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Galveston’s indomitable spirit helps this historical seaport rebound from the forces of nature.
By Rob McCorkle
When I was growing up in Houston, a trip to Galveston meant an ocean swim, sunny beaches and tasty seafood. A recent weekend trek to the island drove home just what Galveston has come to represent to me as an adult: tenacity, adventure and enviable historical preservation.
Named for American Revolution Spanish hero Bernardo de Galvez and founded in 1839, Galveston has exhibited multiple personalities and a remarkable resilience in the face of adversity, both natural and manmade.
In the late 19th century, Galveston held the distinction of being Texas’ largest port, welcoming great cargo ships and legions of immigrants from Europe and Russia, but Mother Nature brought the island city’s opulent reign to an abrupt halt in 1900 when a massive hurricane destroyed most of the city, killing more than 6,000 people. Proud and determined Galvestonians raised the elevation of the city and built a 17-foot-high seawall to thwart future storm-driven sea surges.
By the Roaring Twenties, Galveston had reinvented itself as a bawdy, flamboyant precursor to Las Vegas. For decades, city boosters compared Galveston’s Seawall Boulevard to Atlantic City’s Boardwalk. It was the beginning of the tourism business that buoys the city’s economy today.
In 1957, authorities sent in Texas Rangers to bust the rackets and gambling houses. The most renowned was the Balinese Room, a world-class casino and nightclub on a pier jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico across from the Queen of the Gulf — the Hotel Galvez.
Throughout the ebb and flow of the city’s tumultuous history, the Galvez, built in 1911, has served as the community’s guiding beacon of hope and prosperity.
It was therefore fitting that my wife, Judy, and I would call the Hotel Galvez and Spa, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2011, our headquarters for our fall island sojourn.
Like Galveston itself, the Hotel Galvez has undergone numerous transformations. Photos of the Galvez circa 1911 inspired renovations that returned the beachfront hotel to its original airy, light-filled look.
While Judy relaxes in one of the Galvez’s 224 updated guest rooms, I meet Galveston native Christine Hopkins, public relations manager, for a tour of the $11 million centennial-year refurbishing that has earned the National Register of Historic Places property recognition from the Texas Historical Commission.
Hopkins notes a few extant features of the original hotel: terrazzo floors, acanthus leaf capitals on the lobby columns, wrought-iron stair railings and a brass letter box by the elevators. The tour concludes with a visit to the lower level that houses the luxurious spa and a new Hall of History.
Despite a steady rain, Judy and I head for the downtown Galveston ArtWalk, an art gallery open house along Post Office Street sponsored by the Galveston Arts Center every six to eight weeks. We duck into the 1894 Grand Opera House for a self-guided tour. Just down the street, a Celtic band performs for a small crowd in front of the Mod Coffeehouse.
We check out a few of the art galleries, including the popular René Wiley Studio & Gallery, where we view compelling pastel paintings of Galveston’s streets and alleyways and detailed wood carvings of sea life made from reclaimed remnants of trees felled in 2008 by Hurricane Ike.
After a quick cocktail at the funky, Art Deco-style Stork Club, which sports a Galveston Mardi Gras motif, Judy and I walk five blocks to Pier 21 on the harbor to dine at the Olympia Grill. The seafood at the waterfront restaurant owned by the Kriticos Brothers, descendants of one of Galveston’s many Greek immigrant families, does not disappoint. A belly dancer snakes rhythmically through the restaurant.
Though growing a bit weary, we can’t resist listening to the first set of Texas singer-songwriter Shake Russell and his band at the nearby Old Quarter Acoustic Café, the island’s legendary music club. Though the compact club is packed and we have no reservations, owner Wrecks Bell takes pity on us out-of-towners and finds us seats.
The next morning, despite a steady downpour, I meet with local birding experts Alice O’Donnell and Brenda Dawson. We head north on 8-Mile Road to “bird” the ponds and waterlogged fields all the way to West Bay, and then head to a wooded nature park in Lafitte’s Cove via Stewart Road. I’m told the area is “ground zero” for great birding, where bird watchers can readily see a wide variety of shorebirds, migrating species and sought-after resident specialties such as the American oystercatcher, clapper rail and spotted sandpiper. As if on cue, O’Donnell points out the latter 30 yards away. It’s not uncommon, she says, for birders to spot 40 to 60 species in a few hours on the island’s west end.
Our tour ends at the eight-acre Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve, where O’Donnell identifies three brown thrashers in a tree and several unusual native flowering shrubs.
My next adventure lies just down the road at Galveston Island State Park, where I am to meet with Frank Bowser of the park’s friends group, which has been instrumental in cleaning up the park to get it reopened in Hurricane Ike’s wake. He has offered to take me kayaking on one of the three paddling trails in West Galveston Bay accessed from the state park. But with angry-looking clouds boiling up in the east, he decides against it.
Instead, I join the Hall family from Kingswood on a regularly featured Saturday park event, “Discovering the Bay Shore & Mud Flat,” led by Texas master naturalist and former science teacher Jack Clason. I’m glad I have my river shoes with me as we wade out into the higher-than-normal bay water resulting from an extremely high tide. We learn about the bay ecosystem’s importance to sea life.
“This is a place where sea creatures come to breed,” Clason says, “and if you pollute it and destroy it, it negatively impacts the Gulf fisheries.”
Returning to the park’s bayside nature center, which was repaired after Ike and served for many months as the park’s temporary headquarters, I am impressed with how few reminders of the destructive hurricane remain. I cross the highway to the park’s Gulf side, which sustained heavy storm damage. Park staff are moving into a new temporary headquarters/visitor center that will have to suffice until enough funds are appropriated to implement the state park’s recently completed master redevelopment plan, which emphasizes sustainable design.
For lunch, Judy and I walk a couple of blocks from the hotel to a local mainstay, Miller’s Seawall Grill, specializing in Cajun-seasoned grilled items. It’s the kind of history-filled, homey eatery that one expects to find in Galveston.
The afternoon calls for a return to the historic Strand District to visit a few shops and explore some of the city’s hundreds of preserved historical brick commercial structures. On the way, I consult the Tree Sculpture tour brochure’s 19 addresses where one can view whimsical sculptures carved from the stumps of majestic trees felled by Hurricane Ike’s winds or the salty storm waters that inundated much of the island. We stop for a look at a couple of these remarkable carvings in one of Galveston’s historical neighborhoods.
On the Strand, one Galvestonian points out a painted line on an exterior wall 8 feet above street level that marks the height of Ike’s floodwaters. I happen to meet the owner of the 1894 J. D. Rodgers Building (Trolley Station), who, according to the personal account on display inside, rode out the storm with his wife on the third floor. “We endured a terrible night. I thought it would never end,” they wrote.
As bad as Ike was, the deadly Storm of 1900 was far worse. To get some sense of the horror Galvestonians endured more than 100 years ago, we head to a small theater at Pier 21 showing the recently digitized film chronicling the awful night when thousands of islanders perished. It’s a must-see to truly understand what Galveston has endured and appreciate its survival instincts and robust civic pride.
Few stories of Galveston’s indomitable spirit can match that of the resurrection of the 19th century tall ship the Elissa, moored today in the Galveston Harbor next door to the Seaport Museum. City philanthropists and volunteers spent countless hours during a two-year restoration effort to meet the July 4, 1982, opening deadline.
Standing on the Elissa’s polished deck and prowling the officers’ quarters below, it’s easy to see why it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991. We chatted with Capt. Dave Parker and watched a gigantic cruise ship departing the harbor, dwarfing the Elissa. Parker notes that true sailing aficionados may want to take one of the Elissa’s springtime day cruises or overnight excursions.
With rain pounding down and water rising along Seawall Boulevard, we decide to stay dry and eat at the Galvez’s celebrated Bernardo’s Restaurant. It proves to be a stellar decision.
No trip to Galveston is complete without a visit to the city’s iconic Moody Gardens, whose three glass-covered pyramids catch the eye of motorists crossing the causeway onto the island. Moody Gardens features two IMAX theaters, the Aquarium Pyramid, the Discovery Pyramid and Rainforest Pyramid. I want to see how $25 million in recent enhancements have transformed the 10-story Rainforest Pyramid.
Paths wind both through the jungle-like environment on the pyramid floor and above on a new elevated walkway in the tree canopy teeming with tropical birds, butterflies, monkeys and other critters. We stroll through a walk-in butterfly exhibit and later get within an arm’s length of the white-faced saki monkeys and cotton-top tamarins. Back on the rainforest floor, I find the delicate orchids and other bizarre flora, indigenous to Africa, Asia and the Americas.
Leaving Galveston under what are finally blue and sunny skies, I can’t help but wonder why it’s been so long since I set my watch to “island time.”
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