Open main menu

Gal′veston, in southeastern Texas, has an interest and importance exceeding that of any other city of the same size in the United States. Its special claim to distinction lies in the energy of its citizens in wresting prosperity out of unparalleled disaster and, at the same time, initiating the business-corporation form of municipal government known widely as the Galveston plan. The situation of the city on Galveston Bay, which is 35 by 15 miles, gives it the best natural harbor on the Gulf of Mexico and makes of it a seaport second only to New Orleans. Its further growth must keep pace with the development of the great southwest. It had the disadvantage of lying on an island which, although 30 miles long by three wide, rose but a few feet above the level of the Gulf and was occasionally flooded. Proper paving and drainage were impossible. Lying in the same latitude as St. Augustine, Florida, its climate is subtropical. Groves of oleander and orange gave it beauty; but cholera and yellow fever were accepted as inevitable, as was corruption in the municipal government. It was a wide-open, slatternly, unhealthy town, but no one thought of changing anything, for business flourished with the enormous shipments of cotton, wheat, lumber, tallow and hides, and life, if precarious, was easy and luxurious.

On the 8th of September, 1900, the city was almost destroyed by a cyclone and tidal wave. One sixth of the population was drowned and one third of the property destroyed. The rotten cedar-block pavements floated off in rafts, laying bare the original sand. The treasury was empty, credit was gone, taxes could not be assessed on property that had ceased to exist. Thousands were fleeing the stricken city and, in the hour of extremity, the municipal government broke down. But that ill-wind had blown away indifference, greed and moral miasma. Out of the disaster sprang such energy, ability and civic patriotism as the world has rarely witnessed. The work to be done needed new, clean tools. The city was looked upon as a ruined business, and a business-corporation government was devised to build it up again.

A special act of the legislature abolished the mayor and council and created a board of directors or commissioners of five members, one of whom is president, all being elected by popular vote. Salaries were nominal, for the commissioners were simply the responsible heads of departments with well-paid, expert managers under them to carry out the details. The same kind of men of independent means, position and reputation were secured as now serve for nothing on library, park and school boards in other cities. One commissioner was at the head of finance and revenue—a banker with an expert accountant, employed as city auditor, under him; one had charge of water-works and sewage, with a civil engineer; one of fire and police; and one of streets and public property.

A new city occupies the old site. Galveston has build a sea-wall four and a half miles long and seventeen feet high, and raised the grade of the city to its top. It has paved the business-section with brick and installed a sewerage system; drained the swamps; stamped out epidemics; and cleaned the town morally. In spite of this monumental work municipal expenses have been cut one third. The credit of the city is above par. The population has been about restored, and the business has increased. Dallas and Houston have adopted the Galveston plan, and cities all over the country are watching the experiment with interest. Population 36,981.