Oral History Interview of John W. Harris

 Oral History Interview of John W. Harris

Accession#: OH – Harris, John W.
Title: Oral History of John W. Harris
Interviewer: Robert L. Jones
Format: Typescript; 2 tapes
Description: Harris (1893-1999) lived with his family at 1404 – 23rd Street at the time of the 1900 Storm. His interview runs 45 pages. 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), 168-70.
Date: Dec 22, 1980
Terms: Houses; Harris (John W.) Residence; Deaths; Galveston Orphans Home; Grade Raising; Canal

Interview with: John W. Harris
Date of Interview: December 22, 1980
Interviewer: Robert L. Jones

The following is an excerpt from an interview with John W. Harris. The interview consisted of 45 pages. Only those pages that directly concern the 1900 Storm are available here. To view the rest of the oral history, please contact the Galveston and Texas History Center.

o'clock when the height of the storm was over and the water began to recede and the wind so that they could leave. I remember that we were all frightened. My sister and I were the only two children.
Mother had a trunk strap around each one of us and the old yard man had brought a raft around to the kitchen and tied that up in case we had to abandon the house. Mother had us both with a trunk strap to hold onto us as long as she could. Of course that was taken off later on when the storm...
Jones: Did she have you tied up by that trunk strap or were you just wearing it in case?
Harris: Oh we had it around our waist at the height of the Storm because some of the bricks blew out on the second story and you could see the lightening in the rain through the open south side of the house.
Jones: Were these twenty-four refugees your neighbors or did you take in strangers?
Harris: No, we never knew but two of them and we never heard from any of the others after that.
Jones: Did they leave Galveston do you think?
Harris: I don't know about that. Refugees, they were walking about in the streets during the Storm and they came into any substantial looking building and stayed there a while. For instance the old Harris homestead where my aunts and my cousins lived was completely destroyed. I lost eleven relatives in the 1900 Storm. I remember the Mayor came in the next morning and when we were all having breakfast there at 1404 Tremont.
He said to Father, "John, your whole family are destroyed." I remember that's the first time I ever saw Father with tears in his eyes. He had no idea the extant of the damage. We hadn't left the house yet. He said, "Well, I'll get out there right away." I think it took him two or three hours walking over wreckage and things to get to the old home. There he found Aunt Lily and Aunt Rebecca and their children. Eleven in all in the

Harris, John W., page 8

old home just completely collapsed and destroyed.
Jones: Quite a blow. A lot of people in Galveston suffered the same kind of thing. What did Tremont Street look like to you the next morning after the Storm? Did you look?
Harris: See I was only seven. The family wouldn't let me get out because of the bodies and things around. So I stayed in. Our place went right through to 22cd street and had about seven lots in it. They kept me inside the fences and I couldn't get out. I didn't know. I'd heard that the Orphan's Horne, I used to play some with orphans. Play sandball with some of them. Our place almost touched theirs in the back and they'd corne over there and play with me in the back. Baseball when I was little. I remember hearing that some man was impaled on the fence there and thrown from his horse. He was riding about. I think it was one of the Vanderpool's. Possibly Lee Vanderpool's family.
Jones: But you didn't see that. You just heard about it.
Harris: A little bit later when the grade raising came along, I learned to swim in the canal. The canal came in paralleling the Gulf there. It came in about 6th and Boulevard and it dropped back to Avenue P and came along to... I don't know where it ended on 29th Street maybe, but the dredges came in, having sucked sand and water up from the bottom of the Gulf and came in. In the meantime people had been notified block by block to get their houses up because the fill was going in. They had them raised up or else after due notice and ample time, the dredges then ran the pipe to the area that had the reventment, a wall of dirt around it. Pumped the sand in, the water drained off and that's like playing with mud pies. They raised the whole city that way.
Jones: How were those reventments built? Was each property owner responsible for that?
Harris: I don't remember about who was responsible, but they just threw up a dike around and then the pipe came. It came over one corner and discharged what

Harris, John W., page 9

looked like hot chocolate in there. The sand was left and then it was finally graded off in some way or another. I guess everybody pitched in to complete the work. I don't remember whether it was two blocks square or just one, but that's the way the whole town was raised. I do remember that.
Jones: Your house was raised I assume at that time.
Harris: My house was tall enough up and I think our place was raised about two feet. It came level with the Seawall and sloped down. I think it faded out completely at Broadway. I don't believe downtown ever was raised. I'm sure it wasn't on the Strand and all. That's why Black Hardware and other places raised their own establishments up.
Jones: So you would actually go down and swim in the canal.
Harris: I learned to swim right out on Tremont street with some of the boys that were swimming in there. I wandered down that far and got up in there.
Jones: I believe there was a system of boardwalks too wasn't there? To allow people to gain access to their houses while the fill was going in? How extensive was that thing? Was it just a block at a time or did it run for the length of Tremont?
Harris: You mean the actually grade raising operation? They just took a section at a time as I remember that.
Jones: So it was only for a while that people had to walk up ramps to their house.
Harris: Yes, but there were so many commissary's that were built there. The cheapest little houses, one or two rooms. They did the work of course, gave people cover and some kind of a home to go to.
Jones: Do you know the origin of that word, commissary?
Harris: No.

Oral History Interview of John W. Harris