The day after a massive storm hit Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900, the headlines outside the region were tentative. “Galveston May Be Wiped out by Storm,” wrote the New York Times. The Washington Post reported on the “Fear that the City Has Been Wrecked by Storm.” The hurricane that overwhelmed Galveston—which was the Gulf Coast’s largest port at the time, having grown rich on the cotton trade—was front page news on the East Coast, but the reporters had virtually no information about the events unfolding in the island city once it was hit with the full force of the Category 4 storm.
A broad survey of the contemporaneous reports is difficult because only The New York Times and The Washington Post’s archives are easily searchable that far back. But these two papers alone show that the difficulty of reporting disasters at the turn of the last century made the flow of information a central part of the coverage alongside the event itself.
“ALL TELEGRAPH WIRES DOWN,” declared the Times above its front page story on September 9th, 1900. With no sources available, all the unnamed writer from Dallas can report is rumors proliferating in an information vacuum. Loss of communication suggested that the four bridges to the island had been wiped out, the author deduced. “Not a wire is working into Galveston, either telegraph or telephone,” he wrote, “and as all bridges carried wires, the fears that all these structures are gone is strengthened.” He then reasoned that “It seems hardly credible that all these bridges could be swept away without the city suffering tremendously in the loss of buildings, general property, and lives.”
Neither the Times nor the Post carry bylines, but the similarity in the language of their September 9 stories suggest that they were relying on the same reporter, or producing their stories based on wire reports. (Both stories are datelined Dallas.) An AP reporter in Galveston, Richard Spillane, did survive the storm, but it does not appear he was able to contribute any reporting until reaching Houston on September 10. (Curiously, the Post notes that “The Associated Press wire is the only one that is working” out of Galveston, but no one seems to be using it because the reports all complain of the inability to get any information off the island.)
The hunger for information led both papers to run items alongside their main storm coverage headlined, “Last Dispatch from Galveston.” While the Post just repeated the message’s meteorological information, the Times relayed the details of this communique on the front page.
SAN ANTONIO, Texas, Sept. 8.—Possibly the last dispatch out of the flooded City of Galveston was received in San Antonio to-night by “Jerry” Gierrard, announcing the death of his brother by drowning. The entire message left Galveston at 8:15 P. M. The entire lower portion of Galveston was then flooded and the people were huddled on higher ground in the pouring rain for safety.
Given that no larger significance is attached to the person named in the story, the only reason this made the front page seems to be its status as the last glimmer before the news blackout.
A major part of the Times’ Day Two coverage—this time from Houston—was word that “A report from an authentic source was received here this morning concerning the conditions in Galveston.” His name was James C. Timmins, a Houston resident identified as the “general superintendent of the National Compress Company.” The Times reported that he made his way back from the wrecked Galveston by schooner to Margan’s Point, after which he caught a train to Houston.
Timmins carried word that “citizens of Galveston” estimate that 4,000 houses had been destroyed and that “at least 2,000 people have been drowned, killed, or are missing.” But, the Times recounts, Timmins only knew of one house “succumbing with fatal results.” This was Ritter’s saloon and restaurant at 2109 Strand Street: “This three-story building was blown down and nine men, prominent citizens, were killed.” Among them were a man identified as a “cotton buyer for an English firm,” a shipping executive, and a cotton company executive “whose body is still in the ruins.”
Timmins’ news (which a subsequent story refers to as the storm’s first reported deaths) are fleshed out by information from a smattering of telegrams: a “dispatch from New Orleans” based on a message that “came by cable from Vera Cruz”; another dispatch from San Antonio based on a message received by Texas Governor J. D. Sayers.