Nearly 120 years after it occurred, the deadliest natural disaster in American history remains the Sept. 8, 1900 hurricane that destroyed the city of Galveston, TX, with an estimated death toll exceeding 6,000.
Galveston, population 36,000 at the time, is a mere eight and a half feet above sea level, and the storm surge reached 15 feet with winds surpassing 135 miles per hour.
No one in the city knew it was coming. Hurricane forecasts then were based on information from ships at sea, and the Weather Bureau in Washington had predicted that the storm would pass over Florida and up to New England. They were wrong.
Hillsboro resident and friend of the newspaper Harold Douglas walked into the office several weeks ago with a rare and dramatic first-hand account of the storm from a Galveston letter-writer who lost two members of her family in the storm. The writer was Mary Mees, 14 years old at the time of the hurricane, who later took her vows and lived the rest of her life as Sister Nativity Mees. The letter was written to her cousin, Georgia, about the fateful day of the storm.
Mr. Douglas found the account among items belonging to his mother, Patsy Douglas of Hillsboro, who passed on Jan. 6, 2019. The connection between the Texas Mees family and the late Mrs. Douglas has yet to be traced, but an account of the storm retold by Mary Mees' uncle, Frank Mees, mentions the family traveling from Texas to Hillsboro "to stay with mother's folks" as soon as the railroad bridges were rebuilt.
The compelling letter written by Galveston hurricane survivor Mary Mees and furnished by Harold Douglas follows.
My Dear Cousin:
I am going to write you for Joe, because he has to write to the rest. He will write you soon.
Joe was away from home for about six weeks, and Mamma went to see him. She was gone during the storm, which swept away nearly every town along here, from Galveston to Houston.
Well, on Saturday, the wind blew hard all day, but we were use to that, and toward evening the bayou began to rise. But, we were not afraid of it because it had been very high before. The wind became worse and blew some trees down. About half-past six we had supper, washed the dishes and had everything put away. Our house was shaking very badly by that time, and we were all in a room together. Maggie and Nick were very much frightened, but I was not, because I knew if I would be, it would be worse for them.
Well, finally Papa said we would pray and go to bed. Maggie said the Litany and Papa said the Rosary, but we could hardly hear each other, the wind was so loud, and during that time the water came from the East Bay very fast, but we did not notice it as it was getting dark.
We undressed, and each of us went to bed, but Nick went to papa's bed. First one door came open, and we, Papa and I, both tried to close it, but could not do it. Now another door came open, so we had another hard time. We had so much to do that we did not notice the water come. Maggie was very scared by this time, and we saw it was getting worse.
We dressed and intended to go to the stable which was not far from the house. Maggie and I each took a big quilt around us, but as soon as we stepped on the front porch, Nick cried, "O, Papa, the bayou is up here already." It was over the flowers. Papa and Nick started, but it was up over his knees, so we went back into the house, and Maggie and Nick sat on our bed while Papa helped Grandpa dress. It had been raining very hard all day. Papa and I went to the back gallery, and I said, "O, Papa, look." The porch was half down, so we went in after Nick and Maggie. During that time every window pane blew out. He took Nick. I had Maggie. We could hardly walk. The rain was like knives in our faces. We got there alright, but Papa went back after Grandpa, but he could not get him out. Grandpa did not want to go. Papa had him as far as the door, so he took him back into our room. Then Papa came back to the door and as he got out he humped from the porch and nearly fell. Water was up to his waist. The house cracked; our cistern fell over. When he came back he told me, but I did not say anything.
We were wet through and through by that time, and the water was coming to the stable. We were in the feed room. I saw one door going back and forth, and then it stopped. I knew the water must be there. It was not very long before my feet were in the water. I told Papa, so we got up and wrapped the things around us. Papa took Nick, and I took Maggie by the hand, and we intended to go to the neighbors, but the wind and rain were so swift it nearly took all four of us in the water. So we went back and got on boxes as high as we could. It was about half-past seven when we went in the stable. Now it was about ten o'clock.
All at once the wind changed and the roof of the stable came off. Maggie nearly fainted then. The sides of the stable fell off, and the floor floated up in the water, which was about seven feet deep. We all stayed together. The boxes floated away, and the floor tilted straight up, and we all held on to it. Then it left us, and we all sank into the water. That is where we parted. I came up, caught on to a tree, and Nick was there. I tried to talk to him but couldn't. Boards floated under my feet, but at last no more came. My hands gave out. I dropped into the water, came up, and caught the same tree. Nick was still there. We did not know where Papa and Maggie were, because we could not see. Still, it was not pitch dark. It was not long before I went down head first. I thought I was done for sure, but came up three times, and was ready to go down the third time when I thought I touched something and grabbed it. It was the roof of the stable, which I got on and floated. After passing several trees, which I wanted to catch but could not, I finally caught one and put my arms around it. It had a limb which I was standing on. I looked around but could not see anybody. It was raining as hard as it could.
All at once a little tree came by. I saw Nick, yelled at him and told him to catch the next tree, which he did.
A long time passed, and I saw a big old tree coming and Papa was on it. How happy I felt. I looked around but did not see Maggie and Grandpa. Time passed slowly, and the water fell about four feet. Then we saw no house; no nothing. Everything was gone.
Towards half-past three o'clock it began to be a little light. We all three felt bad because we could not see our Darling Sister.
Papa saw a tree, got off from his tree, and the water was over his waist. He came over and got Nick, who was nearly worn out, took him on his shoulders and carried him over to his tree so he could sit down. We were nearly freezing. When a wave would hit us it was warm. Papa had his coat and overcoat on, and he said that if he had not had them he would have drowned. I only had my underclothes and waist on. Lost my skirt in the water.
At about four o'clock Papa got down and he saw that he could walk, so he took Nick on his shoulders and I walked behind them, and we got out. We were nearly dead, so we walked about two miles to a good friend's home where we are now. When we arrived here we were all swollen and black and blue. My face was bleeding. It was 5:20 a.m.
We had breakfast. At daylight, Papa and Mr. Heck, the man we stayed with, went down to the place to see if they could find the rest. When they got there, O, Georgie, it is hard to say, but it was God's will and we all must bear it, they found poor Maggie hanging on a barbed wire fence, drowned. I was waiting for them, and when they came with her covered up on the buggy, it nearly killed me. They could not find Grandpa.
All the trains were stopped and all wires down, and Mamma and Joe did not know anything about it. Papa wrote, but they did not get the letter before Tuesday.
We dressed Maggie all in white, including white stockings. She also had a white coffin, and she looked as sweet and lovely as she could be. We could not keep her longer than Monday noon because the water made her swell.
They found Grandpa Monday at noon, across the bayou in the woods. Grandpa was so swollen when they found him that they built a big box for him. So we buried them, two graves, side by side. We tried to keep Maggie until Mamma came, but we could not. Emma and Joe came home Wednesday evening. Everything on our place was gone.
Many, Many people drowned here; also our cousin, William Mees, Emma's brother. All the rest are all right.
Maggie was buried the nicest of all. We had praying and singing. Other people were just put in boxes. Many, they could not find. Bodies are lying all over the prairie, swollen awful, without a stitch of clothes on them.
Before the flood we had 13 head of cattle, two mules, two horses and two colts. We now have three heifers, one mule, one horse and a colt. All chickens are drowned.
Well, Dear, I must close my sad letter. I hope you will not take it too hard, as it is all for God. He knows best. With love and regards, I remain as ever,
Joe and Mary Mees