Past Treasure of the Month – August 2013
George Walton, Carl Genter, Shag Astaff, and Ike O’Donnell pose after
conquering the Causeway (image courtesy of Galveston and Texas History Center)
It was December 3, 1911 at 10 o’clock in the morning when a group of six men got into two cars for a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Hardly the stuff of legends, but these men set out that fateful day to stare death in the face and make history.
Among them was George Defferari, a former prize fighter (who helped train the ‘Galveston Giant’ Jack Johnson for his first heavyweight championship bout in 1908), veteran of World War I and the Spanish American War and notorious adrenaline junkie. He hopped into the driver’s seat of the “big Interstate automobile” (as it was called by the Galveston Daily News) followed by Shag Astaff. Both cars were owned by George’s brother, Gus, who operated a motor delivery service on the island. Each vehicle was equipped with 35-horsepower engines that topped out at 40 miles per hour. Their tires boasted warranties of a thousand miles, and putting the top down required the strength of four men. The group’s goal was clear — they wanted to be the first people to successfully cross the Galveston Causeway in cars.
pose for a triumphant photograph shortly after crossing the Causeway
(image courtesy of Galveston and Texas History Center)
(1882 – 1935) (courtesy of
Galveston and Texas History Center)
Automobiles first appeared on the island around 1902. They became fairly popular soon thereafter numbering nearly 150 within seven years, despite the fact that motorists were confined to the island. Poor roads (paved with oyster shell if at all), vague traffic laws and sharing the streets with horses and pedestrians made conditions all the more difficult for early motorists.
produced in Dickinson, collected by George
Defferari in an empty aftershave bottle
(gift of Silas B. Ragsdale).
The group reached the shell-paved causeway at the brisk pace of 25 miles per hour but slowed as they came to the lift bridge because it consisted of only railroad ties. For a moment, the rough ride and the thought of plunging into the Gulf forced the group to consider turning back, but to the delight of everyone, Defferari and Astaff continued forward. Upon reaching the apex of the bridge, the group stopped to make a speech and then christened the causeway with a bottle of Mumm’s Extra Dry champagne. After that, the celebration continued as the intrepid travelers made their way to Virginia Point where the Blodgett Construction Company treated them to a fine turkey dinner.
Undoubtedly the love of the open road played into George Defferari’s later decision to become one of the first Galveston County highway patrolmen. His position and outgoing personality meant that he was abreast of almost all local happenings including the 1934 discovery of oil in Dickinson, TX. Defferari happened to be nearby when the first well began to flow. He poured out what was left of his almond and benzoin aftershave lotion and captured a small sample of ‘black gold’ to mark the occasion. Soon after, Defferari gave the souvenir to Galveston’s newspaper editor Silas B. Ragsdale (whose 50-year career also included 25 years with Gulf Publishing). In March 1935 Ragsdale donated the bottle of oil to Rosenberg Library. Seventy-eight years later, this small piece of local history was displayed as the August Treasure of the Month.