Saengerfest and the Salamander Club of Galveston

 Saengerfest and the Salamander Club of Galveston
Group photograph of Salamander Club members taken by Justus Zahn, ca. 1880s [gift of John Reymershoffer].

During the month of April, Rosenberg Library exhibited several historical items related to Galveston’s 1881 Saengerfest celebration and to the German singing society known as the Salamander Club.

When large numbers of German immigrants began settling in Texas during the 1840s, they brought with them traditions from their homeland. One such tradition was gathering together to sing, and in1845 a formal singing society—known as a “saengerbund”—was established in New Braunfels; by 1850, saengerbunds existed in Austin and San Antonio as well. These saengerbunds convened in New Braunfels in 1853 for Texas’s first Saengerfest, a German singers’ festival in which choruses from across the state came together to compete for prizes in a variety of categories. In subsequent years, the event was held in San Antonio, Austin, and Fredericksburg.

As in other Texas cities, Galveston residents of German heritage regularly assembled to sing traditional songs and socialize with one another. By the 1870s, one such group—the Salamander Club—began performing publicly at the Galveston Opera House. The Salamander Club held weekly practices at Casino Hall, an entertainment venue located on Winnie (Avenue G) between 21st and 22nd streets. Local businessman Henry H. Wilkens directed both the all-male Salamander Club and its counterpart, the Mendelssohn Society, a German chorus which included both men and women.

During the Civil War and Reconstruction years, the state’s Saengerfest events were put on hold. However, Galveston was chosen as the site for the 13th Texas Saengerfest in April of 1881. The event was expected to draw thousands of visitors to the island, and a new pavilion at 21st Street and the beachfront was built specifically for the Saengerfest.

The Saengerfest Pavilion was the first public building in the city of Galveston to be lit entirely by electricity—a cutting-edge innovation at the time. Architect Nicholas J. Clayton designed the attractive frame building which was owned and paid for by the Galveston Railroad Company. After the inaugural Saengerfest, the building was renamed the Electric Pavilion, and it continued to operate as a venue for entertainment, musical performances, and even political conventions.

 Saengerfest and the Salamander Club of Galveston
Photograph of Electric Pavilion, ca. 1881 [Galveston and Texas History Center collection]

Sadly, Electric Pavilion stood for just two years before burning to the ground after a fire in August 1883.

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