The Hidden Treasures of Galveston
by Stephanie Moreland

I close my eyes for a minute and wiggle my toes so they scrunch deeper into the coarse sand. I hear the seagulls cawing overhead and I can smell the pungent odor of sea, salt, and fish mixed with the sunscreen that I have slathered on to protect myself from the blistering Texas heat. It is a smell that may not be altogether pleasant, but it brings back many memories for me.


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Galveston, by Glen Campbell (1969)

Galveston, oh Galveston, I still hear your sea winds blowin'
I still see her dark eyes glowin'
She was 21 when I left Galveston

Galveston, oh Galveston, I still hear your sea waves crashing
While I watch the cannons flashing
I clean my gun and dream of Galveston

I still see her standing by the water
Standing there lookin' out to sea
And is she waiting there for me?
On the beach where we used to run

Galveston, oh Galveston, I am so afraid of dying
Before I dry the tears she's crying
Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun
At Galveston, at Galveston


I open my eyes against the glaring sunshine and squint at the muddy brown water. Galveston's beach life is in full swing against the backdrop of the incongruent oil refineries looming in the distance. I get up, stretch, and begin to make my way closer to the water to see what the other people are doing. The sweat beads on my neck and back. I am hoping to get some kind of respite from the heat; a breeze, or maybe a splash of cold water. I don't know why I keep expecting the relentless heat to give me a break.

A mother laughs in mock dismay as her toddler ruins their perfect sand castle by sloshing a bucket of water on it. Some teenage boys decide to do some body boarding despite the lack of waves on this broiling day. A couple sits drinking their Miller Light longnecks while listening to the country music crooning through the radio.

Galveston never ceases to amaze me. Despite the baking temperatures, brown water, threat of hurricanes, and the oil refineries, nothing stops us from coming here. This is our beach.

I have seen Miami and countless other beaches in Florida. I have been to California. I have seen beaches in New Jersey, and the beaches of other Gulf towns such as Biloxi, Mississippi. All are beautiful in their own way. Their clear water, powdery sand, and lovely beach houses and condominiums are often pictured on the covers of travel magazines. The beaches in some of these areas set the standard for what a “beautiful” beach town should be. But they still aren't Galveston.

My friends, family, and I have often laughed and joked about how our beach towns along the Texas Gulf Coast compare to others in the United States. I have to admit, we have poked fun at our Galveston. Yet, if I hear “an outsider” say anything about our little getaway island, I feel as if someone has insulted a family member that I am particularly fond of. This is a Texas double standard; I can make fun of my relations, but no one else can. In Texas, you just do not mess with family. And although this family member may not be the most beautiful, she has spirit, character, and a personality all her own.

There are many things that people do not know about our Galveston. Most people know it for the obvious: the seven mile-long seawall that protects the island from the constantly encroaching Gulf waters. This wall has done its job through many hurricanes, with the exception of “The Great Hurricane of 1900,”which completely obliterated Galveston as the booming metropolis it was at the turn of the century. Few people know that this hurricane still holds the title of the most deadly natural disaster in the U.S.; an estimated 6000 to 12,000 people were killed. Feeling protective of Galveston, I have returned for a closer look.

A friend and native to Galveston agrees to help me get another up close and personal look at very familiar territory. As we drive through the town, she points out lovely Victorian mansions I had rather taken for granted. Each of these grande dames has a history of her own, a story to tell. The mansions vary in shape and color, and some have definitely seen better days. You can almost feel the presence of their former selves, sad victims of the storm of the century; apparitions looming in the shadows of Galveston's past.

My friend knows them well; she engages me with tales of death, sadness, love, and loss. I am enthralled by their drama and rich history. Many natives swear that ghosts are still present in them to this day. Being somewhat of a mystical bent, I am inclined to agree. As spooky as it may sound, none of this takes away from the charm of Galveston. And during the island's Mardi Gras, the houses really come into their own.

The history of Galveston begins long before the boom and bust times from which it never quite recovered. The first people who inhabited this little island were the Karankawa and Akokisa Indian tribes. Galveston was also the starting point for Cabeza de Vaca’s famous trek to Mexico. This European explorer who set the stage for the conquest of Native America, was eventually shipwrecked there in 1528. Galveston was named in honor of Bernardo de Galvez by the explorer Jose de Evia who charted the Gulf Coast of the United States.

Some time later, a pirate named Louis Michel Aury, who had previously occupied Galveston, returned from an unsuccessful raid on Spanish territory only to find that the area had been taken over by none other than the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte. Lafitte took up residence in Galveston after being driven out of New Orleans. There are, I might add, many similarities between the two cities. It is almost as if Galveston is a miniature version of New Orleans — the New Orleans we all knew and loved before Hurricane Katrina.

With its own very special version of Mardi Gras (parade included) and its own jazz festival, Galveston is a taste of New Orleans in our own backyard. During Mardi especially, you can imagine drunken pirates wandering the town with their booty their arms slung around the shoulders of a local wench. The music, the crowds, the beads, the all-night drinking and celebration must have started back then.

However, the pirate times in Galveston did not last, and Lafitte was eventually given an ultimatum by the United States navy. Shape up or ship out. Incorrigible, he left Galveston under the cover of night, but not before he burned the settlement to the ground.

A spirit of independence and self-determination has always been part of the culture of Galveston. When Mexico won its independence from Spain in the early 1820s, the newly formed national government designated Galveston as a major port of entry to the new nation. Later, during the Texas Revolution, the little town served as a major port for the navy of Texas. In 1836, Michel B. Ménard, a French-Canadian purchased several thousand acres of land and formed what would become modern Galveston. And then in 1939, the city became fully represented in the Congress of the Republic of Texas.

And the free spirit of Galveston is also embodied in “Junteenth” (also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day). The commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States every June 19th, also has roots in Galveston. On June 19th, 1865, General George Granger marched his troops into the business district of Galveston (known as the Strand) and read aloud Abraham Lincoln's proclamation which ended slavery.

On closer examination, I can now see that Galveston is its own sub-culture of Texas, made up of a myriad of idiosyncratic personalities, buildings, restaurants, and shops — especially on the Strand.

I have special fond memories of going to La King’s old-fashioned confectionary — It's still there! — as a little kid and tugging at my mom’s shirt, begging her to buy me some of the store's homemade sweets. After a long sun-drenched day at the beach, it would be a cool and inviting escape for my rumbling belly and my lobster-colored face. I would watch transfixed as the homemade saltwater taffy swirled around the rotating machine in a thick silky ribbon. And my appetite would grow as I ran back and forth from “the ice cream side” to “the candy side,” desperately trying to decide what to get because I was only allowed one treat. After once I made what to me was a life-altering decision, my family and I would sit down at the little Victorian-style marble tables and enjoy our post-swimming delicacies. And when I visit Galveston, I am still the proverbial kid in a candy store.

While I'm on the topic of food, let me tell you that there are so many different kinds of restaurants in and around Galveston, that you can eat your way around the island. I remember huge dinners at the famous, and for me very classy, “Gaido’s Famous Seafood Restaurant” overlooking the seawall. I would sit at the table and watch the waves, and then when the waiter brought the warm bowl of lemon water and a towel to wipe my hands with, I would demonstrate my social graces — a real little lady. It was for me the height of sophistication. Gaido’s is still there, and although as an adult I still enjoy the fine dining, the kid in me still feels rather grand.

My reminiscing about Galveston would not be complete without my mentioning Dickens on the Strand. Every year at Christmas, the Galveston Strand is converted into a Victorian holiday celebration complete with food, shopping, costumes, and music to fit the Victorian theme. In fact, those who show up in “period attire” get into the celebration free.

I remember especially my middle school hand-bell group. Our choir teacher made us homemade Victorian school outfits, and paraded up and down the Strand performing while onlookers smiled and waved. We thought we were the élite of all hand-bell players, especially when we played the “Carol of the Bells” while shivering crowds in the grandstands listened. Even on a hot summer's day on the beaches of Galveston, I can still hear the sweet tinkling of our bells, taste the hot chocolate, and feel the surprisingly biting cold of the December air in Galveston. The soft glow of the lights on a real old-fashioned Christmas tree, the sounds of our parents cheering, and the goose bumps made for a perfect Christmas Carol. We were so proud. And it never occurred to me that all the Christmas rituals and the Dickens theme were just a touch incongruous with this little island off the coast of south Texas. On Galveston, anything is possible.

As my thoughts turn back from the Christmas air to the blistering heat and burning sand under my feet, I am overwhelmed by the sensory memories evoked by this little island we call Galveston.

I have a hunch that the pirates knew that they had found a hidden treasure in our Galveston.

More about Galveston....

* Galveston has a little something for everyone. It's a great family destination for this reason. Many people are now buying vacationhomes in Galveston; it's more affordable beach living. Seventy-five per cent of Galveston visitors come from
within a 300 mile radius, with a majority from Houston. However, this is a destination not only for Texans, but for everyone.

* The Grand Opera House is a great place to see shows, and has been in operation since from 1894. It has also survived all of Galveston's hurricanes (even the big one in 1900). It is listed in the National Register of Historic places. It presents over 25 shows annually: touring Broadway shows, and musical talents of all kinds. Stars like Robert Earl Keen and Tony Bennett are featured.

* Be sure to see the Texas Seaport Museum and Tall Ship Elissa. This beautiful ship is a floating national historic landmark and dates back to 1877. You can tour the ship and see the museum and film next door, which documents the rescue of the ship. You will also learn a lot about the maritime history of Galveston.

* Schlitterbahn is a huge water park that just opened in summer of 2006.

* Don't miss The Great Storm at the Pier 21 theater. This is a short but educational and touching film about the great storm of 1900.

* Galveston has a laid back, yet energetic nightlife. Here you will find everything from Irish pubs, upscale bars, and many live music venues. Nightlife can also be geared to people of different ages and tastes.

* One of the places that was damaged in the last major storm was Yagas, a very popular live music venue. Please note that they are in the process of rebuilding and restoring it.

* Galveston has many festivals in addition to jazz fest and mardi gras (which were mentioned in the article). They have an Octoberfest, Greek Festival (October 13th-15th), BBQ and Wild Game Cook Off (proceeds go to charity), and Artwalk. As for the latter, once a month all of the art galleries open their doors to the public. People wander through the galleries while sipping cocktails. Galveston has more than a dozen art galleries. Oh, and you should note that the AIA (American Institute of Architects) sand castle competition is a
huge event for Galveston. There is also a historic homes tour in the spring that is highly recommended. Chcek out the Lone Star Motorcycle Rally which is usually held in the month of October.

* The Railroad Museum is a must — the history of railroading in Texas;Galveston was a huge part of this. It has three diesel engines and three steam engines on site that can be toured as well as audio devices that help tell the story.

* Galveston Island State Park has a theater with outdoor musicals from June to late August nightly except Sundays.

* Other restaurants to visit: Di Bella's (Italian), Rudy and Paco's, The Taco House, and the Mosquito cafe are some of my favorites.

* There are many choices in accommodation from inexpensive to high-end. The famous San Luis Resort (all rooms have a view of the ocean) is in the latter category.

* And of course, there is jet skiing, parasailing, and other yahoo activities available near the beaches.