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Fun and Games on the Boardwalk

Galveston’s Historic Pleasure Pier
Written by Ramona Flume.

(Courtesy www.txgenweb.org)

The newest addition to Galveston’s shoreline, the $60 million Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier is futuristic by boardwalk standards, with 16 rides, various carnival games, and dazzling LED light displays. But the history of the island’s seaside amusement park dates to the 19th Century.

Galveston had already secured a national reputation as “the Playground of the South” by the late 1890s, vying with New Orleans to be the epicenter of Southern leisure. But on September 8, 1900, the popular island getaway was devastated by one of the worst hurricanes in recorded history, which claimed approximately 8,000 lives and razed 500 entire city blocks. Over the next decade, Galvestonians worked tirelessly to recover from the natural disaster and restore the beauty of the island—and to rebuild the tourist trade.

The pier’s attractions included a water circus featuring Acapulco cliff divers, Tarzan-themed aerial shows, and an exhibit hall showcasing giant crabs from the Bering Sea.

Amusement parks and bathhouses began to spring up along stretches of the new Seawall, a 17-foot-high barrier built to protect the island from future storms. In 1906 and 1907, Electric Park and Chutes Park brought laughter—and tourists—back to the island, with vaudeville shows, trapeze acts, and theme-park rides such as the island’s first set of aerial swings. All along the Seawall, visitors found attractions designed for entertainment: a large motion-picture theater, ice-cream parlors, and roller-skating rinks. In 1908, the July 13 edition of the Galveston Daily News reported that “8,500 strangers passed through the gates at the Union Station and started out for a day of pleasure in Galveston. They stand at the water’s edge and gaze far out to sea. They wonder what is beyond.”

Meanwhile, in cities such as Chicago, New York, Atlantic City, and Santa Monica, destinations known as “pleasure piers” began to attract tourists with amusements ranging from roller coasters to famous entertainers. In 1917, with the debut of a 750-foot-long amusement pier on the Seawall, the trend reached Galveston Island.

The high tide of Galveston tourism kept rising throughout the ensuing decades as amusement parks such as Joyland Park and Stewart Beach Amusement Park drew enthusiastic crowds. Beginning in 1925, Galveston resident Alba Collins and her family lived in a house beneath a wooden roller coaster on the Seawall called the Mountain Speedway, which was billed in the Galveston Daily News as the “lightning ride that thrills from start to finish.”

“There were always a million things going on and strange faces to see,” recalls Alba, whose father operated the coaster. “We’d try and sneak off to play past our bedtimes, maybe spy on the fancy cars that pulled up to the Balinese Room every night, but someone would always call out to us and make sure we headed home.”

Galveston’s first official Pleasure Pier, originally intended as a recreational facility for the military, opened on Flag Day, June 14, 1944, featuring speeches from dignitaries, aerial performances, and dancing in the Marine Ballroom. “This evening we celebrate a memorable event in the history of our city,” Galveston Mayor George Fraser said at the grand opening, which attracted hundreds of attendees. “This $1.5-million steel and concrete pier built into the Gulf of Mexico is the result of many dreams, much planning, and an unbelievably great amount of hard work on the part of those who sponsored it. It should make Galveston worthy in every respect of the title conferred upon it many years ago—the Playground of the South.”

By the late 1940s, Galveston’s Pleasure Pier had become one of the nation’s largest. In the years to follow, the pier gained even more attractions, including a water circus featuring Acapulco cliff divers, Tarzan-themed aerial shows, an exhibit hall showcasing such oddities as giant crabs from the Bering Sea, and an outdoor movie theater that appeared to hover above the water.

A $50,000 initiative brought air conditioning and other modern renovations to the Marine Ballroom in the 1950s, when it played host to such nationally known celebrities as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. One of the highlights of the Pier’s star-studded history was the 1949 visit of General Dwight D. Eisenhower—rumored as a potential presidential candidate—when he delivered a speech in the Marine Ballroom as the special guest of the city’s civic clubs.

Galveston’s first official Pleasure Pier, originally intended as a recreational facility for the military, opened in June 1944.

Back then, the hotels and gambling halls of Las Vegas were just getting started. “There was no Las Vegas back then. This was Las Vegas,” says Bobby Lee Hilton, a guest ambassador at the Hotel Galvez. Hilton started working at the hotel as a teenager in the 1940s, a period in Galveston’s history characterized by unrestricted gambling and liquor sales. “Atlantic City was there, but Galveston was easy for people to get to from the port, trains, or by car. There was gambling, live music, great food and clubs, all facing a natural harbor. A night on the bay was something special.”

But nothing lasts forever. In September 1961, after witnessing the tail end of World War II and a mid-’50s crackdown on the island’s illegal gambling, the 1944 Pleasure Pier fell victim to Hurricane Carla, a Category Four hurricane that also ravaged the infamous Balinese Room gambling hall.

Now, thanks to a multimillion-dollar construction project by Galveston native Tilman Fertitta and Landry’s, Inc., a new Pleasure Pier has arisen on the same spot. The new 1,130-foot boardwalk—complete with restaurants, carnival games, thrill rides, an “antique” photo booth, and the 100-foot-tall Galaxy Ferris Wheel—recaptures the pier’s golden age while catapulting it into the modern era.

“The Ferris wheel just towers over everything and shines its lights all across the water,” says Alba Collins. “It’s like seeing a bit of an old dream.”

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