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Galveston Firsts

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Logically, the first person to realize that Galveston could claim a long list of Texas, national and even international "firsts" was someone who would now be called a chamber of commerce marketing person. It could have been an enterprising newspaper reporter on a slow news day, but even if that were the case, the Galveston Chamber of Commerce was the first to tout the city's many firsts.

Naturally, the list of firsts for the island city includes the fact that Galveston was Texas's first city to have a chamber of commerce. That organization, now the Greater Galveston Chamber of Commerce, has been selling Galveston since 1845.

No matter who first came up with the "first" idea, there's no question that Galveston can claim to be the first Texas city -- and possibly in the U.S. -- to codify its many firsts for promotional purposes. Of course, it also could be seen as just plain old civic braggadocio.

With its beaches, recreational fishing and once wide-open gambling and prostitution, not to mention the availability of big-city level entertainment and great cuisine, selling Galveston did not pose a huge challenge in the late 19th to early-to-mid 20th century. After the state shut down the Las Vegas-like parts of the island city in 1957, luring visitors to Galveston became a bit harder. Not that Galveston ever openly advertised its illegal amenities, of course.

The first state-wide publication noting Galveston's many firsts seems to have been in April 1951, when the old Texas Parade Magazine (which a new publication called Texas Monthly helped kill in the mid-1970s) ran a long, puffy story about Galveston. The one-page piece included a sidebar headlined, "Galveston FIRSTS.

It listed 37 firsts, but that's just a first draft compared to the most recent list of firsts on display at Galveston's Rosenberg Library. The museum on the library's second floor (by the way, the Rosenberg was the first public library in Texas) has a list of 46 firsts that occurred from 1836 to 1910. Another list under glass adds five additional, more recent, firsts.

Interestingly, while the lists agree on many of the firsts, each contains some purported firsts that the other does not. For instance, the 1951 list claims that the "first white man to set foot on Texas soil, Cabeza de Vaca, 1528, did so on Galveston Isle." Subsequent lists do not.

Frankly, some of the firsts in this first listing of firsts are stretches of the first order. For instance, Galveston claims the first Texas brewery, established in 1895, but folks were making beer in San Antonio decades before then. The list also claims the first newspaper, the Galveston Daily News. While it may have been Texas's first daily, Nacogdoches had a newspaper as early as 1813.

Galveston also boasts of the oldest drug store in Texas, but so does Bastrop. The Galveston drug store, however, was probably the first to import and sell chicle. From that, as the library exhibit explains, "the great industry of chewing gum evolved."

But the other first firsts are impressive. They include: First customs house in Texas (1836); first post office (1836); first Masonic chapter (1840); first bathtub (1840s); first steamship line (1865); first telephone (1878); first electric street cars (1891); and, one of the most significant, Galveston was the first city in the world to adopt the commission form of municipal government. That came in 1901, the year after the horrific unnamed Galveston hurricane.

That devastating storm, incidentally, is not on the list of firsts, but it should be. While it was not the first hurricane to strike what would become Texas, it still stands as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history with an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 fatalities.

Three interesting firsts from the roughly the second third of the 20th century include:

* The Hollywood Dinner Club, which opened in 1926, was the first private dinner club (read, gambling joint with food) to provide its customers with indoor air conditioning. So, for the sporting set, the Hollywood Dinner Club was a cool place to hang out -- literally and figuratively.

* The first live television broadcast from a hurricane came from Galveston on Sept. 11, 1961 as Hurricane Carla lashed the island city. The rain-drenched TV journalist clutching a microphone in the wind and torrential rain was Dan Rather. The future anchor of the CBS Evening News then worked for a Houston TV station.

* In 1965, the USS Flagship Hotel became the first and sole hotel in North America built entirely over water. The hotel stood over the Gulf off Seawall Boulevard at 25th Street until 2008 when Hurricane Ike did some major urban renewal in Galveston. The storm damaged the hotel to such an extent that it had to be razed.

The most recent first, not yet added to the list at the Rosenberg Library, came in the spring of 2015 when the U.S. Senate confirmed George Hanks, Jr. as a federal district judge presiding over the Galveston District of the Southern District of Texas. Appointed by President Obama, the Harvard graduate and scuba diving enthusiast is the first African-American jurist to preside over the Galveston district.

Oh, this court also was the first federal court in Texas following statehood in 1845. And for years it sat in the first federal building constructed in Texas, the 1861-vintage U.S. Customs House that still stands.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - June 2, 2016 Column

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