This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Atlantic Area Historian
United States Coast Guard
In studying the historical record of by-gone days, scholars often come across men and women whose deeds are long forgotten by the nation they once served. Such is the case of Charles S. Root, one of the bravest and most accomplished engineering officers in Coast Guard history, who distinguished himself early in his career as a heroic lifesaver.
In late August 1900, a tropical depression emerged in the Atlantic and formed into a tropical storm before passing over Cuba and drenching the island with two feet of rain. The National Weather Bureau had few of the technological advances available today and was unaware of the storm’s passage into the Gulf of Mexico, where it quickly grew into a Category 4 hurricane. This super-hurricane took Galveston by surprise because its initial winds blew from the north mixed with light rain. By late morning on Saturday, September 8, these winds grew in strength pushing water in Galveston Bay south against Galveston Island. At the same time, on the opposite side of Galveston Island, the north wind pushed back the hurricane’s tidal surge pent up in the Gulf.
Down on the Galveston waterfront, U.S. Revenue Cutter Galveston docked at a wharf near the city’s immense Elevator A, considered one of the world’s largest grain elevators. The steam-powered Galveston measured 190-feet long and carried a crew of 32 officers and men. The cutter enforced customs and quarantine laws, conducted rescue operations, and carried out other Service missions. On board the cutter, Capt. Charles Brian watched the barometer for signs that a storm was on its way. He also ordered dock lines tightened, chains added to the ship’s hawsers and additional anchors set to secure his mooring.
At around 2:00 p.m., the storm closed in on South Texas. The wind exceeded 50 mph and changed direction from north to northeast, releasing the Gulf storm surge that was building offshore for hours. By the time residents realized the grim circumstances facing them, seawater had flooded the streets and wind speeds reached gale force. At this juncture, approximately 50 residents sought refuge aboard Galveston to ride out the storm.
By mid-afternoon, the surge had inundated lower portions of Galveston to a depth of 5 feet. For many in the city’s flooded East Side there was nowhere to turn and, by 3:30 p.m., reports of death and destruction began to reach the cutter. Brian decided to deploy a small boat to aid storm victims and assistant engineer Root volunteered to lead the rescue party. A call for volunteers went out to the ship’s crew and eight enlisted men stepped forward to accompany Root.
Within half-an-hour of volunteering, Root and his men deployed, performing a mission more common to Lifesaving Service surfmen than to cuttermen. The small group overhauled their whaleboat, dragged it over nearby railroad tracks and launched it into the overflowing streets. The winds blew oars into the air, so the men warped the boat through the city using a rope system. One of the rescuers would swim up the streets with a line, tie it to a fixed object and the boat crew would haul-in the line. Using this primitive process, Galveston’s boat crew rescued numerous victims out of the roiling waters of Galveston’s streets.
At around 6:15 p.m., the Galveston Weather Bureau anemometer registered over 100 mph, before a gust tore the wind gauge off the building. Later, Weather Bureau officials estimated that at around 7:00 p.m., the sustained wind speed had increased to 120 mph. By this time, assistant engineer Root and his rescue party returned to the Galveston having filled their whaleboat with over a dozen storm survivors. By this time, even the cutter’s survival seemed doubtful, with demolishing winds stripping away rigging and prying loose the ship’s launch. Meanwhile, wind-driven projectiles shattered the cutter’s windows and skylights in the pilothouse, deckhouse and engine room covers.
Not long after Root returned to the cutter, Weather Bureau officials recorded an instantaneous flood surge of 4 feet. Experts estimate that the sustained wind speed peaked at 150 mph and gusts up to 200. The howling wind sent grown men sailing through the air and pushed horses to the ground. The barometric pressure dropped lower than 28.50 inches, a record low up to that date. By then, the storm surge topped 15 feet above sea level. The high water elevated the Galveston so high that she floated over her own dock pilings. Fortunately, the piling tops only bent the cutter’s hull plates but failed to puncture them.
Within an hour of returning to the cutter, at the height of the storm, Root chose to lead a second rescue party into the flooded streets. Darkness had engulfed the city and he called again for volunteers. The same men from the first crew volunteered the second time. The wind still made the use of oars impossible, so the crew warped the boat from pillar to post. As the men waded and swam through the city streets, buildings toppled around them and howling winds filled the air with sharp slate roof tiles. But the boat crew managed to rescue another 21 people. Root’s men housed these victims in a structurally sound two-story building and found food for them in an abandoned store. The cuttermen then moored the boat in the lee of a building and took shelter from flying debris and deadly missiles propelled by the wind.
By 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, the wind began to moderate allowing Root to return to the cutter with every member of his crew safe but exhausted. The next morning, Galveston’s carpenter and members of the crew set to rebuilding exposed parts of the cutter. They patched holes in the small boats, mended the ship’s broken rigging, and replaced windows and skylights shattered by wind-blown debris.
With approximately 8,000 killed in Galveston and, as many as 4,000 more lost along the Gulf Coast, the Great Galveston Hurricane proved the worst humanitarian disaster in U.S. history. The storm’s death toll was greater than the combined casualty figures of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 terrorist attacks as well as Hurricane Ike, which struck Galveston in 2008. The Treasury Department awarded Root the prestigious Gold Lifesaving Medal, with a second Gold Lifesaving Medal and seven Silver Lifesaving Medals going to the men in Root’s boat crew.
Later, as a senior engineering officer, Root demonstrated great technical prowess. In 1913, he served aboard the cutter Seneca during that vessel’s historic inaugural cruise in the International Ice Patrol. But Root specialized in reconditioning steam vessels for sea service, including the USS Bancroft after the Navy transferred her to the Revenue Cutter Service to become the cutter Itasca and the USS Eagle 22 after she became the cutter Earp. In 1917, the U.S. Navy tasked Root with converting the seagoing yacht Xafira for war patrol duties and, later that year, it assigned him the monumental task of restoring the power plant of the interned Austro-Hungarian passenger liner SS Martha Washington, which the original crew had sabotaged. Root quickly got the vessel in operation and served as her first engineering officer for the remainder of World War I, while the liner transported American troops between the United States and France. Meanwhile, Root published papers on marine engineering in professional journals and the Coast Guard Academy established an academic prize in his name for the cadet earning the highest grade in mechanical drawing.
Despite his heroism and engineering prowess, Root was best known for his work in Coast Guard intelligence during Prohibition. In 1924, then Lt. Cmdr. Root created the Coast Guard’s Office of Intelligence. At that phase of the Rum War, the Service was the nation’s sole maritime law enforcement agency responsible for interdicting illegal liquor along U.S. coasts and inland waterways. Root built up one of the most respected intelligence sections in the Federal government by recruiting the best talent, adopting the finest technology and working closely with offices in the Treasury Department and Customs Agency. With Root in charge, Coast Guard Intelligence was credited with breaking up much of the Rum Running activities along the East Coast. Between 1924 and 1929, he rose in rank from lieutenant commander to captain and, from 1925 on, held an additional appointment as customs agent.
Throughout his career, Root received medals, commendations and special recognition from the Coast Guard, Treasury Department and U.S. Navy. Terms used to describe him included “skillful,” “proficient,” “reliable,” “efficient,” “unselfish” and “untiring,” and the Coast Guard Intelligence Service later named the Charles S. Root Intelligence Award for excellence in his honor. In a 1927 commendation, Assistant Treasury Secretary L.C. Andrews, concluded his letter to then Cmdr. Root with the following remarks:
“I am truly grateful that I had a man of your caliber and genius here at hand to help me plan and carry on this [Prohibition] work. I hope, commander, that you have a most successful future, as you will always have a very warm spot in my affections.”
In 1930, Capt. Root died in an automobile accident in Washington, D.C. In August of that year, he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, joining numerous distinguished members of the U.S. Coast Guard interred in that hallowed ground. Charles S. Root was one of the thousands of Coast Guardsmen and women of the long blue line who have gone in harm’s way and served a variety of missions for Coast Guard and country.