Galveston at a Glance

Sotheby's International Realty
Galveston Island reigns as the premier second-home location on the Texas Gulf Coast, with new developments emerging up and down the island along the Bay and the Gulf. Homes range widely in style and price and include high rise condominiums, town homes, reproduction seaside cottages, canal homes, and gated luxury communities that equal or surpass those of Florida’s Gold Coast.

Discovered in 1785 by the Spanish, Galveston Island was named for the Governor of Spanish Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez. Islanders know the tale of the pirate Jean Lafitte who, with his motley crew, fought with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. But Lafitte was not trustworthy and Louisiana threw him out. Undeterred, he decamped to his private kingdom “Campeche” (Campeachy) on Galveston Island. There he preyed upon the rich shipping lanes of the Gulf, amassing, according to legend, a vast treasure trove. It all came to an end in 1821 when Lafitte left Campeche and disappeared forever. Galvestonians swear that his abandoned treasure remains secreted on the island.

In 1836, Michel B. Menard, a native of Canada, and his associates paid $50,000 to the young Republic of Texas for 4,605 acres of land on the island. Galveston was incorporated in 1839 and became the trade center of Texas, rivaling New Orleans as an important port. The Strand was dubbed the “Wall Street of the South,” and the grand opera house hosted international stars.

The seminal event in Galveston’s history occurred on the morning of September 8, 1900, when a force four or five unnamed hurricane nearly obliterated the island. Faced with the choice of abandoning the city or rebuilding, islanders approved a plan to construct a 16-foot seawall and raise the city’s elevation with 25 million cubic yards of fill. The ambitious project was tested in 1915 when, in the grip of another ferocious hurricane, the new sea wall held and only eight lives were lost.

As the city struggled, the Texas legislature awarded rival Houston the right to construct a ship channel directly to the Gulf bypassing the Port of Galveston. Galveston settled into genteel decline and, perhaps recalling the days of Lafitte, turned a blind eye to gambling and boot-leg liquor. In 1957, the Texas Rangers raided the city and put the gambling houses out of business for good.

In the early 1980s, native son and oilman George Mitchell spearheaded Galveston’s renaissance. Restoration started with the historic Strand, one of the country’s most well well-preserved bastions of Victorian architecture. Next to be resurrected was Mardi Gras, uncelebrated since World War II. Other projects followed including the 1894 Opera House, Pier 21, Moody Gardens, the schooner Elissa, the Rain Forest Café, and the railroad museum.

Although impacted by Hurricane Ike in 2008, Galveston has rebounded rapidly. Today, the Port of Galveston is an entry and destination for cruise ships and a port of call for merchant vessels; more than 2,000 buildings have been registered on the National Register of Historic Places; and Mardi Gras is in full swing once again.

And Jean Lafitte’s treasure? That is Galveston itself.