Friday, August 28, 2015

"The Terrible Gulf Storm": Sabine Pass, Texas and the Great Flood of 1886

Susan Hughes, Director

This past Sunday, the Syracuse, NY Post-Standard had a small paragraph noting that NBC Today Show weatherman (and SUNY Oswego alum) Al Roker was releasing a new book, “The Storm of the Century,” on August 25. The book details the horrific events surrounding the Great Hurricane of 1900 that hit Galveston, Texas.

August 27, 2015 was the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina which caused so much devastation to the Gulf Coast. Just a month after Katrina - on September 24, 2005 - Hurricane Rita came ashore.  The surge from that storm destroyed more than 90% of the structures in Sabine Pass, Texas. Sabine Pass is small community, part of the city of Port Arthur, lying on the channel that separates Texas and Louisiana and provides access to Sabine Lake.

In 1886 Sabine Pass, Texas was also the home of the Pomeroy family – mother Eliza, 51; sons George J., 24, Reuben W., 18, Brick Fred (who went by Fred), 15 and Charles D., 13; and daughters, Lovey, 11 and Lizzie J., 8. Eldest son George J. had married Laura Jones three years earlier and they may have had a young child. Two other daughters, Mary Louise, 29, and Oneida “Ida”, 21, were married and living elsewhere in Texas. It appears this large family had lost their patriarch, George Pomeroy, sometime between June 1880 and October 1886. The last mention we find of him is in the 1880 U.S. Census where he is listed as a 55 year-old river pilot.

George Pomeroy was born in Vernon, Oneida County (did that inspire his daughter’s name?), NY about 1822 (1). He enlisted in the U.S. Army in June of 1844, but records show he deserted less than 3 months later (2). By 1850, George was in Rio Grande, Texas and listed his occupation as mariner. He married Eliza (Elizabeth Ogden) about 1856 (3) and by 1860 was living in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Civil War did not pass George by as he served with the Texas Volunteers, Confederate States Army, from 1863 to 1864. After the war, the family settled in Sabine Pass where George made a living as a boatman and river pilot (4) and was appointed Justice of the Peace for Precinct 3, Jefferson County. (5)

In October 1886, Sabine Pass was the second largest town in Jefferson County, boasting a new rail line and an optimistic outlook on continued growth as a major coastal port. On the afternoon of October 12, just two months after a hurricane had destroyed the Texas port of Indianola, a fierce storm ravaged the town of Sabine Pass. The hurricane's strength lay in its 100 mile-per-hour winds and the swiftly rising water that swept homes off their foundations and carried people and animals as far as 25 miles away. Eighty-six people, including entire families, were killed, and only two of 77 houses remained intact after the waters subsided. Stories of survival are documented as well, signifying the determination of residents to endure the storm. (6) One of those survival stories found the Pomeroy family prominently featured.

By October 14, headlines across the country screamed the news that Sabine Pass had been destroyed. The New York Times stated, “Last night during the overflow a hotel containing 15 or 20 persons was swept out in the bay and the occupants were drowned.” On October 15, survivors were being located and their harrowing storied appeared in the newspaper. An article in that day’s edition of the New York Times tells of two survivors who reported that the water began to rise from the Gulf and the lake about 2 p.m. and rose rapidly. “The citizens of the doomed place did not realize the imminent danger until it was too late to escape.” (7) This is the first we see of the loss of members of the Pomeroy family: “Mrs. Pomeroy and family of three.” That number would grow.

The October 16 edition of the New York Times listed, “Mrs. Pomery [sic] and three children.” Below that, “Mrs. G. Pomery [sic] and child.” Was this Laura, wife of George J. Pomeroy, and their young child?

From the October 15 Boston Evening Transcript, details began to emerge.
The water kept rising, and between three and four o'clock the smaller houses began to yield to the resistless force of the waves, which not only moved them from their foundations, but turned them over on their sides and tops. A little later the larger houses began to give way, and death by drowning seemed in store for every person in the place. Great fatality accompanied the giving way of the buildings.
Two brothers named Pomeroy were picked up by a schooner in Sabine Lake. They had been in the water thirty-six hours clinging to their capzied [sic] yawl. Their mother and sister and Mrs. Captain Junker, her son and [a] little girl of the party were lost. The Pomeroys report that fifty lives were lost at the Porter House, where the people had collected as the best place of safety. It went to pieces at nine o'clock. Many persons are missing.
The Galveston Daily News shared the heart-breaking story told by the surviving Pomeroy brothers, Reuben and Fred, on October 16 in a story titled, “Scenes of Great Suffering”:
This in brief is the story. The storm made its appearance Tuesday about noon... There were about forty-five women and children at the Porter-house tavern and some fifteen or twenty men...A yawl was hitched to the house, the water having risen about four feet, when the end of the house was blown off and the remaining part of the structure began to shake; the yawl was manned to its fullest capacity, and an effort was made to reach the high ridge back of the town. On the yawl were... Mrs. E. Pomeroy and two daughters...Mrs. Laura Pomeroy and child, Fred Rube, Geo. and Charley Pomeroy... Of these only Fred and Rube Pomeroy are now alive. Let Rube Pomeroy, a boy about 18, tell the story of the yawl Tivas: "About half past 9, when we went on board, the yawl was loaded down to the water's edge, and I and my brother Fred jumped on a plank that was floating near, in order to light it off. I caught hold of the stern of the yawl, and held to it. The sea was terrible rough, and several times we were almost cast off the plank, but I held on to the yawl for dear life. The wind seemed to be blowing in every direction. The yawl was danced around without any effort being made to direct it. Homer King became much excited. He prayed aloud and frequently jumped up and caught his wife in his arms. This excited the other women on board, and they all began to jump up and cling to each other. During one of these spasms a wave struck the yawl and nearly half filled it. All of them rushed to one side and the boat capsized and some of them were never seen again. Carlisle Junger got hold of the bottom of the upturned boat with one hand and held his mother with the other. I grasped my mother and held on for some time, but in a few minutes she died in my arms. My two brothers, George and Charlie, were clinging to the yawl, too. The plank on which I and my brother Fred were drifted away from the yawl, but in about two hours we run on to it. We (Fred and I) in the meantime had got ahold of one of the life-saving boats. It was drifting around. We crawled in, but there was nothing to guide it. Carlisle Junker and my two brothers were still clinging to the upturned yawl. We tried to reach them but could not. They told me they could not hold on much longer, as their fingers were nearly worn off. Carlisle Junker told me that his mother died in his arms. The yawl drifted away toward the lake and was found by W. B. Crawford, of Beaumont, and a search party about two miles inland yesterday morning. Of course they were all drowned. They fought for their lives, but could not win. The boat I was on drifted around and finally reached shallow water beyond the railroad between the two Neches and Sabine Rivers, and finally was picked up by the schooner Andrew Boden.
Rescue efforts began immediately. Boats loaded with supplies and rescue teams headed out from Beaumont, Orange, Galveston and Houston. Special legislative action provided tax relief for the storm-ravaged area, exempting citizens from payment of state and county taxes for 1886. (8)

Reuben and Fred Pomeroy went to live with their sister Ida and her husband W. W. Woolford at their home in Galveston. Reuben was employed at the US Government Jetty at Fort Point until his death on January 15, 1897 at the age of 29 at his sister’s home. Fred married and worked as a longshoreman in Galveston, eventually becoming a ship’s pilot and Captain of the US Dredge Sabine. He and wife Cora had four children. Fred passed away at age 62 and is buried in Galveston. Ida Pomeroy Woolford was the last surviving member of the siblings when she passed away in June 1944. Oldest sibling Mary Louise Pomeroy Ingalls, who had lived with her husband James and four children in Jefferson, northeast Texas, had died in 1910.

More information on the Sabine Pass Great Flood of 1886:
Daily Alta California, October 15, 1886. California Digital Newspaper Collection

Weather Research Center, Huston, TX: Texas Tropical Storms & Hurricanes

Texas Hurricane History, National Weather Service, Camp Springs, MD; David Roth

The 1886 Hurricane and the Sabine Pass Lighthouse, Judith W. Linsley. Center for Regional Heritage Research, Stephen F. Austin State University

The Great Storm of 1886: A Day of Agony and Death at Sabine Pass, Texas, W.T. Block. Reprinted from the Beaumont Enterprise, January 9, 1977

  1. A.A. Pomeroy gives a date of death as 1898 in Galveston, TX, stating that the "entire family perished in the Galveston Calamity of 1898".  However, evidence suggests this not to be the case. The 1820 U.S. Census shows Joel Pomeroy (1764-aft 1840) living in Vernon, Oneida County, NY; the George Pomeroy who resided in Sabine Pass, TX reported having been born in Vernon, NY when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in Albany on June 23, 1844; therefore, we believe the Pomeroy family who lost their lives on October 12, 1886 were the widow and children George Pomeroy, son of Joel Pomeroy.
  2. US Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914
  3. Death Certificate for Oneida (Pomeroy) Woolford lists her mother’s name as Elizabeth Ogden. Texas, Deaths, 1890-1976.
  4. 1860, 1870, 1880 U.S. Census
  5. The Galveston Daily News, Galveston, Galveston County, Texas, 22 August 1877
  6. 1886 Hurricane at Sabine Pass historical marker
  8. New York Times, 15 October 1886, “The Terrible Gulf Storm.”
  9. We believe George Pomeroy died prior to the 1886 storm as Eliza Pomeroy is listed as the person who would have been responsible for paying state and county taxes in 1886. See The State of Texas, General Laws of the State of Texas Passed at the Regular Session of the Twentieth Legislature convened at the City of Austin, January 11, 1887, and Adjourned April 4, 1887. Chap. 23.--[H.B. No. 383.] “An Act to release certain inhabitants of Sabine Pass City, county of Jefferson, from the payment of taxes assessed and now due for the year A. D. 1886, in consequence of a great public calamity. Section 1...they are hereby released from the payment of the several sums named, the same being the amount of State and county taxes assessed against them and now due for the year A. D. 1886, to-wit:...Mrs. E. Pomeroy $1 40”

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