Nicholas Clayton, Texas Architect

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’

Nicholas Clayton
Wikipedia

shipping, banks, insurance companies, and the vast cotton export business. But, 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 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 caught the eye of Galveston notables.

Beach Hotel,
Galveston Historical Foundation.

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Austin
McIlvain

A faithful Catholic, who attended mass almost every day, Clayton began his connection with Galveston’s movers and shakers by walking, as soon as he arrived, 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 the statue of Mary, Star of the Sea.

The bishop may have been influential the next year in Clayton receiving the contract to design Saint Mary’s Church (now Saint Mary’s Cathedral) in Austin, which served at that time as part of the Galveston Diocese.

Clayton’s residential, commercial, and church designs won respect for their exuberance of shape, color, texture, and detail. He was so involved in his work that he often continued sketching church buildings, windows, altars, and steeples, even while carrying on a conversation. He worked every day except Sunday and Christmas and expected near perfection from those he employed. His family claimed his most abusive term was “muttonhead” for those who did not meet his expectations.

He designed, built, added to, or remodeled eleven churches in Galveston and other churches all over the South 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. The carpentry has never been matched in the Beach Hotel

Ashbel Smith Building, “Old Red,” First Building for the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Gresham House, “Bishop’s Palace,” High Victoria style Wikipedia

(1883-1898) and the Electric Pavilion (1881-1883), both destroyed by fires. The flamboyant octagonal Garten Verein (1876- ), an inspired work in wood, served as a social center for the German community.

Gresham House, Bishop’s Palace
Galveston Historical FoundationClayton worked quickly and new ideas appeared to come easily. Mrs. Clayton claimed that the idea for the design of the octagonal-shaped Garten Verein 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

Grand staircase, Bishop’s Palace
Galveston Historical Foundation

the grand details is a forty-foot tall octagonal mahogany stairwell with stained glass on five sides lit by a large skylight. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Gresham House is one of the most significant Victorian residences in the country.

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, often caused him to go over budget for a project, and he would continue working 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 that eventually resulted in bankruptcy. As the 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––still considered the worst natural disaster in US history––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 original structure. He built the new Incarnate Word Academy in Houston, but he could never get a bond for a large contract.

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

Mrs. Clayton grieved to her husband’s dear friend Rabbi Henry Cohen, that she did not have money for a proper monument. 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 all over the country, and eighty-six have been razed. His legacy continues in the beauty and style he brought to his beloved Galveston, known as “The Texas Victorian Oasis.”

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Texas’ Grand Lady

Elissa is a pricey lady, but Galvestonians claim her as their own and nothing stands in Slide08the way when it comes to preserving this beauty. Built in 1877 in Aberdeen, Scotland, at the beginning of the age of steam, she is one of the last of her kind—a three-masted, square-rigged barque—measuring 205 feet from her stern to the tip of her jibboom.

After years of traveling the world, by 1961 she had been reduced to smuggling cigarettes between Italy and Yugoslavia. Peter Throckmorton, a marine archeologist, was aware that the Galveston Historical Foundation wanted a sailing vessel to display as a visual link between the city’s thriving 19th-century port and its major businesses lining The Strand. Throckmorton spotted the much-altered old barque in a Greek scrapyard.  Once aboard, Throckmorton discovered a plaque identifying the Elissa. More investigation revealed the dilapidated hulk as the oldest ship registered with Lloyds of London and its log showed two visits to Galveston.

She first arrived in Galveston on December 26, 1883, with one passenger and a cargo of bananas. The following January 25 she left port loaded with cotton, bound for Liverpool, England.

Her next visit occurred on September 8, 1886, when she arrived from Paysandú, Uruguay, probably carrying a cargo of hardwood or sugar. She sailed for Pensacola, Florida, on September 26 carrying only her ballast.

Over the years, the Elissa knew at least seven owners and carried names such as Fjeld, while berthed in Norway; Gustaf, while sailing out of Norway; and even Christophoros when purchased by Greeks. Each new name reflected the identity of her owners and brought physical changes such as losing some of her grand sails, acquiring her first engine in 1918, and having her bow snubbed in 1936.

Even after Throckmorton discovered the Elissa, the Galveston Historical Foundation did not purchase her until 1975 for $40,000. Despite the GHF sending a restoration team to Greece to make her seaworthy, and replacing twenty-five percent of the hull and removing tons of rust and rotten wood, the Elissa had to be towed across the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston.

As she made the journey across the Atlantic, the Elissa became the first object to be granted placement on the National Register of Historic Places while still outside the bounds of the United States.

No blueprints existed to guide the restoration, but the new owners realized she must be made seaworthy to attract the support needed to complete the enormous task. Experts arrived from Europe, Africa, and all over the United States to direct a corps of volunteers who descended on the fine old ship, varnishing the woodwork and going aloft to “tar” the rigging to keep it from rotting.

On July 4, 1982, with the restoration completed at a cost of $3.6 million, Texas had its “Tall Ship.” The Elissa sailed the Gulf of Mexico and began receiving a long list of awards for its restoration and for its volunteer program. The most prestigious accolade came in 1984 from the National Trust—the Preservation Honor Award.

In 1985 Elissa made her first voyage as a restored sailing ship to Corpus Christi.  The following year she sailed to New York harbor for the Statue of Liberty celebration and tall ship parade where she held the honor of being the oldest of the event’s Class A vessels.

Over the years, the Elissa represented Texas from Brownsville to Pensacola and received designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Anchored at Pier 21, her home is the Texas Seaport Museum where the story of her restoration is displayed alongside accounts of Galveston’s seaborne commerce and immigration. Elissa reigned as one of Galveston’s premier tourist attractions until January 2011, when a trip to dry dock for regular maintenance revealed corrosion penetrating spots in her hull. Apparently, Hurricane Ike in 2008 caused far worse damage than inspectors recognized. After repairs to her hull and replacement of the wood deck, repairs estimated at $3.1 million, Elissa returned to her place in Texas history.

Today, Elissa is being readied for the Tall Ship Challenge, a series of races and festivals hosted by three Gulf ports––Galveston, New Orleans, and Pensacola. The events begin in Galveston on April 5 with a Parade of Sail, which is already sold out. Over the next three days, Galveston Bay Sails and Harbor Twilight Sails will be open to the public. Finally, on Monday, April 9, Elissa will lift her sails to begin the race across the Gulf to New Orleans. The grand lady is a survivor, and she will represent Texas pride.

 

NORRIS WRIGHT CUNEY RISES TO POWER AFTER THE CIVIL WAR

Born into slavery in 1846, Norris Wright Cuney did not lead an ordinary slave’s life. His education and other opportunities led the way to his becoming one of Texas’ most powerful black political leaders of the nineteenth century. Cuney’s father, Colonel Philip Cuney, one of the largest landholders in Texas, owned 105 slaves and operated the 2,000-acre Sunnyside Plantation near Hempstead. Cuney’s mulatto mother Adeline Stuart was one of the colonel’s slaves, but she worked as the colonel’s chief housekeeper and bore eight of his children. Cuney’s mother made sure that he and his siblings never lived in the slave quarters or worked as plantation field hands. In fact, Cuney learned to play the bass violin and carried it with him when he traveled with his father on trading trips.

Norris Wright Cuney

During the time Cuney was growing up, his father also had a white family. About the time his father married his second wife in 1843, he also embarked on a political career as a member of the House of Representative of the Republic of Texas. He became a delegate to the Convention of 1845 that voted for Texas annexation to the United States, and he served as a brigadier general in the Texas Militia. After Texas joined the Union he became a member of the Texas State Legislature and the State Senate.

In 1853, not long after Colonel Cuney married his third wife, he left his plantation in the hands of an overseer and moved all his family to Houston, including Adeline Stuart and her children. That same year he began freeing his black children, starting with Cuney’s older brother Joseph went to the Wylie Street School for blacks in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Over the years Colonel Cuney continued freeing his children and their mother Adeline Stuart.

In 1859 Cuney and his sister Jennie were freed. Cuney went to school in Pittsburgh and Jennie sailed to Europe for her education. Jennie later passed as a member of the white community.

The Civil War disrupted Cuney’s studies, and he spent the wars years working on steamboats between Cincinnati and New Orleans where he met and became influenced by black leaders such as P.B.S. Pinchback, who became Louisiana’s first black governor after the Civil War.

After the war, Norris Wright Cuney settled in Galveston near the homes of his mother and brothers. He began studying law and took advantage of being a literate, educated mulatto son of a wealthy white man. He worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Union League during the Reconstruction-era to push former slaves to the voting booth, which resulted in more than 100,000 blacks voting annually into the 1890s. When the Reconstruction Legislature established a public school system, Cuney worked to ensure that tax money also went to black students within the segregated system.

Cuney married Adelina Dowdie, a schoolteacher, and daughter of a mulatto slave mother and a white planter father. The Cuney’s had two children, and since both parents were musical—Cuney played the violin and Adelina was a singer— art and music filled their home, and they emphasized education. Their son Lloyd Garrison Cuney, named for the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, became an official in the Congregation Church. Their daughter Maud Cuney Hare studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and became an accomplished pianist, folklorist, writer, and community organizer in Boston. She wrote Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People.

Maud Cuney-Hare

 

Over the years of Cuney negotiating with white elites and despite serious strikes, unionized blacks finally gained access as workers on Galveston’s docks.

After being elected the Texas national committeeman in the Republican Party in 1886, Cuney became Texas party chairman, the most powerful position of any African American in the South at that time. However, his position did not sit well with some Republicans in Texas and throughout the country, which led to some in the party trying to have black leaders expelled. Cuney coined the term “Lily-White Movement” to describe the Republican effort.

In 1889 Cuney was appointed U.S. Collector of Custom in Galveston, the highest-ranking position of any black man in the South in the late nineteenth century. However, Cuney’s death that year coincided with efforts across the South to disfranchise black and poor white voters. Legislatures passed laws that made voter registration difficult and Texas instituted the Poll Tax and White Primaries (only whites could vote in the primaries) that greatly reduced the number of black voters from the high of 100,000 in the 1890s to less than 5,000 by 1906. During the Great Depression, racial strife within the unions dissolved much of the labor cooperation that had been established between blacks and whites.

Despite Cuney’s legacy of inspiring other black leaders, and the designation by some historians of the period between 1884 and 1896 as the “Cuney Era,” it would take the passage in the 1960s of the Civil Rights laws before blacks across the South regained the right to vote.

Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People

Jane Long, Pioneer Texan

School children often read that Jane Long was the “Mother of Texas.”  She was a courageous woman who followed her husband as he

Jane Long

Jane Long

led a group of filibusters intent on freeing Texas from Spanish rule.  However, many Native American, Mexican, and several English-speaking women came to Texas before Jane Long arrived in 1819.  Born in 1798, the youngest of ten children, Jane Herbert Wilkinson lost both her parents by the time she was thirteen.  She lived with her sister on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, where she met the dashing James Long after he returned from the battle of New Orleans. They married before her sixteenth birthday, and for several years James Long practiced medicine, operated a plantation, and worked as a merchant in Natchez

James Long and many of the residents in the Natchez area were unhappy over the Adams-Onís Treaty, in which Spain gave Florida to the United States in exchange for the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase being drawn at the Sabine River.  Originally they expected, and even Thomas Jefferson stated, that the boundary should be the Rio Grande, which would have made Texas part of the United States. Citizens of the United States had already made several filibustering attempts to wrest Texas from Spain, when James Long in 1819 was named commander of an expedition financed by subscriptions totaling about $500,000.  Over 300 young men volunteered, expecting to receive a league of Texas land in exchange for their service.

When James Long left for Texas, Jane was expecting a baby and remained behind with their eighteen-month-old daughter, Ann.  The second girl, Rebecca, was born on June 16 and twelve days later Jane left hurriedly with both children and Kian, her young slave girl. By the time they reached Alexandria, Louisiana, Jane was sick.  She left both children and Kian with friends and plunged on, finally reaching Nacogdoches in August.  The citizens of Nacogdoches had declared the independence of Texas, organized a provisional government, and named James Long its chief.  Supplies did not arrive as expected from Natchez, and Long made a fruitless attempt to persuade the pirate Jean Laffite, who occupied Galveston Island, to provide supplies and men for the expedition.  Finally in October Spanish authorities sent more than 500 troops to Nacogdoches to drive the Long Expedition out of Texas.

As they fled to Louisiana, the Longs learned their baby, Rebecca, had died. Undeterred by his failure, Long organized a new expedition and by March 1820, he took Jane, their daughter Ann, and the slave girl Kian with him to Bolivar Peninsula, a spit of land extending into Galveston Bay across from the eastern end of Galveston Island.  Long organized his forces at Fort Las Casas on Point Bolivar and apparently continued to court the elusive Jean Laffite.  In later years, when Jane recounted her experience on Bolivar Peninsula, she claimed that she dined privately with Laffite in an effort to get his support for her husband’s expedition.  She also said that she made a flag, which she called “the lone star” for Long’s troops to carry with them.

Finally in September 1821, Long and fifty-two men sailed to La Bahía (present Goliad) with plans to capture the town.  In the meantime, Mexico had won its independence from Spain and had no intention of allowing citizens from the United States to capture Texas.  After holding La Bahía for only four days, Mexican forces overpowered Long’s troops and they were taken as prisoners to Mexico City where Long was killed about six months later.

Jane, who was expecting another baby, promised James that she would wait with several others families at Fort Las Casas on Bolivar Peninsula.  After a month of waiting for Long and his men to return, the food supplies began running low, and the Karankawa Indians in the area were becoming increasingly unfriendly.  The families began to leave, but Jane insisted on waiting for her husband until she, her daughter Anne and Kian were all that remained at the fort. With the help of Kian, Jane gave birth to daughter Mary James on December 21, 1821, at a time when it was so cold that Galveston Bay froze.  In early 1822, as their food supply dwindled to almost nothing, an immigrant family arrived, and Jane reluctantly moved with them up the San Jacinto River.  That summer she received word that James Long had been killed.  She returned to Louisiana, but after Mary James died in 1824, Jane Long returned to Texas and received a league of land in Stephen F. Austin’s colony. Family tradition says that Jane was courted by many of Texas’ leaders including Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, Ben Milam, and Mirabeau B. Lamar, but she refused all their proposals, apparently remaining loyal to James Long—the love of her life.

After living several years in San Felipe, the headquarters of Stephen F. Austin’s colony, she opened a boarding house in Brazoria.  The Bolivar Peninsula Cultural Foundation, which maintains Jane Long’s memorabilia, states that Jane held a ball at her boarding house in Brazoria when Stephen F. Austin returned in 1835 from prison in Mexico.  It was at the ball that Austin made his first speech favoring Texas independence from Mexico.  The foundation claims that during the Texas Revolution in 1836 Jane fled Brazoria ahead of the advancing Mexican Army and that she saved the papers of Mirabeau Lamar, which included his original history of Texas.

In 1837, at the age of thirty-nine, Jane Long moved to her league of land, part of which she sold to developers for the town of Richmond.  She opened another boarding house and ran a plantation with the help of twelve slaves.  At the beginning of the Civil War, she had nineteen slaves and 2,000 acres valued at $13,300. After the Civil War, she worked her land with tenant farmers.  When her daughter Ann died in 1870, the value of Jane’s estate had diminished to $2,000.  Jane Long died at her grandson’s home on December 30, 1880.

Today, the Bolivar Peninsula Cultural Foundation has dedicated a Jane Long Memorial on Bolivar Peninsula, which consists of a monument, Texas historical markers, and three flags—the United States, the Texas, and the Jane Long flag.

Jane Long Memorial, Bolivar Peninsula

Jane Long Memorial, Bolivar Peninsula

Indianola: Gateway to the Southwest

Ghost town of Indianola. Diorama created by Jeff Underwood, Philip Thomae photographer, Courtesy of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Ghost town of Indianola. Diorama created by Jeff Underwood, Philip Thomae photographer, Courtesy of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Waves lap the sunbaked shell beach of a ghost town that never should have been.  Despite its locale at near sea level, people built the thriving seaport of Indianola that rivaled Galveston as a major shipping point on the Texas coast.  Its shore became the landing site for thousands of Germans escaping poverty in the old country; its port served as the debarkation point for military personnel headed west to protect settlers from marauding Indians; and its wharves hosted tons of gold and silver from the mines in Northern Mexico destined for the mint in New Orleans.

Long before Indianola sprang up on the flat, treeless shore overlooking Matagorda and Lavaca bays, the future of Texas took shape as the result of events that occurred there.  In 1685 the Frenchman, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, missed the mouth of the Mississippi River where he had planned to establish a colony and sailed another 400 miles to the central Texas coast.  He moved his ships through the treacherous sand bars and shifting currents of Pass Cavallo, the opening from the Gulf of Mexico into Matagorda Bay.  The Spanish Colonial government was so inflamed by LaSalle’s presence that it sent eleven land and sea expeditions in search of the intruders.  When the Spanish found LaSalle’s abandoned Fort St. Louis in 1689, the Frenchman had been dead for two years—murdered by his own men.  Nevertheless, the Spanish began constructing missions and presidios along the eastern border of Texas, intending to convert the Indians and provide a bulwark against French incursions from Louisiana.

One hundred years before Mexico won its independence from Spain, the Spanish padres built a mission and presidio on the site of LaSalle’s Fort Louis.  The Indians were not receptive, which forced the Spanish to move the facilities two more times before finally settling about fifty miles inland at present Goliad.

The calm waters of the inland bays encouraged the dream of protected ports.  John Linn, a Victoria merchant, established a warehouse on Lavaca Bay in 1831 that grew into Linnville a port that served, along with Galveston, as a major point of entry for goods coming into Texas.  Tragedy struck in August 1840 when 1,000 Comanches, including warriors and their families, furious at what they regarded as insulting and cruel treatment by white authorities at the Council House meeting in San Antonio the previous March, swept down across the Texas prairie stealing horses and murdering.  When they reached the shore at Linnville, they killed a few and captured two women and a child before the startled residents escaped into boats and sat helplessly offshore as they watched their town pillaged and burned. The attack, the largest against any U.S. city, became known as the Great Comanche Raid.

The next chapter in the saga of Matagorda and Lavaca bays began in Germany in the 1840s where a group of twenty-one noblemen, seeing an opportunity to ease the political unrest sweeping the country; to reduce the overcrowding of peasant farmers; and to make a fortune for themselves, organized the Adelsverein or Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas. The Adelsverein appointed Prince Karl of Solms Braunfels, a fellow aristocrat, as the emissary to lead the settlers to the new land.  When Prince Karl landed in Galveston to complete plans for the colony, he discovered that the 9,000-acre site the noblemen had purchased was too far west of Austin and San Antonio for colonists to get supplies; it occupied land that was too poor for farming; and it lay in the middle of Comanche territory.  Before Prince Karl could make other arrangements, four shiploads of Germans were dumped on the cold shell beach at Indian Point, an empty spit of land jutting into the waters where Matagorda and Lavaca bays converge.

In the coming weeks this blog post will tell the story of the development along the coast of a new port city that welcomed German immigrants, hosted two shipments of camels, and thrived economically as war clouds began to form.

Texas in the American Revolution

Texas’ inclusion in the American Revolution began on June 21, 1779, when Spain declared war on Great Britain.  Over 10,000 head of Texas cattle were rounded up on the vast rancheros operated by the Spanish missions that spread along the San Antonio River.  Presidio La Bahía at Goliad served as the gathering point from which its soldiers escorted the vaqueros trailing the cattle and several hundred horses up through Nacogdoches in East Texas to Natchitoches and on to Opelousas in Louisiana.  To help finance Spain’s involvement in the war, King Carlos III asked for donations of one peso “from all men, whether free or of other status” and two pesos from Spaniards and nobles.  An accounting dated January 20, 1784, lists a total of 1,659 pesos from presidios all over Texas where the cavalry had two pesos each taken from their pay.  At that time two pesos represented the price of a cow.

King Carlos III commissioned Bernardo de Gálvez, the governor of Louisiana, to raise an army and lead a campaign against the British along the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.  BernardoGálvezGovernor Gálvez had been in contact with Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Henry Lee who sent emissaries requesting that Gálvez secure the port of New Orleans and permit only American, Spanish, and French ships to travel the Mississippi River.  The Mississippi served as the doorway through which vast amounts of arms, ammunition, and military supplies could be moved to the troops fighting in Kentucky, Illinois, and along the northwestern frontier.

The cattle grazing the mission rancheros in Texas offered the best hope for Gálvez to feed his Spanish troops and the governor of Spanish Texas eagerly answered the request. The Texas beef helped feed from 1,400 men to over 7,000 as the campaigns under Gálvez moved from defeat of the British at Manchac and Baton Rouge in Louisiana and on to a victory at Natchez, Mississippi.  After a month-long siege using land and sea forces in 1780, Gálvez captured Fort Charlotte at Mobile.  The final push to secure the Gulf Coast began in 1781 when Spanish troops captured Pensacola, the British capital of West Florida.  The next year, a two-month siege finally overwhelmed Fort George in Pensacola, leaving the British with no bases in the Gulf of Mexico.  Finally, the Spanish force under Gálvez captured the British naval base in the Bahamas.  The war ended before General Gálvez could initiate plans to take Jamaica.  The campaigns under Gálvez kept the British from encircling the American revolutionaries from the south and kept the supply lines open from the western flank.

Gálvez helped draft the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the American Revolutionary War and returned Florida to Spain from British control.  George Washington honored Gálvez by placing him to his right in the July 4 parade and the American Congress recognized Gálvez for his service during the revolution.  Gálvez capped his career in 1785 when the Spanish crown appointed him viceroy of New Spain.

While Gálvez served as governor of Louisiana, he ordered a cartographer to survey the Gulf Coast.  The mapmaker named the largest bay on the Texas coast “Bahía de Galvezton,” later becoming Galveston.  Galveston County and St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana are among several places that bear his name.  The famous Hotel Galvez, built in 1911 on Galveston Island overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, also bears the name of the Spanish hero of the American Revolution.

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