Galveston, Texas is known for beautiful scenery and historical buildings, and widely praised as a paradise getaway. A small island with just 50,000 permanent residents, the city brings in millions of tourists every year. Walking along its streets, visitor’s attention is drawn to the diverse flora that thrives in its subtropical climate. Although not native to the island, oak trees have become the signature tree of Galveston, both for their longevity and their toughness. These oaks have been through a lot of changes in their lifetimes, and are now halfway across the world being transformed into a living history museum.
First, a quick history of Galveston. The island was named after Bernardo de Galvez in 1785 by Spanish explorer Jose de Evia. Galvez was originally from the province of Malaga, Spain, and rose the ranks of the Spanish military until he was appointed the governor of the newly Spanish territory of Luisiana in 1777. This is the same territory which would later be returned to France, then sold to the United States by Napoleon in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
Galvez played a crucial role in the American Revolutionary War, both by supplying Americans during the beginning of the war, and later by direct military action after Spain declared war on Great Britain in 1779. His most notable victory was eliminating British military presence in Pensacola, opening supply routes through the Mississippi river and preventing the British from attacking the Americans from the South.
His contributions were so important to the American war effort that he became the eighth person to be granted honorary American citizenship in 2014, more than 200 years after his death. The congress joint resolution hails Galvez as “a hero of the Revolutionary War who risked his life for the freedom of the United States people and provided supplies, intelligence, and strong military support to the war effort.” Pensacola, Florida still celebrates Galvez Day on the day of his victory over the British with reenactments of revolutionary war battles and ceremonies. Similarly, Galvez’s hometown of Macharaviaya in the South of Spain celebrates the 4th of July each year, one of the few places outside of the United States to do so.
After the war, the city of Galveston quickly developed into a place of importance, briefly becoming the capital of the Republic of Texas, then later one of the main ports of trade between the United States and Mexico. However, its exposed position on the Gulf of Mexico left it vulnerable to natural disasters, and in 1900, it became victim to the most deadly natural disaster in the history of the United States.
Early in the morning of September 8, Galveston was struck by a devastating hurricane. It destroyed three fourths of the city, and 6000 to 8000 Galveston residents lost their lives. However, the town did not lose its spirit. They immediately set to elevating the city by up to 17 feet (5 meters) by pumping in sand from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. The city also built a seawall to protect the island from future hurricanes.
Many of Galveston’s historic trees date back to this period of rebuilding. Although it never returned to its former importance as a port city, it did later receive large investments, making it into a family friendly tourist destination and desirable real estate for second homes of the wealthy. Meanwhile, the oak and palm trees that lined the city grid of Galveston flourished.
But disaster struck again in 2008 when Hurricane Ike made landfall over Galveston. This time the city was better prepared, and advances in weather prediction gave the residents enough warning to evacuate. The oak trees, however, were not so fortunate. Many of them were ripped straight out of the ground by the 100 mph winds, and those that weren’t were poisoned by the flooding salt water. In the end, more than 40,000 trees were killed or had to be cut down – including more than 60 percent of its signature oaks. A note affixed to a lifeless oak tree by a resident read: “Thanks for keeping us cooler and cleaner and standing without complaint for years and years. Goodbye.”
Although most of the trees could be replanted (at a cost of 2 million dollars), the residents came up with several creative solutions for the dead and dying trees. Instead of removing the stumps and half fallen trees, they were carved into wooden statues. Artists have managed to turn tragedy into treasure, breathing new life into the deceased trees with chainsaws and saws – the very tools which are normally used to cut them down.
Sculptures on public lands have to be approved by the city council, but on private property owners are free to display whatever they choose (at their own expense). Some have immortalized family pets, while another has paid tribute to their favorite travel destination with a Japanese geisha. These huge wooden sculptures are now able to be visited year round, and draw tourists from around the country.
As for the trees which were uprooted or cut down, they will also find their way into the history books. Wood which has been exposed to salt water can cause problems for woodworkers, but it does have one ideal use: shipbuilding. More than a decade before Hurricane Ike, Astilleros Nereo, a shipyard in Bernardo de Galvez’s home province of Malaga, began working on a plan to build a replica of a 18th century warship called the Galveztown.
The Galveztown was originally a British sloop-of-war called the West Florida until it was captured by Galvez and American rebels and converted into a square rigged brig-sloop. A brig-sloop is a small warship with fewer than 20 cannons on a single deck, which were commonly used from the 18th century until the proliferation of the steam engine. This particular ship was 53 feet on deck (16 meters), and its fate at the end of the war is unknown. Some reports claim that it was sold after being declared unfit to sail, while others list it as the only foreign ship present at the inauguration of George Washington as the first president of the United States of America.
After removing the trees damaged by Hurricane Ike, 17 tons of live oak were donated to Astilleros Nereo by the city of Galveston and shipped overseas to Malaga, where they were cut into slabs and left to dry over many years. Construction began in 2015, and will be largely done by volunteers under the careful supervision of expert shipwrights. It’s scheduled to be finished in late 2019, when it will sail back across the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. From there, it will travel around the gulf, acting as a living museum to 18th century naval history, as well as the contributions of Bernardo de Galvez to American history.
The ship and its contents will truly be a thing to behold, but few will recognize the contribution of the fallen oak trees of Galveston. While visitors learn about Galvez and the history of the American Revolutionary War, the trees will continue to do what they’ve always done: provide shelter without complaint for years and years.