Monday, October 12, 2009

Isaac’s Storm – 1900 Galveston Hurricane – The Fall of a Grand City

Panoramic view of Galveston before the 1900 storm

      Previous to the Hurricane of 1900 Galveston, Texas was one of the richest and fastest growing cities in the nation and one of the largest in Texas with a population of over 36,000. Galveston was one of the first cities in Texas to have electricity and was the home of Five of Texas’ largest banks causing it to be known as the Wall Street of the southwest. Houston, its rival to the north, was known as just a country town or Mudville as many Galvestonians called it. Galveston was a place of grandeur and charm with elegant Victorian homes, majestic buildings, cottages, well kept churches, mule and horse drawn carriages, men wearing derbies and top hats and women in fine elegant wear. Being a port town, it became a melting pot of immigrants, sailors, and black labors. Galvestonians had every right to be optimistic that their city could one day be the grandest of the Gulf Coast if not of the nation. Unfortunately Geography and Mother Nature were working against their ambitions. The flourishing city of Galveston was located on a 3-mile wide 27-mile long barrier island with the highest point being only 8 feet above sea level. It was connected to the mainland by three railroad trestles and a wagon bridge. Due to a relaxed attitude toward storms nothing lay, as protection, between the city and the raging ocean waters. A seawall had been proposed many times yet no plans had ever been approved.
         The relaxed attitude was partly due to an article written by Isaac Cline, head of the US weather bureau in Galveston, stating that Galveston was safe from any storm, including Hurricanes that could cause any serious harm to the island. He encouraged the development of the city because he felt it would be protected from any storm surge due to the shallow waters. He had such faith in his research and beliefs in the safety of the city that he had built his own house just three blocks from the beach and perched on stilts just two feet above the highest water level ever recorded in the area, and was believed by many to be the strongest house ever to grace the island,  their theory would be tested by the storm.

Issac Cline

       “Isaac Monroe Cline was born in 1864 in Monroe County, Tennessee. At the age of 16 he attended Hiwassee College, where he studied mathematics, chemistry, physics, Latin, and Greek. Although he entertained the ideas of becoming a preacher and a lawyer, he eagerly accepted an opportunity to join the U.S. weather service when he was recommended for the position by the president of Hiwassee College. In 1882, he began training with the Army Signal Corps, then the parent organization of the United States weather service.” (  At the Time of his entrance into the weather service it was plagued with scandals and noted for being notoriously wrong with forecasting and was competing in the newspapers with the forecasts of astrologers. Cline was honored with a post in the weather station in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he earned a medical degree from the University of Arkansas in his spare time. He was promoted in 1885 to take over the weather station in Fort Concho, Texas. He subsequently was transferred from Fort Concho to the Abilene station, where he married his wife, Cora May Bellew, who was an organist in the church he attended.  (

Isaac's Wife and three Daughters

          In 1889, Cline was given the honor to head the U.S. Weather Bureau office in Galveston Texas, at the age of 28. He moved his wife and their three daughters to the grand city of Galveston. In 1892 his brother Joseph moved in and joined him at the Weather Bureau. At the same time every day Isaac and his staff took temperature, wind and pressure readings and telegraphed them to the main office in Washington DC. No one was ready for what would occur in September of 1900. In Early September a tropical storm blew over Cuba and then headed due north across Florida and was forecasted to track up the Atlantic coast. However, during the night of September 6 the storm tracked west into the gulf and was lost track of in the open waters. The summer of 1900 had been unusually hot and the Gulf was super-heated, which allowed for the storm to transform into a monstrous hurricane. At the time their was no ship to shore communication, so no one on land was aware of the severity of the storm tracking thru the gulf waters, ships and crews were devastated and left with no help or hope of survival. There was also no longer any communication allowed between Puerto Rico and the United States as far as forecasting went as a declared by Mr. Moore the new head of the Weather Service. On September 7, 1900, the census report showed in the papers that the population of Galveston had grown 30% in less than ten years to total 37,789 people and was predicted to become the New York City of the Gulf. Also on this day Isaac Cline received a note from Washington saying that the island should brace for heavy winds and rain. He dismissed this note as typical weather for the time of year and that it would pass with the usual flooding of some streets, which is how it was viewed by many on September 8 when the first bands of the storm hit land.

          In the Early morning hours of September 8th Isaac Cline and his brother, Joseph, argued over the coming storm. Joseph felt the something was not right and a deadly doom was looming over the city. He wanted Isaac to alert the city and suggest every one head for higher land. Isaac was sure the island was safe and told his brother he would check the readings at the office later that morning. Their argument then and later during the storm would tear the brothers apart. Isaac would later walk to the beach and witness the curious occurrence of an incoming storm surge. He noted the wind coming from the north yet the tide was steadily rising. At 9am, is estimated, the storm was 50 miles form the coast, moving at 9-10mph, with 150mph winds. The People of Galveston trusted Isaac and no storm warning flags were flying. By mid morning winds reached 40mph and low lying streets were beginning to flood. By noon gale force winds were tormenting the city and mammoth swells were rolling in crushing the bath houses along the shore, the Hurricane had arrived. By the time Isaac raised the Hurricane warning flag it was too late, water was raising in all the streets, cable cars, trains and wagons could no longer make it of the island or through the streets. Joseph sent a wire to Washington declaring that Galveston was in dire straits.
          By the time Isaac reach home his wife an at least 50 other Galvestonians were waiting to hear news of the situation. Isaac suggested that they all stay in his house as it was safe and sturdy. Joseph disagreed and argued that they should try and make it to higher ground or the weather service building while they could. They stayed in the cline home. By 4pm by and gulf waters were meeting and the city was below sea level. Meanwhile of the beach at St. Mary’s orphanage the 10 nuns and 93 children were huddled in the chapel singing in an effort to stay calm. At 6:30 the sea rises 4 feet in four seconds as a 25ft dome of water rushes across the island completely covering the city. Around 7pm Isaac’s house is rapidly filling with water as he looks out the window to see street car tracks break loose and head for his home. Joseph grabs the 2 closest children and dives out a window, Isaac is momentarily pinned down by debris and the house crumbles around them. When Isaac surfaces he finds one of his daughters near by and then unites with his brother and other two daughters to float out the rest of the storm on a large piece of debris from their home, but his wife, who was pregnant at the time, is nowhere to be seen. After 12 hours of driving wind and rain the storm finally begins to die down just after midnight September 9th and before dawn the waters begin to recede.
          The sun rises to a beautiful Sunday on September 9 and the survivors begin to gather and sing. Cries of people trapped beneath the debris could be heard but few were able to be rescued. Death Gangs were formed to collect bodies around the city to be identified. A man in one of these brigades found the body of a chilled with a rope tied around its waist that lead to another child and another child until it finally reached the body of a nun. It was a group from St. Mary’s Orphanage, all 10 nuns perished along with 90 of the children. The body of Isaac’s wife carrying their unborn child wasn’t found until September 30, near the location of their home. It took days for news of the Galveston disaster to reach the rest of the country and for help to arrive. 3600 buildings were destroyed, 9 churches wiped out, and hundreds of homes washed away. Over 6,000 lives were lost (1/6 of the population). Many families and survivors left the island for good while some stayed to fight it out and rebuild what was once a grand city. Isaac writes his own legend in his report to Washington and is put down in history as a hero. One year after the storm Isaac is transferred to New Orleans, where he raises his daughters and develops a reputation among the people and opens an art house in the French Quarter. Galveston would never be the same again. In 1904 a 17ft sea wall was erected along 8 miles of shore and the height of the island is increased by 13 feet by bringing in sand from the bay. In 1914 the Houston ship channel is opened and oil is discovered, which leaves Galveston to fade away into obscurity. The 1900 storm remains to this day to be the Nation’s deadliest recorded natural disaster.

For a movie based on the Book Isaac's Storm by Erick Larson visit:
 For further information visit the following:
-Galveston and Texas History Center - Rosenberg Library
-Isaac’s Storm homepage at


  1. I have seen the documentary "Isaac's Storm" several times. I have always thought that Mr. Cline was more than a bit arrogant, trusting so much in his own judgement and ignoring what turned out to be very wise counsel from his brother, Joseph. However, I have just been reading about how he saved New Orleans from floods, three years later. I'm glad that he did it, and I am glad that he got the chance to do it.

    I am also not surprised that he never spoke much of the 1900 Galveston hurricane. That experience was like war and there aren't many men who talk about war very much.

  2. I too am a historian i also am a distant relative to Dr.I Cline.I live in galveston,texas and i pass his old place of residence every day i also live four blocks away.