In the late summer of 1900, a Category 4 hurricane with a
record-breaking storm surge struck the low-lying coastal areas of
The Great Galveston Hurricane, the worst natural
disaster in U.S. history, killed an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people
in Galveston, Texas, alone. Additionally, as many as 4,000 people
died in other parts of the Gulf Coast due to the deadly storm.
The number of fatalities caused by the Galveston Hurricane is
far greater than the death toll of the attack on Pearl Harbor,
Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Ike,
which struck the same location in 2008, combined.
U.S. Lighthouse Service lighthouse keepers served throughout the
superstorm, maintaining a lightship and a number of lighthouses
marking the navigable waters of Galveston Bay.
The Fort Point Lighthouse barely survived the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
During the Galveston Hurricane, lighthouse keeper Charles
DeWitt Anderson, who was in his mid-70s at the time, manned
the Fort Point Lighthouse along with his wife Lucy.
Fort Point Lighthouse, located at Fort Point which had
guarded the entrance of Galveston Bay for centuries, was a
story of survival in an area leveled by the worst hurricane
in American history.
The ferocity of the storm grew
during the afternoon of Saturday, September, 8. High winds
and storm surge threatened the low-lying topography of Fort
Point. As the seawater rose, Capt. Edward Haines, the
supervisor of the nearby Life-Saving Service Station, and a
crew tried to row a surfboat the mere two hundred yards to
the lighthouse to evacuate the Andersons. However, the brave
men lost headway against the wind and water conditions and
had to turn back before reaching the lighthouse.
around Fort Point, the rising water destroyed or covered
man-made structures and their occupants struggled for
survival. When the storm crushed the lifesaving station into
the sea, Haines lost his wife and a surfman. Haines and the
rest of his crew survived, but drifted several miles to the
True to his mission, Anderson kept
the light burning during the storm even though most ships
were either adrift, out of control or washing ashore at
points along the Texas coast by then. However, late that
evening, floodwaters surged and carried off equipment on the
lighthouse's lower deck, including the lifeboat and storage
tanks for fresh water and kerosene fuel. With seawater
rising into the keeper's quarters, it seemed as if Fort
Point Lighthouse was adrift on a stormy sea.
the wind speeds over 100 miles per hour, the lighthouse's heavy
slate roof began to peel away. Eventually, some of the flying stone
tiles shattered the lantern room windows and the inrushing wind
snuffed out the light for good.
Anderson had tried his best
to maintain the light, but the flying glass had lacerated his face
and driven him below. By late that evening, the quarters' first
floor had flooded, trapping the elderly couple on the second floor.
With all hope lost, the Andersons sat down and waited in silence for
the floodwaters to take them away.
But the end never came. On
Sunday morning, the Andersons emerged arm-in-arm onto the lighthouse
gallery to see the human toll of the hurricane. In a silent watery
funeral procession the ebbing tide carried away countless bodies
from Galveston Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Anderson, a former Army
officer who achieved the rank of colonel in the Confederate States
Army, likely saw such carnage, if not more, during his Civil War
career. But unlike the war, the storm did not favor one victim over
another; instead, it took the lives of women and children as well as
The Andersons lived to see another day. In fact, they
were the only ones left on Fort Point after the storm had passed and
the seas subsided. During the hurricane, seawater had completely
submerged Fort San Jacinto and, in a matter of a few hours, rendered
the fort's state-of-the-art defenses useless. Where Fort Point
Life-Saving Station once stood, only four or five broken pilings
remained. All the occupants of the installations were dead or
had recovered from the carnage he witnessed during the Civil War,
but he was never the same after defying death at Fort Point
Lighthouse. A year after the storm, at the age of 74, Anderson died
of “the grippe,” commonly known today as the flu. A faithful keeper
to the last, he passed while still keeping the light at Fort Point
Lighthouse. In late 1901, he was laid to rest at the old Cahill
Cemetery in Galveston. His wife died six years later in Dallas.
The men and women of the Lighthouse Service manned the lights in
all sorts of sea and weather conditions and not only served in
harm's way, but lived in harm's way. This proved true for Anderson
in the 1900 Galveston Hurricane as it has for personnel throughout
the history of the Lighthouse Service and modern Coast Guard.
Today, a small headstone (left) in a lonely corner of a Galveston
cemetery is all that remains to recognize this faithful member of
the Lighthouse Service. Anderson was a member of the long blue line
who faithfully kept the light during the worst natural disaster in
By William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
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