One of the surprising things about studying history is discovering how the threads of history, the stories, intertwine and change over time. It is amazing how often things in our lives connect to surprising events.
Pelican Island is one of those strange threads of history. A small marshy island north of Galveston Island, it remained deserted for a very long time—at least until its original couple of hundred square feet were enlarged significantly by dredging. If you have ever been in a coastal swamp along the Texas coast, you’ll know why few ventured there. Such areas are teeming with life, and all of it wants to eat you at varying rates of consumption. The land does protect the north side of the island, and helps protect the docks and wharves from storms.
The Civil War started the island's transformation. Recognizing that the location of the island would make an ideal defensive position, the Confederates built a small fort there in 1861. Unfortunately, they were short of the artillery necessary to protect the fort. In fact, the fort was armed only with “Quaker Cannons” (wooden fake cannons), so the Union quickly captured it. Eventually, the Confederacy was able to recapture the fort in 1863 and, after putting real cannons in the fortress, were able to hold the island and the channel to Houston for the rest of the war.
For a few decades, the island was used primarily by the occasional fisherman or oysterman, but mostly, it was left to the mosquitoes, the crabs, and snakes and it might have stayed abandoned if not for disease. The presence of mosquitoes, a thriving rodent population, and the constant influx of ships meant that Galveston Island nearly always had some kind of health problem. Smallpox, cholera, yellow fever, dengue fever, diphtheria, measles, influenza, and whooping cough were nearly always present somewhere on the island. In 1899, approximately three dozen smallpox patents were moved to Pelican Island by the town’s public health service. Suddenly, the small island off the larger island had a new purpose—it became a medical quarantine and, eventually, an immigration center.
Pelican Island soon became known as the “The Ellis Island of the West”. The federal government wanted immigrants to move into the western states and not stay in the large cities on the eastern coast. Galveston—the largest city in Texas until the disastrous 1900 hurricane—took in immigration ships, quarantining the new immigrants on Pelican Island until they were certified to be disease-free, then sent them west by rail. The government had arranged reduced rail tickets to move them out of Galveston when it was still too devastated by the hurricane to entice the immigrants to stay. Between 1903 and 1914, nearly 50,000 immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe, passed through the island.
Of those 50,000 men, women, and children, one group still stands out, or should. History books in Texas seldom mention them, overlooking an important story.
In 1903, in the Russian town of Kishinev, the inhabitants somehow became convinced that the local Jews were slaughtering children to use their blood to make matzo for Passover. (And you thought Fake News was a new problem.) The violence started when a girl committed suicide by taking poison. In an attempt to save her life, the girl was taken to the nearest medical facility, a Jewish hospital. When she was pronounced dead, the pogrom began, prompted by the insane rantings of the town’s Russian Orthodox bishop.
Starting the day after Easter and lasting two days, the rampage resulted in the deaths of 47 Jews, injuries to hundreds, and the destruction of some 700 homes and 600 Jewish-owned stores. The violence then spread across Russia.
In America, Leo Napoleon Levi, a native-born Texan, started a petition to Czar Nicholas II that demanded that the Russian persecution of Jews stop immediately. Leading Americans, including President Theodore Roosevelt, endorsed the effort and ordered the petition, bound into a book and fitted into a custom wooden box, be delivered to the Czar by the Secretary of State. The Russian government refused the Kishinev Petition, which today is housed at the National Archives.
This touched off the Galveston Movement, a humanitarian movement to move Jews from Russia to the Western States through Galveston. Before the first world war shut down emigration from Europe, over 10,000 Jews came through Pelican Island, with a majority of them eventually settling in the Southwest.
For a long time after the war, Pelican Island fell back to the control of the insects. An experimental concrete ship, the SS Selma was sunk at one end of the island, and is still visible today from the causeway. (If you are wondering why a ship would be made out of concrete instead of steel, you are showing you have more brains than the people who built her.)
Since I moved from Galveston, a branch campus of Texas A. & M. has grown up on the island, today teaching more than 2000 students. Industry is moving onto Pelican Island, and the state has announced that a newer and larger bridge will be built to the small island.
When I knew Pelican Island, there was not much on it. At the end of the single road that crosses the island was a World War II submarine. The memorial is named “Seawolf Park” after the USS Seawolf, but the submarine on display is the USS Cavala, roughly the same class as the USS Seawolf. It would be kind of hard to display the actual Seawolf, since she was lost during the war, unfortunately, by friendly fire.
About the only other building on the island was a steel warehouse. To get to the island, you drove down to the docks and crossed a causeway that connected the small island to the large island. Halfway across the causeway, a drawbridge could be raised to allow ships pass the west end of the tiny island. One summer day, my business partner and I got a call to work on a computer in the warehouse and, since it was a slow day and the little island was beautiful…we both went.
As soon as we crossed the bridge and pulled up into the parking lot, we heard the siren. People started pouring out of the warehouse and pointing out into the bay, where a large waterspout was slowly moving towards the island.
If you have never seen one, a waterspout is basically a tornado moving slowly over water, and the column appears to be completely full of water. Technically, there are two kinds of waterspouts: Tornadic waterspouts are real tornados and can do incredible amounts of damage. Non-Tornadic waterspouts are smaller, have winds less than 60 mph, and can form on clear days. Hundreds of the smaller ones form on the Gulf Coast every year, most of which do little or no damage during their usually thirty-minute lifespan.
This benign description of a non-tornadic waterspout reminds me of the words of Max Stanley, the great test pilot for Northrop Aviation. "The Piper Cub is the safest airplane in the world; it can just barely kill you."
The waterspout that day was indeed a non-tornadic waterspout. And as far as the two dozen odd people gathered in that parking lot was concerned, it was a category 5 hurricane. When they are that close, there are NO small tornadoes. And in the brief few seconds while we were all absorbing this information, we suddenly heard the klaxon for the drawbridge. Turning just slightly west, we sawthe bridge slowly raising until the movable section was pointing up, sort of a personal obscene salute.
There is, of course, a reason why drawbridges are raised during storms. If the bridge is damaged while it is down, the ships in the channel could be blocked for months. The flip side is that if the bridge is up during a tornado, the people on the island are screwed. All of the people in that parking lot—now stranded on a relatively small island (myself included)—ran into the warehouse for safety.
As safe places go, a warehouse full of scrap metal is probably about as safe as trying to suck start a shotgun. We all just stood there looking at the pipes, angles irons, and piles of sheet metal. In case of an actual tornado, this place was full of exactly the kind of crap you don’t want to be near when things start flying around. By comparison, Sharknado is tame.
Note: In hindsight, there was a remarkably safe place to go: Probably few places on earth make a better storm cellar than a large metal submarine, even one dragged up onto a sand bar. Not one of those present thought of that option, possibly because in the average lifetime, never once has your brain said, “I know what to do! Go jump into the submarine!” If your brain has said this to you, you live a very strange life.
Trapped like rats in a metal abattoir, we just stood there listening to the coming tornado. On television, there is always some slack jawed hillbilly saying the tornado that squashed his trailer sounded like a train. This is incorrect. It sounds like two trains! Fucking.
The metal warehouse rattled, the wind howled, pieces of corrugated roofing material began to peel back from the warehouse, and the noise was deafening… Then the tornado passed by and within seconds, it was very quiet. Until we heard the klaxon.
Everyone ran back out of the warehouse and stood and watched as the drawbridge being lowered. Looking to the east, we could see the waterspout wandering across the bay. We should have all turned in the direction of the bridge controller and “saluted!"
I’ve never been back to Pelican Island. If they finish that new bridge, and it isn’t a drawbridge, I’m ready to go back.