Oral History Interview of Ellen Edwards Nilson

Accession#: OH – Nilson, Ellen Edwards
Title: Oral History of Ellen Edwards Nilson
Interviewer: Reverend Glen Echols
Format: Typescript; 1 tape
Description: Nilson lived with her family at 4409 Avenue S at the time of the 1900 Storm. Her interview runs 13 pages, with 2 additional pages of biographical data. Only the Storm-related pages are available here. An edited version of them appears in Casey Edward Greene and Shelly Henley Kelly, eds., Through a Night of Horrors: Voices from the 1900 Galveston Storm (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, c2000), 174-79.
Date: Unknown, but conducted before her death, Feb 17, 1966
Terms: Terms: Houses; Denver Resurvey School; Bodies

Interview with: Ellen Edwards Nilson
Date: Year unknown, but Mrs. Nilson passed away February 17, 1966.
Interviewer: Reverend Glen Echols, formerly of Central Methodist Church in Galveston

The following is an excerpt from the interview. Interview is 13 pages long with two additional pages of biographical data. Only the Storm-related pages are available here. To view the rest of the oral history, please contact the Galveston And Texas History Center.

Nilson, page 7

we bored holes in the floor. Then I was awfully disappointed because mother wouldn't me --they were all out there picking up the clothespins and all that was floating around and she wouldn't let me go. They were waist deep in water and I was just little. Then I remember another storm, but I don't know the date of that.
Echols: The first one was in [18]86 that you remember.
Nilson: [18]86. That's right. Then I do remember a real bad storm, but I wasn't afraid because Mother was there. But I realize now that she was frightened, because she put us to bed. Then she sat by us and she had a big bible and she read to us, which was unusual at night for her to read. I know she was doing that to keep up her courage, but I didn't know it then. That was a bad storm. I think that was --well I won't say the date of that because I don't know.
Echols: It was a few years after the [18]86.
Nilson: Yes. Then when the 1900 Storm came, I wasn't the least bit worried. The wind started to blow bad on Friday. Well, it was the seventh of September and I thought we're having an early Fall. We had a hard wind, but the sun was shining. Then Saturday morning, when I got up --my brother worked at night. When he came home in the morning, he brought my sister Mary that lived on 8th and L. She had married and lived there and had two children.
When she came in I said, "Well I'm surprised. I was thinking about you and if the wind had been in the other direction I would have been worried." She said, "You better start worrying. The water is waist deep in our yard now."
Echols: Is that right? Just that quickly.
Nilson: That was Saturday morning, about eight o'clock. She had left her mother-in-law there and her mother-in-law was not self-sufficient. She wanted to go back and see about her. Also, she didn't have good enough clothes for the children. She

Nilson, page 8

wanted to go back and Brother said, "This'll be over in a few minutes. Don't worry about it, it'll be over in a little while." So I said to her, "Mary you wait until Jim goes to sleep and you can go back. Don't say any more about it." They were arguing about it.
Echols: This is still Saturday morning.
Nilson: This is Saturday morning. We went down to 8th and L, Mary and I, leaving her two children with my sister Janey, who we all just called "Sister". She and my sister, Eliza, were there. Sister had been sick and was sitting up for the first time that day. My sister and I had been staying with her. We left the children there and went back. When we got as far as seventeenth and L, the car didn't go any farther. It was too much water. So we got out and walked. Water was up to our knees. When we got to the house, my brother-in-law was there and he had seen to his mother and all. We begged him to come on back with us, but he wouldn't. He said he'd be out after a while. So we went back on the last car that went out to what then was Denver Resurvey, west of us. There was a Denver Resurvey car. We went and that was about eleven o'clock in the morning.
Echols: This is September the 8th, 1900.
Nilson: We got the children and went home. I went in and I cooked dinner and still wasn't very worried. We ate, my brother and sisters and the children. We had had dinner at sister's and this was our supper.
Echols: Was your mother there with you too?
Nilson: No, mother had died in [18]95. We were there and all of a sudden my cousin came in and he said, "You all get out of here. This could be ___." He said, "The Bay has backed up.” Now he and my brother-in-law were out on the beach getting timbers. The bathhouse had already gone, but we didn't know that. They were pulling in some of the big timbers and looked behind them and the water was high.

Nilson, page 9

So they said, "Come as quickly as you can and get out of here." So I said, "Well, I'll get some dry clothes." I was putting in a bundle and I said to my brother, "You take Mary and the children and then come back for me. I'll be ready then." Mary said, "Ellen, you go. I'll finish that." She gave me the baby. He was two years old. She said, "Jim will come back for me." So I did.
Jim and I took that Johnny. He's still living. He lives in Houston. We went and the water was nearly to our knees. Before we got to the corner, the water was nearly up to our waist. The house, it was on corner. At the end of our street there was a bayou. You could only go one way. That house was sitting in the middle of the street.
Echols: Where did you start from. Where was the house?
Nilson: 44th and S 1/2. In those days that was way down the Island. We went around this corner, there was a house across S. An old colonial house. We called it Butcher Miller's house. He owned that and the whole block of ground. It had those big columns you know? We were going there.
There was some people across the street who left their home at the same time we did. One of the women went to cross in that alley and the water took her like she was a chip of wood and just took her off. So we didn't try to cross. We went into a house that was there. The people had abandoned it and had gone to this house that we were going to. There was forty people in that house. One lived. That house went to pieces too.
Echols: You were the only one that...
Nilson: No, we didn't get there.
Echols: You didn't get there.
Nilson: We were in this house with some of the neighbors. I have forgotten just how many. Suddenly the window blew in and so they took the wardrobe and put it up against the window. That blew down like a little piece of paper.

Nilson, page 10

Echols: The wind was blowing that strong.
Nilson: It was so strong. Then the gallery went. There was a front gallery there. It was a two story house and we were upstairs. It was a house that was just built, straight across. There were two rooms down and two rooms up. Then the gallery went. Then in a few minutes, the house began to go. I was sitting by a table just like that and on that table was a watch. It was six o'clock. I looked at that watch. It was six o'clock and I had the baby. I had a quilt wrapped around him. He'd been sick. He'd had fever all day.
Suddenly the house went. Just collapsed. We were underwater. I never moved. I was sitting on a chair, but when the house came up I was sitting on the floor. I had the baby, but he had slipped out of my arm and I just had him this way with his head this way. I said to one of the women, "Where's the baby? Help me quick, I'm losing him!" They helped put him back in my arms. We just sat there and drifted.
Echols: The house floated.
Nilson: Yes.
Echols: What about Johnny's mother? Did she ever. ..?
Nilson: [Very softly] No, she went and the other child. We had left then home. We drifted into a house that had an "L" and that rain was like needles. |
It hurt so bad. This house had two big cisterns with good foundations. My brother said, "I don't want to be in another house that goes down. Let's get under these cisterns."
I said, "Jim, I've got to get out of this rain. I've got to get Johnny out of this rain." Because every once in a while the quilt would blow off of him, but he never said a word. Just put his little hands up to his face. So we crawled into the window of this place. There was some mules in the bottom of this house. They had gone there for safety. I don't know what happened to them. I

Nilson, page 11

wasn't interested in mules then.
As we went in there was a woman and her two grown sons. The people that owned the house had gone over to the Denver Resurvey school that was a brick building there. They had abandoned their house. That night there was fifty souls killed in that school. It went to pieces. I never did meet them afterwards. We got in with her and these people were in the bed. They had taken off all their clothes, they were so wet and the bed was dry.
I said to them, "Will you take the baby and warm him. He's got such a chill." They did and somebody took my clothes and wrang the water out of them and I put them back on. I was hit --oh there wasn't any place on my body as big as your hand that wasn't bruised. I put my hand up and said, "My head's spinning." One of the men there said, "I thought the top of your head was gone the way it was bleeding."
We stayed there all night and poor little Johnny cried for water. The only water we had was what was leaking through the roof and the house was plastered. So you know how it tasted, but it was the only we had. Remember I was nineteen, I wasn't very old. I had always heard that at twelve o'clock it would be better or worse. So there was an alarm clock. Man I watched it. I could go to a window that looked out at the east.
About twelve o'clock I couldn't see anything but the tops of the coffee beans. It was just a sheet of water. I went back and I said, "Oh I see the ground." They said, "You're crazy." I said, "Come see." So that's the reason it was a tidal wave that we had, because it was. As soon as it got daylight we got out of there and walked on dry ground.
Echols: This was September the 10th.
Nilson: This is the 9th. Sunday morning. We walked and we didn't know just where we were. So we walked down to the beach, down that way. We just --all around us --had to get around. Dead bodies were

Nilson, page 12

allover the ground. But somehow I knew that it wasn't any of mine. I wasn't worried. I just knew. I got to my aunt's. There was one woman in there with us that had a six weeks old baby. She lost that baby three times in the water and grabbed it. That baby never whimpered the next day. Never even had colic.
Echols: Is that a fact. Now, one of your aunts lived through the storm. The one who...
Nilson: Aunt Perkins. The one that was prominent in this church here. She was very prominent in St. James.
Echols: She was not with you during the storm.
Nilson: Her house stood. You see it was on 37th and I. We went there and stayed for a while. Auntie was a very efficient woman, very, but not a kind person. She said, "Where are the others." and I said, "Auntie, I don't know." She said, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." That was the wrong thing to say to me then, but that was her attitude to me all the time.
Echols: How many members of your family did you lose?
Nilson: My oldest sister and her husband had five children. Then the next sister had two children. We had one. He's still living. The next sister was not married. There was only fourteen months difference between us and we were always together. Always thought we were twins and we wasn't. They all went.
Then of course I had cousins. This cousin that had come up there, his wife was at our house then. They waited for Jim to take me and come back, but he never got back. I went to look out the window the next morning and one of the women said "Don't let her look out there," and I said, "Why." One of them spoke, "Give me the baby then." That was my cousin laying out there. That's the only body we ever found.

Nilson, page 13

Echols: The only one of the members of your family. Of course, it's possible that some of the bodies were collected I guess you could say.
Nilson: They were collected and put on barges and carried out to sea. Then they floated right back in. So they were burned.
Echols: They finally burned the bodies.
Nilson: They made big piles of lumber and allover. I never got out because Johnny was so sick for three days and nights, I never got out. I watched and all he said was "Mamma, mamma." until I kind of thought he wouldn't let anyone touch him but me. He was very very sick. I could look out. My brother, he went around and looked around but he couldn't find anybody.
Echols: They brought the troops in. It was rather dangerous to be looking at the bodies anyway wasn't it?
Nilson: Yes. If you were caught stooping you might be shot. There was one man that when they took him he had his pockets full of ears and fingers. He didn't take time to take the earrings out of ears, he just cut a piece off. Didn't take time, of course by that time fingers would be swollen. He just cut the fingers off and stuff them in his pocket. I knew him after the storm a long time.
He would have been shot, but his wife was pregnant and she begged for him. So they didn't shoot him.

[End of side one]

Oral History Interview of Ellen Edwards Nilson