Myth and mystery mix in the mists of Galveston Bay
Strange tales abound on Galveston’s deep-water harbor.
It has seen sea battles and shipwrecks and served as the watery crypt for many unfortunates who drowned in the 1900 Storm.
It’s here that myth and mystery mix in the rising mists of Galveston Bay.
Foremost among the harbor lore is the tale of the legendary Laffite brothers.
“It was around 1817 when Jean and Pierre Laffite were forced out of Louisiana and came calling on Galveston,” Will Wright, of the Galveston Historical Foundation, said. “Soon, they went right back to piracy, or privateering, as they liked to call it.”
The new base of operations, called Campeche, was near the current site of the University of Texas Medical Branch. It may have included a slave market, a boarding house for buyers, a shipyard, saloons, bordellos, gambling houses and Jean Laffite’s bayside fortress, the Maison Rouge.
Jean Laffite ordered it burned when he left the island a scant three years later.
Now, all that remains between 14th and 15th streets south on Harborside Drive is a desolate patch of earth with an aging historical marker and the ruins of a post-Civil War building — the so-called “Hendrick’s Castle.” Mysterious lights and voices in the night might signal that Laffite has returned to make more mischief, so the myth goes.
Not far away from the vanished pirate haven is the harbor’s most visible ghostly landmark known simply as “The Face.” It is the likeness of a man that appears on the west wall of Ewing Hall at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
“The legend is that an old man who owned the property refused to sell the land to those who wished to buy it,” Wright said. “When he died, his children did sell the land, although they knew he opposed it.”
An image of a face is on a section of concrete on the building that was built there. The face was sandblasted away, but then reappeared.
Moving on across the harbor to the eastern shore of Pelican Island lies the half-sunken vessel, the SS Selma, a weird remnant of the U.S. fleet of concrete ships. Steel supplies were dwindling in World War I and concrete ships were seen as a viable alternative, although only 12 were ever constructed. The ship was launched around the time peace was realized and the ship was put into use as a tanker.
“Misfortune seemed to plague the vessel,” Wright said. “It ran aground in Tampico, Mexico, and reportedly, the cost to repair it was too great. It was brought to Galveston, towed to its location, and partly submerged.”
Legend says that since it has been grounded here, the Selma has been home to spies, ghosts and a recluse or two. For years, a hermit named Frenchy LeBlanc lived aboard, and some say he stills walks the wreck.
The last tale of the haunted harbor is the story of a lighthouse that guided mariners into the bay for more than 61 years.
“The lighthouse was retired in 1933, when it was replaced by the South Jetty light,” Wright said. “The inner mechanisms were removed, and the Fresnel lens is now on display in the Smithsonian Museum of History.”
Erik Larson’s book, “Isaac’s Storm,” tells about a train running between Beaumont and Bolivar Point, ending with a ferry ride to Galveston.
On Sept. 8, 1900, the day of the 1900 Storm, passengers were turned from the train, and some made it to the lighthouse less than a mile away. They were the only passengers who lived to tell the rest of the story; the others went down with the storm.
“People say you can still hear the whistle of the doomed train on Bolivar’s shores late at night,” Wright said.