Telegrams from Galveston Hurricane of 1900

The deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history

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Accustomed to severe weather, Galvestonians were surprised by the force of the hurricane that hit them on Saturday, September 8, 1900. When morning dawned, the city lay in ruins.

Two-thirds of the city’s buildings were destroyed by the storm’s 135 mile-per-hour winds, and a storm surge flooded the city with up to 15 feet of water. It is estimated that over 6,000 Galvestonians, from a city of 38,000, perished in the storm.

The surviving residents of Galveston responded swiftly to the devastation caused by the hurricane, electing a committee the very next day to direct recovery efforts. The Central Relief Committee, chaired by Mayor Walter Jones, addressed the survivors' most urgent needs — food, clothing, and shelter as well as clean-up and restoration of utilities. It was their leadership that also led the city’s engineers to devise a plan to raise Galveston’s elevation and to construct a 17-foot-high seawall to deflect future storms. A hurricane 15 years later put the seawall to the test — it passed. The raised elevation and seawall still help protect the city today.

All communication to Galveston Island was cut off in the storm. By September 10, Richard Spillane, the editor of The Galveston Tribune, had managed to travel the 45 miles to Houston where he could telegraph for help. His telegram to Governor Sayers alerted the governor to the extent of Galveston’s devastation. Spillane then wired his account of the hurricane to the Associated Press, which appeared in The New York Times and many other newspapers on September 11.

The unbelievable destruction and loss of life also inspired one of the nation’s first mass relief efforts. Volunteers and aid workers responded swiftly, rushing in to help with recovery, clean-up, and distribution of aid. Private companies sent letters of support along with large donations to the governor’s office, and newspapers from all over the country requested information about the destruction and inquired about printing calls for aid. State and city governments, civic and social organizations, and individuals located all over the U.S. and in several foreign countries also donated money and supplies to the devastated city. In total, donations exceeded $1 million and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of food, clothing, and medical supplies.

Film footage capturing the level of destruction along the Galveston waterfront can be found at the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. Filmed in September of 1900 by an assistant of American inventor Thomas Edison, this film represents one of the oldest motion pictures in the world.

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Telegrams from Galveston Hurricane of 1900 Artifact from Galveston, TX
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