This time there was no murmur in the air, no warning of approaching danger. Even the watchful press, that knows so much before it ever happens, slumbered quiet and deep, till the hissing wires shrieked the terrifying word—Galveston.
Then we learned that, as at Port Royal, the sea had overleaped its bounds and its victims by thousands were in its grasp.
In all the land no one slept then. To us it was the clang of the fire-bell, and the drop of the harness. The Red Cross clans commenced to gather.
In two days a little coterie of near a dozen left Washington under escort of the competent agency of the New York World, which had on the first day telegraphed that it would open a subscription for the relief of Galveston, and would be glad to send all supplies and money received to the Red Cross, if its president, Miss Clara Barton, would go and distribute it. It was the acceptance of this generous offer that had brought to the station in Washington the escort; and a palace-car, provided with all comforts for the journey to Galveston, was under the management of the World's efficient correspondent and agent, Robert Adamson.
The direfulness of the news gathered as we proceeded on our journey, and delays were gotten over as quickly as possible. A detention of several hours in New Orleans gave opportunity for consultation with the officers of the Red Cross Society of that city, which had held its loyal ranks unbroken since 1882, and became a tower of strength in this relief. A day of waiting in Houston for a passage over the Gulf gave us a glimpse of what the encroachment had been on the mainland. We found the passage across to Galveston difficult, and with one night of waiting by the shore in almost open cars, at Texas City, we at length arrived in Galveston on the morning of the 15th of September.
Here again no description could adequately serve its purpose. The sea, with fury spent, had sullenly retired. The strongest buildings, half standing, roofless and tottering, told what once had been the make-up of a thriving city. But that cordon of wreckage skirting the shore for miles it seemed, often twenty feet in height, and against which the high tide still lapped and rolled! What did it tell? The tale is all too dreadful to recall—the funeral pyre of at least five thousand human beings. The uncoffined dead of the fifth part of a city lay there. The lifeless bodies festering in the glaring heat of a September sun told only too fatally what that meant to that portion of the city left alive. The streets were well-nigh impassable, the animals largely drowned, the working force of men diminished, dazed, and homeless. The men who had been the fathers of the city, its business and its wealth, looked on aghast at their overwhelmed possessions, ruined homes, and, worse than all, mourned their own dead.
Yet these men, to the number of thirty or more, had, as one may say, pulled themselves together, and were even at that early date a relief committee, holding their meetings at the wrecked and half-ruined hotel, almost the only public house left standing. To this hotel we also went and reported to the committee. To say that we were kindly and gratefully received by them says nothing that would satisfy either ourselves or them.
The conditions were so new to them that it was a relief to meet persons who had seen such things before. We were asked not only to act with them, but to assume charge of the administration of relief. This, of course, we would not do, but that we would meet with, counsel, and aid them in every way in our power, is needless to affirm. That we did do this, through every day of our stay of three months, not only our own conviction, but the unasked and unexpected testimony of both Galveston and the Legislature of the State of Texas, go to assure.
On the third day after our arrival we were joined by Mr. Stephen E. Barton, President of the former Central Cuban Relief Committee, and Mr. Fred L. Ward, its competent secretary, who became our secretary from the time of his arrival until the close of the field, continuing until after our return to headquarters and settling the last account. Not only the thanks of the Red Cross are due for his faithful, painstaking work, but his name is still a household word through the score of counties skirting the shore on the mainland of Texas.
It may be interesting to readers to know what is done first, or just how a relief party commence under circumstances like that. A few words will give an outline. First the ground must be overlooked and conditions learned. This is not easy when it is remembered that broken houses, cars, wagons, church steeples, and grand pianos were liable to be encountered in the middle of the leading streets, themselves buried three feet in the coarse black sand, brought in by the great tidal wave.
Nevertheless, a building must be found in which to store and distribute the supplies that would immediately come. How needful these supplies would be can be inferred when it is recalled that scores of persons came alive out of that wreck, with simply the band of a shirt or a night-dress held by its button about the neck as the only reminder that ever a cover of clothing had been theirs.
A little meeting of my assistants early held assigned each to his duty and his place. A warehouse, fortunately still intact, was generously supplied by Mr. John Sealy. Major James A. McDowell, with the experience of this branch of Red Cross work from Johnstown down, and the record of twenty-six battles in the old civil war, was placed in charge. Here is one of the scenes given by a casual eye-witness:
A poor feeble-looking man, with scant clothing, enters the warehouse and waits. "Hello there," calls the observant major—with his Grand Army button—overhauling clothes for the visitor. "But, major, I was a Confederate soldier." "Lord bless your poor suffering soul, what difference does that make? Here, this will suit you."
It was thought advisable by some of the party to establish an orphanage, which was done and carried through, regardless of the common-sense idea that few children would survive, when the parents were drowned. And so it proved, although the work was faithfully administered.
Homes must be made, lumber obtained, and houses built. The Red Cross sent out the appeal for lumber and aided in the work of shelter.
Mrs. Fannie B. Ward was placed in charge of a special clothing department. Need I remind thoughtful readers that in a disaster like that, where people of affluence, culture, and position are in a night bereft of all, one of the cruelest features might be to go to the open boxes of a relief station for clothing, such as never before worn, and could not be asked for through the choking tears. In all humanity these cases must be properly, respectfully, and discreetly met, as one lady could meet another in distress.
No more vivid picture of the conditions by which we were surrounded can be imagined than the following extract from Mrs. Ward's report:
"Just seven days after the storm we found ourselves stranded at Texas City, on the mainland opposite Galveston Island, waiting for transportation across the six-mile stretch of water. Bridges had been swept away, and new sand-bars thrown up in the bay; floating roofs and timbers impeded navigation, and the only method of communication between the mainland and Galveston was one poor little ferry-boat, which had to feel her now dangerous way very cautiously, by daylight only. She had also to carry nearly a quarter of her capacity in soldiers to prevent her being swamped by waiting crowds of people, frantic to learn the fate of their friends on the island. Each trip to the mainland, the boat came filled with refugees from the city of doom—the sick, the maimed, the sorrowing—many with fearful bodily injuries inflicted by the storm, and others with deeper wounds of grief;—mothers whose babies had been torn from their arms, children whose parents were missing, fathers whose entire families were lost—a dazed and tearless throng, such as Danté might have met in his passage through Inferno. These were dumped by thousands on the sandy beach at Texas City, and then conveyed by rail to Houston, to be cared for by the good people of that city, who, notwithstanding their own grievous losses, were doing noble work for their stricken neighbors.
"Of Texas City—a flourishing town of four or five thousand houses—nothing remained but heaps of bricks and splintered wood, sodden bales of cotton and bits of household furniture, scattered over the plain; not a standing habitation within miles, nor any shelter for the crowds above-mentioned, except two or three hospital-tents, hastily set up for the sick and wounded, but inadequate for their accommodation. What was our dismay when told that here we must remain at least twenty-four hours, for the return of the boat! However, we were better off, even physically, than most of the waiting crowd, though weariness of the flesh amounted to actual suffering, after more than fifty hours' travel. As a special courtesy to Miss Barton, the railway company left a car to shelter her during the night. Luxurious Pullmans did not abound at Texas City, and this was the shabbiest of day-coaches, equipped with few 'modern conveniences.' But this was no time to think of personal comfort, on the threshold of so much misery; and who could murmur when the head of our little company set such an heroic example of patience. I have seen her in many trying situations, that threatened the fortitude and endurance of the strongest—and have yet to hear the first word of complaint from her lips. She smilingly 'bunked' upon two seats laid together—compared to which, for softness, the penitente's slab of stone would be as 'downy beds of ease'—and encouraged her companions to do the same. Hunger and thirst would also have been our portion, had it not been for a Salvation Army Corps encamped in the vicinity, and the Relief Train of the Philadelphia North American, stranded like ourselves. Thanks to those good Samaritans, we dined and breakfasted on tinned beef, bread and coffee; and what more could good soldiers require?
"That night in Texas City will be long remembered. Sleep was out of the question—stretched on those cross-bars, like St. Lawrence on his gridiron. Soldiers patrolled the beach, not only to prevent a stampede of the boat, but to protect both the quick and the dead from fiends in human guise, who prowled the devastated region, committing atrocities too horrible to name. All night the steady tramp, tramp, of the guard sounded beneath the car-windows, while at either door stood two sentinels, muskets on shoulders. Skies of inky blackness, studded with stars of extraordinary brilliancy, seemed to bend much nearer the earth than at the North; and the Great Dipper hung low on the horizon—for only just across the Gulf it disappears to give place to the Southern Cross. Myriads of big, bright fire-flies, resembling balls of flame, flitted restlessly over the plain, like the disembodied souls whose homes were here one short week before, searching for their scattered treasures. Over on Galveston Island, a long line of flame, mounting to the heavens, marked the burning of ruined homes and corpses; while other fires, in all directions on the mainland, told of similar ghastly cremations. At one time I counted twenty-three of these fires, not including those on the island. Early in the morning a strange odor drew attention to a fresh funeral-pyre, only a few rods away, around the horse-shoe curve of the shore. We were told that thirty bodies, found since daybreak in the immediate vicinity, were being consumed in it. That peculiar smell of burning flesh, so sickening at first, became horribly familiar within the next two months, when we lived in it and breathed it, day after day.
"We found the situation in Galveston infinitely worse than had been described. The most sensational accounts of the yellowest journals fell far short of the truth—simply because its full horror was beyond the power of words to portray. Figures and statistics can give little idea of the results of such an appalling calamity; and to this day, people at a distance have no realization of the unutterable woe which our Red Cross band of less than a dozen, strove to alleviate. We arrived on the eighth day after the tragedy, in which upward of ten thousand lives went suddenly out in storm and darkness; and the survivors were just beginning to realize the extent of their losses.
"At first they seemed stunned to partial insensibility by the very magnitude of their grief—as a man who has been mangled almost unto death in a railroad disaster is said to be oblivious to pain. Dead citizens lay by thousands amid the wreck of their homes, and raving maniacs searched the débris for their loved ones, with the organized gangs of workers. Corpses, dumped by barge-loads into the Gulf, came floating back to menace the living; and the nights were lurid with incinerations of putrefying bodies, piled like cord-wood, black and white together, irrespective of age, sex, or previous condition. At least four thousand dwellings had been swept away, with all their contents, and fully half of the population of the city was without shelter, food, clothes, or any of the necessaries of life. Of these, some were living in tents; others crowded in with friends hardly less unfortunate; many half-crazed, wandering aimlessly about the streets, and the story of their sufferings, mental and physical, is past the telling. Every house that remained was a house of mourning. Of many families every member had been swept away. Even sadder were the numerous cases where one or two were left out of recently happy households; and saddest of all was the heart-breaking suspense of those whose friends were numbered among the 'missing.'
"We find it hard enough to lay away our dead in consecrated ground, with all the care and tenderness that love can suggest, where we may water the sacred spot with our tears and place upon it the flowers they loved in life; but never to know whether their poor bodies were swallowed by the merciless Gulf, or fed to the fishes with those grewsome barge-loads, or left above ground to become an abomination in the nostrils of the living, or burned in indiscriminate heaps with horses and dogs and the mingled ashes scattered to the winds—must indeed have been well-nigh unbearable. No wonder there were lunatics in Galveston, and unnumbered cases of nervous prostration.
"After weeks had passed and two thousand men, aided by several hundred teams, had partially reduced the mountain of wreckage, cremation fires yet burned continuously—fed not only by human bodies, but by thousands of carcasses of domestic animals. By that time, in the hot, moist atmosphere of the latitude, decomposition had so far advanced that the corpses—which at first were decently carried in carts or on stretchers, then shoveled upon boards or blankets—had finally to be scooped up with pitchforks, in the hands of negroes, kept at their awful task by the soldiers' bayonets. And still the 'finds' continued, at the average rate of seventy a day. The once beautiful driving beach was strewn with mounds and trenches, holding unrecognized and uncoffined victims of the flood; and between this improvised cemetery and a ridge of débris, three miles long and in places higher than the houses had been, a line of cremation fires poisoned the air.
"I think it was during our sixth week in Galveston, when, happening to pass one of these primitive crematories, I stopped to interview the man in charge. Boards, water-soaked mattresses, rags of blankets and curtains, part of a piano, baby-carriages, and the framework of sewing-machines, piled on top, gave it the appearance of a festive bonfire, and only the familiar odor betrayed its purpose.
"'Have you burned any bodies here?' I inquired. The custodian regarded me with a stare that plainly said, 'Do you think I am doing this for amusement?' and shifted his quid from cheek to cheek before replying.
"'Ma'am,' said he, 'this 'ere fire's been goin' on more'n a month. To my knowledge, upwards of sixty bodies have been burned in it—to say nothin' of dogs, cats, hens, and three cows.'
"'What is in there now?' I asked.
"'Wa'al,' said he meditatively, 'it takes a corpse several days to burn all up. I reckon thar's a couple of dozen of 'em—jest bones, you know—down near the bottom. Yesterday we put seven on top of this 'ere pile, and by now they are only what you might call baked. To-day we have been working over there (pointing to other fires a quarter of a mile distant), where we found a lot of 'em, 'leven under one house. We have put only two in here to-day. Found 'em just now, right in that puddle.'
"'Could you tell me who they are?' I asked.
"'Lord! No,' was the answer. 'We don't look at 'em any more'n we have to, else we'd been dead ourselves before to-day. One of these was a colored man. They are all pretty black, now; but you can tell 'em by the kinky hair. He had nothin' but an undershirt and one shoe. The other was a woman; young, I reckon. 'Tenny rate she was tall and slim and had lots of long brown hair. She wore a blue silk skirt and there was a rope tied around her waist, as if somebody had tried to save her.'
"Taking a long pole he prodded an air-hole near the center of the smoldering heap, from which now issued a frightful smell, that caused a hasty retreat to the windward side. The withdrawal of the pole was followed by a shower of charred bits of bone and singed hair. I picked up a curling, yellow lock and wondered, with tears, what mother's hand had lately caressed it.
"'That's nothin',' remarked the fireman. 'The other day we found part of a brass chandelier, and wound all around it was a perfect mop of long, silky hair—with a piece of skin, big as your two hands, at the end of it. Some woman got tangled up that way in the flood and jest na'cherly scalped.'
"I mention these incidents merely to show some of the conditions that had to be met. The most we could do for the grief-stricken survivors was to mitigate in some degree their bodily distress. The world knows how generously the whole country responded to the call—how contributions came pouring in by trainloads and shiploads, consigned to the Red Cross. To distribute all this bounty judiciously was a herculean task—and our working force was very small. The ladies and gentlemen of Galveston who had suffered less than their neighbors, formed themselves into committees, which opened relief stations in the several wards; and through these channels the bulk of supplies was issued. If mistakes were made, it was not from lack of faithful endeavor on the part of the distributers; and let us hope that the errors, if any, were all on the side of too liberal giving.
"Merely to sort over one carload of garments, so as to make them immediately available—to put the infants' clothes in one department, the shoes in another, grown-up dresses in another, coats and trousers in another, underwear in another—was a work of time and strength; as the writer, who for a while was 'Mistress of the Robes,' can testify. From 7 A. M. till dark we toiled; and when at last we dragged ourselves back to the hotel, too wearied for anything but bed, 'tired Nature's sweet restorer' was hard to woo, because of aching feet and swollen muscles. But the experience was well worth it! Besides the joy of administering to the suffering, what we learned of human nature (mostly good, I am glad to say) would fill volumes. To be sure, there were shadows, as well as lights, in the picture. Greed and hypocrisy, jealousy, malice, and the reverse of Christian charity, came sometimes unpleasantly to the fore, to be offset by the magnificent generosity of the American nation, and the knowledge that in most quarters our efforts were appreciated. Most of us were unused to manual labor, and all had left comfortable homes—some at considerable financial sacrifice of well-salaried positions, not for earthly gain or self-aggrandizement, but from pure love of the splendid cause of the Cross of Geneva.
"In that Rag Fair department of old clothes, the ludicrous and pathetic called for an equal blending of smiles and tears. It seemed as if every household, from Maine to California, from the St. Lawrence to the Rio Grande, had rummaged its attics for the flood sufferers. Merchants delivered themselves of years' accumulations of shop-worn goods—streaked, faded, of fashions long gone by—but a great deal better than nothing for the destitute. There were at least a million shirtwaists, all thin and summery, though cold winter was at hand, when frequent 'northers' chill the very marrow in one's bones, and ice and snow are not unknown on Galveston Island. There was another million of 'Mother Hubbard' wrappers, all of the sleaziest print and scrimpest pattern, with inch-wide hems at bottom and no fastening to speak of—wrappers enough to disfigure every female in Southern Texas. Fancy a whole city full of women masquerading in those shapeless garments—the poorest of their class; and then remember that, a few years ago, the great and glorious State of Pennsylvania found it necessary to pass a law—presumably for the peace of mind of her male citizens—forbidding the wearing of 'Mother Hubbards' in the street!
"One day there came to our warehouse a large case of beautiful, buttoned shoes, of the kind called 'Sorosis.' 'What a bonanza!' we thought, when that box was opened—and through our minds went trooping a procession of the shoeless feet we had longed to comfort. But behold! every blessed shoe of the one hundred and forty-four was for the left foot!
"There was an enormous box from a city laundry, containing the unclaimed 'washings' of many years—hundreds of waiters' aprons and cooks' caps, worn hotel towels and napkins, ragged shirts and collars—not a thing worth the lumber in the box, except as old linen for the hospitals. There was a great deal of bedraggled finery, than which nothing could have been less appropriate, when nine out of every ten women who applied for clothes, wanted plain black in which to mourn for their dead. And the hats and bonnets were of every shape and style within the memory of man! They were mostly so crushed in careless packing that to have worshiped them would have been no sin, according to Scripture, as they were no longer in the 'likeness of anything in the heavens above, or the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth.' There were workmen's blouses and overalls, evidently shed in haste, under a sudden impulse of generosity—plastered with grease, paint, and mortar, and odoriferous of that by which honest bread is said to be earned.
"Occasionally a box or barrel was found to contain garments disgracefully dirty and ragged, or dropping in pieces from the ravages of moths. Possibly the sending of such worthless trash produced in the hearts of the donors that comfortable feeling of lending to the Lord—but it was no use at our end of the line. What to do with it was a problem. The lowest plantation darky would regard the gift as an insult, and to burn even the filthiest rags would give rise to stories of wanton waste. So we hit upon an expedient which had been successfully employed in other fields—that of putting worthless articles in nice, clean barrels, rolling them out on the doorstep, and forgetting to bring them in at night; and every morning the barrels were found empty.
"In striking contrast to these few 'shadows' were such gifts as that of the New England girl, who sent a large, carefully packed satchel, accompanied by a letter, explaining that she was seventeen years of age, and had taken from her own wardrobe an outfit, intended for a flood-sufferer of about her own age, whom the clothes would fit. The satchel contained three good suits complete, from hat to hose—all that a girl would need—even veil, handkerchiefs and fan; and it is needless to add that they soon found their way to a most grateful young 'sufferer.' Here a poor widow divided her well-worn 'mourning' with some stranger sister-in-grief; there the bereaved mother brought out the treasured garments her little one had worn, for some happier mother who had lost only earthly possessions.
"Letters by hundreds were found in the packages, pertinent and impertinent, but all demanding answers. They were stuffed into old shoes and the linings of hats, cracked tea-pots and boxes of soap, combs and matches. Every small boys' knickerbockers contained a note—generally of original spelling and laboriously written in large capitals, from 'Tommy' or 'Johnnie' or 'Charley,' asking a reply, telling all about the storm, from the boy who should receive the gift. Sentimental epistles from ladies were hidden in the pockets of coats and trousers, inviting correspondence with the future wearers; and billet-doux from disconsolate widowers, presumably beginning to 'take notice,' were pinned to the raiment of deceased wives. Such manifold phases have our poor human nature! Happily there was another and far more numerous class of letters, from charitable men and women, offering to adopt children, or to assist in any way in their power; from Sunday-school classes and sewing societies and day-schools, enclosing small sums of money, or telling of gifts to come. There was even a letter from an almshouse, enclosing a check for eighty dollars, raised by thirty aged pensioners, who gave up their only luxuries—coffee, sugar, and tobacco—to swell the fund for Galveston's relief. Another came from the poor, forgotten negroes of the Carolina sea islands, to whose assistance the Red Cross went, after their disastrous floods a few years ago. Impelled by gratitude for the benefits then received, those simple-minded people contributed a surprising amount, considering their poverty. Truly, in heaven's reckoning those unselfish 'mites' of the poor and lowly will count for as much as the millions given by the great cities.
"Notwithstanding the vast amount of old clothes that came to us, we were always particularly short of the most important articles of an outfit, such as underwear, respectable skirts and dresses, and shoes—except of extraordinary sizes, sent because unsalable. It frequently happened that, for days together, there was hardly a thing in stock fit for people of the better class. It must be remembered that we were not supplying tramps and beggars, nor the ordinary applicants for charity, but ladies and gentlemen, accustomed to the luxuries of life, whose possessions had been suddenly swept away. How could we offer those dreadful wrappers, or bedraggled finery, or soiled and ragged garments which our servants would despise, to ladies of taste, culture, and refinement, whom we had come to assist in their misfortune, not to insult? Therefore, in many cases, the only decent thing to do was to go out and buy what was needed, with some of those blessed contributions which bore the message, 'to be used at your own discretion.' That was Christian charity, pure and simple, in its most practical form. For example: A widow, of highest social standing and former wealth, lived with her three daughters in one of those ill-fated cottages near the beach, which was swept away with all its contents. Thus the four helpless women were left entirely destitute, even the clothes on their backs borrowed from neighbors a little less unfortunate. Friends in a Northern city wrote, offering them a home. Transportation could be easily provided, but the four must be fitted out for the journey. We searched the Rag Fair over, but found few suitable articles. Perhaps something better might come in by and by, next week, some other time; but for every hoped-for article were a hundred waiting applicants—and meanwhile those ladies must be supported until sent to their friends. To say nothing of their own feelings, and ours, we could not disgrace the Red Cross by sending that stately gray-haired mother and the three delicate young ladies out into the world equipped by our alleged bounty in scanty calico 'Mother Hubbards,' men's cow-hide brogans, and scare-crow headgear. So we picked out what would answer—here and there a garment which might be altered, the only pair of shoes in the place that came near to fitting one of the ladies, a bolt of unbleached muslin which they, themselves, could fashion into underclothes, and four disreputable old hats. The latter we gave to a local milliner to remodel and trim, simply but respectably. Then we went to the store and purchased shoes and other necessary articles, including enough inexpensive but serviceable cloth for four gowns and jackets, and employed a woman to make them.
"This was not extravagance, but good use of the money, all around:—for the poor little milliner whose shop had been destroyed and business ruined, whose children were then eating the bread of charity; and for the customless dressmaker, who was also a grievous sufferer by the flood, with younger sisters to support. We gave her the first work she had had for weeks, and her gratitude was good to see.
"As for merchants, who were all on the verge of failure, but making heroic efforts to keep afloat—Heaven knows we did them injury enough every day of our stay in Galveston, to be thankful for the privilege of occasionally becoming their patrons. Not only had they suffered immense losses by the storm, their stocks being practically ruined and customers gone—but who would buy, so long as the Red Cross had food and clothes to give away, without money and without price? Though ours is a noble and necessary work, it is never to the advantage of the local merchants, as a little reflection will show.
"Another case was that of a young woman, who, with an aged relative, was keeping a hotel in a near-by village, when the floods lifted their house from its foundations and ruined everything in it. Its four walls stood, however, and furnished shelter for all the houseless neighbors, who flocked in, naked and hungry, and with whom the generous girl divided her last garment and bit of food. Death also entered the family, twice within a few weeks—the last time leaving a sister's four half-grown children for this young woman to maintain.Take them she must, because they had nowhere else to go. Finding her in terrible straits, without even clothes to wear to her sister's funeral, were we not justified in buying the heroic young woman a decent suit of black, besides sending her a box of food supplies? Why were we there, if not to exercise judgment in the matter of relief? If merely to distribute second-hand articles, without discrimination, we might have saved ourselves much peril and hardship by remaining at home, and sending the boxes down to take care of themselves.
"None of us will ever forget the grandniece of an ex-President of the United States—a handsome and imposing woman of middle age, traveled, educated, and evidently accustomed to the best society. She called one day at headquarters, and although she did not ask for aid, the truth came out in a heart-to-heart talk with Miss Barton that she had lost all in the storm and had not where to lay her head, nor food for the morrow; even the clothes she wore were not her own. Nobody living could put this lady on the pauper list, and none with a spark of human feeling could wish to wound her pride. Our honored President, who reads hearts as others do open books, clasped this unfortunate sister's hand—and left in it a bank-note—I do not know of what denomination, but let us hope it was not a small one. The look of surprise and gratitude that flashed over that woman's face was worth going far to see, as, speechless with emotion, the tears streaming down her cheeks, she turned away.
"One might go on multiplying incidents by the hour, did time permit. There were teachers to be fitted out with suitable clothes before the opening of the schools; boys and girls needing school-books and shoes, caps, and jackets; new-born babes to be provided, whose wardrobes, prepared in advance, had been swept away; mothers of families, destitute of the commonest conveniences of life, to whom the gift of a pan or kettle was a godsend; aged people, whose declining years must be comforted; invalids to be cheered with little luxuries. My greatest regret is that we had not hundreds of dollars to use for every one that was expended in these directions."
My stenographer, Miss Agnes Coombs, found her post by me, and sixty to eighty letters a day, taken from dictation, made up the clerical round of the office of the president. This duty fell in between attending the daily meetings of the relief committee and receiving constant calls both in and out of the city.
Our men made up their living-room at the warehouse. The few women remained at the hotel, the only suitable place in the town.
Later on arrived a shipload of supplies from the business people of New York, which were stored with the Galveston committee, and we were asked to aid in the distribution of these supplies, and to a certain extent we did, but succeeded in organizing a committee of citizens, ladies and gentlemen, to carry out and complete this distribution.
From lack of knowledge of the real conditions of the disaster and its geographical extent, this munificent donation had been assigned to the "Relief of Galveston," and thus, technically, Galveston had no authority to administer a pound or a dollar to any communities or persons outside of the precincts of the city proper. This left at least twenty counties on the mainland on the other side of the Gulf, some of which were as badly wrecked and ruined as Galveston itself, without a possibility of the slightest benefit from this great, generous gift.
Seeing this pitiful and innocently unjust condition of affairs, the result of ignorance of relief work, undertaken with much zeal but scant knowledge and no experience, we sought a way to atone for the mistake, so far as we might be able.
Immediately closing our relief rooms in Galveston I had all Red Cross supplies shipped to Houston, and relief for the mainland opened there. These were farming districts, and I directed intelligent inquiry to be made as to what was most needed by the devastated farm lands and their owners. All was swept away—sometimes as far as forty miles back into the level country; often the soil itself was washed away, the home and all smaller animals destroyed, and no feed for the larger ones to subsist on. The poor farmers walked their desolated fields and wrung their hands.
It proved that this was the strawberry section of Southern Texas, and these were the strawberry growers that supplied the early berries to our Northern market. For miles not a plant was left and no means to replant. This was reported to me on the first day's investigation, and also that if plants could be obtained and set within two weeks a half crop could be grown this year and the industry restored. That seemed a better occupation for these poor fellows than walking the ground and wringing their hands. The messenger was sent back at daybreak to ascertain how many plants would be needed to replant these lands, where they were accustomed to procure them, and what varieties were best adapted to their use.
That night brought again the messenger to say that a million and a half of plants would reset the lands and that their supply came from the nurseries in North Carolina, Illinois, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Directions were sent back to Mr. Ward to order the plants to be there in two weeks. This was done. Only thirty-eight thousand plants were injured in transit, and those were generously resupplied by the shippers. Within the two weeks this million and a half of strawberry plants were set. It was estimated that fully a third of a crop was realized that year, and it is safe to predict that one-half the readers of this little sketch will partake of the fruits of these Red Cross relief strawberry fields this very springtime.
Other needs to a large amount were supplied by Mr. Ward, and we left no idle, wringing hands on the mainlands of Texas.
I had never left Galveston. Some other thoughtful reader may pitifully ask, what became of these miles of wreckage and the dead on the Galveston seashore?
At this distant day it may be safe to tell. I recall that at the time much criticism was indulged in.
All were burned.
The heat grew greater and the stench stronger every day. They tried to remove the débris and get the bodies out for burial. No human being could work in that putrefying mass. Previously had come the glorious thought of getting them into boats and shipping them a mile out to sea. With hopeful hearts this experiment was tried for one day. Alas! the night tide brought them all back to shore. The elements of earth and water had refused—what remained but fire? Openings in the long continuous lines were cut through at given spaces, the fire engines set to play on the open, and the torch applied to the end of sections; thus a general conflagration of the city was prevented, and from day to day the pile diminished.
The stench of burning flesh permeated every foot of the city. Who could long withstand this? Before the end of three months there was scarcely a well person in Galveston. My helpers grew pale and ill, and even I, who have resisted the effect of so many climates, needed the help of a steadying hand as I walked to the waiting Pullman on the track, courteously tendered free of charge to take us away.
This is a tedious story; but if gone through, one has a little insight into the labor of a Red Cross field of relief. There are twenty in my recollection, and this was by no means the hardest or the most useful. They have been lived, but never told.
I beg my readers to bear in mind that this is not romance that I am writing, where I can place my characters in the best light and shape results at will, but history, with my personages still alive, ready to attest the reality of this statement. That grand committee of Galveston relief—than whom no nobler body of men I have ever met—are, I hope, all yet alive to testify to the conditions and statements made.
I have dedicated this little volume to the people with whom, and for whom, have gone the willing labors of twenty-five years—initial labors, untried methods, and object lessons. Well or ill, they have carried with them the best intentions and the best judgment given for the purpose. Whatever may betide or the future have in store for the little work so simply commenced, so humbly carried on, merely a helper with no thought of leadership, it bears along with it the memories of pain assuaged, hope revived, endeavor strengthened, and lives saved.
To the noble sympathies of generous hearts these results are due, and yet it is not in its past that the glories or the benefits of the Red Cross lie, but in the possibilities it has created for the future; in the lessons it has taught; in the avenues to humane effort it has opened, and in the union of beneficent action between people and Government, when once comprehended and effected, that shall constitute a bulwark against the mighty woes sure to come sooner or later to all peoples and all nations.
To you—the people of America—this sacred trust is committed, in your hands the charge is laid. To none will your help ever be so precious as it has been to me, for in its proud growth and strength none will ever so need you.