Galveston Island holds a vital place in Texas and American history, with a fascinating past befitting its status as one of the oldest cities in Texas. The city is named after Bernardo de Galvez, who was an officer in the Spanish military during the latter half of the eighteenth century. In 1776, Galvez’s military service brought him to the Gulf of Mexico, where he served as governor until his death in 1786. During his career, he aligned himself with the forces of the American Revolution against British colonial interests, and played a decisive role in the conflict by helping to secure the mouth of the Mississippi River for the exclusive use of the Revolution, thereby making possible the safe passage of troops and supplies to General George Washington.
In 1786, Galvez commissioned an expedition along the coast of Texas, in order to chart the area. During the expedition, the gulf came to be known as Galveston Bay.The area was settled slowly, starting mainly in the early 1800s after Mexico wrested Texas from Spanish control. The first American foothold in came in 1815, when three ships and two hundred men took up residence on what came to be known as Bolivar Peninsula (named after Simon Bolivar, who enlisted these men as allies in Mexico’s struggle against the Spanish). By 1820, American interests set their sights on controlling Texas and the Gulf of Mexico, and to this end established Fort Las Casas on Bolivar Peninsula. It was there, in 1821, that Dr. James Long and his wife Jane Wilkinson Long gave birth to the first Texan.
Despite the growing presence of American settlements, Texas remained under Mexican control until 1835, when the Texas Revolution began. By the spring of 1836, Texas was an independent republic.
The city of Galveston began to take shape in 1836, when the Republic of Texas granted to Michel Branamour Menard over 4,600 acres of land on the east end of the island. Two years later, Menard and his partners formed the Galveston City Company, which oversaw surveying and creation of the new city’s street grid. In 1839, the City of Galveston was chartered and incorporated.
Because of its location, Galveston became the principal port of Texas and the larger region of the American southwest. The first major ship-based commerce through the area was made possible by Charles Morgan, who introduced a fleet of shallow-hulled schooners to counteract the shallow sandbars of Galveston Bay. By 1839, the port of Galveston was handling over a million dollars a year in trade, most of it in cotton. Galveston also quickly became a major immigration port, receiving over a quarter million European immigrants between 1840 and 1870.
Due to its combination of commerce and immigration, Galveston became one of the region’s fastest growing cities and is credited with an impressive list of Texas firsts—first courthouse, post office, opera house, hospital, golf course, bakery, grocery story, drug store, and telephone. The creation in 1873 of a railroad system improved commercial activity between Galveston and the mainland, leading to a further increased economy. By 1874, Galveston was being called “the New York of the Gulf” and the Strand was known as “the Wall Street of the Southwest”.
Unfortunately, Galveston’s early years of prosperity came to an end in 1900, when the Great Storm of 1900 hit the island, killing six thousand people and leveling the majority of the city. After the Great Storm of 1900, the people of Galveston were faced with the tremendous difficulty of rebuilding their city. The process of resurrecting the island was one of the most extensive and complicated feats of civil engineering in American history. Efforts included the raising of buildings which had survived the storm and the creation of a temporary system of functioning canals by which the city was able to transport millions of tons of dirt into the eastern half of the island. Through these methods, the sea level of much of the island was increased by several feet. This, along with the building of the Seawall, helped to ensure the survival of the City of Galveston for many years to come.
During the rebuilding, however, the port of Galveston was effectively out of commission. Because of this, commercial traffic and tourism were redirected north to Houston, which soon became one of the largest ports in the United States. The widening and deepening of the Houston Ship Channel in 1910 further strengthened the larger city’s position and left the recovering City of Galveston with the task of redefining itself.
The next phase in Galveston’s history began in 1910, when the Maceo brothers (Rosario and Salvatore) came from Sicily. The Maceos had many legitimate holdings in businesses and real estate, but they are best-remembered as leaders of The Beach Gang, a group of bootleggers which during Prohibition owned and operated numerous clubs across the island. Under the leadership of the Maceos, Galveston became known as “Sin City of the South”.
The most famous of their clubs was the Balinese Room, located on the Seawall at 21st Street. It began its existence under the name Maceo’s Grotto. Ostensibly a restaurant, the Grotto served as the center of the Gang’s operations of bootlegging and gambling. In 1928, the Texas Rangers shut down the Grotto for gaming violations. It reopened in 1932 as the Sui Jen Restaurant and then, in 1942, was remodeled and reopened as the Balinese Room. During its heyday, the Balinese Room was arguably the most famous entertainment establishment in the Southwest. Its stages hosted many of the most popular acts of the time, including Frank Sinatra, the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Peggy Lee, Bob Hope, and many more. Possibly the most enduring legacy of the Balinese was the invention of the Margarita in 1948, credited to Santos M. Cruz, Sr., a Balinese Room bartender who made it to impress Peggy Lee.
Despite operating a high amount of illegal business in Galveston, the Maceo brothers were considered in the main to be friends of the city. They generated goodwill with the citizens and paid handsome prices for the favor of the city officials and local police. Their clubs ran “clean games” and they put forth efforts to keep crime in Galveston to a minimum, going so far as to create groups of Night Riders to patrol the city and keep it safe for its citizens.
After the passing of the Maceo brothers, their operations were taken over by nephews Anthony and Victor Fertitta. However, the Fertittas did not fare as well in community relations as their predecessors. They gradually lost the support of the public, and in 1956 a man named Will Wilson won election to the office of Texas Attorney General by promising to close down the illegal activities in Galveston. In 1957, the Texas Rangers raided the city, closing down gambling houses and destroying slot machines. Sin City was out of business. The last artifact of the period was the Balinese Room, which survived as a legitimate nightclub until 2008, when it was destroyed by Hurricane Ike.
After the fall of the Maceos, Galveston went into an economic slump. It didn’t recover until the early 1980s, when Galveston oilman George Mitchell helped spur a period of renovation and revitalization, starting with the Historic Downtown District. Buildings were improved, streets were repaired, and the area became geared for tourism.
Other developments soon followed. The Galveston Historical Foundation began widespread efforts of restoration, accompanied by a focus on developing the east end of Galveston into a thriving cultural marketplace. The Grand 1894 Opera House was restored, leading to a large-scale upgrading of the downtown area. Other attractions were created and/or improved. The 1877 Tall Ship Elissa was restored to its glory days and became a major draw for visitors from around the world. Galveston’s Mardi Gras celebration was expanded and is today recognized as the third largest Mardi Gras festival in America.
These things—along with the ocean, the founding of Moody Gardens, Schlitterbahn, Pleasure Pier and countless others attractions—have helped our city become the beautiful and exciting place it is today. Travelers from around the world have come to think of Galveston Island as their favorite home away from home.
So welcome to the island! We hope you love being here as much as we do!