Fishermen and others who visit either the north or south jetties probably wonder why and how they came to be.

Their lengths and heft is impressive, testament to what man can achieve when need exists and political will and money come together.

The navigability of rivers and the capacity of suitable ports and harbors is vital to the growth and development of commerce.

Access to Galveston Bay and to the port of Galveston and later Houston, was complicated by the shallows and sandbars created by the hydrology of silt laden rivers meeting long shore currents.

This got plenty of attention in Galveston, Austin and Washington and by the US Engineering office.

A dredging project to create a 9 feet deep channel from the Gulf to the upper bay began in 1871. But keeping it from silting in too quickly at the Gulf was a challenge.

The first attempt to construct a jetty on both north (Bolivar) and south sides of the ship channel occurred between 1874 and 1879.

The south jetty was located at the tip of the north (east) end point and ran for less than half a mile.

There being a lack of stones, cement covered gabions (6 feet high and 6 feet thick and 6-12 feet long) were used.

They were first set at no more than mean low water and filled with dredged sand. They were not successful.

After more experimentation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers advised switching from gabions to placing multiple layers of log and brush (fascine) mattresses ballasted with stone rip rap.

This approach would use barges and floating cranes. The U.S. Rivers and Harbors Act of June 1880 appropriated the first of a string of money for Galveston Harbor improvements.

The new “mattress” approach focused first on the south jetty and was over 4 miles in length, encircling the end of the island and paralleling the channel.

With as many as 4 layers, the mats were typically 1.5 feet thick and the lowest layer 30 to 120 feet wide.

Unfortunately, these, too, were no match for nature and by 1885 had deteriorated and moved and subsided an average of almost 6 feet.

Commencing in 1887 the basis was established for both the north and south jetties which we can see in part, today.

The south jetty was in fact built between 1887 and 1893 and was placed on top of the remains of the fascine mat jetty.

This approach consisted of creating “rubble mounds” mainly using sandstone rip rap and with granite blocks used as a cover layer on the seaward portion. 

For this approach, trestles to carry rails and trains were needed. The jetties were built to mean low tide level with a typical crown width of 12 feet.

The south jetty ran to over 6.5 miles, starting city side of Sixth Street to stabilize the landward of the Galveston harbor channel, then encircling the point (there was no seawall extension then) and extending south out to sea. At its terminus its base was in about 27 feet of water at mean low tide.

After the 1900 Storm (1902-1909,) some repairs to both jetties were necessary.

The south jetty repairs were mainly at its landward end where granite blocks were introduced, and its seaward end.

The jetty was also extended. In 1908 a concrete and chinking stone cap was placed on a mid section. Minor repairs to the south jetty were also made after a 1909 storm.

The 1915 storm caused damage but no repairs were immediately made, but in 1925 the full length of the north jetty was repaired plus the seaward end of the south.

Considering how the final jetties were created that is using elevated rail transportation, it is obvious that maintenance was always going to be a difficult process and likely to test the will and financial ability to do it.

In this regard it is interesting that in 1935 an asphaltic concrete material was placed in voids and as a cap on portions of both jetties, but with the majority of it placed on two sections of the south jetty.

In 1941 the asphaltic cap on the seaward section of the south jetty, was badly damaged and stretches of what remains of the asphaltic cap are still very visible.

By the early 1960s, the jetties were assessed as being in a general state of deterioration with some lengths being below 3 feet above mean low tide. Rehabilitation costing about $6M was carried out during 1962-1966.

No further repairs were documented through 1986 when the condition of the jetties was considered to be good.

A column by Capt. Joe Kent (The Daily News, Dec. 7, 2010) commented that the seaward extension of the south jetty seemed to be less visible to boaters and therefore more hazardous and that the surface was no longer flat and smooth.

He opined that federal budgets were not likely to allow any more than a band aid approach if that in the future.

The highly visible lighthouse which stood at the seaward end, commissioned in 1918 became obsolete in the early ’80s and was felled by a storm in 2000 shortly before it was to be removed and preserved. Its cupola now stands at Galveston College.

My own personally experience with following the landward length of the jetty from lagoon to the beach attests to the same conclusion, there are voids, gaps, subsidence and lengths of bad surface, especially where asphaltic concrete was placed atop a layer of sandstone clinker concrete in 1935.

But the jetty still makes for a great place to crab from and would, if repaired here and there, provide a path for an adventurous hike.

To better understand the next great undertaking at the East End (the Extension of the Seawall), a little history of ownership is necessary, the next subject in this series.

Mort Voller lives in Galveston and in several capacities has advocated for Galveston’s Natural Heritage. Kirk Clark is a process safety consultant and local historian with a passion for all things Galveston history.

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