Listen to Victor
and Jim Guidry converse
at the base of the Causeway.
It was a typical summer Sunday afternoon in Galveston, and as my Grandmother would have said “hotter than the hinges of the gates of Hell.” Lynda, Jim Guidry and I chose to make a little excursion to check out the Causeways of Galveston, past, present and future.
As the Guidrys and I travel somewhat “on our stomachs” we preceded our venture by going down to The Waterman for brunch. I find that a Bloody Mary followed by Eggs Benedict can soften my disposition at being out and about somewhat early for my taste on a Sunday. In addition to good food with a splendid view of Lake Como we were presented with a great deal of gossip of interest around Galveston from other patrons. Sorry, that news will have to wait for another essay.
After our brunch we went across the Causeway with Jim at the wheel of the Guidrys’ new Chevy which does everything except ask if your brunch was satisfactory. Jim can start the motor of the car by pressing a button on the ignition key while still outside the car. Next, I suppose cars will be driving off on their own without anyone at the wheel. We were in splendid air conditioning and over on the Mainland in a flash. Jim veered off to the right and we found ourselves out of the car and standing just in front of a sign which said “Virginia Point.” That brought back plenty of memories for me of my Parents.
A Brief Causeway History
Before I get into stories I think I should mention that I did do some checking into our Causeways through the years. I found that the first one which accommodated “wagon and buggy traffic was completed in 1893 and lasted until the 1900 Storm.” The 1893 Causeway was preceded by some low trestles for rail line passage but apparently no other vehicles were able to go across it. The bridge at which we were looking over on the east as we crossed to the Mainland was what we now call the “Old Causeway”.
We were actually standing at the automobile entrance to the old Causeway which is also the one that handles rail traffic on and off the Island. This bridge was completed in 1911. As I found when reading about it, the arrangement then was separate rails for steam engines and the electric Interurban between Galveston and Houston. There were two lanes for automobile traffic. We could see beneath our feet, old, red bricks which certainly seemed to have been there since the bridge was built. The Interurban rail tracks are long gone (pity the Interurban is long gone!) and the auto lanes are not used. On the east side are the trestles for the railroads and to the east of them and mounted on the railing is the pipeline for fresh water into Galveston. This goes down into the water at the drawbridge, is buried beneath silt and then comes up on the south side of the bridge and goes onto the Island.
I believe we were going north on the Causeway completed in 1939 which superseded the one from 1911. This bridge carried automobile traffic in both directions until 1961 when a “hump” was put in the old Causeway and a new one with a “hump” built beside it. Though I remain somewhat confused about all the construction, I think it is the 1939 Causeway which is in the process of being demolished. When all the construction is completed there will be six lanes of traffic on and six lanes off the Island. The “Old” one will remain to handle rail traffic.
While we were standing on Virginia Point and looking at the Old Causeway, I told the Guidrys a couple of stories about my parents in the Twenties and Thirties when they were dating and just after they married.
Memories Old and New
There was a night club in Virginia Point to which my parents loved to go and, of course, this featured illegal sale of liquor by the drink and a small gambling casino. My Mother greatly liked the little casino as she was an ace Blackjack player and a “card counter.” This latter talent was of real use when the dealers dealt from one deck of cards held in the hand rather than six or eight decks held in a dealer’s “shoe.” During the Depression, my Mother felt badly about being out on the town when so many were out of work. Therefore she financed their evenings by Blackjack winnings using half her money and half my Father’s to purchase twenty-five cent chips. When Mother felt she had accumulated sufficient winnings to cover the check for the evening, she would thank the dealer, cash out and return to my Father in the dining room. Thus, reasoned my Mother, she and my Father were out on the house’s money and she did not feel badly about spending it. As a regular player, Mother became known by name to the manager of the club. One evening he came over to my Mother and said “ Mrs. Lang, there are a number of couples coming down from Houston this evening. We would like to open another Blackjack table. If we gave you dollar chips and permitted you to keep your winnings, would you be willing to move over and open the new table?” My Mother was no fool. It was the Depression. She accepted the offer, opened the table for management and then cashed in when she felt things were all in order. This started a little ritual and on various evenings, the manager would come and ask “Mrs. Lang, would you help us this evening?” Mother would say she was delighted and a good time was had by all. If anyone had told my Mother she was a “shill” I don’t think she would have known the meaning of the word nor would she have cared. One evening, however, Mother had to call in the backup! The manager asked Mother to help but this particular evening led her to a dice table. Mother said “Oh, no, I can’t do that, I don’t understand the game and don’t know the odds. But you wait a minute and I’ll get my husband, Vic, he’ll know what to do.” And so Mother did get Vic and my Father opened an extra dice table that evening at Virginia Point. How I would have liked to have been along with them on that excursion.
Some years ago when my parents were telling me the “Blackjack” story they added another experience. Seems as though the drawbridge came up one evening when my parents and several other cars of friends were returning or leaving the Island. The old bridge as well as the new opened in one section and it left the other side of the Causeway in a very dangerous mode. Except for some flimsy wooden barriers which came across the bridge, there was nothing to stop a car from plunging down into the water. The particular evening my parents were telling me about was quite cold. Car heaters did not exist and everyone was wearing “overcoats.” When the bridge was lifted, my parents and their friends were all in cars on the dangerous side of the Causeway. They all got out to watch whatever vessel was passing underneath the bridge. Once the show was over and everyone was returning to their autos, one lady screamed that her husband was missing. I can’t use the family name here since there are still some descendants around but the missing husband was frequently what my Grandmother referred to as “Four sheets to the wind” and that evening he was evidently more than four to the wind. He had simply walked off the end of the bridge and dropped down into the water. Luckily for him, the timing on all this was in his favor and he was noticed as missing almost as he hit the water. Someone notified the man who was operating the bridge and he called the Coast Guard. The missing husband was hanging on to a piling of some kind down below and the Coast Guard plucked him from it. He could not swim because of his heavy winter overcoat. If he had fallen from the 1939 Causeway (which had the same kind of drawbridge as the older one) he would have been killed upon impact as the newer bridge was much higher up from the water. That must have been some evening and I would imagine that Mr. X was given a tongue lashing by his wife that he would long remember!
Causeways Used in Defense of Island Industry
Another favorite story I have about the Causeways, until the 1961 refinements did away with drawbridges, is how our Island was protected from unwanted interference by the Texas Rangers.
During the “Sin City” era of Galveston’s History, the Causeway drawbridge was as essential to the preservation of our way of life as was the Seawall. Well, maybe not quite as essential, but close.
Some years after the 1957 crackdown on all Galveston illegal activities I learned that there was a mole in the office of the Texas Rangers in Austin. This mole would make a phone call to Galveston whenever the boys started driving down here to raid all that “vice and corruption in Galveston.” Following the phone call to the right person here, there would be a phone call to the fellow who operated the drawbridge on the Causeway. I believe one might say this fellow was on a “retainer fee” to the illegal operators in Galveston at the time. When he got his phone call he would be asked to pull up the bridge at a certain time that day. This time would be just the right moment to strand our friends from Austin on the Mainland side of the Causeway. That way, there was sufficient time for all illegal drinking and gambling on the Island to shut down for the Rangers’ visit. Many Galvestonians understood this was the purpose of unexplained drawbridge raising as no vessel would be seen to pass beneath the raised bridge. If anyone were impudent enough to ask any questions there could always have been something gone awry with the bridge that caused it to “stick” in the upright position. I don’t know for sure if this story is true or not but I like it so well and it is so in keeping with Galveston’s attitude in those days that I am unconcerned about the story’s veracity.
Just What Does Causeway Mean?
By the way, since we Galvestonians are so emphatic about just calling the bridges the “Causeway” no matter when built or how used, I thought it might be fun to see what Mr. Webster has to say about the word. In Webster’s Third International, “causeway” is defined as “a way of access or raised road, typically across marshland or water.” For once, our local usage of a word is right on target.