With an elaborate flourish underscoring his signature, Sam Houston, the father of the Republic of Texas, on May 18, 1838, sired Galveston County.
Three days prior, the republic’s Senate and House of Representatives overwhelmingly had voted to create the new county.
Galveston County’s birth came a little more than two years after Houston had led the decisive Battle of San Jacinto, bringing about the independence from Mexico that Texans had declared on March 2, 1836.
Galveston County’s population at the time of its creation — carved from Brazoria, Harrisburg and Liberty counties — numbered no more than 1,200 residents.
The new county included Galveston Island and the adjacent mainland east from the bay and north to Clear Creek.
The island, then the largest city in Texas, prospered from its port and the economy that fed off it. Across the bay, mainland Galveston County bore no resemblance to its laissez faire kin. It was populated by cattle vastly outnumbering those who derived a living from the herds of Holsteins, Brahmas and Jerseys, and the soil was rich, allowing crops to prosper year-round and, too, the truck farmers who sowed the fertile fields.
The county’s mainland produced a virtual cornucopia: pears, strawberries, figs and oranges alongside pecans and mainstays such as corn and potatoes.
Myriad towns sprang up during the county’s early decades: Hitchcock and Arcadia to the west, bracketing what would come to be known as Santa Fe; La Marque and Dickinson and League City in the county’s midsection; Kemah and Texas City to the east.
Commercial fishermen profited from the abundant catches available in the bay and bayous.
Balm and boom
The well-to-do from Houston and elsewhere vacationed alongside the bucolic Galveston Bay, building summer homes and resort camps from Texas City to Kemah.
Then came the Texas oil boom, beginning in 1901. During the next three decades, fields were in play in Dickinson and in League City, on the Bolivar Peninsula, and in Hitchcock and Friendswood.
The Republic Refinery Co. in 1931 announced plans to build a $1 million plant in Texas City to exploit the largesse and the area’s ready access to rail and sea. Two years later, a rival refinery, financed by the Pan-American Petroleum & Transportation Co., was well underway.
The emerging industry — along with the end of World War II — spurred the greatest demographic changes the county would ever see.
“When the refineries started becoming prevalent, a lot of the county’s truck farmers found they could be assured of steady employment and not have to worry about the weather wiping them out,” Galveston County Historical Commission Chairman Ralph Stenzel said. “That’s when the Galveston County economy really began to switch from farming to industrial.
“And after World War II, a lot of returning servicemen used the GI Bill to purchase homesteads. Hundreds of homes were built to accommodate them, beginning around Texas City, mainly because of the refineries.”
On Galveston Island, another boon, this one illicit, had already emerged: Prohibition had generated wealth through bootlegging, and as one vice attracted von vivants and ne’er-do wells in equal numbers, along came others, including gambling and prostitution. Galveston, it seems, was Sin City long before Las Vegas bloomed in the Nevada desert.
Only a concerted effort by state law enforcement officials in the mid-1950s overcame the blind eye with which the county’s own lawmen had for years viewed organized vice.
Tragedies amid prosperity
Amid those eras of change, the county’s population surged — it stood some 1,200 souls at the county’s creation in 1838 — to 140,000 residents calling it home by the late 1950s.
There had been tragedies along the line, both acts of God and mistakes of man. The terrible 1900 Storm killed more than 6,000 people. Two years later a seawall was raised along the Gulf in hope of preventing a recurrence.
And, too, on April 16, 1947, a cargo ship’s hold exploded after workers attempted to douse a fire kindling within, providing an inadvertent catalyst. The blast killed more than 600 people, workers and residents alike.
Galveston by 1900 was no longer the state’s largest city but had become an evermore popular destination for those seeking sun and surf, redefining the island’s economy.
And as tourism forever changed Galveston, so, too, did jobs at mainland refineries and other industrial plants, coupled with abundant, affordable housing, similarly and irrevocably alter the mainland economy.
Much of Galveston County, from Clear Creek south across the causeway, would never be the same.
Moody’s Investor Services in January upgraded Galveston County’s bond rating to Aaa for the first time in county history.
The new rating reflected the recovery of the county’s tax base, which had been battered by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and its aftermath; tax revenues since have grown at a healthy annual average rate of 3.7 percent since 2012.
“The county’s financial position should remain stable, supported by a history of conservative budgeting that allows the county to consistently outperform its budgeted expenses and revenues,” the rating service said in announcing the upgrade.
Galveston County is now one of just nine of Texas’ 254 counties — and the only one on the state’s Gulf Coast — rated Aaa by at least one of the nation’s two principal bond-rating firms.
“We’ve practiced conservative and responsible government and that’s what led to our current bond rating,” Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said. “We’ve had unprecedented growth, and that’s due to our county’s stable and predictable tax structure and our stable and predictable government.”
The upgrade is expected to save the county millions of dollars in debt service going forward. One recent county bond resale alone reduced anticipated debt payments by an estimated $6 million.
A varied economy
The county boasts deepwater ports in Galveston and Texas City; petrochemical facilities and other heavy industry; robust retail; an expanding cruise industry; and four schools of higher education — College of the Mainland, Galveston College, Texas A&M University at Galveston and the University of Texas Medical Branch, which, combined, boast a student population of 22,000.
“Galveston College has been the top community college in the state of Texas two years in a row,” Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough said. “Texas A&M is developing a bigger footprint. UTMB has growth plans. They’re definitely sinking their hooks deeper into the island.
“That’s going to bring steady, continuous growth.”
The county’s ad valorem tax rate has declined each of the past six years, while overall property tax revenue has risen steadily, reaching $27 billion in 2016.
Galveston County is the state’s 17th most populous, with nearly 325,000 residents. The county’s employed labor force totals more than 140,000 people, roughly 36,000 of whom work in Galveston. Of the latter, half commute to the island.
“Galveston Island is the employment center of Galveston County,” said Jeffrey Sjostrom, president of the Galveston Economic Development Partnership. “A lot of people come across the causeway to work here on a daily basis. We have an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. population of 60,000 to 70,000 people and a full-time population of 52,000 or so.”
Elsewhere across the county development continues apace. To wit:
• Dickinson last year completed construction of a new elementary school and a new middle school as part of its ongoing Lobit Education Village, funded by a $56 million bond issue approved by voters in 2014;
• Hitchcock continues to expand its 300-acre Blimp Base Industrial Park, most recently with the addition of a distribution hub for Wichita, Kan.-based RedGuard LLC, which manufactures blast-resistant modular buildings for the petrochemical industry;
• Galveston developers continue to add hotels and to expand housing, while the Galveston Economic Development Partnership works with city officials to create a land bank to acquire and repurpose neglected properties;
• League City is adding several commercial and retail centers as well as residential subdivisions to house its burgeoning population; and
• In Texas City, Marathon Petroleum has announced a $2 billion upgrade for its refinery, which the company predicts will result in the nation’s second largest when it is completed in 2020.
Retail, office and residential developments also are underway in Friends-wood, La Marque and Santa Fe.
League City, already the county’s largest with a population of slightly more than 100,000, is expected to be fully built out sometime around 2040, when it is expected to have doubled its current number of residents. That alone will boost Galveston County’s population to more than 425,000 residents.
Tourism continues to lure visitors to Kemah and Texas City as well as to Galveston, which in 2016 drew 6.5 million visitors, continuing a trend in which the number of tourists to the island has increased in each of the past seven years.
The total number of tourists to the island last year included more than 830,000 cruise passengers.
As it stands, the Port of Galveston is the nation’s fourth largest in terms of cruise passengers, and that segment of the island’s tourist industry is expected to continue to grow as additional ships are added to the visiting fleet.
Miami-based Carnival Cruise Line, for instance, has announced that in 2018 it will begin operating its latest and largest ship, Carnival Vista, from Galveston. The Vista, which can accommodate nearly 4,000 passengers, joins two other Carnival ships serving the port, as well as the Disney Wonder, which has returned to the island after a two-year hiatus.
The port itself — it recently added a second cruise terminal — continues to be seen as ripe for commercial and aesthetic enhancements.
“The port is somewhat bifurcated,” Yarbrough said. “There’s the heavy equipment aspect, and there’s the cruise ship industry.”
Considerations are afoot to work with long-term tenants on potentially moving their operations from the east end of the port to the west end. Doing so could open new opportunities to enhance the port, the mayor said: “Maybe on the east side we could then develop a farmers market, or a fish market, or both, maybe create a Seattle-type environment.”
And, too, there is underutilized Pelican Island, which is home to Texas A&M University at Galveston and Seawolf Park on opposite ends. In between are largely undeveloped tracts, including some 300 acres owned by the Port of Galveston and another 1,200 acres owned by the Port of Houston.
“We need to develop the island side of the port and look at creating incentives for the private sector to develop the Pelican side,” Yarbrough said. “This is a steady process that will unfold over many years.”
Addressing an aging span
Discussions continue on replacing the aging, vehicle-only Pelican Island Bridge, possibly with one that would accommodate vehicles as well as rail service, but such prospects remain iffy without funding in place and without new development underway on Pelican Island.
“With the bridge, we need a bird in the hand,” Sjostrom said of the need to attract port-oriented developments on Pelican Island. “The old days of playing Field of Dreams — ‘if you build it, they will come’ — are over.
“So right now the $1 million question is how to fund the bridge. Actually, it’s more like the $70 million question.”
Yarbrough, peering into the future, envisions an enhanced city waterfront, its primary attraction.
“I’m a firm believer in the aesthetics of the island,” he said. “I’d like to see us planting palm trees along Seawall Boulevard, make it appear more like a tropical island; build esplanades in the turn lanes; and eliminate parking on the south side of Seawall so that when people are driving along it, they’re seeing the Gulf uninterrupted.”
And then there is the attraction of the county’s pastoral, mainland lifestyle, Henry said.
“We have everything from beachfront living to country living, and I can’t think of too many other places that can say that,” he said. “That’s just one more reason why I’m very optimistic about our future.”