Henry Martyn Robert is far better known today for the rules he introduced for the proper conduct of assemblies than he is for literally lifting Galveston from the nadir of the 1900 Storm.
Robert was a stubborn sort, the sort of man who could attend a rowdy church meeting — as he did in 1863 — and come away determined to research and annotate and publish the proper rules for conducting an assembly of any sort.
Then 26 years old, the South Carolina-born, West Point-educated engineer spent parts of the next 14 years compiling — and revising, as he saw fit — prior rules of order.
The handbook, which Robert originally and prosaically titled The Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies, is known today as Robert’s Rules of Order.
Unable to sell a publisher on his determinedly dry opus, Robert published it at his own expense and in so doing profited handsomely; the rules sold 4,000 copies in the first four months of publication and more than half a million volumes by the time he died.
Robert, despite his Southern birth, remained loyal to the United States when war broke and spent much of the Civil War designing defenses for the nation’s capital and elsewhere.
He spent his subsequent government career attending to other projects — mostly improving flows in rivers and harbors — for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
It was in that capacity that President Grover Cleveland in 1895 personally appointed Robert to head a commission assigned with determining the best spot for a cargo port on the western reach of the Gulf of Mexico. The engineer scouted about and came away convinced that only Galveston truly fit the bill. There was but one problem: Severe shoaling, the piling up of sand at the harbor’s mouth, prevented deep-draft freighters from mooring.
To counter that, Robert designed jetties to force the water itself to scour the harbor floor, and all was well, until, that is, along came the devastating 1900 Storm, during which no fewer than 6,000 residents and ill-timed visitors died that September.
A year later, as the island began to resume normalcy, Robert, by then promoted to brigadier general, retired from the Corps of Engineers only to immediately be appointed by the city to chair a board of engineers charged with overseeing the construction of a seawall and — ultimately — with raising the island’s grade.
Within two years, with Robert’s commission overseeing the project, construction began on what would become a concave seawall 17 feet tall, 15 feet wide at its base, five at its apex, and more than 10 miles long. It was built in 50-foot sections, one locked to the next and set upon pilings driven as deep as 50 feet into the shoreline.
That was the easy part.
Robert’s commission had insisted that, once the wall was erected, backfilling the island was essential, a Herculean task that called for raising every man-made structure standing behind the sea barrier.
The labor — it entailed pumping slurry dredged from the harbor into, one at a time, 16 square-block sections, each girded by a dike — began in December 1903 and dragged on for a quarter century.
Doing so required the gouging of a 20-foot-deep, 200-foot-wide canal east to west across the island to accommodate the hopper dredges that hauled the water-laden sand to stations along the way where it was transferred to 46-inch pipes that pumped the infill to where it was intended. The water evaporated, the sand remained.
Buildings and houses were screw jacked — a quarter-inch at a time — and lifted. The most massive, the 3,000-ton, stone-and-brick-built St. Patrick Catholic Church on Broadway, required 700 strategically placed jack screws to raise it 5 feet.
All told, 2,156 buildings were elevated, some up to 17 feet. Individual property owners had to bear the cost. The city — taxpayers, that is — bore the cost of lifting the utility infrastructure: gas and water and sewer lines; fire hydrants and trolley tracks; and, too, telegraph and telephone poles and the wires strung between them.
The grade raising sloped downward from the height of the seawall along the Gulf one foot every 1,500 feet toward the bay.
As a happy result, for the first time in the island’s history, the city sewers finally worked, something that was no coincidence. Robert was, after all, an expert not just on bringing order to assemblies, but, too, on bringing order to all manner of matters hydraulic.