Galveston’s lifesaving history is long and storied, much like Galveston herself.
In the 1800s, Galveston Island was one of the largest cities in Texas. Galveston hosted the first post office (1836), naval base (1836), cotton compress (1842), a Catholic parochial school (Ursuline Academy, 1847), an insurance company (1854) and also the first gas lights (1856).
Galveston was in need of equipment to aid mariners who encountered problems. A national organization based out of the East Coast, called the United States Life Saving Service, was created in response to humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners.
This government agency gave a Francis Life Boat to the collector of the Galveston port, to be employed in cases of vessels in distress.
On June 2, 1857, the steamship Louisiana, which was full of furniture and lumber, caught fire 5 miles off the coast of Galveston. Due to poor housing and an inconvenient storage location, the then-current Francis Life Boat was not able to be used for rescue. Hundreds of Galvestonians stood on the shoreline in despair as they watched the ship burn and sink with its 35 helpless crewmen.
This event prompted residents to petition the city for appropriate funds, not only to build a proper boat house, but also to mount the Francis Life Boat on a wheeled carriage for easier transportation. The federal government also supplied funds for two additional lifeboats, lifesaving equipment and a permanent boathouse. Fifty-two volunteers submitted their names to the mayor for support in creating the Galveston Life Boat Association.
It is thought that the equipment was destroyed when the Union captured Galveston in 1862 during the Civil War. When the war was over, no equipment was salvageable. The Life Boat Association no longer existed and any lifesaving efforts were at a halt.
In November 1875, another tragedy occurred when the steamship City of Waco, hailing from New York City, arrived in Galveston to unload its cargo and suddenly burst into flames. Strong winds and rough waters prevented any aid from nearby vessels in the harbor, leaving Galvestonians and sailors to watch in horrified awe as the city of Waco sank immediately. A memorial service at the Grand Opera House paid tribute to the 35 sailors who lost their lives in the tragedy and criticized the city for lack of appropriate means to come to their aid.
After this event, it was requested that the city build a lifesaving station on the island, in honor of those fallen men. The city received $200,000 from Congress to professionalize the Galveston organization. This money went to getting new equipment and structures for housing the lifesaving materials at the new life station’s location at Kuhn’s Wharf off 18th Street.
This was the same year the lifesaving station was established at what is now the San Luis Pass and we’ve had lifesavers on Galveston continuously ever since, although the form changed a few years later, following national and international trends.
To be continued.