Houston: The Second Choice

Houston reigns as the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest in the United States, but it hasn’t always enjoyed top billing.

In 1832 brothers Augustus C. and John K. Allen came to Texas from New York and joined a group of land speculators.  During the 1836 Texas War for Independence from Mexico, the Allen brothers outfitted, at their own expense, a ship to guard the Texas coast and to deliver troops and supplies for the Texas army.  Their operation along the coast offered an opportunity to look for a good site for a protected deep-water port.

Some stories claim that after Texas won independence from Mexico in April 1836, the brothers tried to buy land at Texana, a thriving inland port at the headwaters of the Navidad River located between present Houston and Corpus Christi.  Despite a generous offer, the landowner countered with a demand for double the price.  One of the brothers reportedly became so angry that he climbed on a nearby stump and declared, “Never will this town amount to anything.  I curse it.  You people within the sound of my voice will live to see rabbits and other animals inhabiting its streets.”  (Today, Texana rests under an 11,000-acre lake, a recreational reservoir on the Navidad River that is part of Lake Texana State Park.)

Lake Texana State Park

Lake Texana State Park

Soon, the Allen brothers discovered a site on the west bank of Buffalo Bayou, a muddy stream that wound its way for fifty miles to Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  They purchased about 6,500 acres for $9,500 and wisely named the new town for Sam Houston, the hero of the Texas War for Independence and the future president of the republic.  By August 1836 the brothers placed newspaper ads claiming the new town was destined to be the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas.”  The ads also said that ships from New York and New Orleans could sail to the door of Houston and that the site on the Buffalo Bayou offered a healthy, cool sea breeze.  They did not mention the heat and humidity and that Buffalo Bayou was choked with tree branches and logs.

The Allen brothers had the town laid out with wide streets on a grid pattern parallel to the bayou to accommodate their

Original Plan, 1869 map

Original Plan, 1869 map

future port, sold town lots at a brisk rate, and generously donated property for churches and other public institutions. The first small steamship arrived in January 1837 after a fifteen-mile journey that took three days during which passengers helped clear logs and snags from the channel.  The travelers found a “port city” of twelve inhabitants and one log cabin.

The Allen’s slickest advertising ploy turned out to be their bid to get the government of the new Republic of Texas to relocate in Houston by offering to construct, at their own expense, a capitol and to provide buildings for public officials at a modest rental of $75 a month. It worked.  By the time the government moved to Houston in May 1837, the town boasted a whopping population of 1,500 and 100 houses.

When travelers arriving in Houston found food and accommodations in short supply, the Allen brothers opened their large home, free of charge.  Their accountant estimated the hospitality cost the Allen brothers about $3,000 a year, but the expense brought rich returns.

The brother’s deal to provide the capitol and all the official office space carried the stipulation that if the government moved from Houston, the property reverted to the Allen brothers.  In 1839 the Texas government moved again from the bogs along the coastal prairie to Waterloo, a tiny wilderness town on the edge of Comanche country in Central Texas that was renamed Austin.

With the loss of the capital, Houston plunged into financial turmoil that threatened to bankrupt the city.  Multiple yellow fever epidemics hurt the town’s image along with a growing reputation for drunkenness, dueling, brawling, and prostitution.  In the midst of it all Houston welcomed the Masons, Presbyterians and Episcopalians organized churches, and the town became the seat of county government.   Businessmen invested in the cotton trade, small steamboats ferried supplies to and from the thriving seaport at Galveston and enterprising merchants used ox wagons to haul goods to settlers in the interior and to return with cotton and other farm commodities.jackson

Following years of regular dredging and widening of Buffalo Bayou to accommodate larger ships, the Houston Ship Channel finally opened in 1914, creating a world class waterway that helped Houston become the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas” just as the Allen brothers advertised in 1837.BuffaloBayouFile:Houston_Ship_Channel

Texas Capitol Paid For in Land

The Texas Constitution of 1876 set aside three million acres in the Panhandle to fund construction of the state’s fourth capitol.  Big land giveaways in Texas started in 1749 when the Spanish Colonial government began establishing villas along the Rio Grande.  Mexico continued the practice of granting empresarial contracts to establish colonies in Texas.  The Republic of Texas issued land grants to pay its debts, including payment to the army and volunteers for their service in the war for independence from Mexico.  After Texas joined the Union and negotiated to keep its public land, the state offered land to encourage development of farms and ranches, to attract new industry, to fund its public schools, and to entice railroad construction.  So, it makes sense to use land in payment for the state’s fourth capitol.

Texas State Capitol

The third capitol burned on November 9, 1881, increasing the urgency to name a contractor for construction of the new building.  By 1882 the State of Texas initiated one of the largest barter transactions in history to pay wealthy Chicago brothers, John V. and Senator C. B. Farwell, three million acres of Panhandle land in exchange for building the $3 million State Capitol at Austin.

Owners of Granite Mountain, a solid rock dome about fifty miles northeast of Austin, donated enough “sunset red” granite to construct a Renaissance Revival design modeled after the national Capitol in Washington.  Convict labor hauled the huge blocks of granite to a newly built narrow-gauge railroad that carried 15,700 carloads of granite from the quarry to the building site in Austin. Upon completion of the 360,000 square foot capitol in 1888 and the placing of the statue of the Goddess of Liberty atop its dome, the building reached a height of 311 feet—almost fifteen feet taller that the National Capitol.

Goddess of Liberty Intended for the Capitol Dome

Since the land used to pay for the capitol stretched across the unsettled Texas Panhandle from present Lubbock to forty miles north of Dalhart, the capitol syndicate decided to establish a ranch until the land could be sold.  Representatives went to England in 1884 to secure $5 million from British investors to finance the purchase of cattle, fencing, and the entire infrastructure for the huge enterprise.

Trail boss Abner Blocker drove the first herd to the ranch in 1885 only to discover that a brand had not been selected.  Trying to create a design that could not be easily changed, Blocker drew “XIT” in the corral dust with the heel of his boot, and it stuck as the brand and ranch name.  In later years the story spread that the brand stood for “ten (counties) in Texas” because the ranch spread into ten counties.  Other folks speculated that it meant “biggest in Texas.”

The vastness of the operation required dividing the ranch into eight divisions with a manager over each.  A 6,000-mile single-strand wire fence eventually enclosed the ranch, the largest in the world at that time.  By 1890 the XIT herd averaged 150,000 head, and the cowboys branded 35,000 calves a year.  Fences divided the ranch into ninety-four pastures; 325 windmills and 100 dams dotted the landscape. Cowhands received pay of twenty-five to thirty dollars a month.  XIT men and their “hired guns” sometimes formed vigilante groups to combat problems of fence cutting and cattle rustling.  Wolves and other wild animals took a heavy toll, especially during calving season.  Lack of ample water, droughts, blizzards, prairie fires, and a declining market resulted in the XIT operating without a profit for most of it years.

The schoolteacher wife of one of the managers, Cordia Sloan Duke, kept a diary, writing notes on a pad she carried in her apron pocket while she “looked after” her own family and the 150 cowboys who worked the ranch.  She successfully encouraged eighty-one cowboys and their families to keep diaries.  Eventually, she and Dr. Joe B. Frantz published a book, 6,000 Miles of Fence: Life on the XIT Ranch of Texas.  Through Mrs. Duke’s efforts, an authentic account of the work and lifestyle of that early phase of American life has been preserved in the cowboys’ own language.

With British creditors demanding a positive return, the syndicate began selling the land for small farms and ranches.  Although the cattle had been sold by 1912, the last parcel of land was not sold until 1963.  One hundred years after the land exchange, the tax value on the property reached almost $7 billion.

The XIT Ranch, built on land that served as payment for building the largest state capitol in North America, is remembered at the annual Dalhart XIT Reunion where a horse with an empty saddle honors the range riders of the past.

Horse With an Empty Saddle, Dalhart Reunion


From dusk to dawn, travelers entering Austin, especially those heading to the downtown fun spots, often notice sprinkled all over the older part of town clusters of six moon-like lights glowing atop strange metal contraptions.  The 165-foot structures are Austin’s Moonlight Towers.  They started illuminating the central part of the city in 1894 when the City Council traded an unused narrow-gauge railroad to the Fort Wayne Indiana Electric Company for thirty-one of its 5,000-pound towers.  The Moonlight Towers propelled Austin into the modern age of the 1890s along with other cities like Detroit, New Orleans, and San Jose, California.  Today, Austin is the only city in the U.S. continuing to light its streets with Moonlight Towers.

The towers arrived in pieces with assembly specifications requiring that the six carbon arc lamps in each structure spread a 3,000-foot circle of light bright enough to read an ordinary watch on the darkest night.

Guy wires extending over streets and across neighborhoods secure the giant structures.  Originally, each Moonlight Tower connected to its own electric generator at the Colorado River Dam.  Some claim that many residents expected the blue-white lights to wreck havoc with nature, cause crops to grow 24 hours a day and hens to lay eggs around the clock.  Apparently, only a few roosters refused to stop crowing.

Although signs warn against climbing the towers, they have not been altogether safe.  A short time after the lights began operating a workman fell to his death from the top of the tower at 9th and Guadalupe.  In 1930, an 11-year-old boy, on a dare, climbed the tower at Wooldridge Square.  After viewing the city, the boy became dizzy and fell through the inside of the triangular-shaped structure, his body miraculously ricocheting from side-to-side.  He completely recovered in a month.

The city continued modernizing the towers over the years.  Incandescent bulbs operated by switches at the base of each tower replaced the carbon arc lamps in the 1920s.  Mercury vapor lamps were installed in 1936, and during WWII the need to quickly black out the city during air raids led to installing one central switch for all the towers.  In 1993 all the towers underwent a complete overhaul, restoring every bolt, turnbuckle, and guy wire at a cost of $1.3 million.

Several towers have been moved, including the one in Zilker Park, which is strung from its top with extra guy wires to accommodate over 3,300 colored lights fanning out at its base to form a giant Christmas tree.

Although downtown construction forced the removal of two towers, the project manager at Austin Energy says both towers will be reactivated–one at a new location–at the conclusion of Austin’s building boom.  When all the construction dust settles, Austin will boast 17 functioning Moonlight Towers.  Boasting is appropriate for the towers have earned designation as State Archeological Landmarks, and in 1976 the towers won a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today the Moonlight Towers send their soft blue light across the city.  Even if alternative lighting proves more efficient, don’t expect Austinites to allow all the old structures to disappear.  They are unique among cities, objects of curiosity, and bring back a romantic memory of days when the towers reigned as both fashion and technological marvels.


I call it being organized–juggling several things at the same time.  However, like a circus clown trying to toss one too many bowling pins, I’ve dropped the whole passel.  Expecting Friday to be especially busy, I wrote my blog, even added all the photos and went to bed knowing at the appointed hour on Friday I could press “publish” and poof, it would post.

Then, I woke with a start.  Why did Angelina Eberly, the subject of the blog, already appear in the category list?  At 1:30 a.m., my husband, who patiently put up with my flaying and fretting over forgetting, suggested I get up and forage through my folder of files.  I did.

Over the years I’ve written historical markers and articles about the markers, and books about the stories on the markers and even given lectures about the stories on the markers and in the books.  You can understand how I might forget if a story appeared on a marker or in an article or in a book.

My middle-of-the-night search revealed I published a post about  Angelina Eberly February 23–of this year–not six or eight years ago. Last Monday night I told her story again during a lecture.  Folks liked it well enough to inspire me to tell it again in this Friday’s blog.  I’m confessing this confusion because I assume you, as a faithful reader, may remember the February version.  I’m calling the version below The Second Iteration:

Texans love stories of pioneer settlers and heroes.  Angelina Eberly fits the bill.  Born in Tennessee in 1798, Mrs. Eberly married her first cousin, made the journey to Matagorda Bay on the Texas coast in 1822 and finally, with the help of several slaves, opened an inn and tavern in the new village of San Felipe de Austin on the Brazos River.

After her husband died, Mrs. Eberly continued operating the hotel until Texans burned the town in 1836 to prevent it from falling into General Santa Anna’s hands during the Texas War for Independence from Mexico.

After the war she married again and moved with her new husband in 1839 to the new Texas capital of Austin where they opened the Eberly House.

History reveals Texas’ politics as contentious during the days of the republic as they are today.  The constitution of the new republic allowed the president to serve only one, two-year term, which meant Sam Houston, first president and hero of the war for independence, stepped down to allow the election of his successor and nemesis Mirabeau B. Lamar.

Immediately Lamar appointed a site-selection commission that moved the capital of the republic from ole Sam’s namesake city of Houston to a little village in the wilderness of Central Texas and named the place “Austin,” after the father of early Texas settlement.

The legislature met in a frame house on Congress Avenue and other offices occupied different structures along the dirt street. Because of Austin’s vulnerability to attacks by Indians and Mexican troops, the new government provided the residents with a six-pounder cannon, loaded with grapeshot.

Despite primitive conditions, President Lamar and his cabinet dined at the Eberly House.  When Sam Houston won reelection two years later, he moved into the Eberly House rather than occupy the house Mirabeau Lamar designated for the president.

Since Sam Houston and his supporters disapproved of the capital’s location on the western frontier, they jumped at the opportunity to move the Congress to Washington, a tiny village on the Brazos River when Mexican troops captured San Antonio on March 5, 1842.

Determined to keep the last symbol of the capital in their town, Austin residents demanded the national archives, which consisted of diplomatic, financial, land, and military-service records, remain in Austin.

When Mexicans invaded San Antonio again in December 1842, Sam Houston found his excuse for action.  He instructed two army officers to take eighteen men and two wagons to Austin in the middle of the night and quietly remove the archives from the General Land Office.

No one ever explained what Angelina Eberly was doing outside in the middle of the night, but when she saw the wagons leaving with the archives, she ran to the loaded cannon and fired it to warn the citizens of the robbery.

The military men traveled about twenty miles that first day to Kenney Fort located near present Round Rock. The next morning, when the officers rose to continue their journey, they discovered the citizens of Austin circling the fort with their cannon aimed toward the enclosure.  Without further ado, the military men returned the files to the Austin citizens, thus ending what has been dubbed both “The Archives War” and “The Bloodless War.”

With most of the republic’s business handled in Washington, Austin struggled for several years, the population dropping below 200 and its buildings deteriorating.  Finally, in 1845 a constitutional convention approved Texas’ annexation to the United States and named Austin as the new state capital.  In 1850 Texas residents finally voted to officially designate Austin as the state’s capital.

Angelina Eberly moved in 1846 to Lavaca (present Port Lavaca) where she leased Edward Clegg’s Tavern House while the surveyed the area for the best location for her business. Upon seeing nearby Indianola becoming a thriving seaport, she moved down the coast and opened a hotel.  At the time of her death in 1860, her estate appraised at $50,000, making Mrs. Angelina Eberly the wealthiest citizen of Calhoun County.

Today, Austin residents honor their cannoneer with a larger-than-life-size bronze sculpture at the corner of Congress and 7th Street.


In the last half of the nineteenth century, the most powerful men in Texas called Galveston home.  The Strand, a street stretching five blocks along the docks, wore the moniker of Wall Street of the Southwest.  Two-dozen millionaires officed along the route, controlling Texas’ shipping, banks, insurance companies, and the vast cotton export business.

One man, by the power of his designs, left a heritage for Galveston and Texas that all the power brokers combined could not equal.  Nicholas J. Clayton (click on this link for terrific photos) arrived in Galveston in 1872, and changed the face of the booming cultural and business metropolis of Texas.  Although he arrived without friends or business contacts, his position as supervising architect for a Cincinnati firm constructing the First Presbyterian Church and the Tremont Hotel served as sufficient prestige to catch the eye of Galveston notables.

A faithful Catholic, who attended mass most every day, Clayton began his connection with Galveston’s movers and shakers by walking as soon as he arrived in the city to St. Mary’s Church (now St. Mary’s Cathedral) and discussing with the bishop improvements to Galveston’s oldest church built in 1846. Clayton soon designed the central tower and later a new bell and statue of Mary, Star of the Sea.

The bishop may have been influential in 1873 in Clayton receiving his first independent design of Saint Mary’s Church (now Saint Mary’s Cathedral) in Austin, which, at that time, was part of the Galveston Diocese.

Clayton’s residential, commercial, and church designs won respect for the exuberance of shape, color, texture, and detail.  He loved his work, apparently sketched church buildings, windows, altars, and steeples, even while carrying on conversations.  He worked every day except Sunday and Christmas and expected near perfection from employees.  A gentle man, his family claimed his most abusive term was “muttonhead” for those who did not meet his standards.

He designed, built, added to, or remodeled eleven churches in Galveston and other churches all over Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and Mexico.  In a time of slower communication, Clayton traveled extensively and made use of the telephone, telegraph, and letters.

Many of his designs have never been duplicated such as the intricate brickwork on Old Red (1891), the first building for the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston; and the carpentry has never been matched in the Beach Hotel (1883-1898) and the Electric Pavilion (1881-1883) both destroyed in the 1900 storm.  The flamboyant octagonal Garten Verein (1876- ), an inspired work in wood, served as a social center for the German community.

Clayton, filled with enthusiasm, worked quickly and new ideas appeared to come easily.  Mrs. Clayton claimed the idea for the Garten Verein design came to Clayton instantly and he finished the plans in a single night.

His most spectacular residential design, the Walter Gresham House (1887-1892) (known today as Bishop’s Palace) rises three stories over a raised basement and boasts fourteen-foot ceilings.  Among the grand details is a forty-foot tall octagonal mahogany stairwell with stained glass on five sides lit by a large octagonal skylight.  Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Gresham House is one of the most significant Victorian residences in the U.S.

Despite his prolific production and vigorous work ethic, Clayton’s son acknowledged that his father wasn’t a very good businessman.  His insistence on perfection at times led him to go over budget for projects and to continue the work at his own expense.  He mostly left financial arrangements to others.  His concern centered on creating outstanding buildings. Eventually his relaxed business practices and dependence on a partner to follow through on a contract while Clayton was out of town, caused him to forfeit a bond and become involved in a long legal battle that resulted in bankruptcy.  As his legal battle dragged on for ten years, many clients turned their backs on him and refused to pay.  Devastated by the loss of his integrity and prestige, the final blow came when the 1900 storm severely damaged or destroyed many of his finest designs.

He continued to get small projects such as the design and reconstruction of the main building of St. Edward’s University in Austin after a fire damaged the structure, and he built the new Incarnate Word Academy in Houston, but he failed to get a bond for a large contract.

In November 1916, as he repaired a crack in his chimney, the candle he held caught his undershirt on fire.  Severely burned, he developed pneumonia and died on December 9, 1916.

Mrs. Clayton grieved to Rabbi Henry Cohen, one of their friends about having no money for a proper monument for her husband.  Rabbi Cohen replied, “Oh, you don’t need one, my dear Mary Lorena.  He’s got them all over town.  Just go around and read some cornerstones.”

Today, eight buildings of Nicholas J. Clayton design survive on the Strand, thirty-four remain, and eight-six have been razed.  His legacy continues in the beauty and style he brought to his beloved Galveston, known as Texas’ Victorian Oasis.


If you visit downtown Austin, on the corner of Congress Avenue and 7th Street, you will see a larger than life bronze of barefoot Angelina Eberley lighting an equally gigantic cannon.  The story requires a little explanation.

After Texas gained independence from Mexico in 1836, Sam Houston won the election as the new Republic’s first president.  The capital resided in Sam Houston’s namesake village on Buffalo Bayou; however, the constitution allowed the president only one term at a time.  Houston’s successor Mirabeau B. Lamar envisioned the capital of the Republic farther west in anticipation of settlement moving beyond the coastal regions.  Lamar selected a hamlet on the Colorado River in Central Texas and named it for Stephen F. Austin, the empresario who brought the first group of Anglo settlers into Texas.

Many, especially Sam Houston, regarded Austin as a poor choice because of constant danger from Indian and Mexican attacks.  After Houston was reelected president in 1841, he tried unsuccessfully, to have the archives—consisting of all the Republic’s land titles, treaties, military records, and other documents—moved back to Houston.

When Mexican troops attacked San Antonio, about 80 miles south of Austin, in March 1842, President Houston again called for the archives to be removed.  In wake of a possible Mexican attack, most Austin residents fled and the town was placed under martial law.  The remaining contingent insisted that the archives were safe, and refused to allow the documents to leave Austin.

The following September Mexicans again attacked San Antonio and again Austin citizens refused to give up the records.  Houston managed to move Congress, the high courts, even the foreign embassies 100 miles east to what he claimed as safer territory in Washington, a tiny community on the Brazos River.

Finally, a determined Sam Houston secretly dispatched 26 men with instructions to haul the archives to Washington.  Before dawn on December 30, 1842, Angelina Eberley, an Austin innkeeper, and one of the few women left in the village, happened to be outside. Who knows why?  She saw the men in an alley loading the archives into their wagon.

Mrs. Eberley rushed to the cannon that had been given to Austin for Indian protection and began firing at the departing wagon.  Alerted, 68 Austin citizens gave chase.

The little band of men with the archives headed north to Kenney’s Fort, near present Round Rock, and camped for the night inside the fort’s picket enclosure. The following morning, Houston’s men discovered the Austinites surrounding the fort, backed by their cannon, demanding the return of the archives.

Sam Houston’s men complied, ending what became known as the Archives War. The standoff with Houston did not end.  The government of the Republic remained in Washington during the inauguration of Anson Jones, Houston’s successor.  Even the session of Congress that approved Texas’ annexation as the 28th state in the Union took place in Washington.  In the late summer of 1845 Austin again became the official capital of Texas.

The Texas Historical Marker telling the story of the Archives War is located at the State Archives and Library Building at 1201 Brazos, Austin, Texas.

My Daily Jog

I just completed my almost daily two-mile jog.  No, I do not run.  I’ve never been a runner, and I’ve been chugging along since 1975.  I’d like to pretend that I was in my early teens when I took to the trail, but you won’t believe me.  I realized I was in awful cardiovascular shape (did we use that term back then?) when on a trip to Europe with my then husband and son, I had to sit down to catch my breath several times on the walk up that winding little mountain road to Neuschwanstein Castle.

When we got home, I signed up for an Aerobic Dance Class.  Again, I was shocked at my inability to keep up with the famers’ wives in my class that regularly worked a day’s worth in their gardens.  That’s when I decided to jog in a big figure eight through my house each morning.  I dared not jog outside because our small town did not have leash laws and a dog bit the mayor.  I knew if dogs bit the mayor, they would surely bite me.  So, before my morning shower, I donned tennis shoes (pre-jogging gear) and raced (sort of) through my house in my gown.  At the time, I had large breasts, which I carried in each hand.  Only one friend caught me in my routine, and she collapsed in hysterics on the kitchen floor.

After I moved to Austin, Texas, the city of runners, I met my current husband who started jogging in 1968 before it was stylish. Knees have recently forced him to walk, but I’ve steadfastly maintained my jog. Those who wonder why I’ve not increased my speed have chided me to set some goals, to aim higher. I tell them my goal is to finish. Period.

In the early days some people were confident my husband or I would drop dead on the trail.  Most of those people have since died of something other than jogging.  One guy claimed that he would take up jogging as soon as he saw joggers smiling.  My response seemed simple: “Athletes don’t smile while they’re doing whatever they do.  Even dancers have to be taught to smile while performing rigorous routines.”  That fellow has long since passed as well.

I guess the bottom line is that I keep jogging because I feel better when it’s over.  That is, I feel better all day long.