When Galveston was founded, Pelican Island was a windswept sand dune and a shell reef alongside the Texas City ship channel of today with a few hundred feet of dry soil, and Pelican Spit was a smaller sandbar located approximately where Sea Wolf Park is today. Pelican Island and Pelican spit are now joined as one small island north of Galveston Harbor (at 29°20′ N, 94°48′ W). The island is directly north of the Galveston Harbor docks and provides protection for the harbor from the open Galveston Bay. The island also protects the ship channel leading to the wharf area.
In 1815, Pelican Island was described as merely a narrow slip of a marsh, on which it was impossible to walk dry-footed, except on a spot that was a hundred feet over, which was all that was dry. The marsh was covered with seaweed growing in the mud, and covered with water at all ordinary tides, and was not visible at any distance off. “I saw the island again in 1820, when it had increased to a kind of shell-bank, twenty or thirty yards over, and one hundred and fifty to two hundred yards in length on the east side, and had a few small bushes growing on it. The rest was still a marsh, but had increased in extent greatly since 1815” (Hayes 1879 reprint 1974). By 1816, silt and marsh grass had collected. Library records show that by 1820, it had a large shell bank, and some salt cedar on it. Pelican spit had begun forming, and the water between the two islands began to grow shallower, filling in tidal silt from the bay system. Prior to the Texas Revolution, all Islands along the coast had been the property of the Mexican Government. These Islands later were claimed by the Republic of Texas after independence on April 21, 1836. This included Galveston and Pelican. December 29, 1845, Texas was annexed by the United States and became a state, with the state taking ownership of Pelican Island and Pelican Spit.
On Feb. 2, 1856, the State legislature deeded Pelican Island and spit to the City of Galveston. That sand spit is now called Pelican Island. It took the City 16 years to get around to recording the deed in the county Clerk’s Office, in 1872.
In 1857, Mr. Thomasey, a French gentleman familiar with the process of manufacturing salt by means of solar evaporation, visited Galveston with a proposal to erect a salt works on Pelican Island. He was “satisfied of the entire practicability of manufacturing salt here at such rates as will preclude its further importation.” He was unable to develop the facility.
Also in 1857, the Texas Senate passed a bill which relinquished 25 acres of Pelican Island to the Galveston Dry Dock Company. The following year, the bill passed both houses, directing the Commissioner of the Land Office to Patent the 25 acres of land (water?) on Pelican Island to the company. (This information is suspect, as there are no records of development until the early 1900’s.)
In 1859, the Federal Government began construction of a fort on Pelican Island. After Texas seceded in 1861, the Confederate States finished it with barracks, 5 guns and storehouses. The Union recaptured it in 1862. On July 20, 1870, Texas Senate passed a bill to incorporate the Galveston Dry Dock Company. The City of Galveston recorded the deed to Pelican Island in the county Clerk’s Office in 1872. January 24, 1874, the City Council considered an offer to lease Pelican Island for 50 years at $50/year, it was turned down.
In about 1880, the state of Texas constructed the first quarantine station on Pelican Island. There were two buildings, one reported to have cost $7,000.00 and the other $10,000. But someone had made a mistake. The water was so shallow in the approaches to the island that ships couldn’t come within a mile of the new buildings. One of the buildings was later moved across to Fort Point on Galveston Island, and the other was used by hunters and fishermen until it burned down one clear night.
A State Quarantine station was constructed on Galveston Island near Fort Point on the location of current day US Coast Guard Station. In the 1880’s, a Capt. Thomas Glenn built a fish and oyster business on Pelican Spit. The 1900 storm erased the business along with Capt. Glenn and his family.
A plan was developed in December of 1900 to dredge the main channel of Galveston and create a much larger island (shown below). A modified version of that plan was implemented shortly after which only created the larger Pelican Island, but not the changes off of Virginia Point. Texas City elected to have a dike and harbor built instead of filling in the land.
In 1903, Mr. J.L. Bludworth signed a 10 year lease with the City of Galveston for a 400’ length of waterfront somewhere on Pelican Island, extending back 1,000’ for the purpose of developing a shipyard. In 1906, Pelican Island became federal property, and the government constructed an immigration center and quarantine station there. Approximately 50,000 immigrants were processed there until 1914. The flow of immigration ceased in World War I, and the immigration center was demolished in 1972.
Between 1907 and 1913, “Pile and Brush” dikes were built on the north side of the Galveston Channel about 1,400 feet off of the Galveston Wharves, connecting Pelican Island and Pelican Spit. Another was built on the East side of the island, running north from the future Seawolf Park area towards Texas City, establishing the shape of the current day Island.
The U.S. passed new Quarantine laws (Mallory-Williams bill) in 1907, paving the way for the Federal Government to take over those respective duties from the individual States. Not without quite a bit of fuss regarding States Rights. The Federal Government built a Quarantine station on Pelican Spit (Where Seawolf Park is today) in 1912. This from the Galveston Daily News: “Federal Quarantine Station. Work is well advanced on the construction of the federal quarantine station, which is being built on Pelican Spit at the junction of the Galveston and Texas City channels. The contract for this work was let last fall to C. L. Ryals of Galveston, and practically all of the buildings are now up. The station is located on an island of made land. An enclosure 200 feet long and 200 feet wide, formed by closely driven round piling and sheet piling forming a water-tight bulkhead, has been filled with sand pumped from a basin in front of the station. Upon this the executive building, commanding officer’s quarters, junior officers’ quarters, hospital building, storeroom, attendants quarters crematory, kitchen, light plant and laundry have been constructed. The buildings are erected on piling several feet above the level of the made ground. A wharf 350 feet long for the berthing of vessels for fumigation, etc. has been built. Eighteen or twenty men will be quartered in the station when completed and put in operation”
On June 10th, 1915, John McDonough & Assoc. asked for lease of land on Channel Dike opposite 23rd street for Galveston Dry Dock & Construction Company (Others had attempted the same since 1900). When he suggestedit to his associates, “no one hesitated for a second”. Approved and the shipyard started on September of that year. On September 1st, 1916 they were doing business with a 1,000 ton marine railway. Founders of the firm were reported to be I.H. Kempner and J.H. Langben. In February of 1918, the shipyard was awarded contract to build a 10,000 ton wooden dry dock by the Shipping Board. Financed by Galveston Capital. The first vessels, tug J.W. Terry and barge W.E. Maxson were lifted in November 2019.
Sometime in the 1910’s or early 1920’s, the U.S. Coast Guard built a station on Pelican Island where the current day Martin Oil Docks are located. In 1921, some Galvestonians proclaimed Pelican Island could be developed to benefit the city and show a profit to whoever did the developing. On March 9, 1922, the S.S. Selma was intentionally scuttled by the United States Shipping Board at pier 10 after attempts to repair her cement hull were unsuccesful. In 1923 she was declared an obstruction to navigation and she was lifted from the bottom of the channel at pier 10 and moved to a location off the eastern shore of Pelican Island. In 1923, a bond issue was submitted to taxpayers to build a bridge from Galveston to Pelican Island, it was defeated. In 1928, the Texas Legislature passed a law granting the City of Galveston the right to give leases on the Island for its development.
In 1934, George Sealy proposed connecting Pelican Island to Galveston via a dike, sealing the harbor and opening the island to Industrial development. There were 5 points to the plan which were published in the Galveston Daily News; 1) Divert the inter-coastal canal through Teichmans Point and move the lift bridge on Galveston’s causeway to the island end of the causeway… 2) The fill from the canal to be used as a dike extending from Pelican Island to the Island end of the causeway, which would make a land locked harbor of our channel… 3) Such a project would serve a triple purpose: First, serve as a protection to the canal from counter currents occasioned by northwest winds, which, unquestionably will fill the canal with silt… 4) Save thousands of dollars in dredging our main channels by the federal government and terminal owners… 5) Such spoil from the canal might comprise the nucleus of a roadway extending to and connecting … the lift bridge.
In the same year, Todd Shipyards, Inc. purchased the 240 acre Galveston Dry Dock and Construction Company on Pelican island. By 1939, the island was still mostly marshlands, shell, salt cedar and saw grass. It provided a roosting site for seabirds. In that year, plans began for a rail and auto bridge to the Island. But those plans, like the earlier ones, came to nothing.
In the early 1950’s, L. Walter Henslee, a director of the Galveston Housing Authority invited some investors from New York (he had met their lawyer in Washington while conducting business for the Housing Authority). Mayor Maurice Y. Cartwright initiated the program to bring them in to develop Pelican Island, which would require access.
In 1953 the City of Galveston signed a development contract with Allen & Co. & associates which was eventually transferred to Pelican Island Development Corp. (PIDC), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Merritt, Chapman and Scott Corp. from New York. Under that contract, the city agreed to sell the land to the corporation at a contract price of $50.50 an acre, providing the company met a stipulated development schedule. If the company failed to meet the schedule, it had to pay a forfeit for failing to do so. The company brought in dredges and began to fill the land on the island. The contract was revised a number of times while the filling was going on. The company eventually filled about 1,204 acres to a height of 10 feet.
In 1954, taxpayers of Galveston voted approval of a $6 million bond issue for construction of a bridge to pelican Island. Galveston County Navigation District No. 1 was created to administer the bond issue and let the contracts for construction of the bridge. The initial tax rate was 30 cents per hundred in 1954. It was lowered to 14 cents per hundred in 1970. In 1977, it was changed to 3 cents for debt and 7 cents for maintenance, for total of 10 cents per hundred. The debt has been retired and now the tax rate is around 4.5 cents for minimal maintenance and operations. Today the bridge is in disrepair and must be replaced soon.
The City of Galveston established a park on the eastern end of the island in 1955–56, eventually named “Seawolf Park”. In 1964, the company brought suit to exercise its options to buy the land from PIDC. The city contended the development contract had not been fulfilled and counter-sued. At that point, George Mitchell, President of Mitchell – Dobbins Land Development Corp. come onto the scene. Mitchell told the city council he could get the Pelican Island question off dead center and get some development going. They had conditionally bought the 2,750 acres under option to PIDC for approximately $1.8 million. The purchase was subject to certain conditions. The city would need to compromise and settle its lawsuit with the development corporation. The city finally agreed to accept the $141,000 offered for the land by PIDC, and PIDC agreed to convey title to Mitchell-Dobbins.
In 1965, George Mitchell and Mitchell – Dobbins Land Development Corp., donated 100 acres of property on Pelican Island for the permanent site of the Texas Maritime Academy (now Texas A&M University at Galveston). In 1970 the ship berth was constructed for the T.S Texas Clipper and in 1971 the first administration and classroom building was inaugurated on the Mitchell Campus. In 1971, the campus had ninety one students, today there are over 2,500 students attending Texas A&M University at Galveston.
In 1994, Todd Shipyard sold its property on Pelican Island to the City of Galveston, who subsequently transferred all of the shipyard property to the care of the Galveston Wharves Board. The property was leased to the Newpark Shipbuilding in 1997. Newpark committed to $20,000,000 in improvements over the course of the lease. In 2005 NewPark went through financial challenges and relinquished the lease of the shipyard with the Port of Galveston, little or no improvements had been completed. Gulf Copper and Manufacturing Inc., eventually leased the facility and brought two 15,000 ton dry docks down from the US East Coast.
Today Pelican Island is the site of Texas A&M University at Galveston, the Texas Maritime Academy, an oil terminal, several offshore supply and service docks, lightering service docks, pilots office and dock, shipyards, and other industries. Together they add millions in contribution to the county’s economic activity each year. The land on Pelican Island is valued at around $74,000,000.00, and additional assets located there add the lion’s share to the tax base for the City of Galveston.
From the mid 1850’s to today, there has been a constant discussion about developing Pelican Island’s available greenfield acreage. From a narrow slip of marsh to an Island of about 3,200 acres, the Island has an average annual growth of almost 20 acres per year. This growth has come almost solely from local dredging. The bulk of the acreage was from the development dredging carried out by Pelican Island Development Corp., and the dredging of the Galveston channel and harbor. There is currently a 90 acre dredge spoil placement area in use by the Port of Galveston, and more than 1,200 acres of spoil placement area in use by the US Army Corp of Engineers. The Port of Houston owns over 1,000 acres of undeveloped land and The Port of Galveston has about 550 acres on Pelican Island, 285 of those are undeveloped. That includes some 100 acres with frontage on Galveston’s deep water harbor, most of the remainder is on the eastern coast of the island parallel to the Houston Ship Channel.
The Pelican Island Bridge that opened in 1958 has allowed the current Pelican Island businesses and Texas A&M to survive. The bridge has recently been determined to be obsolete and with limited life. The load weight limits for the bridge have been reduced to levels unsuitable for heavy industry. Over the last several years plans have been initiated for a new bridge. The most recent initiative is being made by the County Commissioners Court which is working with the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) .
Three bridge options have been proposed:
- Option 1 would run just to the east of the existing bridge along the same right of way. It’s the cheapest option, $65 million.
- Option 2 would be built 60 feet west of the existing bridge and would alleviate traffic through part — but not all — of the Texas A&M campus. The estimated cost is $81 million.
- Option 3 would loop to the west, require more right of way and a longer span. The estimated cost is $121 million.
None of these options under consideration include railway access to Pelican Island, which has been one of the prerequisites for further development of any bulk cargo operations, liquid bulk cargo operations or modern container operations. Relating back to George Sealy’s plan in 1934 to build a dike between Galveston Island and Pelican Island, a bridge built of earthen materials and designed to provide adequate flow of tidal water through the Galveston Harbor , but limiting silt and sand from West Bay, would solve many issues related to the ongoing costs of dredging Galveston Harbor and terminals as well as costs of maintaining adequate spoil placement areas. This would result in saving millions of dollars which could be redirected to continued development of efficient port activities for the many stakeholders in the Galveston maritime community, including dredging a deep channel to the waterfront business along Harborside Drive. Likely being the lowest capital cost option with the longest life span and lowest future maintenance costs, a rail and vehicular land bridge would possibly make Pelican Island the most attractive location on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico for development, with the Port of Galveston at the forefront.
Maritime related businesses are vital to the local and regional economies. A recent Economic Impact of Galveston County’s Maritime Industry Cluster, carried out by Martin and Associates concludes that the industry creates 32,569 jobs in Galveston County. The average wage of an employee in the Maritime sector is $66,283, which is more than fifty percent higher than the average wage in the county. Maritime businesses create $196,000,000 in state and local taxes, $2,600,000,000 in personal income locally, and $7,700,000,000 in business revenues for the county. Opening up the properties on Pelican Island with industrial road and rail access, would undoubtedly create development on the deep water and shallow water greenfield properties, as well as increase business activity at the existing business located on the Island. This would seemingly create an economic boom for the local businesses in the city and the county.
Research for this post was carried out at the Rosenberg Library and from archives of the Galveston County Daily News, by Jonathan Hale and Leonard Hale. Both of us are employees of Gulf Copper and Manufacturing Inc., which leases property on Pelican Island from the Port of Galveston, operated as Gulf Copper Dry Dock and Rig Repair. Should any of the statements be incorrect or contain errors, please reach out to myself for making corrections.
Leonard Hale PMP