By Ken Thames
Photos Courtesy of Matagorda County Museum.
East side of on corner of 5th St. & Ave. E. Jail faces 5th St.
This is the story of the July 21-22, 1909 hurricane which heavily
damaged much of Matagorda County. The storm was not named, but
in-as-much-as it came ashore at Velasco, I have taken the liberty to
call it the “Velasco” Hurricane of 1909.
An excerpt from the undated “Texas Hurricane History” by David Roth,
National Weather Service, gives this report: “A storm was noted
entering the eastern Caribbean on the 13th. It moved towards the
west-northwest, passing over the Isla de Pinos [Island of Pines,
Cuba today called Isla de Juventud - Isle of Youth] on the night of
the 17th. The steamship El Siglo struggled for twelve hours
on the 19th against an estimated 90 mph winds near 26.1N 87.3W in
the southeastern Gulf of Mexico. The westerly storm motion
continued, and on the 21st it made landfall near Velasco, Texas.
Only eight buildings remained standing after the storm’s passage.
The calm of the eye passed over the city for 45 minutes.”
“At numerous sites across southeast and central Texas, trees were
uprooted; corn, rice, sugar cane, and cotton crops were crippled;
and numerous lines were downed. Fruit was lost at Eagle [former
community located forty-eight miles southwest of Beaumont in
southern Chambers County]. At Bay City, the pressure fell to 29.00”
at 2:30PM. The pressure bottomed out at 29.56” in Galveston towards
noon. The cities of Quintana, Columbus, and Columbia [today West
Columbia] were totaled; all houses experienced severe damage.”
“Trains were blown off tracks on top of the Galveston Jetty and at
Rosenberg. A caboose was thrown thirty feet from the tracks at
Brazoria. Considerable damage was experienced at train stations
between Houston and Corpus Christi. The train depots at Allenhurst
and Brazoria were leveled by the wind. Homes and businesses met
their fate at Nottawa, East Bernard, Eagle, Angleton, Blessing,
Palacios, [Bay City] and Wallis. Houses were unroofed at Austin,
where it was the worst storm in memory, and at Richmond, where it
was the worst since 1900. Barns were disposed of easily by the wind
in Richmond and Alvin. Windmills were destroyed at Alvin, smoke
stacks fell in Richmond, and rice mills were downed at Eagle.
“This system was also an efficient rainmaker. Five inches fell at
Lockhart, four inches of beneficial rain fell at Nacogdoches, while
Eagle and Austin had three inches. Heavy rain was also seen at
Brazoria, Allenhurst, [Bay City] and Crosby (where it was needed the
“The storm surge was as high as twenty feet at Velasco, ten feet at
Galveston (where five of the fatalities occurred: none were behind
the seawall), and 6.5 feet at Sabine Pass. Tides were above normal
at Orange as well. Oil derricks at Sour Lake were blown down.
Lower portions of Port Arthur and much of Sabine Pass and Virginia
Point were under water, but not to a “dangerous depth”. Eighty
percent of the cattle on the west end of Galveston Island were
drowned. Numerous bathhouses, and piers were in ruin in Galveston,
La Porte, and Jennings Island. The derrick barge Miller,
among other craft, were driven aground at West Bay near Galveston.
The Miriam was sunk by a submerged log near Galveston. The
schooner Ed Gibbs was dashed to pieces at La Porte. Property
damage was estimated at 2 million (1909) dollars [today would equal
more than 48 million dollars] and 41 lives were lost.”
At Bay City the following reports, as given in the “Monthly Weather
Review”, Climatological Data for July, 1909, were found: Report of
Mr. C.R. Swisshelm, Bay City, Tex. “The morning of July 21 dawned
cloudy, with light rain and very little wind. About 9:30 or 10:00
a.m., the wind became stronger and at noon commenced to tear down
awnings and signboards. About 1:30 p.m., our hotel [Nuckols Hotel
built c1894/95 and destroyed by fire in 1945], which was a large
frame building, began to rock and we moved to a small brick building
[Langham Building, divided into a wall paper store and a barber
shop–Wild Bills Western Wear today] across the street [in the dry
goods store] and remained there for probably one half hour, when the
wall of the Opera House [opened in December 1908] next door gave way
and fell through the roof of our shelter, but the wooden ceiling
held the brick long enough to allow us to escape. We then moved to
another brick building immediately adjoining [drug store], but left
it in about five minutes, because its roof blew off. We then
retreated to the building which contained the post office
[Strawberry Patch today]. The walls of this building held, but all
its windows were blown in. The storm ceased about 6:30 p.m. The
damage was all done between noon and 6 p.m.”
“I was slightly confused in the points of the compass, but to the
best of my knowledge the wind began from the northwest and gradually
shifted to the west, south, and southeast. There was no lull during
the storm. The velocity of the wind was estimated by several people
at about 110 miles per hour [the storm was reported as a category 3,
which would have winds between 111 and 130 mph according to the
Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale], and that is also my estimate. The
wind was strong enough to pick up pieces of wood 6 inches in
diameter and 3 feet long and hurl them through the air. It rained
incessantly, but there was no lightning or thunder, and the water
that fell had a distinct taste of salt and stung the eyes [this
could have resulted not from rain but from sea water off the Gulf
being blown inland]. The wind came in gusts and in several
instances knocked holes in brick walls, but left the walls standing
[an example would be the Boney Building]. Several buildings had the
front blown in and the rear blown out.”
“The warehouse and cotton gin district was completely wiped out.
Many residences were blown off their foundations, but were otherwise
not seriously damaged. The frame buildings seemed to suffer less
than the brick. There was scarcely a frame house left standing
between Bay City and Wharton. The town of Van Vleck had only three
houses left standing and they were badly damaged.”
In Bay City, as noted in photographs from “Historic Matagorda
County” Vol. I, the west side of the Jeff Davis School was massively
damaged, the northwest corner of the Boney Building collapsed, the
Episcopal Church and the Baptist Church were leveled, the County
Jail was decimated, the east and west walls of the Opera House
collapsed, the roof of the Langham Building [which was built in
1904] was either crushed in or ripped off. In addition to these
buildings, the Masonic Hall, which had been built in 1906, was also
severely damaged and they lost all their early records; the
smokestack at the ice plant was also toppled.
Out at Markham, the hurricane did considerable damage to property
and crops. There is no record as to what damage may have occurred
at Palacios. Throughout the county many barns, outhouses and
windmills were destroyed.
Two other reports from the Monthly Weather Review that were
noteworthy are: from Mr. Frants P. Lund, a demonstration agent for
the Department of Agriculture, concerning conditions at Midfields:
“The center of the storm passed over El Campo, Tex., where there was
a lull in the wind from about 4:20 p.m. to 4:40 p.m., when the wind
blew from a nearly opposite direction.
At Midfields, the wind commenced to blow from the north and
gradually shifted to the southwest.” And excerpted from Dr. Edmund
C. Querean, a Professor of Geology from Illinois, he reported: “The
country here is very flat, but water filled the roads and fields
until the ground was out of sight under several inches of water.
Evidently the center of the storm passed east of Bay City, but
probably not far. Destruction to buildings was very great in this
city and east of the Colorado River, but there was not much damage
west of that river.”
Over at Lane City in Wharton County, most of the buildings were
demolished, the rice crop was ruined; the pumping plant, valued at
$250,000 (1909) dollars was severely damaged. The town never
There were two other hurricane scares in 1909: in August a very
violent hurricane raked Haiti, caused high winds and rains in Cuba,
and entered the Yucatan Channel on August 25th. As the storm
approached the Mexican coast it caused gales and tremendous seas
along the Texas coast. It went ashore in northeastern Mexico
causing an enormous loss of life and property. The last storm scare
was the September 1909 storm that went into Louisiana.
Matagorda County had only four years until it was again hit by
disaster – the 1913 flood.
Looking into the in the Langham Bldg. on the south side of the square. is on the left, the east wall of the Opera House has fallen through the roof of the wall paper shop.
Bay City Severely Visited
Bay City has been visited more severely than any other point. There was a peculiarity to the storm in that in reality there were two storms with a considerable space of time intervening between them. The first appeared to have come from the gulf, to have gone inland for a short distance, to have taken a curve and returned over about the same route. The latter storm is the one which did the damage.
Velasco, it is stated on reliable authority, is practically wiped out. Bay City has mnore buildings than Velasco and they are more valuable, hence the discrepancy in the losses. But the port at the mouth of the Brazos had recently taken on a new life and was rapidly awakening the interest which once made it a point of great hope and promise to thousands of investors.
Palacios has not been so badly hurt. There was considerable anxiety concerning the Baptist Young People’s Union delegates at the encampment grounds at Palacios, but none of them has been injured. They have had a severe experience and have been caused some discomfort, but not a minor injury is reported from among the hundreds of people gathered there.
Houston Post, July 23, 1909
on 4th Street and Ave. L, facing 4th St.
Palacios, Texas, July 22.—Palacios presents a sad sight this morning. Many were hurt in the storm yesterday, but only two were seriously injured.
An uncompleted brick block or a part of the upper story wall was blown upon an adjoining residence of Mr. Hogan, a corrugated iron building, which was crushed in. Mrs. Hogan and her daughter were badly but not necessarily fatally injured.
The wharves at the pavilion were washed away and the oyster houses badly damaged. The Dunbar bath house was swept away.
The Baptist Young People’s Union bath houses and piers were badly damaged. Two hundred tents in the Baptist Young People’s Union assembly grounds were taken down or blown down.
Many buildings were moved from their foundations, many plate glass windows blown in, while many boats were blown ashore and badly damaged. Many parties were out on the water, but thus far no fatalities have been reported, although many boats have not yet returned from their fishing and pleasure trip.
At Collegeport, two miles across the bay, the damage was very extensive, the bath houses and wharves all being swept away and the new hotel badly damaged. No death or injury reported.
The telegraph and telephone wires have only been working a few miles out of Palacios.
The rain was not so remarkably heavy, but the damage was done by the wind.
Houston Post, July 23, 1909
Destruction of W. A. Arnold & Co. Meat Market and adjacent barber shop on the north side of the square.
In 1906 they advertised "The Best Meats by Phone - just call number 48."
Bay City Caught in Fury of Hurricane
Bay City, Texas, July 23.—With martial law proclaimed, the city in darkness, cut off without water supply and a lack of help to clear away the ruins, Bay City tonight is slowly recovering from the storm of yesterday which spent the fury upon this vicinity. But one life was claimed by the hurricane, that of an infant of Mr. Calloway, while others suffered more or less painful injuries by flying glass or falling debris.
The loss will total $250,000, which includes the city damage alone, totaling 50 per cent, estimates to the crop damage being impossible, although it is contended the damage to the rice crop, which is flooded in places, will not exceed 10 per cent.
Bay City was apparently the center of the storm’s path. The wind, which began rising about 9 o’clock in the morning, blew from the northwest, and rose steadily till, at 1:30, it was blowing seventy miles an hour. At that hour it veered suddenly to due west and as suddenly increased in velocity to eighty and ___ miles an hour. During the ensuing ___ hours, the greatest amount of damage was done, for the storm blew with unabating fury, slowly shifting to the southwest, and seeming to seek out the weak points of buildings which had resisted its attack from other quarters.
Accompanying the wind was an unprecedented downpour of rain, which flooded the streets and caused Cottonwood creek, which flows through the town, to overflow its banks. Colorado river rose three feet in as many hours and rice farms along the prairie streams south of town were flooded.
In Bay City not a residence escaped damage, the extent ranging from injury from water to total destruction of the structures. Fully fifty residences were torn to kindling wood, as many more were blown from their foundations and practically demolished, while every house that is not included in the above was either partially unroofed or its windows smashed and the interior ruined by water.
In the business section the havoc wrought was particularly costly. Five out of every six of the brick business houses around the square were more or less damaged, and the loss by merchants through damage by water will equal that sustained by the owners of the buildings.
Property Loss $250,000
A conservative estimate of the property loss sustained in the town places the total at $250,000, though at this time it is impossible to detail the losses. Following is an incomplete list of the principal buildings injured?
The county jail, a brick structure, almost demolished.
The Baptist, Episcopal and Christian churches were totally destroyed and the Presbyterian and Catholic churches were blown from their foundations.
The Bay City high school building unroofed and much of the west wall blown down; badly damaged.
The Grand opera house building, a two-story brick, was completely wrecked.
The Union Warehouse and Elevator company warehouse has nothing but the floor left.
The Farmers Warehouse company warehouse is almost entirely tone.
The Bay City rice mill is badly damaged. This was the only loss that was covered by tornado insurance.
I. Ditch Heavy Loser
The building occupied by the Tribune Printing company was so baldly wrenched as to put the plant entirely out of commission till the structure can be repaired.
The building of the Crystal Ice Light company was wrecked, disabling the plant and adding to the public discomfort.
The entire room of the city water works plant was demolished and the system otherwise injured. No water has been served since yesterday noon, and it is likely that the mains will be empty for several days.
All Smokestacks Razed
Of the dozen of more great smokestacks over the mills and pumping plants in Bay City and vicinity, not one is standing today, and meager reports from along the river indicate that a number of the pumping plants were otherwise badly torn up.
The Sunset Route freight depot was unroofed and thousands of pounds of freight ruined by water.
The Uneeda laundry buildings and machinery are a total loss, having been blown in to the bottom of the creek on the bank of which it stood.
At Markham the Moore-Cortes rice warehouse was demolished and many residences and business houses damaged, while at Van Vleck six miles west of Bay City, only three houses were left standing. At Palacios, Blessing and Midfields only slight damage was done, these points being to the south of the storm’s central path. Nearly every farm house east and southeast of Bay City was either totally wrecked, unroofed or blown from its foundation.
Crop Losses Are Heavy
Crop losses are heavy, particularly among cotton and corn growers. Except in rare instances scarcely a bushel of corn will be saved by farmers along lower Caney, where corn is this year the chief crop and cotton is stripped of foliage, blooms and bolls.
One item of no small loss is that sustained by fruit growers, the wind stripping orange and fig trees of the year’s growth of fruit, besides the hundreds of trees that are set back a year’s growth. To this should be added the destruction of shade trees and shrubbery which was complete.
Opinions differ as to the effect of the storm on the rice crop. Fifty thousand acres of rice lay in the path of the hurricane, but it is probable that the entire loss of the growers will not exceed 10 per cent, the destruction by the wind being confined to the oldest rice in the fields, which is heading. As little more than 5 per cent of the crop is so far advanced and the younger plants are not injured by wind it is likely that the 10 per cent estimate will cover the loss.
Worse Than Storm of 1900
Yesterday was Bay City’s first experience with the elements in a strenuous mood. The town lay within the path of the storm of 1900, but citizens who went through that blow declare that it was a gentle zephyr compared with yesterday’s hurricane, but the destruction wrought will not compare with that suffered by towns in the tornado belt. The people are not discouraged, and as fast as the debris can be cleared away the work of reconstruction will be carried on. There is no want of means to finance the task ahead, the one great need being more men. There is work here for hundreds of carpenters, masons and laborers, at top wages, and unless this need can be supplied from outside the greatest loss will accrue through delay in repairing the mills, warehouses and pumping plants, on which the one great industry of the community depends.
City Under Martial Law
No disturbance of any king has occurred. Early last night County Judge Holman placed the city under martial law and a number of special officers were sworn in. The court house was converted into a temporary hospital, with County Physician Smith in charge, and rescue parties were sent out into every section of the city and neighboring rural precincts in search of those in need of help. That only one slight wound was attended to by Dr. Smith proves the miraculous escape of the people from personal injury. The only injuries reported were cuts due to broken glass from the large plate glass fronts of business houses, fully a score of which were shattered.
The source of greatest deprivation is the want of electric power, water and telephone service. Every telephone in the city is out of commission, and no wire, either telegraph or telephone, with the outside world has been working since noon yesterday. The electric wiring of the city is practically a complete wreck and it will be several weeks before either the power or telephone service is fully restored. It is not known to what extent the water works system is disabled, but the people are already feeling the absence of the water supply, and unless it is restored quickly sanitary conditions will become bad.
Houston Post, July 23, 1909
Copyright 2010 -
Present by Kenneth L. Thames
Dec. 31, 2010
Dec. 31, 2010