Galveston’s street layout, conceived the year before the city’s birth, doesn’t conform to the rectitude of the compass, in which north goes to south, east to west, the typical arrangement for urban grids.
Instead, its designer skewed his grid a few degrees counterclockwise from the due north of the polestar to suit the lay of the land.
Urban grids are nearly as old as civilization itself, dating to at least 2500 B.C., first laid out in Egypt and what is now Pakistan.
In the New World, a surveyor named Thomas Holme, at the behest of Philadelphia’s founder, William Penn, in 1682 fitted a north-south right-angled grid between the constraints of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, one of the colonies’ first such street layouts, its alignment with the North Star soon was imitated as the nation spread west.
The “Map of the City of Galveston Situated on the East end of Galveston Island Texas 1838, Surveyed and Drawn by Jno. D. Groesbeeck Civil Engineer” and completed in 1838, ran from First to 61st streets, more or less east to west, crossed by avenues from A to V.
Groesbeeck was the grandson of an 18th century immigrant who as a member of the First Regiment of the Albany County Militia fought in George Washington’s Continental Army against the British tyrant George III.
John D. Groesbeeck — his given name anglicized from his grandfather’s Johannes — was born on April 13, 1816, in Albany, N.Y., and christened at the Albany Dutch Reform Church, his family’s lone commitment to the Old World they had fled in their yearning to breathe free.
Groesbeeck studied as a civil engineer and arrived in Galveston, ostensibly for health reasons, in 1837, shortly after his 21st birthday.
Galveston at the time would seem an odd choice for a salutary retreat, given that the town had neither sewers nor potable water and teemed with feral pigs and stray dogs and the one-horsepower vehicles that clopped along the unpaved roads, all depositing their waste without a thought whenever nature beckoned.
Four years earlier, a French Canadian named Michel Menard had circumvented a requirement that only Mexican-born residents of the state could purchase land in Galveston, by entering into a deal with a straw man, Juan Seguin, who purchased from the Mexican government a so-called league and labor of land, a total of 4,605 acres.
Menard paid Seguin well for his role in the subterfuge and assumed covert ownership of the acreage on Galveston’s East End.
Then came the Revolution. By October 1836, with the Republic of Texas established and Menard’s land claim allowed, his acreage ended up in several hands, including those of Levi Jones.
Menard and nine associates in April 1838 founded the Galveston City Company to sell lots established by Groesbeeck’s survey, whom Levi, the company’s general agent, had retained.
Groesbeeck’s meticulously drawn map — the calligraphy alone would have charmed the most demanding of schoolmarms, his hand-drafted, floral-shadowed “Galveston” a typographical work of art in its own right — contained hundreds of blocks, each with 14 rectangular lots, each 43 feet 10 inches wide by 120 feet deep, each intersected by 20-foot-wide alleys to facilitate deliveries and to remove waste.
Groesbeeck gave only Avenue J a name, dubbing it Broad Way.
Groesbeeck illustrated a channel east of First Street passing from gulf to bay. Piers were shown off 12th, 18th and 24th streets.
Northeast of his grid he noted a “Government Reserve” with a shore-hugging Pilot House and “Old Fort.”
The year following the 1838 completion of Groesbeeck’s labors, the Congress of the Republic of Texas granted the city its petition of incorporation — and so Galveston was born.
A copy of Groesbeeck’s map turned up 15 years later, and on Aug. 24, 1854, Mayor pro tem P.R. Edwards, in the plat’s uppermost right-hand corner, attested to its authenticity.
“I, P.R. Edwards, Mayor Pro tem of the City of Galveston State of Texas do hereby certify this to be a true copy of the original Map of Galveston City made by Jno. D. Groesbeck” — the misspelling of Groesbeeck’s surname would travel with him the rest of his life — “and (is) now on file in the archives of this office.
“Sworn under my hand and Seal of the Office the day and date above mentioned.
“Mayor Pro tem”
Groesbeeck, it seems, never again practiced engineering, becoming instead a druggist and purveyor of spirits and fine wines, and serving as a Galveston alderman before, in 1846, marrying and moving to San Antonio where he resumed his mercantile ways and turned his elegant, riverside house into a salon.
There he hosted luminaries, including, although presumably not at the same time, the bitter political rivals Mirabeau Lamar and Sam Houston, the Republic of Texas’ second and third presidents.
And there, too, on Oct. 11, 1856, the 40-year-old entrepreneur breathed his last.
Born in Albany and buried in San Antonio, with Galveston, one could say, the crossroads of his life.