Victor Lang Remembers 

 

 
The Greatest Free Ride in Texas

May 19,
2006
 

 

Victor shared memories with Jim Guidry on a trip across Bolivar Roads.
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Photos by Lynda Guidry

Beautiful sunset, balmy breezes, circling gulls, perfect photography opportunities, comfortable seating on a top deck, an escort of dolphins off the bow---and all for free.  Where else but on the Galveston-Bolivar Ferry?  The only thing lacking was a Ketel One Vodka Martini straight-up with one Spanish olive (no pimento!!).            

Lynda and Jim Guidry and I took that beautiful ride last night, leaving the cars on the Galveston side.  It was a wonderful experience.  So many memories came rushing back to me of childhood days. Among them were going crabbing over on the Bolivar Peninsula with my Grandparents, fishing with my Father and tooting it up in later years in “road houses” that no longer exist where we also danced to Cajun music (then something of a novelty except in Louisiana).

I arrived a bit early for our excursion which was set for 7:30 P. M. and had time to look around the ferry landing.  To my great pleasure I found there are spacious and very clean restrooms, delightfully landscaped walkways and a very “Island” atmosphere around the place.

One plaque caught my attention as it had to do with the history of the ferry service from Galveston over to Bolivar.  It all started in 1930 and was privately owned until 1934 when it was sold to the State of Texas and the Highway Department took over the operations.  It was in 1934 that the ride became a “free” one.  Also on the plaque was the fact that this is the longest ferry ride in the state.  At 2.7 miles from shore to shore that is quite a little hop over the water.  The boats today have such powerful engines that I think one makes the trip in about eighteen minutes, certainly no more than twenty tops.

I remember that when I was in High School in the Fifties and none of us had a great deal of money to spend on dates.  Wwe relished those free rides on moonlit evenings.  Naturally, we thought we were the first generation to think of taking our dates for a ferry ride at the end of an evening.  And, naturally, we were not.  It seemed to me at the time that the ride took longer and I think it really did.  Of course, everyone was not in such a constant rush about everything so it really did not matter terribly how long it took.  If your date was attractive it mattered even less.

On our ride last night we stood on a lower deck at the stern end of the vessel.  We went up on the very top for the return trip but still remained on the stern which gave us by far the better views of everything as the sun was setting in a giant orange ball behind what had been the old Quarantine Station on Pelican Island. 

Efficiency of  the Operation

It seems a good idea to me to comment on the efficiency of the operation.  I know there has been much unfavorable publicity about the ferry service, line jumping during crowded hours, waiting for what seems like eternity to board the ferry, etc.  Last night I noticed that there were Galveston Police Department cars in plenty all over the place.  I think someone from the Sheriff’s Department was on duty where the pedestrians boarded which was not menacing in any way but gave one a rather comfortable feeling that if anything started it would be stopped at about the same moment.

Those involved in actually operating the ferry deserve to be complimented.  They moved swiftly getting vessels and individuals on and off at either end of the trip and were pleasant and rather spiffy looking in blue uniforms.  I realize we were not riding at high season and that it could appear differently if one lives in Bolivar and works in Galveston or the reverse.  This situation is about to be remedied according to what I read in the news reports.

Back to the Setting Sun 

As we were watching the fireball sun setting behind the old Quarantine Station the memories came marching in.  I could see myself in a small boat with my Father in the Fifties.  We were anchored off-shore of the Station and were fishing.  At that time, if you were smart, you did not go on shore at the Station as it had been long abandoned and was full of rattlesnakes.  In fact, we called that part of Pelican Island “Snake Island.”  There was no bridge over to Pelican, though I do recall that Todd Shipyards had a little ferry service of its own for their personnel to go and come from Galveston and Pelican.

Another vivid memory had to do with so many of our Galveston families.  They arrived from Europe via the Southern route, coming in vessels that employed sails as well as steam and the Quarantine Station was the port of entry for them to the United States.  I think it was less fearsome than Ellis Island as there would have been fewer people being processed at any given time.  My friend, Edward Williamson, has told me of his grandfather, Judge E. B. Holman, working with Rabbi Henry Cohen to get immigrants from Quarantine and over to Galveston as quickly as possible.  There were immigrants who left Quarantine and went elsewhere in Texas.  I don’t think Judge Holman and Rabbi Cohen were doing anything illegal.  I think they were merely “cutting red tape” of which there was less then than now.

If anyone reading this is interested in the immigration records created at the Quarantine Station, you have only to visit the Seaport Museum operated by the Galveston Historical Foundation and located on Harborside Drive around 21st Street.  There is a computer there containing all the old Quarantine Station records.  If you have reason to think any of your family may have entered the United States via the Quarantine Station you will find that the use of the computer at the museum is free and easily operated.  About all you need do is enter family names by whatever different spellings you think may have been used at the time by your relatives or Immigration officers (who were given to dispensing with complicated European names and substituting simpler “American” ones).  I actually did this with great success and found a good deal of information on both sides of my family.

A Bit About Pelican Island  

Pelican Island is now well worth a visit.  The Texas A & M campus seems to grow by the week, there are wetlands around the campus and you would enjoy just roaming the campus for a half hour.  Drive a bit further along the main road on Pelican and you will come to the USS Stewart, a destroyer and the USS Cavalla, both of which figure in the World War II history of our country.  Then, in place of the old Quarantine Station is a rather smartly turned out and round observation building just at the end of the Island.  Fishing from piers around the end of Pelican is readily available, quite good and, also, free.

The Selma

Visible from the Ferry and near Seawolf Park (Pelican Island) is the SS Selma.  Or, what is left of her.  On 28 June 1919 the ill-fated Versailles Treaty was signed, officially ending World War I.  On that date, the Selma was launched from Mobile, Alabama.  Never to see the military service intended for the vessel, the Selma served as an oil tanker for about a year before it was wrecked on a jetty in Tampico, Mexico.  She was towed to Galveston for repairs but the efforts were somehow unsuccessful and the Selma was scuttled in our ship channel in the bay on 9 March 1922.

The Selma was 421 feet and an experimental ship built during WWI with 7,500 tons of concrete and steel reinforcement.  There were, I think, three other such vessels built and one of them is somewhere off the California coast.  What I think was explained to me years ago by someone who knew more history than I was that there was a tremendous shortage of steel during WWI, thus the experiment with concrete.  Additionally, a concrete ship with far less steel in her did not attract floating mines as much as traditional vessels did.

When the Selma was scuttled here in 1922, my Grandmother was working for the Galveston Daily News.  She was sent aboard the vessel to interview its captain who may or may not have had a military background.  My Grandmother did have one as she had served as a Yeomanette and a Marianette during WWI.  (For the uninitiated, that means she served in the Navy and the Marines).  I wish I had a copy of the interview but I don’t know that I ever even saw it. Just heard the story from her, along with so many others.

Lore and legend have it that since being scuttled here, the Selma has been home to spies, hermits and phantoms.  The spy story holds that during WWII there was a German spy living aboard the Selma and his mission was to “pave the way” for German invasion of Galveston Island.  I have a little trouble with this one since the U. S. Coast Guard so ably patrolled our waters during WWII.  I don’t think a German spy would have gone unnoticed for very long.  As to phantoms, who knows?  Galveston has plenty of them on land and in our surrounding waters. If you come from here, you know that’s true and such stories need not be verified. 

The hermit part of the lore is true.  I think the man referred to himself as the “Only-Only” or he may have had that name hung on him by Christie Mitchell who wrote a column for the Galveston News called The Beachcomber.  The hermit lived in the bow of the boat and had small row boat he would use to paddle ashore for supplies.  I never met him but I know he was on board for part of the Fifties and we would see him standing on deck when we rode the ferry over to Bolivar.  It seems to me in the Fifties the ferry’s route took one much closer to the remains of the Selma.

Further, there has been grass growing on the stern of the Selma for quite some years now.  I think seed has been dropped by birds and apparently there has been enough soil on board to support the growth.  When I was doing the narration for Galveston Harbour Tours in the Nineties, I used to assure tourists looking at the Selma that the grass had been sown in the Fifties by my fellow Ball High School students.  That story holds that dates would row over to the Selma on beautiful moonlit weekend nights and a little seed would be sown.  Grass seed, of course.

I know that fishing around the Selma has always been pretty good but I am not among those who have clambered aboard and fished from the Selma.  There is just enough that is eerie about the old girl’s legend to cause me not to want to get too close.

And So To Bed---or the Next Stop

At any rate, whatever your fancy, go and take one of those free Ferry rides and you will be well rewarded with views, breeze and a generally good time.  With gasoline prices as they are just now you might even want to consider disembarking on the Bolivar side and walking around a bit before returning to Galveston.  I think there still might be a “road house” or two you could reach before you die of thirst on your excursion.

Next time, the Guidrys and I are heading out for “the causeways” and we’ll do a piece on the three bridges and what things look like for the future.  They look massive, I can tell you that much already.  But perhaps there may be a more personal angle we can find when we get out there and start poking around.  Good health and good luck until then.

 

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