Past Treasure of the Month – November 2015
[image courtesy of the Galveston and Texas History Center].
During the month of November, Rosenberg Library exhibited items related to the historic wagon bridge which connected Galveston to the mainland during the late 19th century. Hailed as “the longest bridge exclusively for wagons in the world” at the time of its construction in 1893, the wagon bridge provided a route for farmers on the mainland to sell their produce to island residents. Despite its solid steel and concrete design, the wagon bridge was destroyed by the 1900 Storm and was never replaced. On display were photos of the bridge and a ribbon badge worn during the extravagant opening celebrations held in November of 1893.
A Bridge for Wagons
The first bridge connecting the island of Galveston to the mainland was a railroad bridge completed in 1860. This bridge was lost during a subsequent hurricane, but additional railroad bridges were built in 1869 and in 1877. All of these bridges were simple timber trestles. In 1893, a new bridge was constructed — but this one was for the use of horse-drawn wagons.
Unlike the wooden railroad bridges, the 2-mile wagon bridge was constructed with 80-foot long steel truss spans on concrete piers. While the design was structurally solid, it came at a premium cost. Funded through a public tax increase, the bridge project was unpopular with many residents who felt the limited usership did not justify the price. Local business leaders, however, saw it as opportunity for mainland farmers to reach markets in Galveston. They also hoped that it would encourage development of farming communities in the region.
The Opening Celebration
In an effort to improve the public’s perception of the bridge and to build excitement about its construction, the Chamber of Commerce appointed a committee to host a celebration marking the bridge’s formal opening. Chamber Secretary C.H. McMaster took charge, and after months of careful planning, the elaborate affair was scheduled for mid-November 1893. Every effort was made to make it a fun and joyous celebration for the community.
The opening day included a formal dedication of the bridge with the Galveston mayor and the county judge present, along with a representative of the general contractor. All incoming wagons were invited to join a street parade along with the Galveston Artillery, brass bands from Hitchcock and Alvin, and the Galveston Fire Department.
Numerous prizes were awarded to parade participants including a lot of land at Virginia Point, a new saddle, a rifle, a cook stove, a diamond ring, and even a set of gold false teeth valued at $50. Local merchants donated the gifts for the winners of various categories such as “best native winemaker,” “sweetest honey,” “prettiest baby,” and “oldest farmer’s wife.” The parade concluded with a procession to the Beach Hotel where a fireworks display wowed the crowd.
Day two included cruises along the wharves onboard steamships departing from Kuhn’s Wharf. The public was invited to watch rescue demonstrations by local firefighters and by the marine lifesaving crew. Afterwards, an oyster roast was held at Woollam’s Lake.
With all of the work and expense that went into building Galveston’s wagon bridge, it sadly had a very short life. Just seven years after it opened to such great fanfare, the bridge was washed away during the devastating hurricane of September 8, 1900. It was never rebuilt.
About C.H. McMaster
Charles Henry McMaster war born in Dubuque, Iowa in 1859. After the early death of his father, McMaster became a “bundle boy” for a local timber factory, tying together bundles of split wood to sell. He earned $3.50 a week and helped support the family. As a young adult, McMaster relocated to Minnesota and later to Colorado where he worked for a glass company. During the late 19th century, he moved again to Galveston, where he was summoned to serve as secretary for the Chamber of Commerce (which was at the time located in the old Tremont Hotel). After seven years as secretary, he eventually assumed the role of Chamber President.
McMaster also became involved in local politics and was elected as an alderman for the city, a position which he held at the time of the 1900 Storm. He was one of the last aldermen to serve before the city adopted the commission form of government. It was around the same time that McMaster bought the majority share of The Galveston Tribune and became its publisher. He owned the newspaper for two decades years until his retirement in 1920.
C.H. McMaster relocated to Mineral Wells, Texas where he died in 1943 at age 84. His obituary recognized his early involvement with the Home Protective League, an organization which sought to remove saloons in residential areas of Galveston and to prohibit liquor sales by neighborhood grocers.