The Beaten Path
Galveston’s rich history & storied past
By Rita Cook
The first question anyone from outside Texas asks me when I take them to Galveston Island is “Where’s that big hurricane-proof hotel?” There are a couple of historic hotels in Galveston, but I instinctively know they’re talking about the Flagship Hotel, also known as the USS Flagship. The hotel was so notorious for being the first one in North America built over the water that tourists flocked there from the 1960s until Hurricane Ike finally did in the old gal in 2008.
Even so, the hotel has been famous for so long that it lives on in legend. Most people believe it’s still sitting there on Fifth Street and Seawall Boulevard until they cruise by and see for themselves that the space is now occupied by the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, and has been since 2012. The Pier hangs out into the Gulf of Mexico, hosting midway rides, carnival games, and even a roller coaster called the Iron Shark that flies out over the water.
A fact I didn’t know until my most recent visit with a friend is that that prior to the Flagship Hotel’s opening, there was an original Pleasure Pier in that same location from 1943 until 1961. That piece of real estate was destroyed too—by another hurricane named Carla.
Galveston’s history is a tormented one. It’s a very old city with a history that speaks of great success and horrible ruin. In fact, some of the most elegant homes built in the United States during the 1800s had a Galveston address, but with the elegance came fire, war, and even pirates. Jean Laffite and his band of rowdy buccaneers were possibly among Galveston Island’s first settlers from across the pond. The hurricane of 1900 did its own damage, killing thousands and becoming the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. If you’re looking for an adventure that will take you on a historical ride as opposed to a carnival one, stop in at a few of the older homes or hotels for a few drinks and a bedtime story—more than 60 locations are on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Hotel Galvez is one of them, sitting on the beach and nicknamed the “Queen of the Gulf.” It opened in 1911 and at one time featured a candy factory, soda fountain, barber shop, and even a doctor’s office, doubling as a military barracks for the Coast Guard during World War II. I grab a Ghost Bride cocktail at the bar, named as such due to the ghost stories of legend associated with the place—Audra, the fiancée of a local seaman, is supposedly still looking for her man and occasionally enjoys the amenities in room 501.
Bishop’s Palace, another National Historic Landmark, is said to have some ghosts too, like the builder’s wife from the 1800s who supposedly moves postcards around the house from her travels back in the day. Take note of the carvings outside the house of people, plants, animals, and mythical creatures.
The Grand 1894 Opera House is especially notable for withstanding the 1900 and 1915 hurricanes along with Carla and Ike (though not without a little damage here and there), and has transitioned from live performing arts to Vaudeville to a movie house and back to a theatre again. At one time this opera house was named the “Official Opera House of Texas,” and actually officially opened on January 3, 1895, with a performance of a play called The Daughters of Eve. I don’t catch a show this time around—there’s plenty more to see.
Our next stop is an afternoon at Galveston Island State Park, where we rent a kayak and set to checking out the 2,000 acre park by water. Even if you’re more of a land-lubber, there’s still hiking and plenty of nature where you might see armadillos, rabbits, ducks, or shore birds, and there are places to enjoy cycling, rock climbing, birding, archeological happenings, or even get lucky and catch a historical re-enactment.
If all the history and hiking tires you out, just remember you can find plenty of beach time in Galveston too. I was satisfied to spend an entire two days just lounging around the beach. Sea Shell Beach Park is just what the name says, and you can find a selection of shells to take home. My suitcase was packed with shells on my return and I kept my motto—you can’t pick up a shell unless you plan to keep it.
Saying goodbye to Galveston again I knew that although the shells were physical things that were coming home with me, I’d take a few more memories of the storied tales of Galveston back too—and would surely return someday to pay continued homage to the history and culture of this magical island.