From the Mudflats of 1836 the Allen Brothers and their Dreamtown

The Allen Brothers bought a bog, named it after General Sam Houston, and the rest is history in the making

Mosquitoes, snakes, mudflats, tangled undergrowth, a wilderness with a somewhat nondescript bayou meandering along.

Main Street, Houston, Texas.

Main Street, Houston, Texas.

Hardly the sort of place anyone would expect to become an almost futuristic city of gleaming towers rising toward the sky, and well over a 3.88 million residents.  Not the likeliest-looking place to locate what would become, in the short span of little more than 176 years, officially the United States’ fourth largest city.

In 1836, the United States itself was far from being the international leader it would become: the State of Texas wasn’t even in existence.  The unlikely-looking spot, in fact, was a part of what had just become a brand new Republic and had won its independence from Mexico only four months earlier.

But this was where two New York real estate promoters—the Brothers J. K. and A. C. Allen—decided to start a new town.  They paid the large sum of $9,428 (only $1,000 of it in cash) for 6,642 acres of land situated at the head of navigation on the west bank of the Buffalo Bayou.

They named it Houston in honor of their hero and good friend, General Sam Houston, whose tattered band of Texans had defeated General Santa Anna’s army at San Jacinto on April 21 of the same year.  They also were rather certain this good friend would become the Republic’s first President—and they wanted the Capital in their new town.

They prophetically advertised that “The town of Houston is located at a point on the river which must ever command the trade of the largest and richest portion of Texas,” and they added that “when the rich lands of this country shall be settled, a trade will flow to it, making it, beyond all doubt, the great interior commercial emporium of Texas.”

Grandiose ideas these two brothers had. Their advertisements for this desolate wilderness made claims that today would bring down upon their heads the wrath of enforcers of “truth in advertising.”

But the immigrants came, they sought homesteads, they settled, and they started their village.  It was not easy, but such has been the lot of pioneers and adventurers.  They faced a struggle for survival despite the fact that by 1837 the community was experiencing boom  conditions.  Yet, lawlessness, epidemics and financial problems struck unmercifully.  At the close of 1839, some 10 percent of the population had died from recurring epidemics of yellow fever.  New Orleans suppliers had cut off the credit on which Houston’s merchants depended, and the Republic’s own currency dropped to 50 cents on the U.S. dollar, then 25 cents, then 10 cents.

The Allen Brothers had sought and won location of the Republic’s capital at Houston—but in January, 1839, President Mirabeau B. Lamar approved a bill moving it to Austin (then know as “Waterloo”).  The Archives and furnishings of the first Capitol were loaded into wagons and moved to the new site in October, 1839, and the building was for rent.

Community moral continued to disintegrate and the young municipal government was not strong enough to meet the issues.  In November, 1838, a bill had been introduced into the Congress of the Republic to charter a Houston Chamber of Commerce, but action on the proposal was delayed by several early Texas political crises—expulsion of the local district’s Senator from Congress; emergency adjournment of the Congress when a mob broke up the session with a demonstration following his almost unanimous re-election to the post.

It was 1840 before the Houston Chamber of Commerce came into actual being, with a meeting of seven men on the morning of April 4.  During this time, community conditions continued to worsen.  The new organization had its fight ahead to salvage a dying village—but the little group doubled its number, continued to grow, unified the community’s efforts and things began to improve again.

It has been estimated that, at the time, there were fewer than 100,000 people in all of the Republic of Texas, and less than 2,000 of them in Harris County.  As the City of Houston observes its 172nd anniversary this August, the last official U.S. Census of 2006 showed 3,886,207 persons living within the city and 3,935,855 persons living within Harris County…figures that would have boggled the minds of the Allen Brothers.

It was approaching the mid-1800s when Houston began to realize the stimulus of its position as a “port” to its suffering economy.  Stephen F. Austin’s inland colonist needed the benefits of the water-borne transportation which could make its way to Houston through Buffalo Bayou.

Back in January, 1837, the Laura became the first steamship ever to visit Houston.  From Clopper’s Bar (now Morgan’s Point), the little vessel proceeded to Harrisburg (a mere 15 miles by water) the Laura took three days to reach Houston, hampered by frequent stops to cut down overhanging trees or blow up log jams.

The early City Fathers dignified this uncertain waterway and officially established the “Port of Houston,” and in 1842 the Congress of the Republic  granted the city the right to remove obstructions from the Bayou.  It was 1844 when the large steamboat Constitution was brought to the Port of Houston—but it could not turn around in the narrow channel and had to be backed downstream to turn around at a wider point in the Bayou, earning that historic spot the name “Constitution Bend.”

Meanwhile, stagecoach services had followed the early waterway improvements and boosted commerce even more.

Although Houston was pulling itself together, the Republic of Texas was not without its problems, and Texans looked more favorably toward joining the United States.  However, there were several years of doubt and indecision before the step was taken,  and on December 29, 1845, Texas was accepted into the Union.

Less than 10 years after the formation of the Republic and the founding of Houston—on February 19, 1846—the Lone Star Flag was hauled down from above the Capitol at Austin, and the Stars and Stripes went up in its place, carrying a new 28th star for Texas.

In 1846, Houston also established itself as a community deeply interested in education.  President Lamar, in his first message to the Congress of the Republic in 1838, established a goal for public education in Texas, and eight years later persons from throughout the new state of Texas gathered in Houston (in what probably was the first state convention ever held here) to show their interest in education.  Their objective was to adopt uniform textbooks to be used in Texas schools.

Today there are 26 school districts in Harris County and the Houston Independent School District is the largest public school system in Texas and the seventh-largest in the United States.  There is an estimated enrollment of 700,000 K-12 public education students in these 26 school districts within the greater Houston-Harris County area.   More than 52,000 students are enrolled in the area’s 211 private and parochial schools.  There are 289,000 college students, which makes it one of the nation’s leading academic centers. Forty-one public colleges, universities, and institutes dot the Houston landscape in Harris County alone.

In 1844, the Houston Academy opened with 100 students.  Today, the Houston Independent School District has an enrollment of 205,000 students in nearly 300 schools and programs.  In 2002, HISD was named the nation’s top-performing urban school district by the California-based Broad Foundation, due in part to its success in narrowing the achievement gap between economic and ethnic groups.

Transportation of all kinds played prime roles in the growth of Houston.  The first railroad here—the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado Railroad—was organized in 1847, but construction was not started for four years, and the first 20 miles of railroad in Texas (and the second railroad west of the Mississippi River) was inaugurated by the company in 1853.  Following it was the Galveston & Red River Railway Company, renamed the Houston & Texas Central Railway Company.  With rail service and the Port of Houston gaining in importance, industry came to the fledgling city with an iron foundry and a large warehouse for cotton, hides and other commodities.

By 1853, the port had become so important, that the Texas Legislature appointed $4,000 to improve the channel of Buffalo Bayou.

By 1856, Main Street was being resurfaced with shell; trains began to roll between Houston and Galveston over the Galveston, Houston & Red River Railroad.  The city of Houston built the Tap Railroad to Pierce Junction.  A city-owned dredge deepened Buffalo Bayou for steamboats, and prosperity seemed sure and permanent.

But despite the advent of  the railroad and the increasing the use of the port, ox-wagons and other more primitive means of transport continued to carry much of the cotton and other products of the country.  Years later, however, as more and more rail service came to Houston and the port continued to grow, the Houston Chamber of Commerce characterized Houston as the city “Where Seventeen Railways Meet the Sea.”

At the very beginning, the Allen Brothers unknowingly provided their new town with one of its greatest advantages for the future.  They hired Gail Borden (publisher, surveyor, and originator of condensed milk) and Thomas H. Borden to survey and map the site.  Gail Borden laid out the city’s streets 80 feet wide with the principal east-west thoroughfare (Texas Avenue) a full 100 feet.  Early settlers jeered, hooted and criticized such wide streets—but Borden’s plan provided ample width for Houston’s downtown traffic after the advent of the horseless carriage.  Today, with more than a million passenger cars and trucks registered in Harris County, those broad downtown streets, although crowded with traffic, continue to carry the load far more efficiently and faster than the narrow streets of many older U. S. cities.

The Port of Houston and the “river” called Buffalo Bayou—one of the Allen Brothers’ principal reasons for choosing the site in 1836—was a dream brought to reality through the efforts of early Houstonians who inherited the Allen Brothers’ entrepreneurship and developed their own determination that they could do anything they really set their minds to.

About the turn of the century, a group of concerned Houston leaders began to intensify their efforts to provide a deep-water port for ocean shipping.  A Houston delegation called upon the Congress of the U. S. (the federal government being responsible for ports), but their reception was far from warm.  Congressmen couldn’t see appropriating federal funds to dig a ditch so an inland Texas city could have a seaport.

Undaunted, and in a dramatic move born of desperation, Houston businessmen and bankers offered to contribute half the cost, if the Congress would appropriate the other half.  This novel and voluntary local participation shocked Congress into action, and approval of Houston’s proposition set a pattern which is still followed in requiring local participation in such projects.

The investment has been repaid many times over—in customs collections alone.  And the port, in 1973 tallied a record 86,218,835 tons of cargo handled and a net income of $4,854,662.  In 2006, more than 200 million tons of cargo moved through the Port of Houston.  A total of 7,550 vessel calls were recorded at the Port of Houston during the same year.

Ship channel-related businesses supported more than 785,000 jobs throughout Texas while generating nearly $118 billion of statewide economic impact.  Additionally, more than $3.7 billion in state and local tax revenues are generated by business activities related to the port.  It is projected that the Port of Houston will continue to be an important factor as north-south trade expands.

Houston’s early economy was based on agriculture and natural resources such as timber—and Harris County still remains an agricultural leader.  But 1901 marked the beginning of a new era with the discovery of oil at Spindletop.  The old wooden derricks began to dot prairies, and when World War I came along a few years later—plus the rising momentum of the motor industry in this country—Texas and Houston became strongly identified with the oil industry.

Houston still is strongly identified with the oil industry, not only because of the development of refineries and other petroleum-related plants which clustered here, and the transition in the 1940s to petro-chemical processing, but due to the concentration of headquarters operations of major oil companies here and this area’s deep involvement in offshore drilling and production.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the area’s economy began to change again, as business and industry started to diversify.  The metals industry gained in importance here.  Then came the Space Age and the location of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration’s Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center) nearby.  Houston became a name know worldwide as it was designated the nerve-center of the nation’s exploration into space—control center for the Moon landings and the first word spoken from the Moon to Earth.

Development of the famed Texas Medical Center and the area’s other major medical and health-care facilities also increased this attraction of brilliant minds, skilled physicians and innovative researchers.  It also began to draw international patients to the Center as its renown spread.  Its tremendous growth pushed the Texas Medical Center to the top as Houston’s major employer, and at the start of 1974, the total number of employees in the Center reached 17, 000.  Today, the Texas Medical Center receives over five million annual patient visits including over ten thousand international patients.  In 2006, the center employed over 73,500 people, including 4,000 physicians and 11,000 registered nurses.

Adding to the Center’s reasons for fame—which have multiplied with accelerated rapidity during recent years—the first National Heart and Blood Vessel Research & Demonstration Center (founded at $13.3 million over a five-year period) was designated at Baylor College of Medicine in July, 1974.  Science and research grants to Houston-area institutions have mounted into many millions of dollars with this growth as a leading U. S. medical center benefiting Houston’s colleges and universities, its scientific community as a whole.  Many millions more are spent by industry on research and development.

Houston, also has lost its stigma as a city without culture.  In fact, despite its rowdy early years, the fledgling town soon began to bring noted artists to its primitive stages.  Today, it has the noted Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Grand Opera, the nationally-known Alley Theatre, the Houston Ballet, plus ten museums, galleries, art collections and hundreds of other theaters, arts-oriented groups and patrons of the visual and performing arts.

Since the turn of the century, Houston’s population has doubled every 20 years.  Much of this has been immigration—the people who come to Houston because it’s the city in the news, the place where the action is, an area where the unemployment rate keeps well below the national average and there is almost always a job available.

Physically, the city has spread from the Allen Brothers’ original 6,642 acres to a total of a little over 601.7 square miles, of which, 579.4 square miles of it is land and 22.3 square miles of it is water and Harris County contains better than 1,778 square miles, of which, 1,729 square miles of it is land and 49 square miles of it is water.  From the wide but muddy streets laid out by the Bordens, downtown Houston’s wide (but paved) streets have become canyons between towering office buildings, stores and hotels.  And the city is still building—it’s not finished yet.

Houston is a young city—compared to most others its size.  It’s a young city in the median age of its population—still in the 30s.  But Houston does have its history, its traditions, its heritage—and Houstonians are proud of this and do not forget their city’s glorious past.

Happy 175th birthday Houston, Texas!

About mrhoustonian

A native Houstonian with a passion for preserving online Houston's great past.
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