Thursday, March 26, 2015


Why I’ve had storms on my mind, I don’t know. I suppose I can blame Carra Copelin and her book MATELYN AND THE TEXAS RANGER, which includes a hurricane. In addition, I have another friend who works for the Sisters of Charity, and the two influences collided. (Yes, pun intended.)

At the end of the 19th century, the city of Galveston, Texas, was a booming town with a population of 36,000 residents. Its position on the natural harbor of Galveston Bay along the Gulf of Mexico made it the center of trade and the biggest city in the state of Texas. Before the Hurricane of 1900, Galveston was considered to be a beautiful and prestigious city and was known as the "Ellis Island of the West" and the "Wall Street of the Southwest".

As Galveston entered the new millennium, it was one of the wealthiest cities per capita in the United States and appeared to be poised for greatness.

Galveston in the 1890s

And then one weekend in September in 1900, the same proximity to the sea that had made the community grow and prosper as a port city, changed Galveston Island forever. On Sept. 8, Galveston became the victim of a powerful hurricane of such destructive force that whole blocks of homes were completely swept away.


Striking Galveston on Sept. 8, 1900, the Great Storm is considered the worst natural disaster in the nation's history. In Galveston on the rain-darkened and gusty morning of Saturday, September 8, 1900, newspaper readers saw, on page three of the local Galveston Daily News, an early-morning account of a tropical hurricane prowling the Gulf of Mexico. 

On the previous day Galveston had been placed under a storm warning by the central office of the Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) in Washington, D.C. A one-column headline announced, "Storm in the Gulf." Under that, a small subhead proclaimed, "Great Damage Reported on Mississippi and Louisiana Coasts-Wires Down-Details Meagre." The story, only one paragraph long, had been sent out of New Orleans at 12:45 A.M. that same day, but it added nothing to the information presented in the headlines. Additional details were unavailable "owing to the prostration of the wires."

Beginning early on the morning of September 8, the winds began coming in strongly from the north. Despite the opposing winds, the tides of the southern gulf waters also rose, sending large crashing waves upon the beach front. During the afternoon the winds and rain continued to increase. The tides of the gulf rose higher and higher with fierce waves crashing on the beach, sending flood waters into the residential areas.

More than 6,000 (some estimates say as many as 8,000 to 12,000) men, women and children lost their lives. Among the dead were 10 sisters and 90 children from the St. Mary's Orphans Asylum, operated by the Sisters of Charity. The sisters also operated St. Mary's Infirmary in Galveston. It was the first Catholic hospital in the state, established in 1867.


The sisters were called to Galveston by Catholic Bishop Claude M. Dubuis in 1866 to care for the many sick and infirm in what was the major port of entry for Texas. They were also charged with caring for orphaned children, most of whom had lost parents during yellow fever epidemics prevalent in coastal areas of the time.

At first the Sisters of Charity opened an orphanage within the hospital, but later moved it three miles to the west on beach-front property on the former estate of Captain Farnifalia Green at what is now 69th and Seawall Boulevard. The location seemed ideal as it was far from town and the threat of yellow fever.

St. Mary's Orphans Asylum
Sister Elizabeth Ryan, one of 10 sisters at St. Mary's Orphanage, had come into town that morning to collect food. Despite pleas from Mother Gabriel, the assistant superior at St. Mary's Infirmary, for her to stay at the hospital until the storm passed, Sister Elizabeth said she had to return to the orphanage. Sister Elizabeth had the provisions in the wagon and said if she did not return, the children would have no supper.

Warning: Get your hankies ready now.

St. Mary's Orphans Asylum circa 1899
St. Mary's Orphanage consisted of two large two-story dormitories just off the beach behind a row of tall sand dunes that were supported by salt cedar trees. The buildings had balconies facing the gulf. According to one of the boys at the orphanage, the rising tides began eroding the sand dunes "as though they were made of flour." Soon the waters of the gulf reached the dormitories.

The Sisters at the orphanage brought all of the children into the girls' dormitory because it was the newer and stronger of the two. In the first floor chapel, they tried to calm the children by having them sing the old French hymn "Queen of the Waves." The waters continued to rise.

Sister Vincent Cottier and two children
Taking the children to the second story of the dormitory, the Sisters had Henry Esquior, a worker, collect clothesline rope. Again they had the boys and girls sing "Queen of the Waves." One of the boys later said that the children were very frightened and the Sisters were very brave.

By 6 p.m. the wind was gusting past 100 miles per hour and the waters of the gulf and bay had met, completely flooding the city. Residents climbed to the second stories, attics and even roofs of their homes. Flying debris struck many who dared venture outside their homes.

Around 7:30 p.m. the main tidal surge struck the south shore. Houses along the beach front were lifted from their foundations and sent like battering rams into other houses. Houses fell upon houses.

Four-block area of town after storm
At St. Mary's Infirmary the flood waters filled the first floor. From the second story balcony, the sisters pulled refugees in as they floated by and brought them into the over-crowded hospital. Almost every window in the facility was broken out, sending the wind and rain whipping through the building.

At the orphanage, the children and sisters heard the crash of the boys’ dormitory as it collapsed and was carried away by the flood waters. The sisters cut the clothesline rope into sections and used it to tie the children to the cinctures which they wore around their waists. Each Sister tied to herself between six to eight children. Some of the older children climbed onto the roof of the orphanage.

One of the sisters with children nearby
Eventually the dormitory building that had been the sanctuary for the children and sisters was lifted from its foundation. The bottom fell out and the roof came crashing down, trapping those inside.

Only three boys from the orphanage survived: William Murney, Frank Madera and Albert Campbell. Miraculously all three ended up together in a tree in the water. After floating for more than a day, they were eventually able to make their way into town where they told the sisters what had happened at the orphanage.

One of the boys remembered a sister tightly holding two small children in her arms, promising not to let go. The sisters were buried wherever they were found, with the children still attached to them. Two of the sisters were found together across the bay on the Mainland. One of them was tightly holding two small children in her arms. Even in death she had kept her promise not to let go.

Storm's damage downtown
Each year on September 8th, the members of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word sing "Queen of the Waves." The song provides the sisters and all those who co-minister with them an opportunity to pause and remember all who lost their lives in a devastating hurricane almost a century ago.


The death and destruction in Galveston was unbelievable. Thousands were dead and their bodies were littered throughout the city. It would be months before some would be uncovered. A complete list of the dead was never made. Stench from the corpses was detectable for miles. The bodies were piled on barges and towed out for burial at sea, but most washed back up on shores. Funeral pyres were started and burned for days.

Estimates are that the winds reached 150 mph or maybe even 200. The tidal surge has been estimated at from 15 to 20 feet. Whole blocks of homes had been completely destroyed, leaving little more than a brick or two. In all more than 3,600 homes had been destroyed.

Only beach house for miles
A great wall of debris wrapped itself around St. Mary's Infirmary on the eastern end of the city and then zigzagged through the city to the beach. At places the wall was two stories tall. Inside this great wall were destroyed houses, pieces of furniture, pots, pans, cats, dogs and people.

At St. Mary's Infirmary, there was no food or water. While the main hospital building was still standing, the adjacent structures, had been destroyed. The hospital was packed with those who were injured and those who had nowhere else to go.

Two of the Sisters walked about the area until they found crackers and cookies that had been soaked in the water. They brought them back to the hospital. Over a fire they built in the street, they dried the food and served it to those in need at the infirmary.
One year later, the Sisters opened a new orphanage.

Searching debris
On Sept. 8, 1994, a Texas Historical Marker was placed at 69th Street and Seawall Boulevard, marking the site of the former orphanage. The descendants of two of the survivors, Will Murny and Frank Madera, returned to participate in the marker dedication. As part of the ceremony, "Queen of the Waves" was again sung at the same time and place as it was during the Great 1900 Storm. And, as it continues to be each Sept. 8 by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.


To prevent future storms from causing destruction like that of the 1900 hurricane, many improvements to the island were made. The first 3 miles of the Galveston Seawall, 17-foot high, were built beginning in 1902 under the direction of Henry Martyn Robert. An all-weather bridge was constructed to the mainland to replace the ones destroyed in the storm.

The most dramatic effort to protect the city was its raising. Dredged sand was used to raise the city of Galveston by as much as 17 feet above its previous elevation. Over 2,100 buildings were raised in the process, including the 3,000-ton St. Patrick's Church. The seawall and raising of the island were jointly named a National Historical Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2001.

In 1915, a storm similar in strength and track to the 1900 hurricane struck Galveston. The 1915 storm brought a 12-ft storm surge which tested the new seawall. Although 53 people on Galveston Island lost their lives in the 1915 storm, this was a great reduction from the thousands who died in 1900.

If this works, this is a recording of "Queen of the Waves"

Wikipedia (Linda Macdonald, Director of Communications, Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in Houston)


  1. I've always wondered how life turned out for the orphan boys who survived the storm. They must have been both relieved and distraught.

    The three-story house a block from mine was picked up by the floodwaters, turned 90 degrees, and then set back down. It still faces that direction today, though I'm sure it looks much better now than it must have looked immediately following the storm.

    My house was completed two weeks before the 1915 hurricane hit. Tough house! :-D

    If you're ever in Galveston:

    1) Be sure to call me, so we can meet face to face! :-)

    2) Plan to visit the 1900 Storm museum. It's fascinating in ways both sad and affirming. Mankind can be remarkably strong and determined in the face of incredible hardship and loss.


  2. An excellent compilation of this tragic slice of American history, Tex. The hubster 'n I were truly moved when we visited the museum with you a while ago. As always, another excellent article. ♥

    ~ Cindy

  3. I agree! Caroline Clemmons did an excellent job. :-)

  4. What a terrible tragedy, especially when they found the children tied to the sisters. I have lots of loved ones around the gulf and it terrifies me whenever a bad storm and/or hurricanes come in. It is something I never get used to hearing about. Thanks for sharing, Caroline.

  5. I think we must have visited the 1900 Storm Museum in Galveston. Over the years, we've gone over there and roamed around. And on one trip, we happened upon this storefront least that's how I remember it. That's where I learned the most about the hurricane. The photos are astounding.
    So, in my novel Wish for the Moon, I have a young hero Max Landry roaming around Texas, homeless, penniless, directionless, until he comes upon the McGinnis farm in North Texas. In my story, his entire family perished--parents, brother, sisters, nieces, nephews...everyone, in the hurricane. In my story he had been sent to the mainland by his father to fetch his brother who was coming home on the train. But before Max got there, the train trestle on the mainland collapsed, taking everyone with it. So, he had no one.
    The story of the orphans is doubly heart-wrenching because the little things were already alone...and then they died. Bless those Nuns, they did everything they could.
    Thanks, Caroline, for this post. I've been interested in this hurricane a long time. To know that Kathleen lives there now is so interesting. She must live in a house as tough and brave as she is!

  6. Oh, we know Kathleen is brave and strong as well as a great writer. I was sad to do all the research for this article. One of the boys who survived had hold of his younger brother, but when he came to in the tree, his brother was nowhere in sight. How horrid that must have been. Could children ever recover from such an event? Do you suppose they had survivor's guilt?

  7. Great post! Loved the pictures--I'm always in awe of pictures in the wake of natural disasters such as this. I've heard the story of the nuns and the orphans before, but not in such detail. Yes, I needed my hankies. Thanks for such a well-researched, interesting post, Caroline.

  8. Carline, this was an outstanding post. I had seen an episode about this hurricane on The History Channel some time back and was dumbstruck by the devastation and loss. You did a fantastic job of bringing that disaster to light. The pictures really showed how terrible that hurricane had been. You certainly got my attention.


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