Twixt failure and success : The port of Galveston in the 19th century



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Galveston enjoyed a special advantage in the course of its economic growth due solely to the nature of its geographical position in the western Gulf of Mexico, an advantage exploited even before the city of Galveston was formally established. Largely ignored during the period of Spanish conquest and settlement in the New World, the Island became a rendezvous for pirates and filibusterers. Even under the aegis of the Mexican government, development of the Island's natural resources made only a token beginning. The establishment of Texas as a separate nation, however, allowed certain land speculators to acquire title to the eastern portion of the Island and the permanent physical and economic development of the settlement there began. During the period of the Republic and during early statehood, Galveston was the "Queen City" of Texas with the growth of the city and port facilities pacing the expansion of Texas as a whole. As the primary port west of New Orleans, Galveston was the port of entry and delivery for most of the immigrants, imported goods and manufactures, fashion trends and current news sent to Texas from the outside world. Galveston also served as the major shipping point for cotton and other goods produced on the Island and its economically tributary hinterlands, which included most of the Texas frontier. Linked so closely with the development of the state as a whole, Galveston drifted naturally into the Confederate camp and Galvestonians with enthusiasm pledged goods and services for the benefit of the South united. Galvestonians, however, rapidly tired of the war which, by 1865, had become merely a thing to be endured. The harsh reality of war on the Island resulted in a severe dislocation of businesses and citizens early in the war and a general inability to provide more than the barest of necessities for those hardy souls who remained. Although the Federal blockading squadron proved inadequate to the task of halting all shipping through the port of Galveston, Islanders derived proportionately little benefit from the blockade-running activities. Constantly under the threat of total destruction from both Federal and Confederate forces, four years of war produced a city on the thin edge of complete deterioration. One of the last hold-outs of the Confederacy, the eventual surrender of the city on June 3, 1865, came in the nature of a reprieve rather than a thing to be dreaded. Galvestonians were glad to be able to return to the conduct of private business once again and looked forward to the re-institution of the Island as the prime port of call for those involved in the Texas trade. Rapid rehabilitation of citizens, business firms, and buildings was the rule rather than the exception in Reconstruction Galveston. Shipping lines were quick to establish contact between its cotton market and the outside world while concerned local businessmen probed the possibilities of more direct connections between the Island and the interior. Although recovery was swift in comparison with many other Southern cities, it was during this period that Galveston faced its first serious rivalry for the trade which, by tradition, had passed through the hands of Island entrepreneurs. Mindful, in particular, of the growing importance of the metropolis of Houston to the north, Galvestonians were prodded into defensive action when that city managed in 1870 to secure both financing to deepen its "ship channel" and also the official designation as a port of delivery for the United States. The effort to dominate the trade of the Southwest, despite the competition offered by sister cities within the state, resulted in the opening bouts of the Mallory-Morgan struggle to capture Galveston's domestic shipping and the financing of a link to the transcontinental rail system with a Galveston terminus. The completion of the Santa Fe Railroad and the termination of the period of Reconstruction in Texas coincided but Galveston had not rewon undisputed control of the import-export trade of Texas and the Southwest. Interstate and intrastate competition in fields once dominated by the Island seriously endangered Galveston's unique status in the economy of the state while local marketing monopolies and the widespread criticism of the Galveston Wharf Company as an expensive, inefficient burden to the conduct of the port's business rebuffed many of the potential customers for Galveston's services. The expansion of overland transportation systems led to the proliferation of local markets for agricultural produce and encouraged a tendency shifting the focus of regional commerce away from coastal shipping points, like Galveston, in favor of all-rail routes for long distance bulk hauling. In a last effort to maintain the basis of the Island's rank as commercial center of the state, Galveston engaged in numerous attempts to increase the utility of its harbor by the elimination of physical impediments to the larger vessels commonly employed in foreign and domestic shipping of the period. The fight for deep water represented Galveston's best hope for the port's future development) the completion of the jetties in 1896 marked the transformation of the Island's natural harbor into a first-class port permitting the passage of vessels with a twenty-five foot draft. The acquisition of deep water at Galveston re-established Galveston as a major distribution center for Texas and the Southwest. Galveston's unique status in Texas, however, was a product of the nineteenth-century economic development of the state; the optimistic certainty that deep water would virtually eliminate all rivalry undermining Galveston's commercial position was soon tested and found wanting. The turn of the century coincided with a major hurricane disaster which emphasized the Island's vulnerability to nature and forced Galveston to expend its energies rebuilding rather than expanding. Adapted to the marketing of agricultural produce, Galveston lagged behind when petroleum discoveries changed the future base of Texas economy by bringing the industrial machine age to the state. The port survived as a leading cotton market and one of the busiest harbors in Texas but Galveston could no longer boast with justification of the unparalleled importance of this coastal city with respect to the Texas interior.



History, Texas, Galveston (Tex.), Harbors, Nineteenth century