12 Galveston Time Capsule Adventures

The Little Island That Could

by Ria Nicholas

Galveston, Texas is a microcosm of some of the greatest social upheavals in U.S. history.  In a sense, the narrative of an entire nation is distilled in the sands of this diminutive 200-square-mile barrier island. Tattooed Natives, shipwrecked explorers, determined slaves, brazen pirates, and barons of industry all contributed to the exploration, exploitation and exaltation that molded her.

Anonymous portrait believed to be of pirate Jean Lafitte, courtesy Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas

Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca, who was shipwrecked here in 1528, found himself enslaved by local Karankawa Indians. He dubbed the island “Isla de Malhado” or “Isle of Doom.”  The cursed French explorer La Salle merely called her “San Louis.”  Jean Lafitte, notorious smuggler and slave trader, organized a pirate camp on the island and named it “Campeche.” Ultimately, however, the island – and city – were named in honor of Count Bernardo de Gálvez, colonial governor of Spanish Louisiana and Cuba, who supported American patriots during the Revolutionary War.

Geography played a pivotal role in the success, demise, and rebirth of Galveston. Following her official establishment as a port by the Congress of Mexico in 1825, Galveston quickly grew into a vibrant hub for commerce. Trade continued to flourish on the island after Texas gained its independence and later, while under the jurisdiction of the United States. The Island’s economy included, unfortunately, one of the largest slave markets in the South.

During the Civil War, the city was blockaded, captured, occupied and recaptured. Then, in June of 1865, its wharves and business district became the locus of a delayed announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation that gave rise to the Juneteenth Holiday. Over the ensuing years, Galveston’s trade expanded to rival that of the port of New York City, earning the city the nickname “Wall Street of the South.”

Galveston Texas, 1885. color lithograph – lithographer unknown. Courtesy Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.

All the prosperity and jubilation, however, ended with the arrival of the Great Hurricane of 1900, which remains the worst natural disaster on record in U.S. history. With 130-mile-per-hour winds and a 15 ½ foot storm surge that swept over the entire sand-bank island, the hurricane claimed more than 6,000 lives and destroyed 3,600 buildings.

Carrying out bodies just removed from the wreckage – Galveston, Texas – 1900. Image is in the public domain.

Following the storm, resilient survivors buried their dead and set to work building a seawall along the beachfront. They raised the elevation of the entire city an astonishing 17 feet, lifting more than 2,100 buildings on jacks and pumping in tons of sand from the bay. 

Galveston’s come-back, rising from a maelstrom of despair to re-imagine herself a thriving tourist mecca, serves as a template for resilience in the face of present-day adversities.

Hotel Galvez, Galveston, Texas – 1911. Image is in the public domain.

With so many diverse threads woven into the cultural fabric of the city, laypersons and history buffs alike will find plenty to pique their interest.

Sign up for more articles. It’s free:

1. CHART A COURSE FOR FUN ABOARD THE TALL SHIP ELISSA

The Elissa, designated “The Official Tall Ship of Texas” by the Texas Legislature, is not a replica like so many of her sisters. She is a true original and one of the world’s oldest, fully-functional tall ships.

(Click on the link to view the video:)

3:26 minute video containing archival footage of an historic trip aboard the Elissa, shot in 1995 in standard definition

Launched in Aberdeen, Scotland during the final glory days of the Age of Sail, she sailed under various flags and names. Records show that Elissa carried cotton from the Port of Galveston in 1883 and 1886.  She ended up in the hands of smugglers, who tried to have her scrapped in Greece. Abandoned and altered almost beyond recognition, that should have been the end.

Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Roadell Hickman; courtesy U.S. Navy

But through an accident of good fortune and the tireless efforts of many individuals, she was eventually rescued and restored by the Galveston Historical Foundation. Today, the square-rigged barque joins the Galveston Historic Seaport as a floating exhibit. Tourists can walk her gangway and stroll her decks to better imagine the spray on their faces and the wind snapping the canvas!

For directions and information on hours and admissions, go to www.galvestonhistory.org.


2. GET IN THE SPIRIT OF A GHOST TOUR
Sinking mausoleum.
Macabre fact: The grave markers in the cemetery on Broadway in Galveston actually represent only about 1/4 of the departed population buried there. As the graves slowly sink into the sand, more bodies are buried on top.

Galveston has taken center stage in the hurly burly of countless human dramas, both social and personal.  Through the centuries, nuns and prostitutes, entrepreneurs and felons have crossed her broad avenues and seedy wharves, and more than one bride, pale with anxiety, has paced the widow’s walk*. Is it any wonder that some folks consider Galveston a hot spot for paranormal activity?  Fun, even for skeptics, ghost tours offer an alternative to the traditional.  Several companies provide walking tours of noted Galveston haunts: the historic Strand, the scandalous ‘red light district’, and the weathered markers and above-ground mausoleums of old cemeteries.  Along with hunting for apparitions, guides relate fascinating historical detail and local lore.  Tag along to catch some eerie vibes.

The setting for this video is the second floor of Riondo’s Ristorante in the Hutchings-Sealy building at the corner of Strand and 24th Street. The building was designed by Nicholas Clayton (who also designed Bishop’s Palace, below) and built in 1896 to replace a previous bank building. It represents an early example of steel frame construction.

(Click on the link to view the video:)

4:03 minute video including an interview with Dash Beardsley of Ghost Tours of Galveston Island

Among the stories floated in the wake of the Great Storm of 1900 is that of a young schoolteacher who took refuge on the second floor of the building. According to legend, as the storm surge inundated the island, she stepped out onto the window ledge, pulling victims to safety. She sorted the living from the dead and cared for them for several days, until she succumbed to a fever and died. She is among numerous spirits reputed to haunt various parts of the building.

For information on scheduling and pricing, visit https://GhostToursofGalvestonIsland.com.

* A widow’s walk is a railed platform on the roof of a house in a seaport town, where wives could watch for the return of their seafaring husbands. Since many never returned, it was, as often as not, a widow’s walk.


3. MEANDER THROUGH MENARD HOUSE
Menard House – photo by Ria Nicholas

Houston founders, John and Augustus Allen, built this Greek-revival-style mansion in 1838 and sold it to Michael (Fr. Michel) B. Menard upon completion. Menard, who was a founder of Galveston and a signatory to the Texas Declaration of Independence, bought the home, probably for his second wife, who died within a year of the purchase. Surprisingly, it serves as an interesting example of an early pre-fab house. Constructed in Maine, it was shipped to Texas in pieces and reassembled at its current location.  The home passed from the Menard family to the Ketchum family in 1879, but fell into disrepair 100 years later.  It was slated for demolition until Pat and Fred Burns, in partnership with the Galveston Historical Foundation, restored Menard House to its original 19th century charm and opened it as a museum in 1994. The home was gifted to the Galveston Historical Foundation in 2018 and remains the oldest surviving structure on the island.

For directions, hours of operation and admission visit www.galvestonhistory.org.

(Click on the link to view the video:)

4:36 minute video tour of Menard House, historic neighborhoods, Bishop’s Palace and Moody Mansion

4. RELAX AT AN HISTORIC BED & BREAKFAST

Several historical neighborhoods dot the eastern end of Galveston Island. The Silk Stocking District, so called because its wealthy residents could afford silk stockings, nestles south of Broadway, along Rosenberg, between 26th and 23rd Streets. Once home to the Texas Cotton Press, it is one of the most intact residential areas in the city, with houses dating from the late 1800s.

Slightly to the east, between 21st and 16th Streets, the Lost Bayou District was originally contemporaneous with the Silk Stocking District, but on a slightly smaller scale. It features homes rebuilt immediately after the destruction of the Great Storm of 1900. Its name derives from Hitchcock’s Bayou, which was filled in during the 1880s and thus ‘lost.’

Photo courtesy the Coppersmith Inn

Moving just north of Broadway, between 19th and 10th Streets, we find the East End Historical District, with homes dating from the 1850s. Here, the pattern of progressive decay has been reversed, and rotting wood, chipping paint, and rusting metal give way to gingerbread and corbels, vibrant pallets, and wrought iron filigree.

We can experience the genteel ambiance and diverse architectural styles of century homes while strolling through these neighborhoods or by staying at one of their bed & breakfast inns. Bougainvillea and oleander blossoms spill over white picket fences. Colorful gardens surround shaded porches, caressed by the ubiquitous Gulf breeze and invite you to sit a spell and unwind. Check out Coppersmith Inn, Lost Bayou Guesthouse, Carr Mansion, or The Villa Bed & Breakfast, among others.

For directions and information on pricing and availability, visit https://CoppersmithInn.com.

5. BROWSE THROUGH BISHOP’S PALACE
Bishop’s Palace, a/k/a Walter Gresham House – photo by Ria Nicholas

The American Institute of Architects ranks this turreted 1892 residence among the most important buildings in America.  Constructed entirely of stone for Colonel Walter Gresham, the home became refuge to hundreds of hurricane survivors. Vintage photographs of the 1900 Storm show the structure looming, relatively unscathed, above mountains of mangled storm surge debris.

Main stairwell, above; architectural detail, below – photos by Ria Nicholas

In 1923, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston purchased the home to serve as residence for Bishop C.E. Byrne, earning it its present-day moniker. Today Bishop’s Palace is owned by the Galveston Historical Foundation, and its carved and gilded details, stained glass, and luxury furnishings spark the imagination of tourists, who come to immerse themselves in the glory of her past.

Winter garden – photo by Ria Nicholas
View of Sacred Heart Church from Bishop’s Palace –
photo by Ria Nicholas

(Left: Galveston’s striking Sacred Heart Church, built in 1903-04, sits just across the street.)

For directions, hours of operation and admission to Bishop’s Palace, visit www.galvestonhistory.org.


6. MARVEL AT MOODY MANSION
Moody Mansion – photo by Ria Nicholas
Main staircase – photo by Ria Nicholas

Galveston socialite Narcissa Willis had always longed for a grand home. After her husband’s death in 1893, she indulged in commissioning this impressive four-story Romanesque mansion.  The result?  Her children, now unable to secure a fair share of their father’s inheritance, abandoned her to the rambling thirty-one room residence, where she lived out the balance of her life alone.

Upon her death in 1899, the home was purchased by cotton magnate W.L. Moody, Jr., whose philanthropic legacy permeates the region to this day. The family celebrated their first Christmas at Moody Mansion a mere three months after the Great Storm leveled much of the island. Tourists lose themselves in the lifestyle of the rich and famous of the turn of the century as they wander the mansion’s 28,000 square feet, filled with the opulent furnishings, personal effects and legacy of this remarkable family.

Dining room – photo by Ria Nicholas

For directions and information on hours and admissions, go to www. moodymansion.org.

7. GO FULL STEAM AHEAD AT THE GALVESTON RAILROAD MUSEUM

Long before a network of paved highways crisscrossed the land, and before passenger airlines took flight, travelers relied on trains to carry them to their destinations.

(Click on the link to view the video:)

7:26 minute video tour of the Galveston Railroad Museum with Executive Director, David Robertson

As passenger and commercial traffic in and out of Galveston picked up steam, so did the need for a railroad.  The Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe was founded in 1874 to ferry passengers and cargo to points throughout Texas & the United States.  The current terminal building was completed in 1932 and known as Union Station since it was a “union” of multiple railroad lines.  In the late 1970s, Mary Moody Northen and the Moody Foundation purchased the historic art deco building to save it from demolition. 

F-7A diesel locomotive in Warbonnet colors –
photo by Ria Nicholas

The Galveston Railroad Museum opened here, at the junction of 25th and Strand Streets, in 1983 to preserve Galveston’s railroading history. Sadly, Hurricane Ike flooded the museum with more than 10 feet of saltwater in 2008, destroying much of the museum’s collection. After three years of clean up, however, the museum reopened with forty pieces of rolling stock, including two F-7A diesel locomotives in Santa Fe Warbonnet colors.

The museum continues to add to its collection. A recently acquired mid-century modern private train car, formerly used by movie and television star Jackie Gleason, is available to rent for meetings. Various other areas of the museum complex are also available for events, gatherings, and wedding venues. On Saturdays, in addition to admission, the museum offers short rides – weather permitting – aboard an open-air caboose. Remember those?

For directions and information on hours and admissions, visit www.GalvestonRRMuseum.org.

8.  STROLL ALONG THE HISTORIC STRAND

The Strand, more than any other location, represents the heart and soul of historic Galveston. Located a stone’s throw from the waterfront, the eclectic shops and busy bistros of Strand Street reside in the cast iron-fronted, turn-of-the-century buildings that were the nerve center of Galveston’s economic heyday. 

The Strand, Galveston, Texas – photo by Ria Nicholas

Throughout each year, The Strand hosts numerous arts and entertainment events, including – most famously – Dickens on The Strand. This weekend-long holiday-themed Victorian frolic occurs in early December and is marked by plays, roaming vendors, costumed carolers, parades, feasts, and . . . of course, Victorian bed races. Shop or dine here any time of year, but if you attend Dickens on The Strand, be sure to sport your best Victorian finery and enter the costume contest!

(Click on the link to view the video:)

3:37 video tour of The Strand, The Grand 1894 Opera House and The Colonel Paddlewheel Boat

For more information on how to attend Dickens on The Strand, go to https://www.GalvestonHistory.org/events/dickens-on-the-strand.

9. CELEBRATE ABSOLUTE EQUALITY
Image courtesy Reginald C. Adams
Artist Reginald Adams; image courtesy Reginald C. Adams

The newest destination on the Strand, a 5,000 square foot mural by Houston-based artist Reginald Adams, finally provides a physical destination where tourists can reflect upon a decisive moment in Galveston’s and the nation’s history. The mural is the centerpiece of the Juneteenth Legacy Project, a platform for telling the Juneteenth story and promoting its celebration of freedom and opportunity. It depicts a pivotal chapter in the American narrative, through several graphic “portals.” The story, which begins with the African slave trade, moves on to the Underground Railroad and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It culminates with the eventual announcement of “Absolute Equality” by Union Army General Gordon Granger, in the presence of several Union regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops. The June 19, 1865 announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, two and a half years after it was first issued, freed some 250,000 Texas slaves and inspired the Juneteenth holiday. The mural is located at 22nd Street and the Strand, across the street from the former slave market and overlooking the location at which Granger is said to have made the announcement.

Learn additional details about this interesting episode in American history in this New York Times article or at the Juneteenth Legacy Project.

“Juneteenth is not about enslavement and suffering. Juneteenth is about a spirit of renewal that celebrates freedom and opportunity. Absolute equality is not about equal results but about creating a society that supports all to become their very best selves to benefit the collective community.”

–Sam Collins, historian and co-chair of the Juneteenth Legacy Project
Image courtesy Reginald C. Adams
10. DELIGHT IN A PERFORMANCE AT THE GRAND 1894 OPERA HOUSE
Photo by John Glow; courtesy The Grand 1894 Opera House

The Grand 1894 Opera House, the official opera house of the State of Texas, recently celebrated its 125th anniversary. It survived not only the Great Storm of 1900 and several subsequent hurricanes, but many years of neglect at various times throughout its history. While Henry Greenwall raised $100,000 for the original construction, thousands of residents from Galveston, Houston, and across Texas poured $8 million dollars into its restoration between 1974 and 1990. The Grand passed through several iterations, including a Vaudeville venue and movie theater, before returning to its original glory.  Today, international stars of stage and screen, Broadway hits, music, dance, comedy and more grace its stage.  Immerse yourself in the opulence of the Gilded Age – perhaps in one of the velvet-draped loges – to take in a live performance.

For directions, ticket pricing and schedules, visit www.TheGrand.com.

11. TAKE A ROMANTIC DINNER CRUISE ON A PADDLE WHEEL BOAT

During the 1800s, as commerce burgeoned across the frontier, and roads amounted to little more than ruts, flat-bottomed steam boats plied the shallow waters of rivers and bayous upstream from the Texas coast. They ferried cotton and other commodities to and from muddy riverbank landings. What started as a practical solution for commerce, soon evolved into an entertainment option. In 1831, actor William Chapman launched the first showboat. The idea caught on, and soon other family-owned showboats brought entertainment to small towns along inland waterways.

Photo courtesy Moody Gardens

Now we, too, can drift back in time with a dinner and dance cruise aboard the Colonel, a 675-passenger, replica 19th century paddle wheel boat. Note that dinner and dance cruises require advance reservations by the Monday prior to the scheduled departure date. Shorter, hour-long cruises around Offatts Bayou are available without reservations, weather permitting. Be sure to arrive early.

For directions and information on tickets and schedules, go to www.MoodyGardens.com.

Photo by Ria Nicholas

12. HEAD TO GALVESTON’S HISTORIC PLEASURE PIER

Read the full story in our separate article, “Bright Lights and Cool Nights At Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier.”


Galveston, Texas lies on the Gulf of Mexico, just 50 miles southeast of Houston via I-45.

American History Road Trip would like to thank:

  • The Galveston Historical Foundation
  • The Galveston Convention & Visitors Bureau
  • The Galveston Railroad Museum and David Robertson, Executive Director
  • The Grand 1894 Opera House and John Glow, Photographer
  • The Juneteenth Legacy Project
  • Moody Gardens
  • Moody Mansion
  • Ghost Tours of Galveston Island and Dash Beardsley, Owner
  • Riondo’s Ristorante and Don McClaugherty, Owner
  • The Coppersmith Inn

Sign up for more articles. It’s free:


Sponsored by Ria Nicholas Designs – Modern, Rustic Furniture & Decor:


One thought on “12 Galveston Time Capsule Adventures

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: