Today, a determined city saves itself from
extinction. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
We Houstonians like to run
down to Galveston for seafood, for museums, or just
to see ships and the Gulf. It's a nice town. Yet in
1900 Galveston's citizens seriously considered
walking away from it -- letting it revert to a
swamp. Many did leave.
The Galveston storm was the worst natural disaster
America ever suffered. Over 6000 people died. The
way the city finally responded to that horror forms
one of the great American legends.
Galveston is a long island running west to east. It
tilts slightly to the northeast. On the north is a
protected harbor. The south side faces the Gulf of
Mexico. The 19th-century city lay on the east end.
Its highest point was nine feet above sea level.
Its mean elevation was only five feet.
The city was flooded repeatedly down through the
19th century. In 1886 a commission talked about
building a wall against the sea, but they rejected
the idea. It would cost too much. Now Galveston had
seen just how bad a hurricane could be. Citizens
knew they'd have to either give up their city or
So by a ratio of 150 to 1 the people who could vote
decided to undertake a wild engineering scheme.
They would build a great dam, a Sea Wall along the
south Gulf coast. It'd be 17 feet high and 3 miles
long with a skirt of protective granite rip-rap.
But the Sea Wall was a piece of cake compared to
what followed. Next they raised the whole city. And
this was the major city in Texas.
They slanted the ground so water that got over the
Sea Wall could run off toward the bay on the north.
That meant raising the ground almost to the lip of
the Wall. Then they sloped it downward to eight
feet above sea level on the north.
To do that, they cut a canal into the city and
began pumping in a slurry of sand and salt water.
The water ran off and left sand behind. Homeowners
had to lift their houses up on stilts so the slurry
could fill in under them.
It took 300 jacks to lift the big brick Moody
mansion. It took 700 jacks to lift St. Patrick's
church. Of course there was a component of
brutality in all that. Some homeowners couldn't
afford the raising. Some had to sacrifice the
bottom floor of their houses. Some had to abandon
their homes entirely.
The work went on in sections for seven years. In
1915 the new city they'd built suffered its first
test. A storm every bit as bad as the 1900
hurricane hit Galveston and caused only eight
deaths. Since then they've extended the Wall and
filled in more land. No one at all died in
hurricanes Carla and Alicia.
And, today, the very presence of Galveston is one
of the great joys of living in Texas.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Walden, D., Raising Galveston. American
Heritage of Invention & Technology, Winter
1990, pp. 8-18.
I am grateful to Ellen Beasley, urban architectural
historian, for her counsel on, and guided tours of,
the raised city of Galveston.
For an astonishing sidelight on the raising of
Galvestion and for some additional images of the
flood, see Episode
Note added on Aug. 22, 2018: The first two sentences in the paragraph about jacking up buildings are in error. Moody Mansion was not raised, and the number of jacks used to raise St. Patrick's is too high.
Image courtesy of Ellen
Galveston houses lifted in preparation for
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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