Bright Lights And Cool Nights At Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier

Image courtesy the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau

Make That Historic AND Epic!

By Ria Nicholas

There’s something especially exhilarating about the Pleasure Pier at night. Thousands of colorful, twinkling lights elevate the experience into the realm of the surreal. A study in contrasts, the buzz and laughter of the crowd all but drown out the steady pulse of the darkly mysterious surf below.

When the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier first replaced the iconic Flagship Hotel in Galveston, Texas in 2012, I didn’t realize its significance. The seven-story hotel, hovering over the surf on the 25th Street Pier, had captured my imagination since I was a child. I must admit I felt a little sad that Hurricane Ike had irreparably damaged it four years earlier. Its demolition seemed like the loss of a unique piece of Galveston history. And the sparkling new Pleasure Pier, though it looked extremely exciting, couldn’t really call itself ‘Historic,’ could it?

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The “Texas Star Flyer” and Ferris wheel at the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier; image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Galveston, Texas certainly is steeped in history. Besides miles of sun-drenched beaches, water parks, and museums, visitors can enjoy historical mansion tours, stroll the Strand, tour a display of WWII vessels, and even board one of the country’s oldest authentic, fully functioning tall ships.

“Iron Shark” roller coaster; image courtesy Creative Commons

Among family favorites, the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier now perches over the surf where 25th Street terminates into Seawall Boulevard. Its 16 rides, midway games, retail shops, and wide selection of food venues sprawl the length of the 1,130 foot pier jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. The project, which opened in 2012, was the brainchild of hospitality tycoon Tilman Fertitta, who wanted “a project that will totally change Seawall Boulevard.” And that it did.

Photo by Ria Nicholas

Rides encompass everything from a classic carousel and the “Lil’ Captain Wheel” for the little ones to the 230-foot high “Texas Star Flyer” and the “Iron Shark” roller coaster” with its 100-foot, beyond-vertical drop for the bold and the brave.

Dining options on the Pier include traditional turkey legs, pizza, burgers, and sweets – and, of course, Texas’ very first Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a family friendly American seafood restaurant inspired by none other than Forrest Gump!

To understand why the Pleasure Pier actually is historic, we have to rewind more than 100 years: In the second half of the 19th century, Galveston was arguably the most important city in Texas. Known as the “Wall Street of the South,” it rivaled the Port of New York City. But by the time the Great Hurricane of 1900 destroyed 3,600 buildings on the island, the nearby competitor city of Houston had already begun siphoning off some of Galveston’s shipping and transportation business. The loss of life, widespread homelessness, and destruction of infrastructure caused by the storm, now tipped the scale in favor of Houston.

The “Beach Hotel” sat directly on the beach between Tremont and 24th Street in Galveston, Texas, and was designed by noted architect Nicholas Clayton – who also designed Bishop’s Palace. Image is in the public domain.

Meanwhile, Galveston’s first foray into the tourism industry had consisted of little more than some questionable bathhouses. The magnificent four-story Beach Hotel that had been built in 1882, had mysteriously burned to the ground in 1898. But with the early 20th century advent of “pleasure piers” – such as the Santa Monica Pier, Chicago’s Navy Pier, and Coney Island’s Luna Park – Galveston business leaders recognized the advantages of re-imagining and revitalizing Galveston into the “Coney Island of the South.”

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Seawall with grade of island raised above beach level; image is in the public domain.

Another impulse behind such forward thinking must have been the construction of the protective Seawall on Galveston’s Gulf side and of the Snug Harbor Hotel, built on the Seawall in 1902. To convert day-trippers to overnight guests at this and subsequent hotels, the city needed a reason for visitors to stay until after dark. The key was a new, cutting-edge technology: electric lights! And Electric Park was born!

Galveston’s Electric Park (1906). By 1925 only half of all U.S. households had electric lights. Image is in the public domain.

To understand how impressive Electric Park was, we have to put it into context. Although Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879, most homes in 1906 still used gas lights or candles for illumination. In fact, as late as 1925 only half of all American homes were equipped with electricity.

Image is in the public domain.

The Park took up an entire city block at 23rd and Seawall. It included an Aerial Swing, roller coaster, carnival games, concession stands, and more – all brightly lit with Thomas Edison’s newfangled electric light bulbs. In 1907, the neighboring “Chutes Park” opened to the public. Its main attraction, Mystic Rill, carried guests in little boats along a landscaped lazy river in a figure 8 around Electric Park. The playful end of the ride consisted of a steep incline and splashy “shoot-the-chute” drop.

Brilliant though it was, Electric Park was in the wrong place. The completion of the Seawall brought about the need to raise the grade of the island and therefore to raze Electric Park. In 1910, the rides were dismantled, and the buildings were demolished.

1940s Galveston Pleasure Pier; no known copyright restrictions.

But the concept of Galveston as a resort city remained, and the desire for entertainment lingered in the salt-sea air. In the 1940s, a pier was developed at 25th Street to serve as a recreational facility for military personnel and their families during WWII.

After the war, it was transformed into Galveston’s Pleasure Pier, complete with a ballroom, open-air movie theater, and carnival midway. The Pleasure Pier, the largest of its kind in the country, did its job serving as a major family attraction and boosting tourism in Galveston until 1961. Then Hurricane Carla, a category 4 storm, slammed into the Texas coast with unprecedented force and all but demolished the Pleasure Pier.

Flagship Hotel with storm damage; image courtesy Jim Zura.

Four years later, the Flagship Hotel opened its doors on the pier where the Pleasure Pier had once stood. The Flagship was the first hotel in North America to be built entirely over water, and for 40 years, the Flagship offered guests the unique experience of spending the night above the waves. Then, in 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall.

Ike was a strong category 2 storm that carried with it a devastating 22-foot storm surge. The storm damage to the hotel provided its owner, Landry’s, Inc. (Tilman Fertitta), with the impetus and inspiration to have it demolished and replaced with today’s Pleasure Pier.

Photo by Ria Nicholas

So, as it turns out, the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier really is historic . . . and, of course, epic!

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The Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier is located at 2501 Seawall Blvd, Galveston, TX 77550. From Houston, head south on I-45 toward Galveston. Continue on I-45 until it turns into Broadway. Turn right on 25th Street until you reach the Pier.

Parking is limited in the area, and you should plan to pay. There is a Premium Paid Parking Lot across from the Pleasure Pier, next to Fish Tales restaurant, or you may find parking along Seawall Boulevard.

Tickets may be purchased for individual rides, together with purchasing a Walk-On Pass. All-day passes for unlimited rides cost around $27 for adults (at the time of this writing) without the need to purchase a Walk-On Pass. Family passes for up to $100 are also available. Height restrictions apply.

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