A Lingering Shadow of Riches Untold,
Whispering Night Bay Breezes
by Bill Cherry
|Now that the battle that made Texas a republic in 1836 had ended, the founders of Galveston were finally able to get down to the business of building the new city.
While French sailors were settling in at the Gem saloon (“Your First and Last Chance” was lettered on the door) for an afternoon of drinking that would extend through the night, members of the Galveston Company began selling lots to the town they had envisioned and designed.
And in the same building, known as No. 6 Strand, near the corner of 17th Street, the first city council met to plot the course that the city would take to assure a prosperous development.
Auction houses, steamboat agents, cotton factors and mercantile stores were looking for places to settle, and the Strand seemed the most likely place. Wooden buildings were constructed, but all on stilts, because only a small levee of oyster and clam shells broke the bay’s tides from the street.
One block, the one between 22nd and 23rd streets, had a wooden pavement, but the rest of the street was nothing more than compacted sand and dredge materials that had been pumped in. Soon sidewalks, themselves on stilts, were built above the street’s elevation. And schooners and sloops would tie up to them.
Banks started being built, in fact five of the largest in Texas, but most of what customers deposited and withdrew were gold and silver. There was very little currency used back then, and what there was was called “skin plasters.”
The first merchant to invest in a new building on the Strand was John M. Jones, and he built at the corner of 23rd Street. It cost $1,000. Soon others were following his lead, and, quite frankly, business began to boom.
But as so frequently happened before and after on the island, fate was dreaming up another idea. This time it was a yellow fever epidemic. Behind the Strand were great marshes, and they were the breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that were carrying the deadly disease. Dr. Ashbel Smith, who was dean of what was then called the Texas Medical School, met with the city council and the board of the Galveston Company, and told them that they must put everything else on the back burner until the marshes could be filled in, lest there would be no one remaining alive.
Once the deadly disease was under control, the vibrant voice of business resumed, and that’s when Galveston’s most famed store was built, the Moro Castle it was called. Frenchman Phillip Moro started his mercantile house on the northwest corner of 23rd and Strand, exactly where Sangerfest Park is today.
The Moro Castle dealt in everything from ship’s sails to material for clothes to fine wines and liquor. It was truly the hub of Galveston business until fire destroyed it about 1870.
Near the Moro Castle, a three story building was constructed. It housed the first printing press in Texas that was driven by a steam engine. Not only did they print stationery, books and posters there, but newspapers as well. There were a handful of Galveston newspaper publishers back then.
When Galveston finally found itself brought into the Civil War, Old Hendley Row was where Confederate General Bankhead Magruder made his headquarters. And it was on New Year’s Day in 1863, that he, himself, fired the first cannon shot letting the Union forces know that he was going to recapture the island from the Yankees.
Old Hendley Row was the largest building on the island in those days.
When old Magruder shot his canon, the Yankee’s shot their cannons, and some of the balls sunk into the building’s walls. Before long, the Southern troops were temporarily defeated, and then the Yankees made their headquarters in Old Hendley Row.
After the war, the first national bank in Texas leased out most of the first floor. The remainder was taken up by the first telegraph office in the state.
Another of the buildings, a two story brick at the corner of 25th and Strand, was where Gail Borden conducted his experiments. His fortune came as a result of developing a method of extracting the water from meat so that it could be preserved. That was the foundation for K-rations that were used to feed the military while at war. His notoriety came from figuring out how to claim as his own a European patent of another inventor’s for condensed milk. So no matter how much the Borden family wants the world to believe Gail discovered condensed milk, the fact is he didn’t.
Galvestonians celebrated three holidays during the early days of the Strand; Christmas, New Year’s and San Jacinto Day. Everyone on the street opened his doors open house-style, and champagne and liquor flowed and food was served. No expense was spared.
On New Year’s, the sailors and butchers and the cowboys from down the island would dress up like clowns and Indians and hold impromptu parades down the street.
The Strand prospered as did the island itself. For a ten year period, policemen with clubs had to man the street during the daytime to manage the traffic jams caused by the several hundred drays. With daylight lighting the way mornings and afternoons, and gas lights taking over until midnight, the Strand took only a six hour break from a hurried life once each day.
But then things changed and time started to pass the Strand by. Soon there was no hustle and bustle. Old Hendley Row’s first Texas bank tenant was replaced by a fish monger on the first floor and derelicts moved into the upstairs. Clothes and jewelry stores, insurance and real estate brokers, doctors and lawyers and the courthouse, found their way south to Mechanic, Market, Postoffice and Church streets. The Strand’s grand buildings became storehouses on an all but forgotten street, a street filled with litter and winos sleeping in doorways.
Raconteur Christie Mitchell explained it in 1949.
“As all things glorious in life have but a short while to live, so lived the Strand. But again, as in things human, there is a useful quality. There is a lingering shadow of riches untold, of fine horse drawn carriages, of bay breezes whispering in the night, all surrounded by the faint trace of the scent of oleanders in the air.”
BILL CHERRY, REALTORS
DALLAS – PARK CITIES