It’s not that we dislike Indiana winters that much . . . well, maybe just a little . . . it’s more like having so much spare time on our hands during all those shut-in days that gives good reason to once again pack up and hit the road. Not that we need an excuse . . . but the winter season is an ideal time to seek out new places, or revisit those destinations that had particular appeal. And so it was this season . . . the winter of 2017 . . . once again found us stocking up our Pendleton Airstream and gearing up to leave again. It wouldn’t be her maiden voyage, but still in her first year of travel, with the kinks worked out and her equipment broken in, we were off to warmer climes (or so we hoped).
Luck had been with us as our preparations were underway. No snowfall to contend with and unseasonably warm temperatures hung around through the end of the year. We managed an easy departure, but knew an arctic front was approaching. Chris couldn’t get away fast enough.
Initially, we headed due south. No use wasting time—the smart money was on the most direct route to warmer weather. But the cold front was pressing down on us—the question remained as to how far its reach would be. First night on the road had us in Memphis, Tennessee . . . setting up camp on the western banks of the Mississippi. Tom Sawyer RV Park was a so-so campground whose biggest selling point was all about location. It helped to have a clear and not-so-cold-as-Indiana evening where we enjoyed the ambiance of Old Man River’s scenery.
River barges plied the waters throughout the night, bringing to mind memories of our college years in those days of yore. The reverberation of their powerful engines was an added feature to being situated in such close proximity to the water. And thus we passed our first night on the road.
New Orleans was our next day’s destination . . . a straight shoot south once leaving Memphis. Surely the bite of winter’s cold wouldn’t be so severe at that southern latitude. We chose a state park campground on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, adjacent to the quaint and scenic town of Mandeville. And that is where our fate finally caught up to us.
It could’ve been much worse—towns in northern Louisiana actually had some snow. For us here on the North Shore (as it is known), it came in the form of cold rain. Heavy, cold rain. Does raining cats and dogs give you the picture?
With a full day set aside for seeing the local sights, intrepid travelers that we are we weren’t dissuaded from heading into the Big Easy—we geared up in several layers of warmth and made a beeline into town. French Quarters here we come!
Inclement weather keeps tourist traffic at bay, we soon learned. Why, we had the usually bustling Bourbon Street almost to ourselves! Shops were open . . . some live music was to be heard . . . but for the most part people were staying indoors and dry. We soon left the streets for drier places—a good restaurant owned by the famous Brennan’s family, Mr. B’s Bistro was known for their savory Creole cuisine. Dish it up, please! And while you’re at it, let’s have an order of your equally renowned southern bread pudding. If you look hard enough, you’ll find something redeeming in a miserably cold and wet winter day.
The rain was over by the time we hit the road next morning. Warmed up a little too. We now turned our course to the west—the predominant direction we’d be taking for the rest of this trip. For the time being In the coming days, we had visions of sunshine, warmth and a balmy breeze wafting through our Airstream windows as we made our way to the Texas Gulf Coast.
Having its beginnings as a pirate stronghold in the early 1800s (debonair “privateer” Jean LaFitte had his base of operation here), the town of Galveston, located on the eastern end of Galveston Island, would quickly grow to be the most prominent town in Texas by the 1840s. Situated on the natural harbor of Galveston Bay made it a burgeoning port of entry for many immigrants, as well as the center of trade in Texas. It was one of the largest cotton ports in the nation, the most active port west of New Orleans. Along its commercial district, known as “The Strand”, it had the reputation of being “the Wall Street of the South” and by 1839 it had become the largest city in Texas.
A very progressive town besides. Galveston was a city of firsts in Texas . . . the first post office, first opera house, first naval base, first Masonic Order and Catholic parochial school, first orphanage, first gas lights and telephone lines, and later, the first electric lights. It was a town on the move and a town of prosperity and culture. It gained a reputation for being the “Pleasure Island” for the wealthy class of Texans. It was at the heights of the town’s heyday that their world came crashing down. On September 8, 1900, Galveston was struck by a devastating hurricane that would easily attain the record of being the deadliest natural disaster in our country, before or since. Today it is simply known as “The Great Storm” and its impact would leave its mark on the island for decades to come. Galveston would never be the same again.
Between 6,000 and 12,000 souls were lost in the terrible storm. An island barely above sea level, when the storm surge rolled in, sea water engulfed everything. What the water didn’t wash away, the winds tore down. Flying debris bashed in and crashed through anything left standing. Very little remained behind once the storm had moved on.
More sobering yet was the cost in human lives and how to contend with the mass burials. With an aftermath beyond comprehension, the bodies were too numerous for conventional burials. At first, they were weighted and buried at sea, only to wash ashore a few days later. The decision was then made to burn the bodies on funeral pyres built from the debris of collapsed buildings. All over the city local men were literally drafted to do the job of collecting the bodies, oftentimes necessitating being held at gunpoint in order to accomplish such a gruesome and repugnant task. This tragic chapter still looms large in the island’s collective memory as Galveston families pass down stories of survival and loss.
The Strand, with its flamboyant architecture and stylish buildings also suffered catastrophic damage. Some buildings lost entire floors, others lost elaborate cornices and flourishes. As a result, many businesses elected to move away from the wharf. The Strand never regained its grandeur; in subsequent years it turned into a warehouse district. It wouldn’t see any sort of revival until the 1980s when Galveston began a campaign of renewal. Galveston-born oilman, George Mitchell led the revitalization efforts, to overhaul and promote the historic downtown district.
With enthusiasm over the transformation of their town, city leaders were motivated to take another step forward by reviving the Mardi Gras celebration. A selection of renowned architects was commissioned to design fantastical Mardi Gras arches to span the streets of The Strand district. By implementing an assortment of programs and events, Galveston has become a Mardi Gras destination. In recent years, more than half a million people now come to the island for the city’s annual Celebration.
As an epilogue to the devastation of The Great Storm, Galveston citizens were determined to take the steps necessary to prevent such a terrible calamity from ever befalling their town again. In 1902 design and construction began on a 15-foot high seawall along the Gulf Coastline. Two years later it spanned over 3 miles in length, and by 1963 it had been extended to over 10 miles. Moreover, the ground behind the seawall was sloped upward for 200 feet to a point where it was eventually 4-5 feet higher than the top of the wall. Today, erosion has slightly diminished those numbers. Another hurricane swept through Galveston in 1915, thought to be even stronger than the 1900 Storm. The seawall stood the test and prevented any major damage from impacting the town.
The Seawall might have been built for protection from nature’s fury, but it’s obvious that it has become much more than that. About 30 feet wide at its top, it appears to be a one-of-a-kind elevated concrete boardwalk. With views looking out over the water, it is a Grand Promenade for all the people to enjoy, whether strolling or jogging or dog-walking, skating or biking. With adjacent shops, restaurants and lodgings, it is simply a fun place to be and truly a centerpiece to this revitalized town.
The place to find Galveston’s true character, to see glimpses of the look this town once had, you need to head to the East End Historical District just a few blocks south of the heart of the town. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the architecture of the homes reflects a variety of styles and periods. Always on the search for the original look of a place or town, you can be sure that was a locale I needed to check out.
With a diversity of designs, from small, simple cottages to large, elaborate homes, the East End didn’t disappoint. I spent more than a couple of hours roaming its 50 city blocks.
Many of the homes had historical plaques on their front lawns. A brief explanation of the particular architectural style as well as background of the home’s former owners. Each had a story to tell that went back into the 1800s.
Since a little amount of neighborhood gawking goes a long way for Chris Wall, he soon left me to wander more of the East End while he found his calling on the nearby Pelican Island. Mostly a deserted land flanking Galveston Harbor, the far eastern end once an immigration station site, is now known as Seawolf Park. A popular weekend spot for local townspeople, it has a fishing pier, picnic sites, a playground, and more significantly (to some, more than others) a WWII submarine, the USS Cavalla, and one of only three remaining destroyer escorts in the world, the USS Stewart.
Yes indeed, he whiled away a few hours at this location, finding it to be a worthwhile time.
Back in that historical district, we met up just in time to take in an impressive house tour. From my perspective at least, it won hands down over any tour of submarines or ship destroyers. A very worthwhile and insightful experience . . . the house, mind you (not the boats).
Known today as Bishop’s Palace, it is owned and operated by the Galveston Historical Foundation. Okay, so it might not have been on par with Downton Abbey, nevertheless this was a mansion on quite a grand scale. Built from 1887-1892 for Colonel Walter Gresham, he was an attorney and entrepreneur who came to Galveston from Virginia following his service in the Civil War. He was a founder of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad, and also served in the Texas Legislature. With his wife Josephine and their nine children, they represented the highest echelon of Galveston society. Their home was one of the very few to survive the 1900 hurricane nearly unscathed (many windows needed replacing). Today it stands as one of the most significant of Victorian residences in our country. To take the tour is to see firsthand how certain lives were once lived. Very enlightening.
It’s quite the tour and worth the entrance fee. It’s a very well-done, self-guided with hand-held pre-recorded devices, the tour explains house details as well as including some Galveston history.
The Sacred Heart Church, adjacent to the mansion, easily holds its own in stature for the neighborhood. Totally destroyed by The Great Storm, it was totally rebuilt in 1903.
Galveston Harbor is a busy place; it’s not unusual to see freighters coming and going. The state of Texas Department of Transportation provides a free trip via ferry that connects Galveston to another adjacent island. The only connection between two important barrier islands, it’s an 18-minute ride across Galveston Bay, spanning the entrance to the harbor. As the ferry weaves between the international freighters, anchored or passing by, you can’t help but to realize “Now this is quite the busy waterway.” The Texas Gulf Coast provides a huge economical importance to our country. And you can witness this all for free! All aboard!
There are several campgrounds along Galveston Island, indicative of being a winter destination for many a snowbird. Although Jamaica Beach RV Park was a fine looking place, it had one serious flaw in our estimation. Situated about 12 miles down the island, it would make a lengthy drive each time we headed into town. It was a crowded resort, but neatly kept up—it appeared to have all the guests it could handle. This was our first choice initially, but changed our minds before arriving.
Sandpiper RV Resort was located on the fringes of the town of Galveston—a factor that weighed strongly in its favor. Privately owned, having concrete pads and full hookups, it was its proximity to town as well as being in sight of the Gulf, that easily won us over. Each day we looked out to see the sun rising over water, each night we took a walk along the beach. The disappointments of New Orleans soon faded from memory as we made better ones here along the Texas Gulf Coast.
All too soon we left this idyllic setting, moving on to a place we hoped to find equally appealing (but in a totally different way). It would be a long drive to get there . . . requiring an overnight stop . . . and a detour off main highway arteries. A wilder place for sure, nearly completely isolated from conveniences we’d become accustomed to. But for us these were all selling points. New horizons were right around the corner.
Melinda and Chris