Gail Borden, Pioneer Inventor

A brilliant eccentric—Gail Borden reportedly rode about Galveston on a pet bull; he invented a “locomotive bath house,” a portable affair

Gail Borden

Gail Borden

that allowed women to bathe privately in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico before he was “discouraged” by the city authorities; and he worked for the Galveston City Company laying out the streets while designing a self-propelled terraqueous machine that was supposed to move on land and on water.  During the maiden voyage, it reportedly dumped its occupants in the Gulf.

Born in Norwich, New York, Gail Borden, Jr. (1801-1874) moved with his family to Indiana where he received about a year and a half of formal education.  Before coming to Texas in 1829, he began to show his lifelong concern for others by helping rescue a freedman from rustlers.

After settling in Texas, he farmed, raised stock, and began serving as a surveyor for Stephen F. Austin’s colony.  He prepared the first topographical map of Texas, and as the war for Texas independence from Mexico became a certainty, Borden and some partners started the Telegraph and Texas Register newspaper to keep the citizenry informed of the pending conflict.  Throughout the war, the Telegraph was moved across Texas just ahead of General Santa Anna’s advancing army.  Ten days before the Texas victory at the Battle of San Jacinto, the Mexican army captured the Telegraph printers and threw the press into Buffalo Bayou.  As soon as Texas won its independence Borden traveled to Cincinnati and bought a new press, which he continued to move across Texas following the new republic’s congress as it began to meet in Columbia and then on to the new capital of Houston.

Map of Houston

Map of Houston

Borden drew the map laying out the new capital on the muddy banks of Buffalo Bayou. In 1837, the year after Texas became a republic, Borden moved to Galveston to serve as the first collector at the port. Active in the Baptist church, he worked in the temperance movement, served as a local missionary to the poor and to travelers visiting Galveston.  He and his first wife, Penelope, reportedly were the first Americans to be baptized in the Gulf of Mexico west of the Mississippi River.  He served as a trustee of the Texas Baptist Education Society, which founded Baylor University, and as an alderman he helped rid Galveston of gamblers.  Temporarily.

He apparently began inventing around 1840 with a scheme to market jelly made from the horns and hooves of oxen.  He tried preserving a peach mixture using hydraulic pressure.  Penelope’s death in the yellow fever epidemic of 1844, prompted Borden to abandon his other projects and search for the cause of the disease. Recognizing that yellow fever struck during the summer heat and disappeared with the first cold front, he built a large-scale icebox, using ether to cool its interior.  He imagined a refrigerator large enough to cool the entire population of Galveston during the summer months. He abandoned his refrigerator project after hearing of the tragic fate of the Donner Party, a wagon train on the California Trail that became trapped in a snow storm in the Sierra Nevada.  Thirty-six of the eighty-one members of the train perished from starvation and exposure.  Borden devoted himself to creating a meat biscuit that he believed would provide nutrition for travelers such as the Donners and for the U.S. Army.  He boiled eleven pounds of meat to get one pound of extract, which he combined with flour and baked into a biscuit.  It was recognized for its nutritional value and earned a gold medal in London at the 1851 International Exposition.  Borden built a factory in Galveston; he introduced the meat biscuit at Texas’ first state fair in Corpus Christi; and he finally  moved to New York to be closer to distribution centers.  After seven years of struggling  to sell the ill-tasting biscuit, he suffered heavy financial losses, and finally abandoned the business.

Meat biscuits

Meat biscuits


Still convinced that he could improve the food supply by developing concentrated food products, Borden condensed milk by using a vacuum pan with a heating coil to remove the water without burning or souring the milk.  In this fashion he produced the first condensed milk in 1853 that could be stored and shipped long distances. He started a dairy company in Connecticut, and for the first time in his life, he was in a perfect position to capitalize on his invention.  During the Civil War, he began providing condensed milk for the Union Army, and saw his business flourish.  Still the experimenter, Borden created processes for condensing fruit juices, the extract of beef, and coffee.

Borden ad, 1899

Borden ad, 1899

After the war, he returned to Texas, founded the town of Borden west of Houston, established a meatpacking plant, a sawmill, and a copperware factory.  His Borden Milk Company with Elsie The Cow as its logo became known throughout the world.

Elsie the Cow

Elsie the Cow


Official Civil War records claim the battle at Columbus, Georgia, on April 16, 1865, was the last fight of the war and that the Battle of Palmito Ranch along the lower Rio Grande was a “post-Civil War encounter” because it occurred more than a month after General Robert E. Lee’s surrendered on April 9th The reasons for the Texas battle are also open to argument although it is clear that some of the officers and enlisted men on both sides were not yet ready to quit the fight.  In March 1865, believing the Union had won the war, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant gave permission for Maj. Gen. Lewis Wallace to meet Confederate commanders of the Brownsville area in hopes of securing a separate peace agreement.  The Union terms offered at the meeting on March 11th, required Confederates to take an oath of allegiance to the United States; stated that there would be no retaliation against the troops; and said those who wished to leave the country would be allowed to do so.  When the Union’s proposal went up the Confederate chain of command, not only did Maj. Gen. John G. Walker denounce the terms, he wrote an angry letter to his subordinates for agreeing to meet with the Union in the first place.  Even on May 9th the commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith told a gathering of governors of the Confederate states west of the Mississippi that despite Lee’s surrender he proposed continuing the fight.

After receiving a false report that the Confederates were abandoning Brownsville, the Union commander on Brazos Island at the mouth of the Rio Grande sent 300 men to the mainland with

Battle of Palmito Ranch

Battle of Palmito Ranch

instructions to occupy Brownsville.  Confederates got word of the advance on May 12th and met the federals for a brief skirmish at Palmito Ranch twelve miles down the river from Brownsville.  Both sides sent for reinforcements, but the Confederates were supplied the following day with mounted cavalry and a six-gun battery of field artillery that offered far more firepower than the federals that had to make do with an increase in infantry to only 500.  At 4:00 P.M. on May 13th the battle began and immediately the federal line started falling apart.  Within four hours the Union troops retreated seven miles back to Brazos Island.  At that point Confederate Col. John Salmon “Rip” Ford

"Rip" Ford

“Rip” Ford

commander of the southern division is quoted as saying,  “Boys, we have done finely.  We will let well enough alone, and retire.”  Ford wrote in his report of the battle that it had been “a run” and the clash showed “how fast demoralized men could get over ground.”  The accounts also differ on the number of loses: from a handful to a few dozen Confederates wounded, while the Union had from sixteen to thirty killed and wounded.

At the same time the Battle of Palmito Ranch raged, governors of the Confederate states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas were instructing Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith to dismiss his armies and end the war.  A few days later, federal officers from Brazos Island arrived in Brownsville to arrange a truce with the Confederate Commander of the Brownsville area and Col. John Ford.

Saga of Sophia Suttonfield Aughinbaugh Coffee Butt Porter

Two official Texas historical markers sit on the shore of Lake Texoma, the enormous reservoir separating North Texas and Oklahoma.  One marker commemorates Holland Coffee’s Trading

Texas Historical Markers for Coffee's Trading Post and Sophia Coffee Porter

Texas Historical Markers for Coffee’s Trading Post and Sophia Coffee Porter

preston1Post, now under the waters of Lake Texoma.  The neighboring marker calls Sophia Coffee Porter a Confederate Lady Paul Revere.  The colorful lives of Sophia and Holland Coffee came together in 1837 probably while Coffee served in the Congress of the Republic of Texas.

Sophia was born a Suttonfield in 1815 on the remote military post at Fort Wayne (present Indiana).  As a beautiful dark-haired girl of seventeen, she ran away with Jesse Aughinbaugh who had been the headmaster at her school.  The twosome split up in Texas—Sophia said he deserted her—in 1836 and Sophia, who told many stories about herself, said she was the first woman to reach the battle site at San Jacinto on April 22, 1836, the day after Texas won its independence from Mexico.  Although there is no record of their relationship in Sam Houston’s published letters or biographies, Sophia claimed she nursed the wounded general back to health, and they did remain friends.  Some historians believe she was a camp woman who sold her services to the general.

Holland Coffee established his trading post in the early 1830s on the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) side of the Red River and moved it to the Texas side of the river in 1837.  The historical marker says Coffee traded with the Indians for many white captives.  Some historians think Coffee was out to make money and that, like many of the stories Sophia told of her exploits, not as many rescues took place as later generations have been led to believe.  Coffee did ransom a Mrs. Crawford and her two children by paying the Indians 400 yards of calico, a large number of blankets, many beads, and other items.  In later years, Mrs. John Horn wrote that when Comanches refused to trade for the release of her and her children, Holland wept and then gave her and the children clothing and flour.  Although he was accused by settlers of trading whiskey and guns to the Indians for cattle and horses they stole from the whites, his neighbors must have forgiven him because they elected him as their congressman.

14165345_114780775898Apparently Sophia and Holland met in Houston, one of the early capitals of the new republic.  When Sophia failed to get a divorce from Aughinbaugh through the courts, she petitioned the legislature to intervene on her behalf.  After several attempts to get a bill through the legislature that was more concerned with passing a Homestead Exemption Law, Sam Houston finally used his influence and the petition passed both houses with Holland Coffee as a member of the House of Representatives voting aye.

Coffee and Sophia took a 600-mile honeymoon on horseback through Anderson in Washington County, to Nacogdoches and along the Red River, stopping at several locales to attend balls in celebration of their marriage.  Coffee settled with his bride at his trading post, a popular place for Indians and for drovers heading north with their cattle.  Coffee’s wedding gift to Sophia was one-third league of land, about 1,476 acres—only the first of her many acquisitions.  In her later accounts of life on the Red River, Sophia said her nearest neighbor was twenty-five miles away and that to protect against Indian attack, Texas Rangers guarded their trading post, the horses had to be watched while slaves plowed the fields, and firearms were stacked nearby for easy access during preaching services.

Because of the constant threat of Indian attacks, the Republic of Texas built a protective line of forts along the western edge of the frontier and connected them with a Military Road from Austin to Fort Johnson on the Red River near Coffee’s Trading Post.  The military base bought supplies, clothing, tobacco, gunpowder, and tools from Coffee, which injected new life into his business.  He opened a ferry at a crossing on the Red River and he and Sophia bought land and slaves.  New settlers arrived in the area, and in 1845 Holland sold town lots on his land for the new town of Preston.

In 1845-46 Holland Coffee hired Mormons traveling from Illinois to Central Texas to build Glen Eden, a home that expanded over the years into the most impressive house in North Texas and where Sophia entertained lavishly.

Glen Eden

Glen Eden

By her own account, she entertained such notables as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant (no record exists that either men were there), and Sam Houston.  Men from nearby Fort Washita in Indian Territory seemed always to be guests at Glen Eden.  Stories vary about how Coffee died in 1846.  Some say it began when Sam Houston was scheduled to dedicate the new county courthouse in nearby Sherman and planned to stay with the Coffee’s at Glen Eden.  Coffee’s niece had married Charles A. Galloway who offended Sophia by commenting about her former relationship with Sam Houston.  She demanded that Coffee horsewhip his new nephew.  When Coffee refused to publically air the family problems, Sophia said she had rather be the widow of a brave man than the wife of a coward.  Coffee started an “Indian duel,” a fight to the death, with Galloway who killed Coffee with a Bowie knife.

A rich and charming widow of a brave man at age thirty-one, Sophia managed the 3,000-acre slave plantation, tended her extensive gardens, and continued to host grand parties.  On one of her regular visits to New Orleans to sell her cotton crop, she met Major George N. Butts, who returned with her to Glen Eden to manage the plantation. There is no record of a marriage in either Texas or Louisiana, but the relationship was Sophia’s happiest—Butts enjoyed the niceties of gracious living—and they paid for their lifestyle with the sale of their cotton and land.  They enlarged Glen Eden, filled it with fine furnishings and china from New Orleans.  She became known for her rose garden, an orchard of more than a hundred fruit trees, and grape and berry vines for jams and wines.  She grew a magnolia tree in the front yard from a seedling given to her by Sam Houston.  Albert Sidney Johnston brought catalpa seeds from California, which she planted, in a line down the driveway.

In 1863, William Clark Quantrill with his group of Confederate guerrillas from Kansas and Missouri moved into Sherman and began robbing and killing anyone who did not agree with his brand of Confederate support.  Although Sophia and Butts were southern sympathizers, Butts got into an argument with one of Quantrill’s men and was ambushed one night as he returned from a cotton-selling trip to Sherman.  Sophia garnered the sympathy of Sherman residents against Quantrill and got him arrested; he later escaped.

Some historians say the historical marker story calling Sophia Coffee Porter a Confederate Lady Paul Revere may not be altogether accurate.  Several tales surround this claim, most of them encouraged by Sophia herself.  One says that when James Bourland, commanding a Texas frontier regiment, stopped at Glen Eden on his way back to Fort Washita, he warned her that federal troops were following him.  When the Yankees arrived, Sophia fed them dinner and then took them into her wine cellar where they proceeded to get drunk. She locked them in the cellar and then, riding a mule, forded the treacherous Red River to warn Bourland of the Union’s plans, thus preventing the invasion of North Texas.  Another version of the story says she stripped to her underwear and swam the river and then whistled to get the Confederates’ attention.

At age fifty, toward the end of the Civil War, Sophia found the Red River country too dangerous.  She packed her gold in tar buckets and took her slaves with her to the safer environment of Waco in Central Texas.  There, she met Judge James Porter, a Confederate cavalry officer from Missouri.  Rufus Burleson, president of Baylor College performed their marriage on August 2, 1865 and the Porters returned to Glen Eden.  With her slaves freed, Sophia’s net worth dropped, but she and James Porter began buying land at sheriff’s auctions and reselling it quickly to increase their holdings.

James Porter apparently influenced Sophia’s desire to “get religion.”  She attended a camp meeting and rushed forward throwing herself at the feet of the preacher.  In front of the entire congregation the minister said she must wait for twelve years because “the sun, moon, and stars were against her being a Christian.”  The Methodist preacher in Sherman, however, welcomed her into church.  She gave a section of land to Southwestern University, a Methodist institution at Georgetown and land for a Methodist Church at Preston Bend.  “Aunt Sophia,” as she became known in later years, apparently earned the respect of her neighbors.  When the Old Settlers Association

in Sherman was founded in 1879, one of the speakers at the first meeting was Sophia Porter who entertained the crowd with the stories of her life as a pioneer woman along the Red River.

Glen Eden continued to be a social center, but Sophia no longer allowed dancing.  She and James Porter continued giving money or land to churches in the area until his death in 1886.  For the next eleven years Sophia and her long-time friend and companion Belle Evans searched the shops in nearby Denison and Sherman and ordered from catalogues new fashions that would restore Sophia’s youth.  Mrs. Evans also applied Ayer’s Hair Dye each week to maintain Sophia’s black locks that had attracted so many suitors over the years.  On August 27, 1897, when Sophia died quietly at the age of eighty-one in her fine home of fifty-four years, the man at her side was Reverend J. M. Binkley, the Methodist preacher from Sherman who had accepted her into his congregation.

Sophia Porter in later years

Sophia Porter in later years

Emma Edmondson–Union Spy

Born in 1841 as Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson, the future spy grew up as the youngest of five children on her family’s farm in New Brunswick, Canada.  To please her father, who apparently wanted a son, Emma dressed and worked on the farm like a boy.  When she faced an unwanted, arranged marriage in the late 1850s, she ran away from home, and changed her name to Edmonds.  Upon reaching the United States, she dressed as a man, began calling herself Frank Thompson, and traveled about the country as a Bible salesman.

Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson

With the outbreak of the Civil War, she continued her masquerade as Frank Thompson and enlisted in Company F, 2nd Michigan Infantry.  Military records indicate that Private Thompson served as a nurse and regimental mail carrier. The 2nd Michigan saw its first battle at Blackburn’s Ford, Virginia.  Emma worked as a nurse at Manassas and helped procure hospital supplies at the Battle of Yorktown.

Although the military record does not say Emma served as a spy, several notations of “absent on duty” coincide with her spy missions. In her first clandestine adventure, she put on a black wig, used silver nitrate to dye her skin black, and pretended to be an escaped slave employed on the earthworks at Yorktown where she identified a Confederate spy. At least twice she went behind Confederate lines “disguised” as a woman, including a time when she worked as a black laundress for the Confederates.  On another occasion she dressed as an Irish peddler named Bridget O’Shea and sold apples and soap to Confederate soldiers.  During one of the missions she began having “chills,” the first sign of the malaria that would grow steadily worse.

Emma Edmondson, Nurse

Emma saw plenty of action when the 2nd Michigan participated in the Battle of Williamsburg. She served as an orderly for a general in the Battle of Hanover Courthouse and in the Battle of Fair Oaks she observed the use of the Intrepid, a balloon that successfully reported Confederate troop movements.  In the summer of 1862, while working as a regimental mail carrier, Emma made a round trip of about 100 miles, often sleeping on the side of the road.

Several campaigns followed, including the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, before the 2nd Michigan moved to the Western theater of operations.  By mid-April 1863, as the malaria grew worse, her request for a furlough was denied.  Fearing discovery of her secret identity if she were hospitalized, she deserted.

During the illness, she resumed life as a woman and then worked as a female nurse for the United States Christian Commission.  During this time she wrote her memoir Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, which captured the nation’s imagination, becoming a best seller at 175,000 copies.  She donated the profits to soldiers’ aid organizations.

Emma married a fellow Canadian, Linus H. Seelye, in 1867, and after moving several times they settled with their five children in LaPorte, Texas.

For several years Emma gathered affidavits from 2nd Michigan veterans in an effort to clear the charge of desertion from the record of Franklin Thompson.  Finally, on July 5, 1884, an Act of the 48th Congress granted Emma Edmonds Seelye, alias Franklin Thompson, an honorable discharge and allowed a pension of $12 a month.

The General George B. McClellan Post of the Grand Army of the Republic on April 22, 1897, invited Emma into its membership, the only woman known to be a member of a Civil War veteran’s organization.

Private Franklin Thompson

Continuing bouts of malaria caused her health to deteriorate and on September 5, 1898, Emma Edmondson, Union Spy, died.  On Memorial Day 1901, her body was moved to the Washington Cemetery in Houston and given military honors.

Belle Boyd, Confederate Spy

At the beginning of the Civil War, 17-year-old Marie Isabella (Belle) Boyd hardly fit the image of a daring spy.  A tall, slender blonde with a hooknose and protruding teeth, Belle had graduated Baltimore’s Mount Washington Female College and enjoyed the luxury of a Washington debut.  Family stories abound of the lively, oldest child of eight growing up as a tomboy climbing trees and finally in protest for being excluded from the adult dinner table at age eleven, she rode her horse into the dining room and announced, “Well, my horse is old enough isn’t he?”

Belle’s family lived in Martinsburg, Virginia (present West Virginia) and owned six slaves, one of whom, Eliza, became Belle’s constant companion.  Secretly, at night by candlelight, Belle defied the law by teaching Eliza to read and write.  When Belle began her other secret adventures—spying on Union troops—Eliza reportedly helped by carrying messages to Confederates in a hollowed-out watchcase.

In Belle’s memoir Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison published in 1866, she relates a story that appears to signal the beginning of her involvement in the Civil War.  The Union captured Martinsburg and while ransacking homes and businesses, a group of drunken soldiers invaded the Boyd home and tried to raise a Yankee flag.  Mary Boyd, Belle’s mother, exclaimed, “Every member of my household will die before that flag shall be raised over us.”  Belle continues the story by writing that one of the soldiers “addressed my mother and myself in language as offensive as it is possible to conceive.  I could stand it no longer . . . we ladies are obliged to go armed in order to protect ourselves as best we might from insult and outrage.”  Belle drew her Colt 45 pistol and killed the gentleman.

The subsequent inquiry found Belle had “done perfectly right,” according to her account.  For a brief period sentries posted around her home kept watch on her activities, which worked to Belle’s profit.  She charmed secrets out of one of her overseers and related the information to Confederate officers—the beginning of her career as a spy.

Union officials began to watch Belle’s activities, but she managed to take advantage of her minders’ sense of chivalry and their natural deference to “ladies” to gather detailed information on Union movements that she passed on to Confederate commanders.

After visiting her father who was serving in what became known as the Stonewall Brigade, Belle began carrying messages between generals Jackson and P.G.T. Beauregard.

In May 1862, probably while employed in a hotel owned by her relatives in the Shenandoah Valley town of Front Royal, she overheard plans to send Union forces east out of Front Royal, reducing the Union’s strength in the town.  She rode that night; some accounts say fifteen miles through Union lines to pass the information to Confederate Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.  When the Confederates advanced on Front Royal on May 23, Belle ran to the edge of town to meet Jackson and inform him of the light enemy strength.  Jackson’s aide later described seeing a woman in white gliding swiftly out of town seeming to heed neither weeds nor fences, but waving a bonnet as she came.  Belle claimed in her memoir, “Federal pickets . . . immediately fired upon me . . .rifle-balls flew thick and fast about me . . . numerous bullets whistled by my ears, several actually pierced different parts of my clothing.”  Jackson captured Front Royal and wrote a personal letter of appreciation for Belle’s bravery.  Some accounts say she received the Southern Cross of Honor.

The detective, Allan Pinkerton wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, “She (Belle) gets around considerably, is very shrewd, and is probably acting as a spy.  She is an open, earnest, and undisguised secessionists, and talks secession on all practicable occasions . . .informant considers her more efficient in carrying news to the rebels of our operation than any three men in the valley.”

After being arrested in July 1862 and again the following year, she became known as the “Joan of Arc of the Confederacy.”  She volunteered to carry Confederate papers to England aboard the blockade-runner Greyhound only to be stopped on May 10, 1864.  She “managed” to escape, fled first to Canada, then on to London where she married Samuel W. Hardinge, one of the Union naval officers who had captured the Greyhound.  Upon Hardinge’s return to the United States, he was jailed for aiding and abetting an enemy spy.  Soon after his release, he either died mysteriously or disappeared.

Belle remained in London where she wrote her two-volume memoir, gave birth to a daughter, and began a stage career.  By the end of 1866 Belle retuned to the United States with her daughter and made her stage debut in St. Louis under the name of Nina Benjamin.

Belle’s Texas connection began in 1868 when she acted in several plays in Houston and Galveston.  She moved on to Austin when she gave several dramatic readings at the Texas postwar constitutional convention.

Belle sampled domesticity in 1869 when she gave up her stage career to marry Dallas businessman, J. S. Hammond.  Their union produced three children and lasted until 1884 when Belle divorced Hammond and two months later married the twenty-four-year-old stock-company actor, Nathaniel Rue High.

Belle returned to the stage in 1886 under her maiden name, Belle Boyd, with High serving as her business manager.  She opened her Toledo, Ohio, debut with the dramatic story of her exploits as a Confederate spy.  She toured the country performing in a Confederate gray uniform and cavalry-style gray hat.

In 1900, after ending a lecture with the dramatic words “one God, one flag, one people—forever,” Belle Boyd died of a heart attack.

Houston’s Civil War Hero

A handsome, redheaded Irish saloonkeeper lead a group of forty-six Irish dockworkers in a Civil War battle that Jefferson Davis called the most amazing feat in military history.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Richard “Dick” Dowling, owner of three popular Houston saloons, joined the Davis Guards, and soon became the company’s first lieutenant.  After gaining a reputation for its artillery skills in the January 1, 1863, Battle of Galveston in which the Confederates regained control of the island, Dowling’s company was assigned to Fort Griffin, a nondescript post at the mouth of Sabine Pass on the Texas/Louisiana border.

Dick Dowling

The twenty-five-year-old Dowling showed leadership beyond his years by keeping his rowdy men occupied with artillery practice—firing the fort’s six cannons at colored stakes placed on both sides of a shell reef that ran down the middle of the pass dividing it into two channels.  The east side of the passage led along the Louisiana border and the west paralleled the earthen embankment of Fort Griffin.

Battle of Sabine Pass

On September 8, 1863, Dowling’s Company F watched a Union navy flotilla of four gunboats and 5,000 men approach the pass.  Waiting until the first two gunboats entered the parallel channels, the little band of forty-six Irishmen opened fire with all six cannons, striking the boiler and exploding the USS Sanchem on the Louisiana coast and then striking the steering cables of the USS Clifton on the Texas side of the pass.  With both channels blocked by disabled ships, the Union force sailed away.

USS Clifton on left, USS Sanchem on right

In less than one hour Dowling’s men captured both Union vessels, killed nineteen, wounded nine, and took 350 prisoners without suffering a single casualty.

Dick Dowling rose to the rank of major before the end of the war and he returned to Houston as its hero, hailed as the man who stopped federal forces from coming ashore and marching westward to capture Houston and Galveston.  Jefferson Davis presented a personal commendation, calling the Sabine Pass Battle the “Thermopylae of the Confederacy.”  The ladies of Houston presented Dowling’s unit with medals made from Mexican coins smoothed down and inscribed on one side with “Sabine Pass, 1863.”

Medal inscribed on Mexican Coin “Sabine Pass, Sept 8th 1863”

Dowling claimed genuine Irish roots.  Born in County Galway, Ireland in 1838, he moved with his parents and six siblings to New Orleans to escape the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845.  Orphaned by the 1853 Yellow Fever epidemic that took the lives of his parents and four siblings, Dowling finally made his way to Houston and within four years opened his first saloon.

By 1860, the mustached Irishman with a good sense of humor owned three saloons; the most popular, called “The Bank,” sat on the square with the Harris County Courthouse and became Houston’s social gathering place.  Dowling also immersed himself in Houston’s business community–investing in local property, helping set up Houston’s first gaslight company, and installing gaslights in his home and in “The Bank.”  He helped found Houston’s Hook and Ladder Company fire department and the city’s first streetcar company.

After the war, Dowling returned to his earlier business interests and expanded into real estate, oil and gas leases, and ownership of a steamboat.  Unfortunately the 1867 Yellow Fever Epidemic, which swept across Texas from the Gulf coast, ended Dowling’s life on September 23, 1867.

Survived by his wife Elizabeth Ann Odlum and two children Mary Ann and Felize “Richard” Sabine, Dowling was honored by the city of Houston’s first public monument, which stands today in Hermann Park.

Dowling Monument


Travelers headed south across Central Texas may discover an interesting story of survival while passing through Cuero.  On the southwest corner of US highways183 and 87, the handsome mission style St. Mark’s Lutheran Church boasts three bells in its arched façade.

The small bronze bell, the one on the lower right, began life on the Reliance, a merchant ship sailing as part of the Morgan Steamship Line between New Orleans and the thriving port of Indianola.  In 1856, Indianola residents were enjoying a party aboard the Reliance docked at the end of one of the port’s long piers extending into Matagorda Bay, when a fire broke out. All the partygoers escaped unharmed and as they watched the burning ship sink into the shallow water they heard the ringing of its tiny bell.

The Lutherans needed a bell for their new church, and with Morgan Steamship Lines’ permission, some of the members dove into the bay to retrieve the bell for the church steeple.

Nine years later, during the Civil War, Union troops occupied Indianola for a few months.  While confiscating everything of value to take with them, a group of Union soldiers climbed the Lutheran church steeple and tossed the little bell to the ground, intending to return for it as they loaded the other booty.

That night, some of the church members quietly retrieved the bell and buried it. During the next ten years Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon, gave bells to most of the Indianola churches, which probably explains why the little bell remained buried and forgotten.

In 1875 a terrible hurricane wrecked Indianola, destroying most all the church buildings.  Many residents moved inland to places like the new railhead town of Cuero. Then, another devastating storm and fire in 1886 turned Indianola into a ghost town, forcing its residents to give up and move inland.

Meantime, Lutherans in Cuero, after holding services for several years in the German school house, finally built their first church in 1889.  As the building neared completion and talk centered on the need for a bell in the handsome steeple, one of the members remembered helping bury the little bronze bell almost twenty-five years earlier.  He led a group to the site where the little bell waited, and they proudly mounted it in the steeple.  For about five years the bell called the congregation to worship until a member donated a much larger bell.

Again, the little bronze bell took a new life summoning volunteers of the Cuero Fire Department.  After several years, the volunteer firemen installed a modern alert system, and an observant church member discovered the little bell tossed in a trash heap.   Upon completion of the present church in 1939, the little bell found its final home as one of three bells in the peal.

Serving as St. Mark’s Prayer Bell, it rings when worshipers pray the Lord’s Prayer and it tolls softly at the conclusion of funeral services as the casket is moved from the front of the church to the narthex.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church history claims the little bronze bell as a symbol for the calling of God’s people—to continue serving as circumstances change, even after being buried and resurrected or thrown on a trash heap.