The Wigwam: Galveston’s Beach Convention Center

Black-and-white drawing of the Wigwam, Galveston Daily News, July 24, 1898, page 15. The Wigwam: Galveston’s Beach Convention Center
Drawing of the Wigwam, Galveston Daily News, July 24, 1898, page 15. No photographs are available, probably because of the structure’s brief existence.

Casey Edward Greene, Rosenberg Scholar

Galveston was unable to host beach conventions during the late 1890s. The closest structure that could meet this need, Olympia-by-the-Sea, was a wood pavilion at the foot of 25th Street. Opening in the summer of 1896, Olympia was geared toward hosting theatrical and acrobatic events and concerts.

The Democratic State Convention wished to hold its Summer 1898 convention in Galveston. The Galveston Chamber of Commerce proposed the erection of a temporary convention hall near the beach. The Chamber also agreed to provide the convention with utilities, music, and a payment of $2,500. John W. Blake (1857-1939), chairman of the convention, accepted the Chamber’s offer and spoke of the impact that thousands of conventioneers would have on Galveston’s economy.

Unlike Olympia, whose proximity to the Gulf of Mexico would result in ocean sounds interfering with convention business, the Wigwam would be much quieter since it was set back several hundred yards from the shoreline. Another drawback Olympia had was its questionable finances. The Galveston City Railroad Company, which owned the pavilion’s property, was in bankruptcy in the summer of 1898.

Charles W. Bulger (1851-1922) of Galveston was the Wigwam’s architect. The massive structure, measuring 210 feet by 118 feet, had a capacity of five thousand people. The Wigwam was erected in fifteen days in July 1896. It was built on the east side of Tremont (23rd Street) across from the Beach Hotel. Its sides were open to catch breezes and its roof was ventilated.

The Democratic convention took place on August 2-4, 1898. Perhaps a sign of hasty construction, the Wigwam’s roof leaked in the midst of a storm, requiring delegates to use umbrellas indoors. The delegates had colorful surroundings decorated with flags and bunting. The convention nominated Joseph D. Sayers (1841-1929) as Democratic candidate for Texas governor. He was subsequently elected and served in this capacity at the time of the 1900 Storm.

During August 5-6, 1898, the Wigwam hosted a reunion of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Public calls afterwards for keeping the structure failed to prevent its demolition. The Wigwam’s lumber was offered for sale to the public.

The Galveston Tribune used the Wigwam to call for building a beach hotel and convention center. Neither structure would materialize before the devastating hurricane in September 1900 destroyed Galveston’s beachfront.