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1909 “Velasco” Hurricane


By Ken Thames

Historically speaking, the 1909 Gulf storm that wreaked havoc on Matagorda County, has been  overshadowed by the September 1900 storm that nearly obliterated Galveston and over 6,000 people died, and the September 1909 storm that came ashore approximately 50 miles west of New Orleans,  and about 350 people were killed in Louisiana and Mississippi.


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.”


“Winds gusted to 68 mph at Galveston at 10 AM.  The strongest winds were noted at Port Arthur, East Bernard and Nottawa [former town five miles west of East Bernard] between 3 and 4 PM.  Richmond gusted to 60 mph during the storm that afternoon.  Austin and Eagle Pass saw windy weather around midnight, with the latter having gusts to 80 mph and trees defoliated.  A severe gale raged at Cameron, Texas overnight as well.  El Campo also had high winds.”


“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 most).”


“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 recovered. 


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.   

Photos Courtesy of Matagorda County Museum.

Believed to be the Alamo Lumber Company at its present location.

East side of Matagorda County Jail on corner of 5th St. & Ave. E.  Jail faces 5th St.

Jeff Davis School on 4th Street and Ave. L, facing 4th St.

Looking into the wall paper shop in the Langham Bldg. on the south side of the square. The Opera House is on the left, the east wall of the Opera House has fallen through the roof of the wall paper shop.

Wall collapse on the northwest corner of the Boney Building on the east side of the square.

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."


Copyright 2010 - Present by Kenneth L. Thames
All rights reserved

Dec. 31, 2010
Dec. 31, 2010