TEXAS HURRICANES OF THE 19TH CENTURY:
KILLER STORMS DEVASTATED COASTLINE
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, February 19, 1978, p. 3d.
Sources: "Hurricanes of The Past, Galveston Daily News, August 21, 1886; also
Galveston Daily News, Oct. 14-21, 1886, for Sabine Pass and Johnson Bayou, and for the
hurricane of Aug. 22, 1879; also hurricane of 1897, which killed 10 people at Port Arthur;
and Sept. 8, 1900, which drowned 6,000 at Galveston; and August, 1915, which left 3-6 feet
of water on Proctor St. in Port Arthur.
The use of the Spanish National Archives to locate the sites of
shipwrecked Spanish galleons of the plate fleet has verified that the archives are also
the best historical source for researching those instances of Caribbean hurricanes back to
the days of Columbus who, in fact, encountered two storms on his voyages. For instance,
when the entire Spanish plate fleet was making its annual homebound voyage along the coast
of Florida in 1715, every treasure ship went down within sight of land, and the resting
places for many of them have been found only during the last two decades.
Many Texans recall when a similar prize washed up on Padre Island near
Freeport about 1962. The exact same cause that sank it originally was also the catalyst
needed to uncover the hulk of that ill-fated galleon of the 1600s, a monstrous, 150 mile
per hour storm named Carla.
The most exhaustive study of the Caribbean storms of yesteryear,
principally from Spanish sources, was published in 1856 in the "American Journal of
Science." Of the 355 hurricanes catalogued as sweeping across the Antilles, Cuba, and
into the Gulf Of Mexico between 1498 and 1855, 96 of them occurred during the month of
August, 80 in September, and the great majority, 169, occurred in October, a month that
many would regard as being rather late in the season.
The most deadly storm of the twentieth century (and the greatest
civilian disaster of all time in the United States) hit Galveston on September 8, 1900,
drowning 6,000 people. However, the undisputed 'great killer hurricane' of all time was
spawned in the Atlantic Ocean, east of Trinidad, on October 10, 1780. By the time of its
dissipation on the then unsettled Texas mainland, 60,000 West Indian victims had been left
floating in its wake. During the 1780 storm, a large English war fleet, anchored near St.
Lucia Island, disappeared overnight, and forty French frigates sailing nearby, along with
4,000 French soldiers on transports, were lost with all hands as well. At least 9,000
people died on Martinique in the Antilles and 6,000 more on St. Lucia. For the entire
length and breadth of the West Indies, from Tobago to Cuba, every inch of soil was washed
clean of all life and property by the giant whirlwind.
Although these freaks of nature generally dissolve rapidly in the North
Atlantic, even New England has not been left unscathed. One such storm of record swept the
entire 3,000-mile long Atlantic Seaboard, from Honduras to Newfoundland.
It is only human to concern oneself with the Texas-Louisiana coastline,
assuming that that region is where most of the readers of this article and their kinsmen
reside. And for the 450 years, that coastline has suffered an enormous share of known
desolation from the Caribbean gales. Too, here and there along the Texas and Louisiana
coasts can still be found concrete pillars buried on the marsh ridges that verify where
entire towns have been washed away in the past and were never rebuilt.
The first recorded Texas hurricane sank the four ships of the Panfilo
de Narvaez fleet south of Galveston Island in October, 1518. The five survivors, including
Cabeza de Vaca, were cast ashore where they were soon captured by Indians. After many
years wandering in East Texas, they finally reached Mexico City.
Throughout the seventeenth century, many Spanish galleons were lost
along the Texas barrier reef islands, such as Padre Island, but there are no records
readily available of other survivors. Typically, plate ships leaving Tampico, Mexico,
followed the gulf coastline around to Havana, Cuba, where the annual plate fleet assembled
during the fall months of each year. Perhaps the Spanish Archives still contain a host of
secrets about the Gulf hurricanes that have not been revealed locally.
The next record of a West Indian gale in the Gulf of Mexico occurred in
1818 while Galveston Island was still inhabited by the buccaneers. Several pirate ships of
Jean Lafitte were then at anchor in the Bay, and four of them, dragging all anchors, were
sunk near Virginia Point. A half century later, when a portion of the Texas City jetty was
being built, wreckage of some of these old ships was dug up by a dredge boat.
In October, 1837, a huge hurricane lashed the Texas coast from Sabine
Pass to Matagorda Bay, but since the coast, including Galveston Island, was still very
sparsely settled, the loss of life mostly was limited to ships' crews. The Houston
"Telegraph and Texas Register" of October 11, 1837, carried a long column about
The only two large buildings on Galveston Island, the McKinney-Williams
and Co. warehouse and the Republic of Texas customhouse, were destroyed. (Note: there was
no city of Galveston in 1837, its townsite only being in the surveying process in that
year.) Velasco and the Brazos River shipping suffered immensely. Offshore, nine schooners
and two sailing brigs, plus two frigates of the Texas navy, the "Brutus" and
"Tom Toby," were either sunk or driven ashore, and water to a depth of ten feet
covered Galveston Island. Early Sabine settlers recalled a freakish incident that resulted
from that storm and testified to the immensity of the tidal wave that was driven many
miles inland. A three-masted sailing bark, 180 feet long and dragging three anchors, was
carried ashore northwest of the Sabine Pass and lay seven miles from the beach. For
decades, early citizens of Sabine Pass scavenged the wreck for firewood and for ship
timbers to use in house and boat construction.
In October, 1842, a moderate hurricane engulfed Galveston again, with
losses limited to only a few houses and the new Trinity Episcopal Church. The greatest
inconvenience for days, though, was from an 8-foot tidal wave that inundated all of the
In September, 1854, another huge storm struck all along the middle
Texas coast, sweeping clean the fledgling seaport of Matagorda. Once more, the lower
floors of the Galveston business houses were overwhelmed by the swirling tidal currents,
but otherwise, the loss of life and property from the storm was negligible in the city.
Several schooners and the Trinity River cotton steamboat "Nick Hill" foundered
in the Bay. At that moment, Galveston did not need to suffer any additional pangs of
disaster than what was already in progress. During the late summer and fall months of
1854, nearly 400 people died of yellow fever at Galveston.
With the end of the Civil War, fate inflicted a double defeat on the
frontier residents of Orange, Texas. After losing three companies of its Confederate
soldiers who died in Virginia, Orange was destroyed by a large storm that came ashore at
Cameron, Louisiana, and traveled a northwesterly course into Texas. At later dates, two
other West Indian gales, the storm of August, 1879 as well as Hurricane Audrey of June 26,
1957, swept across the exact same route.
In 1865, only four of two hundred homes in Orange survived well enough
to be repaired, the remainder disintegrating to debris. More than sixty lives were lost in
Texas and Louisiana, and 19 of 20 schooners in the harbor, plus Texas' largest inland
steamboat, the 220-foot, 2,500-bale "Florilda," capsized and sank in the Sabine
River. Due to one vessel's ignoble career in the African slave trade, it was a strange
quirk of fate indeed that the only marine survivor in the Sabine River was the ancient
schooner "Waterwitch." During the 1830s, the schooner hauled slaves along the
Texas coast, but during a subsequent gale in the Gulf of Mexico, the
"Waterwitch" was lost with all hands.
On October 2, 1867, another massive gale and tidal wave provided dual
misery on Galveston Island, much like the storm of 1854, for Texas' worst yellow fever
epidemic of record was in progress at that moment. (1,100 of 10,000 Galvestonians died of
the fever; 1,900 more died at Houston and surrounding towns.) The funeral homes in the
Island City were already filled with plague victims, and the upheaval of winds and waves
only agrivated the town's grief and chaos, adding hundreds more to the death list. For
three days, no burials at all could take place, whereas many other bodies were washed out
to sea and lost.
Damage in the city was especially severe on this occasion. The brick
Washington Hotel, the new Odd Fellows Lodge, hundreds of homes, and the new rail bridge to
the mainland were destroyed. A Trinity River steamboat and a dozen large schooners
anchored in the bay either sank, were wrecked, or were swept ashore by the towering waves.
Beginning in 1865, a Caribbean whirlwind typhoon struck somewhere along
the Texas coast during every odd year until 1879. Only minimal evidence survives to verify
the hurricane of 1869, however, because almost no Texas newspapers have survived from that
year. The 1870 census returns (Schedule IV, Agricultural) at Texas State Archives record
that there were no producing orange, plum, peach, apple, or fig trees at Sabine Pass in
1870 because everything had been swept away by the hurricane of 1869. If one fruit listed
in the preceding sentence sounds foreign to East Texas ears, there were indeed many small,
producing apple orchards at both Beaumont and Sabine Pass after the Civil War.
On June 4 and June 9, 1871, moderate gulf storms struck Sabine Pass
back to back, inflicting only minor damage to homes. A much greater loss was suffered by
merchandise, shipping, and businesses along the waterfront, and a few thousand heads of
cattle drowned in the marshes. The latter storm, June 9, came ashore nearer to Galveston,
leaving wharf timbers and other debris strewn about everywhere in that area. The large
Trinity cotton steamer "Mollie Hambleton" sank, a total wreck at Williams Wharf,
and again several sailing ships were lost.
A much larger storm came ashore at High Island on September 1, 1871,
and damage along the waterfronts of both Galveston and Sabine Pass was severe. The
steamboats "Twelfth Era" and "C. K. Hall" sank in Galveston Bay en
route to the Trinity, and the old Sabine River cotton sternwheeler "Orleans"
founded at Sabine Pass, where many homes were also washed away. K. D. Keith, a wealthy
cotton broker, who also owned the "Orleans," lost everything, including store,
warehouse, steamer, and home, that he and his family possessed except their lives.
Another huge hurricane struck the central Texas coast on September 16,
1875. Damage was spread out over 300 miles, indicating that it was another storm probably
in excess of 140 miles an hour. Most of the worst damage was to buildings in Galveston,
Houston, and Victoria, but several buildings were destroyed at Wallisville, with moderate
damage at Beaumont and Liberty also. The thriving seaport of Indianola, on Matagorda Bay,
was totally annihilated. Over 200 persons drowned there, but a nucleus of survivors
remained to rebuild from scratch. It was a task of sheer futility, however, for eleven
years later, the rebuilt community would be washed away again for all time.
On August 22, 1879, another large storm retraced the path of the Gulf
gales of 1865 and 1957. And although much property damage was sustained, Orange escaped
with only a small fraction of the total destruction it had sustained fourteen years
earlier. Nevertheless, some houses were leveled. The sawmills of both Beaumont and Orange
suffered extensive roof and smokestack damage, and much sawed lumber and many logs floated
away and were lost. At Cameron, Louisiana, many homes along the Calcasieu River floated
away into the Gulf without a trace (one of which belonged to the writer's great
grandfather, Duncan Smith), and several thousand cattle drowned in the marshes.
The steamboat "Flora" capsized and sank in the Sabine River
at Orange, and the old cotton boat "Era No. 8" lost its stacks and pilot house.
Devastation along the waterfront at Sabine Pass was equally as great. The steamer
"Pelican State," at that moment engaged in Neches River channel clearance, was
driven irretrievably a quarter mile into the marshes, and the old Neches cotton boat, the
"Laura," lost stacks, pilot house, and hull and deck damage.
For the next seven years, Texas received some respite from the gales,
but they returned again in 1886 to leave the coast line bleeding and battered and snuff
out another 500 lives. On August 20, a giant hurricane came ashore again at Matagorda Bay;
newly-rebuilt Indianola sang its swan song and died for all time. A widespread fire broke
out in the business district, so weakening the structures of the town that the winds and
waves had no problem in leveling the community. More than 300 people perished, and the
survivors moved away to inland towns. The pattern of destruction was general, even at such
inland towns as Victoria and Cuero, and all that remains of Indianola today are a few
concrete pilings and foundations still exposed in the marsh.
On October 12, 1886, Jefferson County's worst hurricane of record
erupted out of the sea, severing all rail and wire communications with Beaumont, and for
48 hours, the world had no knowledge that Sabine Pass and Radford and Johnson's Bayou,
Louisiana, had been erased from the earth. The waterfront at Sabine pass was swept clean
of all buildings, wharves, and pilings; only two buildings remained intact, and 86 people
drowned. A huge schooner carrying 300 tons of Mexican mahogany was deposited inland five
miles from the beach.
At Radford and Johnson's Bayou, La., located about ten miles east of
Port Arthur, devastation was equally as great or perhaps even greater. About 110 people
died there, and some 30,000 heads of cattle drowned in marshes. Beaumont and Orange
quickly engaged in the largest relief effort ever known up until that year, and each town
was soon providing relief and shelter to about 1,200 survivors. Relief parties, numbering
hundreds, and tons of supplies were sent to the coast, where the stench of death hung
heavily over twenty square miles of land. And Beaumont businessmen launched a nationwide
appeal by telegraph that raised $50,000 in cash for the stricken survivors.
On September 13, 1897, a small hurricane struck everywhere between
Anahuac and Sabine Lake, but the volume of havoc was nevertheless very severe at the
fledgling city of Port Arthur, founded only two years earlier. Ten people were killed
there, and two dozen buildings, including the new and large Kansas City Southern railroad
depot, were totally destroyed. This was the first gulf storm to damage severely the
state's infant rice industry.
On September 8, 1900, the nation's worst civil disaster of all time
resulted when a monstrous storm , estimated at 200 miles an hour, engulfed the proud city
of Galveston and left it buried beneath a mountain of sand and debris. About 6,000 lives
were lost, and the exact toll will never be known due to the large influx of visitors and
tourists, present for the last weekend of swimming. So great was the resulting chaos and
pale of death that space will hardly permit an adequate description.
Two-story schools such as Ball High School were either covered or else
torrents of sand carried by the massive tidal wave shattered all glass windows and filled
the buildings with silt and sand, leaving behind thousands of floating bodies. Boat loads
of corpses were carried out to sea about twenty miles, washing back ashore almost as
quickly as the boat could return. Eventually, the mass burning of corpses at Bolivar Point
became a matter of necessity because of the health hazard presented. The Texas National
Guard maintained martial law for one month.
At Bolivar Point, 46 people drowned, but more than one hundred others
were saved in the light house. About thirty miles of the peninsula's railroad tracks were
washed away, leaving no immediate cause for salvaging the Gulf and Interstate locomotive
and passenger train that had been trapped there and covered over with sand. When the train
returned to Beaumont four years later, it was billed as the only train that ever ran three
and one-half years behind schedule.
One more massive storm struck the upper Texas coast in 1915, leaving
eight to ten feet of water on parts of Proctor Street in Port Arthur and floating a
50,000-barrel oil tank all the way inland to Nederland. But the accompanying loss of life
and property did not begin to compare with that of its predecessor of 1900.
While it is impossible to believe that any good could result from the
destruction and grief such as Galveston witnessed in 1900, it at least activated the
conscience of a state and nation to the dire need for storm protection for the coastal
residents. As a result, the great Galveston seawall was built during the next four years
and, although that city is still battered at intervals by hurricanes , there is must hope
and reason to believe that the disaster of 1900 will never be repeated.
During the twentieth century, storms known as Carla and Audrey have
pounded the coastline periodically, leaving the Corpus Christi and Cameron, La., regions
as the most severely hit in the last thirty years. And these and other storms are
well-recorded in surviving publications, and in fact, still remain vivid in the memories
of countless people still alive. And although the wrath of the winds and waves will
forever remain a potent factor to deal with, the mass evacuations and advanced technology
for weather reporting have removed much of the threat to human life that once existed.
Like the sawmill and timber country, where entire inland towns moved
away when the forests were gone, the Gulf prairie is still dotted with barren,
snake-infested sites where thriving seaports once stood. Indianola, Radford, and Bagdad
(the town that once stood at the mouth of the Rio Grande River) are only three of the
storm victims that were washed away and were never rebuilt.
Between June and November of each year, those experiences of the past
that were costly in human life make of each coastal resident his "brother's
keeper." And every Gulf community stands ready to assist a neighbor in time of need.
As recently as 1957, Jefferson and Orange counties sent a huge volume of supplies as well
as boat loads of rescue parties to Cameron, Louisiana, to succor the survivors of
Thanks to Hurricane Carla as well, south Jefferson County citizens now
enjoy an expensive system of levees, flood gates, and pumps to minimize the ravages of
tidal overflows driven ashore by the mighty gales of the future, but Sabine Pass is sadly
excluded. And of course, these levees' worth as a future deterrent to destruction still
remains to be proven, for no really severe hurricane has struck the "Golden
Triangle" since 1957 (although Hurricane Carla provided some flood waters five years
later.) Let us hope that the need to "prove" the levees' worth never arises