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Kemah's Beginnings

Written by Eric W. Pohl.

It's hard to imagine if you’re exploring the family-friendly playground of the Kemah Boardwalk or the quirky galleries of Kemah’s Lighthouse District, but from the 1920s through the 1950s, Kemah was once a hotspot for illegal gambling, drinking, and associated vice.

But from its humble beginnings in the late 1800s, Kemah has weathered numerous storms and winds of change. In 1898, two enterprising landowners, John Kipp and James Bradford, established a township that would later become Kemah—a Karankawan word meaning “wind in the face.”

The breezy coastal community sailed along on commercial fishing, boat building, farming and ranching until Prohibition hit in the 1920.

That’s when two Sicilian brothers, Sam and Rose Maceo, began operating illegal casinos in Galveston County. With a number of popular venues in Dickenson and Galveston, including the infamous Balinese Room, the Maceo brothers soon began operating businesses in Kemah, whose proximity to Houston made it ideal for city-dwellers seeking bootleg booze and roulette tables.

Local government and law enforcement looked the other way as organized crime prospered for decades.

In 1950, fellow entrepreneurs Jimmie and Lorae Walker established the legendary Jimmie Walker’s Edgewater Restaurant and Casino on the Kemah waterfront. Despite a statewide crackdown on gambling in the late 1950s, Jimmie Walker’s survived for years, weathering Hurricane Carla in 1961, a fire, and bankruptcy.

The 1980's brought new winds of change as a marina was constructed, the Kemah Lighthouse District was formed and new restaurants, such as the Flying Dutchman, popped up on the waterfront.

In 1989, entrepreneur Tillman Feritta, the CEO of Landry's Inc., acquired Jimmie Walker’s and renamed it Landry’s. He soon secured adjoining properties, adding a boardwalk, rides, shops, new restaurants, and a boutique hotel. In 2001, his vision for a bustling seaside family entertainment complex was born as the Kemah Boardwalk—which today brings in three million visitors annually.

The Gulf breeze still blows, and the neon lights still flicker on after dark. Yet these days, people come to Kemah to shop, cast a line, ride the Ferris wheel, and grab a slice of wholesome family fun on the Boardwalk—a far cry from Kemah’s entertainment options a century ago.

From the June 2014 issue.

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