the beach, to help break up wave action, and protect the foundation from being undercut.

The Seawall - Galveston, TX

The design also called for the ground behind the seawall to slope upward for 200 feet to a point where it was eventually 4-5 feet higher than the top of the  wall, to further break the action of any water that over topped the wall.

The Seawall - Galveston, TX

Many projects are constructed with some variation from the original design, and The Seawall was no exception. The slope behind the wall actually ends about 100 feet from the top, and is somewhat less than 4-5 feet above the top of the wall, in many places. In addition, the height of The Seawall is closer to 15-16 feet due to confusion between whether to measure against sea level or mean low tide.  

The path of The Seawall would begin where 8th Street met the Harbor. From there it would angle east to 6th Street, and then follow it all the way to the beach. At that point, it would turn west along the beach front to 39th Street.

During
The 1900 Storm, water did not just enter the City from the Gulf; it was attacked from every point on the compass. Therefore, even though the wharfs at the Harbor would be able to act as some resistance to water coming from the north, Galveston still needed protection from the east by a seawall, as well as from the south along the Gulf. This is why the design included a wall on the City's east flank. Protection from water invading from the west would come from future seawall extensions, and from The Grade Raising; when it was done.

Work began on 27 October 1902, and was completed on 30 July 1904, for a total cost $1.6 million. The building of The Seawall, and The Grade Raising that followed, were the two great engineering projects that saved the City of Galveston. People had the confidence to rebuild the City, and their faith in these projects was confirmed when they successfully weathered hurricanes in 1909, 1915 and 1919, and in more recent years in 1932, 1941, 1943, 1949, 1957, 1961 (Carla) and 1983 (Alicia).

The 1915 hurricane was thought to be even stronger than
The 1900 Storm, and The Seawall prevented any major destruction.


From its inception, The Galveston Seawall has served two purposes; protecting the City, and acting as a Grand Promenade along The Gulf. Today, with the more recent extensions, it is often called The World's Skinniest Park. At 10.4 miles long and about 30 feet wide, it is an one-of-a-kind elevated concrete "boardwalk" that millions of people have used, and continue to use, to stroll, walk, run, cycle, skate, and view the Gulf of Mexico from a very special and unique perspective.

The Seawall - Galveston, TX
Buggies on The Seawall in 1908

The Seawall - Galveston, TX
Automobiles, buggies and pedestrians circa 1910


Extensions

Before The Seawall was even complete, plans were
already in place for the first extension. Work on this segment began in December 1904. It extended The Seawall from 39th to 53rd Street to protect Fort Crockett. The construction techniques were almost identical to the original project.

The Seawall - Galveston, TX
Fort Crockett extension under construction in 1905

The Seawall - Galveston, TX
Completed portion; Fort Crockett extension (1905)

In 1921, The Seawall was extended east, from the 6th Street turn, all the way to the Ship Channel to protect Fort San Jacinto, that guards the entrance to the Gulf. Further sections were added in 1926, to complete the defense of Fort San Jacinto.

In 1927, The Seawall was extended from 53rd to 61st Street, to give protection to the City's growth in that area. The final section, from 61st to 99th Street was completed between 1953 and 1961. It took eight years due to funding problems that plagued the project, which lead to many stops and starts.


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