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.
Written by: William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
In late August 1900, a tropical depression emerged in the Atlantic and formed into a tropical storm before it crossed the Gulf of Mexico and grew into a Category 4 hurricane.
In the morning of Saturday, September 8, 1900, the hurricane’s winds and storm surge began to bear down on the unsuspecting city of Galveston, Texas. At that time, the U.S. Life-Saving Service maintained a station, located on Fort Point at the eastern tip of Galveston Island. Supervised by veteran keeper Edward Haines, the station had served as a strategic military location for generations. Only 200 yards away from the lifesaving station stood Fort Point Light, a screw-pile lighthouse built in 1881.
That morning, Keeper Haines’s crew had little forewarning of the storm, but they could sense that something was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico.
By midday weather conditions began to rapidly decline. By noon the north winds grew in intensity to nearly 50 mph and heavy rain descended on Galveston, hovering there the rest of the day. At about 1:00 p.m., Haines and two surfmen tried to row a boat 200 yards to Fort Point Light to evacuate the keeper and his wife before rising waters could sweep the lighthouse away. The wind blew the oars out of the oarlocks and pinned their boat against the rock jetty extending between the station and the lighthouse. The men could do nothing more and barely managed to return to the station. By 2:00 p.m., the winds exceeded 50 mph and the Gulf storm surge flooded the city.
Soon, Galveston residents realized the deadly circumstances facing them, with floodwaters rising and wind speeds reaching gale force.
By late afternoon, the storm unleashed 130-150 mph winds. Haines decided to abandon the station and got his wife and crew into a lifeboat. By this time, the storm surge swept wreckage against the station. When the water reached three feet from the top of the station’s first floor, the flooding seemed to ease. Haines feared the incoming wreckage would damage the lifeboat, so he changed his mind and decided to remain in the station, hoping the structure would survive. The station crew got out of the boat and began cutting holes in the station’s second floor to allow the water to pass freely between levels.
At around 5:00 p.m., hurricane force winds shot through openings in the east side of the station like water from a firehose. Keeper Haines realized the lifeboat remained their only means of escape. He ordered the crew to open the doors on north side of building to get the boat out, but a heavy sea broke into station, lifting the lifeboat from its carriage and threw it against the station’s beach cart, breaking a hole in the boat’s hull. Crewmembers had to use axes to cut open the doors while the boat lay broadside against the doors. Meanwhile, it seemed certain that the building would collapse and crush everyone inside.
By early evening, the anemometer at Galveston’s Weather Bureau registered over 100 mph before a wind gust tore it off the roof of the building. Weather Bureau officials estimated that the sustained wind speed had increased to 120 mph.
Keeper Haines realized their situation was hopeless and told the crew they should find a way to save themselves. Meanwhile, he and his wife hoped to ride out the storm in the lifeboat. Some of the men believed they would survive better in the upper floor of the station house, so three of them climbed onto the roof and passed ropes to the others down the outside of the building.
Up until this time, Haines and his wife had remained in the boat, but the sea was now breaking over them, and the boat tossed on its beam-ends. Haines’s wife begged him to get her onto the upper story so the couple climbed out of the boat. Haines tied a rope around his wife and hoisted her to the crewmembers above who handed her up to roof. While hoisting his wife, the gallery under Haines gave way and he was swept into the lifeboat. As the storm blew the boat away from the station, Haines shouted to the men on the roof to protect his wife. Shortly thereafter, he realized two of his surfmen were clinging to the lifeboat and pulled them aboard to ride out the storm.
Sometime that evening, the storm’s wind and sea state reached their climax. At 7:30 p.m., Weather Bureau officials recorded an instantaneous rise in water level of four feet in Galveston. Experts estimate that wind speeds that night likely reached 150 mph with wind gusts up to 200. The wind sent grown men sailing through the air and toppled horses to the ground. The barometric pressure dropped lower than 28.50 inches, one of the lowest marks on record up to that date, while the storm surge reached a level of over 15 feet above sea level.
The next morning at about 2 a.m., the winds shifted to the south and died down to 20 mph. The cloud cover cleared and the moon illuminated the surroundings for Haines and his surfmen. They had washed ashore about nine miles northwest of the station. They walked to the nearest house where they found two dozen survivors taking refuge from the storm.
At daylight, Haines and the two surfmen began searching the beach for survivors from the station. Within a mile, they found three fellow surfmen who had survived by floating across Galveston Bay on flotsam. The men recounted how the station collapsed into the flood waters just after Haines’s lifeboat was swept away, setting the three men adrift. Haines divided his crew and began a systematic search along the beach, but found no trace of his wife or the remaining surfman. Haines and his crew found shelter Sunday night aboard a grounded steamer that had broken from its moorings in Galveston and washed ashore in Texas City.
By Monday the 10th, Haines and his men had returned to Galveston. He secured a boat and crew at Galveston, rowed to Fort Point to survey the damage to his station and delivered badly needed supplies to the Fort Point Lighthouse. Had Haines known that the keeper and his wife would ride out the storm, he would have closed the station early on Saturday. But he believed the hurricane would destroy the lighthouse long before it swept away the lifesaving station. When Haines returned to Fort Point, he found the lighthouse still standing, but only a few broken pilings remained where his station once stood.
For the next two weeks, Keeper Haines and his crew worked for Galveston’s relief committee, locating countless human and animal corpses. In the rush to clear away the dead, most of the bodies remained unidentified and were buried at sea or in the ground, or burned where they lay. During this period, Haines retrieved the lifeboat that saved his life and found the station’s beach cart, Lyle gun and surfboat. The surfboat had drifted to Hitchcock, Texas, fourteen miles from Fort Point. Haines was fortunate to locate the station’s equipment and the service built new station structures.
Haines had lost everything dear to him. All of his household goods, including a horse and buggy were gone. More importantly, his wife of many years had died in the storm. He and his men located temporary graves containing Mrs. Haines and the missing surfman. The two had been found by a burial party and interred on the 10th. On the 14th, Haines and the crew rowed a boat to the gravesites with a casket and retrieved the body of Mrs. Haines. It is not known whether the surfman’s remains were ever recovered.