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Galveston, Oh Galveston

Grammy award-winning songwriter, Jimmy Webb, wrote a melodic story of a soldier on the battlefield who is dreaming about his true love and her hometown where he could “still hear your sea winds blowing.” The song, entitled Galveston was popularized in 1969 by Glen Campbell, and the chart-topping hit is known to be the unofficial theme song of Galveston, Texas.

Cabeza de Vaca was the first noted explorer to visit the island in 1528. It was during this period that Galveston was inhabited by the Karankawa Indians. Yet, it wasn’t until 1786 that Galveston got its name from Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish Colonial governor, when he ordered a survey of the Texas Gulf Coast. However, he never laid foot on the island.

From 1817 to 1820, Galveston was home to notable “businessman,” French privateer Jean Lafitte. This nefarious pirate headquartered his smuggling business on the island until the U.S. Navy evicted him. Today, the remnants of his compound, named Maison Rouge, can be seen on Harborview St., just blocks from the now-popular Historic Strand.

The first American colonists arrived in 1827. Shortly thereafter, in 1836 when Texas gained its independence from Mexico, the City of Galveston was born. Throughout the years, it has weathered many tropical storms, yellow fever and the Civil War. Yet, with its burgeoning seaport and growing rail system, it soon became a mecca for global shipping and commerce. The immigration station was second only to Ellis Island, and by 1885 it was the largest and richest city in Texas.

In 1900, the landscape of Galveston changed when a category-four hurricane hit the island, taking with it more than 3,600 buildings and an estimated 6,000-12,000 lives. Today, this storm remains the nation’s deadliest natural disaster in history. The devastation resulted in significant changes for the National Weather Bureau and the building of a protective seawall along Galveston beaches.

During the 1920s through the 1950s, the “Free State of Galveston” was a social hotspot, a popular resort town filled with vice-oriented businesses. It was a place to see and be seen. The Balinese room, a glamourous dining, casino and entertainment venue poised on an ocean pier, hosted high-stakes gamblers and famous stars such as Frank Sinatra, George Burns, Bob Hope, Jayne Mansfield, Duke Ellington, Peggy Lee and the Marx Brothers. As crackdowns on illegal activities rose, the popularity of the city lessened, ending an era.

Today, the island still maintains an active port. But the island economy has diversified, with tourism being a major stronghold in its livelihood. An estimated 7.5 million people visit the island annually. Along with miles of sandy beaches, Galveston is home to more than a dozen museums, numerous adventure parks, luxurious resorts and hotels, and a growing cruise industry, the newest being a $100 million terminal investment by Royal Caribbean.

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