The Deadliest Natural Disaster in U.S. History: The Galveston Hurricane of 1900

On September 8, 1900, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history occurred when the low-elevation island of Galveston, Texas, was struck by a category four hurricane that resulted in 135 mph winds and a deadly tidal surge. The hurricane, also known as the Great Galveston Storm, leveled 3,600 buildings and killed an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people. Primitive forecasting techniques and ignored warnings contributed to the high number of fatalities.

Salt Lake Herald 9.10.1900

Galveston was the largest city in Texas at the turn of the century. It had a bustling shipping port and was among the richest urban areas in the United States. It had a population of 37,000 that swelled each summer when vacationers flocked to the island to enjoy the beaches.

Hurricane forecasting science at the turn of the century was not very sophisticated. The U.S. Weather Bureau relied on warnings from arriving ships or telegraphed warnings from islands in the Caribbean. In early September 1900, Cuban meteorologists sent warnings of an impending storm headed for the U.S. which were largely ignored. The U.S. Weather Bureau eventually issued a hurricane warning but predicted the storm would pass over Florida and continue north along the Eastern Seaboard. The storm headed into the Gulf of Mexico, however, and the first storm warnings in Galveston were not issued until September 7th. Few people heeded the warnings.

The morning of September 8th dawned cloudy and with a powerful surf. Soon the skies turned dark and the winds picked up. The Furniss family of St. Louis, Missouri was vacationing at the Beach Hotel in Galveston with their three daughters, unaware that a deadly hurricane was taking aim at the city. Galveston sat just nine feet above sea level and as the hurricane came ashore, a 15-foot storm surge rolled in.

The Atlanta Constitution 9.9.1900

When the storm hit, the hotel was completely demolished, and the Furniss family presumed dead. Their only other child, an 18-year-old son, was home in Missouri when he received news of the disaster. He quickly traveled to Galveston to search for his family. Upon arrival, a local militia involuntarily enlisted him into service to search for survivors and bury the dead. Thousands of bodies were strewn about the island and mountains of debris piled everywhere. The heat and humidity created a terrible stench and workers initially tried to bury vast numbers of the dead at sea. However, the tide just washed the bodies back to shore. Eventually, they burned the dead instead. The bodies of the Furniss family were among those finally found and buried at sea.  

St. Louis Glove-Democrat 9.15.1900

Another tragedy occurred at the St. Mary’s Orphans Asylum, which sat directly on the shore. It was built to take advantage of the fresh sea breezes which nuns hoped would protect the children from Yellow Fever and other illnesses that had killed their parents. As the storm intensified, the nuns gathered all 93 children and moved to the second floor to escape the rising water. As an added protection, the nuns tied themselves to small groups of children. Eventually, the storm ripped the orphanage from its foundation, trapping the children. Tragically, all were lost except three boys who clung to a tree.

As the stories of the devastation emerged, a nationwide relief effort sprang up to help the people of Galveston. To prevent a similar tragedy from happening again, Galveston built a 17-foot seawall and brought in tons of sand to raise the city’s elevation as much as 18 feet near the seawall, with a downward slope toward the bay. Buildings that managed to survive the hurricane were lifted to the new ground level.

If you would like to learn more about the Great Galveston Storm of 1900, search Newspapers.com today or see additional clippings on the Galveston Hurricane in our Topic Pages.

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61 thoughts on “The Deadliest Natural Disaster in U.S. History: The Galveston Hurricane of 1900

  1. My son-in-laws grandfather was a1 month old baby that survived the storm, born 1 August 1900. No idea what happened to his parents or maybe siblings? He was adopted by a family in Michigan. Birth name was William Joseph Brennen.

    • Check with the Galveston and Texas History Center at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston. At one point the Newspaper compiled a list of 4000 names of the dead. There are other sources, as well.

  2. My great grandfather, John Mack Shackelford, went to Galveston to help with the search and cleanup. He contracted consumption and passed away six years later in Waters, Oklahoma.

    • I’m very sorry to hear about your great grandfather it is men like him who make this nation great and who put others in front of themselves God bless his soul and may God bless his offspring.

  3. Isn’t a virus a part of the natural order of life.
    Are virus pandemics considered as “natural disasters”?
    If so, which was/is the most deadliest so far?
    Now, or the one from 1918?
    I consider hurricanes and the wrath they bring like backed up toilets.
    Folks know what they are in for, sooner or later, when they build in, live in,
    and vacation in, zones that will eventually become death traps by the sea.
    Inquiring minds want to know!

    • Damien, I think it is commonly understood that diseases caused by pathogens are in their own category. But to answer your question yes they have killed far more than any known natural disaster in recent history. Smallpox is generally considered the most deadly over time. An estimated 400,000 Europeans died each year from it in the 18th century. It also caused a third of blindness there. In the 20th century an estimated 300 to 500 million people died world wide. WHO estimates 2 million died as recently as 1967. Vaccinations have eliminated smallpox.

  4. Many of my family were killed in this storm. The best book I’ve found by far of the storm is Isaac’s Storm. I highly recommend it.

      • Yes this is A great book. I learned so much about hurricane formation as well as the early history of weatherman. I HIGHLY recommend if you have a y interest in history & hurricanes. Eric Larson is the author.

        • Erik Larsen is a wonderful writer and has produced books on many historic events. Read all of them!

    • Isaac’s Storm is indeed a great book. I listened to it on audio. I was driving on the I-70 one night in a rain storm listening to it during the part where the family were outside their house trying to float on a board! It sure made me feel like was in Galveston!

    • A terrific book. Two of my great-grandparents drowned with four of their eight children and a dozen or more other relatives. The house where another pair of my great-grandparents and my grandmother found refuge still stands.

    • My favorite book is the late John Edward Weems’ “A Weekend in September” originally published in 1957. He interviewed dozens of survivors still living in the 1950s.

  5. Erik Larson wrote a book in 1999 called “Isaac’s Storm” about the Galveston Hurricane. I have never forgotten it; the impression it left, inspired me to travel to Louisiana three times to assist in rebuilidng after Katrina. I recommend it to anyone interested in a full recounting of the event.

  6. It is events like this where there is such a large tragic loss of life that our genealogy research hits a brick wall. I can’t even imagine how they could identify those lost.

  7. My grandmother was 9 years old and lived through this storm. She talked about playing on the beach that morning, how dark it was at noon when her uncle came home from lunch, how they finally decided to go to higher ground and ended up in a building with other families. The men held mattresses to the windows, and they rescued a woman who was naked and hysterical, as her baby had been ripped from her arms. The next day her uncle had to carry her, as the debris, glass and bodies were everywhere. Her recall made it so vivid to me also.

    • My great uncle and family lived there at the time. He and family survived. I found them living in Houston, TX in the 1910 US Census. He was an Insurance Agent. I wish I could ask him questions about how he lived through this.event.
      Others (cousins) in family may not have survived.

  8. I had a friend whose grandfather survived along with the entire family. He and his father were trapped in the family business which was severely damaged, but they managed to survive, After the storm they began to make their way toward the family home on the east end having to navigate the piled up debris from the storm. They found the house off its foundation, but the entire family was safe because the debris from the shore had piled up and made a levee which protected them.

  9. My great-grandfather, a physician, lived through the storm. His daughter/my grandmother, was living in TN and did not know until many days later that he had survived, when she read a newspaper account in which he was quoted, speaking of the number of dead and missing, disease, etc. He lost everything except a beautiful four-poster bed and a sewing table, which he was able to ship to Selma, AL in a railroad cattle car. Those treasured items are still with us.

  10. A Weekend in September by John Edward Weems is another excellent book on the 1900 hurricane, and is often overlooked. I thought it every bit as good as Isaac’s Storm

  11. My husband and I along with my Uncle, are all BOI’s (born on the island) and find these comments from relatives of actual survivors, amazing. Thank you for sharing statements about your family members.

    • My great-grandmother and one of her daughters died and were buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Galveston, some years before the storm. I have seen photos of their graves, but I have never been to the cemetery. Do you know what damage it suffered?

      • Have you tried Findagrave.com where you can find vast information as well as photos from cemeteries worldwide?

        • I have looked at FaG and recently added info on the daughter. I did not research that cemetery further, but will do so.

        • Emily Reese Talbot Fry, 1845-1888, and Emily Fry, 1885-1896. I found the ERTF tombstone on FindaGrave and was able to add the EF memorial. I just don’t know about the level of upkeep of the cemetery. Thanks for your interest. Somewhere I have a newspaper account of the aftermath of the storm, but have not located it yet.

          • Wow this is so interesting. Very sad. I’m definitely going to read over of the books mentioned. My husband told me that all the refinery’s there blew up too. Crazy!

          • Interesting, I was in a Cemetery In Fredericksburg The old Pioneer Cemetery and there was a tomb stone for a Baby Fry, I wonder if thats where they migrated to

  12. “Isaac’s Storm” was an extremely interesting book. I found myself saying “don’t listen to them. Get out before it’s too late.” So many lives were lost needlessly. The seawall would have helped greatly, however they tended to have the same thinking as with the Titanic, “It can’t happen to us”. So sad!
    This book really made you feel you were there.

  13. A terrible storm and loss of life.. We must remember that there was hardly any phones, radios, no TV. no cell phones. most folks men and women worked and had not much time to visit about any thing to include the weather. News did get around by word of mouth,and was after the fact. Newspapers reported things after the fact. Hardly any cars, horse and buggy mostly. No good construction of buildings as we have these days. Rest in peace for those that lost their lives.
    We all need to be thankful for all the improvements to our lives now.

  14. All true! No FEMA, no disaster relief program, not much precedent. It was an entirely different world.

  15. Galveston was the economic center of Texas in 1900 but it was supported by a number of mid-sized towns to the west supporting Galveston with transportation, food and the production of agricultural exports. The storm continued west and the momentum of the storm surge pushed Galveston ocean barges as far at 25 miles inland to Alvin at an elevation of 45 feet. All these smaller towns were destroyed as well by what we would now call a Category 4 storm. In these inland towns people took wagons into the fields and woods, picking up individual pieces of lumber blow or floated off businesses and houses. The collected lumber was used to rebuild their houses and businesses. These self help heroes and the raising of Galveston exemplify the best of the American Spirit.

  16. I have a distant relative whose body Find-A-Grave lists as “lost at sea” and her date of death December 1900 in Galveston. I wonder if it was custom to wait a couple of months before declaring missing people dead. Does anyone know?

  17. Ahhhhh dang it! It’s too hard work to actually DO newspaper archives so let’s just keep this blog about random events okay?

    Keep cutting corners and being the EA Games Me Too!

  18. My great-great grandfather and his family survived the Storm. Their house is still on Broadway, a law office now I think. His name was John Z. H. Scott. One if his sons became my great grandfather, Richard Scott. My great great grandmother had already died before the storm.

  19. My mother’s dad, Robert William Bowen, was a jockey, and was engaged to a young woman who lived on the island with her family. The day after the storm, he and a friend rode their horses from Houston to the shoreline, and, finding no way to get across to the island, rode into water that swirled with debris, and began the treacherous journey to the island. My grandfather and his friend were soon swept off their horses’ backs, but my grandfather was able to hold onto his own horse’s tail and, thus, made it to the other side. He never saw his friend again.

    With great difficulty, he made his way to his fiancé’s house, climbed through piles of debris to get inside, and found the entire family, drowned.

    After getting help to remove their bodies, he began the heartbreaking and dangerous work of removing bodies from the debris, working with men of every color; some were volunteers, while others were forced. He said thieves were cutting off body parts to remove jewelry from the dead.

    He stayed in Galveston and began to build a life for himself from the rubble, eventually meeting and marrying my grandmother, Vashti Hunter. All four of their children, Martha, Mary, Bill and Al, and all but a couple of us grandchildren were born on the island.

  20. The book, ‘Isaac’s Storm’ by Erik Larson was the focus of this hurricane. An amazing book based on a lot of good research by Larson. Highly recommended read.

  21. My grandfather spent two days floating around on a cotton bale with a rattlesnake as his companion. He wad sone of the lucky ones who was eventually rescued.

    • Hi there. My grandfather was the only survivor of his family, he was about 11 years old or so. He also floated on debris in the gulf until he was rescued. Amazing! His aunt and uncle raised him after that.

  22. Both sides of my maternal grandfather’s family were longtime Galveston residents, having lived on the island starting in about 1860 or slightly thereafter. His father, my great grandfather, was James Emory Taylor and his mother was Elizabeth Masculine. Both families including parents, siblings and numerous grandchildren were still on the island when the 1900 storm hit and of the 20 to 25 people in the Taylor and Masculine families, everyone survived.

    Family stories about the 1900 storm were common growing up but two have stayed with me all these years. My great grandfather, James Emory Taylor, and a friend had gone over to Bolivar fishing on September 7th and were unable to get back the next morning. They were able to take shelter in the Bolivar Lighthouse along with 125 other folks in the area at the time and survived the storm. They were unable to get back to Galveston until the 10th and his wife was certain he had died. His wife, Elizabeth Masculine had been left at home with five children including my grandfather who was the youngest at just under a year old. When the storm hit, it because obvious that their house was not going to make it and so my great grandmother headed out to her parents’ home, nearby. It soon became obvious that home was not going to survive the storm either and they all headed out to find somewhere safer. By the time the storm ended, they had moved a total of five times and ended up in a 2nd floor home over a grocery store along with a number of other people, most of whom were strangers.

    Both families stayed on Galveston and rebuilt after the storm and most were still there when the 1915 hurricane hit the island. Over time, some moved away but many stayed and in the 1950s I can remember visiting dozens of relatives that still lived there. In fact, many of them were still there when Carla hit in 1961. I believe the last person from either family that was still living on the island died in 2014.

  23. I hope those of you who have relatives who can now tell these stories ( by now 2nd hand or greater) have made audio recordings of them telling these stories. Such recordings often convey the story with greater power than the written word can’t even begin to. And it’s a wonderful gift to leave for those who will come after us.

    • I agree with keeping audio or written records, my 3greatgrand parents came thru Indianola Tx died when they got here of Yellow Fever and should be buried in Indianola. If it wasn’t for older people telling there stories I wouldn’t have know where to look for them.
      The cemetery in Indianola was wipe out alone with the records office in a Hurricane that hit in the 1886

      • Question for Bryan Hilldore-Just wondering which children survived Indianola and the yellow fever (obviously one was your 2nd great grand parent!) and where they settled. My great grand father also came through Indianola and was paid to transport settlers in ox-drawn wagons, then he settled near San Marcos Tx. During the civil war he went as a soldier to Galveston, found a bag on the beach with $150.00. In 1910 he died and left each of his ten children $10,000, so I guess he invested the $$ well (he was Just a farmer . . . ).

        • John Golla My 2nd great
          Anton, and Josephine Golla Ploch. I got the story from Josephine’s relatives on Ancestry, after Indianola they migrated to St. Hedwig Tx

  24. Newspapers.com – The Philadelphia Inquirer –
    Sep 19, 1900 front page article
    “She lived through the Texas storm”
    My great aunt Sister Mary Ambrose a Dominican Nun
    who taught at the Sacred Heart Academy in Galveston described her experiences during the storm.

  25. Thank you everyone for sharing your stories. My family lives in the East, and I had no knowledge of this tragic event. It’s so important to share these personal stories so the history lives on, and helps to educate those not familiar with them.
    I have learned so much, including 3 books to add to my reading library.
    Lisa

  26. My gr. Great grandmother died in this storm . The story passed down by my grandmother is that 2 boys held onto their dead mother’s body until they had to let her go to save themselves. Her body was washed out to sea and they never saw it again. The boys survived and grew to adulthood. It took me years to put the story together with names and places and the actual storm . Tragic , but interesting non the less.

  27. My great grandparents, Titus and Lillian Hill Miller, and their 3 oldest children survived the “Galveston Flood.” My great grandmother was pregnant for my grandmother, who was born Jan. 6, 1901. After people could leave, my great grandmother and the 3 children went to Lincoln, Nebraska where her father was a Methodist pastor. The family subsequently moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where my great grandfather was building contractor. The family eventually numbered 11 children. Family members are still in the building trades.

    The Lake Charles area was devastated by Hurricane Laura 2 weeks ago. Many of the buildings and homes damaged have some connection to one of the descendents of Titus and Lillian Miller.

  28. There were no refineries in 1900. In 1947, the ship Grandcamp, filled with fertilizer, blew up in Texas City which is near Galveston but on the mainland. Very similar to the recent explosion in Beirut, Lebanon.

  29. My Grandmother, Marie Berryman’s father was the assistant lighthouse keeper on Point Bolivar. She lived through the Hurricane of 1900 at the age of 10 in the lighthouse with her family and as many other people as could fit in the lighthouse. She wrote an account in her own handwriting from memory of the awful occurrences of the night and days following the hurricane. It is published in Isaac’s Storm and my family has the original copy.

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