Our grandfather, Heber Nephi Folkman, was called to the Southwestern States mission in December of 1899, and arrived in the mission field later that month. He kept a journal for his entire mission. Some days it was quite detailed, others days less so. As I recently found the missing pages that talked about the hurricane of 1900 that was so devastating, I thought I would share some of the story of the summer leading up to the storm, and his full entries for the storm and its aftermath. Grandfather and his companion, Elder Dana, worked in Eastern Texas for several months, and then were called with Elders Norton and Kirkpatrick to labor in Galveston.
Elders Folkman and Dana arrived in Galveston on the 31st of May. He had never seen the ocean before. “I seen the Ocean for the first time in my life it is quite a site to see the waves roll up on the shore one after another never seazing like they were mad because they could not go on but had to go back to the Ocean to be met by another which when they would meet the roar would be as loud as many Lions coming to gather in battle.”
After visiting the mayor’s office and the chief of police to get permission to proselyte and a promise of protection, the elders divided up the city and set to work. Their day normally consisted of tracting in the morning, visiting 50 to 75 home on average, then spending the afternoon in studying and resting during the worst heat of the day. In the evening, they tried to hold street meetings, or get the local churches to grant permission to meet in their houses of worship. The work, however, was not productive, and the local ministers turned down their requests. Hardly anyone they contacted while tracting had any interest, and their street meetings drew little attention.
Heber said in his journal on June 6th, “The people generally in the City don’t care much for religion is all they care for is making money and have not time for to listen to the gospel.” Indeed, Galveston at the time rivaled Houston in shipping and commerce, and had more millionaires per square mile than Rhode Island . Often, in the cooler evenings or on Saturdays, Elder Folkman and his companions would walk down to the wharf and watch the ships loading and unloading cotton, cement, wheat, and other commodities. They also visited the beaches on the Southeast side of the island, landlocked Utah boys fascinated by the constantly rolling waves.
On June 8th, he noted “They are very wicked in this city they don’t care for religion and especily Mormonism. We receive poor treatment as a rool.” They had taken lodging at a boarding house for $8 a month, with permission from their mission leadership, but were expected to try and find “entertainment”, someone with whom they could stay without charge. This, too, proved difficult. On June 13th, the elders received a letter from (mission) Pres. Jos. G. Duffin reminding them to “leave their room, and go out and depend on the Lord to open up the way for us to get entertainment.”
One promising lead pointed to a family of Mormons in town that turned out to be “Jospehites”, members of the Reorganized Church, later the Community of Christ. Elder Folkman said “but they did not bleive in any thing we tried to get an invitation to stop with them but we did not get it.”
On June 18th, Elder Folkman noted that “the people are very bitter they will not talk to us they think we are here after the women…”. A newspaper article later in July called the Elders “pimps” and much worse that Elder Folkman chose not to record.
Tracting on June 22nd found a 79 year old woman, Mrs. Nunn, who had joined the church many years before. Her last contact with the church had been in 1856, with Elder John Taylor. They spent some time talking with her, but her family did not approve of the Mormon missionaries, and they continued looking for a place to stay for free. She seemed firm in the faith to them, and they occasionally visited with her.
Heat and mosquitoes were also a problem. Elder Folkman and his companions often retreated to the beach to cool off, noting that “it is fine bathing when the waves are large the rougher the sea the nicer bathing.” Often, the mosquitoes made sleeping difficult, and the heat made the work challenging. In August, Elder Folkman talked about being laid up with the “summer complaint”, almost certainly malaria. Later in his mission, he writes about taking quinine to calm the chills.
After July 4th, they gave up the rented lodging, and got temporary housing with a family for a few weeks, and then found another house that would take them for a longer time a 712 29th Street, near the high ground at the center of town, and near the water works building. The home was owned by an older woman, Mrs. Daniels. But the work continued to unfruitful, and Elder Folkman’s journal often records reports like “Went out tracting visiting 60 families met with no success” or “Went out tracting finding the people about the same.”
Elders Dana and Kirkpatrick were transferred, and Elders Larson and Hunstman replaced them. In August, they were able to get a few appointments to teach, but little came of them, and on August 17th, sold the only copy of the Book of Mormon that they were able to place all summer. After a break for the Labor Day holiday, the routine started again, with similar results. On Friday September 7th, they contacted 83 families, then spent the rest of the day in studying.
Saturday, September 8th brought a change:
“Could not work on account of storm could not go out of the room and at night the water from the Bay (Galveston Bay was only 7 or 8 blocks north of their house, the water being pushed by a strong north wind ) came up all over town we had to get out of the room and move up the stairs it was 4 feet of water in the room and the wind so strong that it was blowing houses down all over town the people all moved out but us Elders and the Lord spared us while the city was half destroyed.
“Sunday Galveston Sept 9. Still on the (curb?) after one of the most terrific storms that ever pased over the country the sight that my gaze this morning was terriable over half the city destroyed and the other very badly damaged the water and wind to geather played havock the report is the loss of life will be in the thousands they are hauling them in by the wagon load food and water scarce as the water works system was destroyed and a good many cisterns filled (presumably with sea water).
“Monday Galveston Sept 11 (certainly the10th but incorrectly dated in his journal). Went round to see the sights it is terrible to behold they are hauling in dead bodies by the wagon loads they have had to resort to sinking them in the sea to dispose of them they are in such a condition that they can not keep them so they take them by the ship loads and take them out in the sea and sink them rich and poor white and black. I see many bodies lying amongst the timbers and where they had lodged we tryied to get a boat to take us to Houston they wanted $5.00 a head for 25 miles and we desided to wait another day and see if we cant go cheeper we cant walk out for both bridges are washed a way so we have to do the next best.
“Tues. Galveston Sept 11-1900 went to the warf and got a chance to go to Houston by ship went back and got our grips just got back in time to catch the boat we left at 10:30 AM arriving in Houston at 6.30 PM went and got a room at the Capitol House the fare from Galveston was $2.50.”
Word was just beginning to get out from Galveston about the terrible toll the hurricane had taken. The missionaries would have been among some of the first people to arrive from Galveston since the storm. Tuesday also was the first day that officials from Houston were able to see firsthand the destruction and loss of life. The more accurate reports were labeled fantastic and unbelievable in Houston, which had received some wind and rain, but not the full power of the storm. Elder Folkman’s journal continues:
“Houston Wednesday Sept. 12-1900 Went to breakfast then took in the sights met a Mr. Daniels son of the Lady that we was rooming with in Galveston he was glad to see us to learn of his mother he invited us to take dinner with him at the hotel where he was staying.
“Houston Thursday Sept. 13-1900 Went to the PO received no mail spent the day in looking round the excitement is great here yet from the storm they are coming from Galveston (line missing).”
On Friday, Elder Folkman and his companions ran into two other missionaries who were looking for them, and talked with them late into the night. Elder Folkman and his companions were to start for Austin County for a mission conference, a distance of about 160 miles, which took them several days on foot.
The great hurricane of 1900 took an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 lives in Galveston and the surrounding areas. The storm surge, little understood at the time, was magnified by the fast moving northbound category 4 or 5 storm with sustained winds of 150 mph, and gusts of perhaps as much as 200 mph, from the northeast, piling up a huge wave of water. The storm surge was at least 20 feet, and some estimates put it as much as 30 feet or more, surmounting the highest point of land in Galveston by several feet. The surf on the Gulf Coast side of Galveston smashed buildings, homes, and a beachside streetcar trestle into a moving wall of debris that crushed everything in its path as it cut halfway across the island city. No word is given if Sister Nunn, the elderly Mormon woman the missionaries met, survived the storm. Her name does not appear in the list of casualties, either.
Trains were swept from their tracks and all their passengers drowned. Soldiers at one of the low-lying coastal forts on the east end of the island mostly drowned, firing off their cannons at the height of the storm in a desperate cry for help. People who took refuge in the strongest homes and public buildings found the wind, water, and debris destroying even large brick and cement structures.
The storm was only vaguely forecasted as a slight storm by the US Weather Bureau, but recorded as a major hurricane by their Cuban counterparts. Hurricane alerts were not allowed to be declared by local officials, and had to be cleared through headquarters in Washington, DC. By the time the national offices of the Weather Bureau began to be aware of a major Gulf Coast storm, telephone and telegraph lines were already down from Galveston to the mainland. .
Elder Folkman finished his mission in March of 1902, still suffering from the effects of malaria. He and his companions found much more fruitful ground in Eastern Texas, baptizing many and working with others who had previously joined the church. By the time he passed through Galveston shortly before his return to Utah, he pointed out to the one or two new members of the church in the city the house where he had survived the storm, one of the few to not be heavily damaged or destroyed. He returned to Utah, married and moved to Southern Idaho, working in various jobs. He died in 1947 at the age of 78.
Isaac’s Storm, Erik Larson, Vintage Books, 2000
ibid. A combination of a strong north wind as the hurricane approached and the storm surge from the south pushed the shallow waters of Galveston Bay on the north side of the city to meet the onrushing 20 to 30 foot surge from the Gulf of Mexico.
ibid. Changes were made to allow local offices of the Weather Bureau to give major storm warnings as a result of the lack of warning for this storm.