The city of Galveston is on Galveston Island two miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, at 29°18' north latitude and 94°47' west longitude, in Galveston County. It is fifty miles from Houston and is the southern terminal point of Interstate Highway 45. The island is a part of the string of sand barrier islands along the coastal zone of Texas. On its eastern end where the city stands the currents of Galveston Bay maintain a natural harbor which historically provided the best port site between New Orleans and Veracruz. Karankawa Indians used the island for hunting and fishing, and it was the probable location of the shipwreck landing of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in 1528. José de Evia, who charted the Texas coast in 1785, named Galveston Bay in honor of Bernardo de Gálvez, the viceroy of Mexico. Later mapmakers applied the name Galveston to the island. Louis Aury established a naval base at the harbor in 1816 to support the revolution in Mexico, and from this point Aury, Francisco Xavier Mina, and Henry Perry launched an unsuccessful attack against the Spanish in Mexico. When Aury returned with his ships after leaving Perry and Mina on the Mexican coast he found Galveston occupied by Jean Laffite, who had set up a pirate camp called Campeachy to dispose of contraband and provide supplies for the freebooters. In 1821, however, the United States forced Laffite to evacuate. Mexico designated Galveston a port of entry in 1825 and established a small customshouse in 1830. During the Texas Revolution the harbor served as the port for the Texas Navy and the last point of retreat of the Texas government. Following the war Michel B. Menard and a group of investors obtained ownership of 4,605 acres at the harbor to found a town. After platting the land in gridiron fashion and adopting the name Galveston, Menard and his associates began selling town lots on April 20, 1838. The following year the Texas legislature granted incorporation to the city of Galveston with the power to elect town officers.
Galveston grew on the strength of the port; cotton moved outward, and farming supplies and immigrants came in. The city served as a transfer point for oceangoing vessels and coastal steamers which ran a route through Galveston Bay and Buffalo Bayou to Houston. The construction of the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad, which built a bridge to the island in 1860, strengthened the link between the two towns. Business collapsed, however, when the Civil War brought a blockade of the port by Union ships and a brief occupation of the town by federal troops. The dramatic battle of Galveston on New Year's Day, 1863, ended the occupation, but the port remained isolated and served mainly as a departure point for small blockade runners. Following the war Galveston quickly recovered; northern troops were stationed in the city, and a depleted state demanded the trade goods denied by the blockade and the war effort. With so many susceptible people present, however, the city in 1867 suffered one of its worst onslaughts of yellow fever, which affected about three-fourths of the population and killed at a rate of twenty per day. This disease, a malady of most southern ports, did not cease to be a threat until the institution of rigid quarantines after 1873. Galveston nonetheless surged ahead and ranked as the largest Texas city in 1870 with 13,818 people and also in 1880 with 22,248 people. It had the first structure to use electric lighting, the Galveston Pavilion; the first telephone; and the first baseball game in the state. The Galveston News, founded in 1842, is the state's oldest continuing daily newspaper. The Galveston buildings, especially those designed by architect Nicholas J. Clayton, were among the finest of the time; in 1881 the city won the site of the state medical school in a statewide election; and the Grand Opera House was built in 1894 and presented the best theatrical productions in Texas. The opera house was restored as a modern performing arts hall in the 1980s.
In spite of efforts to maintain trade supremacy by improving port facilities and contributing to the construction of railways running to the city, Galveston business leaders saw their town slip to fourth place in population by 1900. Galveston acquired a coast guard station in 1897 which still operated in the 1990s and a small military base, Fort Crockett (1897–1957), but other cities such as Dallas acquired transcontinental rail connections and a growth in manufacturing establishments. At a time when Houston, Beaumont, and Port Arthur benefitted from the oil discoveries of the early twentieth century, Galveston had to put its energy into a recovery from the nation's worst natural disaster, the Galveston hurricane of 1900. The island lay in the pathway of hurricanes coursing across the Gulf of Mexico and suffered at least eleven times in the nineteenth century. The Galveston hurricane of 1900, with wind gusts of 120 miles per hour, flooded the city, battered homes and buildings with floating debris, and killed an estimated 6,000 people in the city. Another 4,000 to 6,000 people died on the nearby coast. For future protection the city and county constructed a seventeen-foot seawall on the Gulf side of the island, raised the grade level, and built an all-weather bridge to the mainland. The development of other ports by means of the ship channels, alternative sites for business and manufacturing provided by other modes of transportation, and notoriety because of hurricanes destined the island city to medium size. In 1980 it had a population of 61,902 and ranked twenty-ninth in the state.
Around 1900 business leaders redesigned the city government into the first commission form in the country (see COMMISSION FORM OF CITY GOVERNMENT). Their idea was to have the governor of the state appoint a mayor and four commissioners. Each commissioner would control a specific function of government-finance, police and fire control, water and sewage, streets and public improvements. Since the original plan was patently undemocratic, it was subsequently revised to provide for the election of the officers. The commission plan was somewhat popular in the years before World War I but faded in the 1920s in favor of the city-manager plan. Galveston, however, continued with the commission government until 1960, when it too changed to a city-manager form.
During the years between the world wars Galveston, under the influence of Sam and Rosario (Rose) Maceo, exploited the prohibition of liquor and gambling by offering illegal drinks and betting in nightclubs and saloons. This, combined with the extensive prostitution which had existed in the port city since the Civil War, made Galveston the sin city of the Gulf. The citizens tolerated and supported the illegal activities and took pride in being "the free state of Galveston." In 1957, however, Attorney General Will Wilson with the help of Texas Rangers shut down bars such as the famous Ballinese Room, destroyed gambling equipment, and closed many houses of prostitution. Between 1985 and 1988 Galveston voters in nonbinding referenda defeated proposals to legalize casino gambling, although proponents argued that gambling could promote the local economy. Pursuant to a law enacted by the Texas legislature, however, gambling on board cruise ships embarking from Galveston was expected to boost business activity in the wharf district beginning in September 1989.
Galveston has survived on its port, tourism, and the University of Texas Medical Branch. In the later 1900s the Galveston Historical Foundation encouraged historic preservation in the old business area of the Strand and various Victorian homes, which has added to the visitor attractions of the city. The famous Rosenberg Library serves as a circulating library as well as an important repository for archival materials pertaining to the history of Galveston and Texas. The restoration of the nineteenth-century square-rigged vessel, Elissa, in 1975–82 gave Texans their own "Tall Ship" to sail into New York harbor for the celebration of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. In 2000 the population was 57,247.