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THE GAY NINETIES (1890-1900)

By 1890 the population of the United States had climbed to 62,947,714, and that of Texas to 2,235,749 moving the state up to 7th place among the union, compared to its 11th place rank ten years earlier. During the same period, the urban population of Texas increased from 146,795 to 349,511 or to 15.6 percent of the state's total. Some 27,557 Houstonians were counted in the 1890 census, with 37,249 in the county. In the influx of people to the agricultural areas, Harris County did not fare so well, and dropped to eighth place in the state. Grayson County with 52,211, yielded first place ranking to Dallas County with 67,042. Bexar County was third with 49,266, and Tarrant County fourth with 41,142.

By 1890, Houstonians felt they were living in a very modern world, with electric lights, block or cobblestone streets, and a belief that the future would be richer and better. Fancy, horse-drawn rigs were a status symbol, and cities were beginning to fill more important roles in civilization. The exhaustion of the War between the States and the frustration of reconstruction were past, and "the gay nineties" were characterized by society at play. Public meeting places became more sumptuous, and bicycles had taken the country by storm. But the decade that opened with such promise saw depression go from bad to worse to disastrous in an economic panic. But the decade ended on another rising tide of confidence, with the "New York Times" striking the general note when it observed that the 19th century had been "marked by the greater progress in all that pertains to the material well-being and enlightenment of mankind than all the previous history of the race; and the political, social, and moral advancement has been hardly less striking."

The last decade of the 19th century brought many highlights to mankind. Roentgen discovered X-ray, Marching invented the wireless telegraph, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium, Zeppelin invented a rigid lighter-than-air ship, Edison patented a motion picture camera with the first moving picture being shown on a public screen, and Ford built his first automobile. Labor strife was highlighted by the Homestead strike in Pennsylvania and the Pullman strike in Chicago. Coxey's Army marched on Washington to urge emergency work projects to help unemployed and the leader was arrested for trespassing on the Capitol grounds. A trend became increasingly apparent toward consolidation of railroads, utilities and industry. Boll weevils came to Texas. Peary claimed he reached the North Pole. It became acceptable for males to smoke at social functions. Billy Sunday started his evangelistic career. And McKinley became the first President of the United States to ride in an automobile--a Stanley Steamer.

Prior to 1900, a dominant problem in Texas was how to get cotton, cattle and lumber to markets far beyond the boundaries of the state. This period in Texas economic history was dominated by production in bulk of a few materials which had to be disposed of mainly in markets outside the state. Such an economy is essentially a colonial economy--an economy dependent upon outside markets, not only for its prosperity, but even for its very existence.

Houston, by 1890, was recognized as the railroad center of Texas. The Port of Houston was opened to the world after the federal government reimbursed Commodore Morgan's estate for the cost of the channel he had cut across Morgan's Point, and the toll-chain was lowered for the last time. During 1891, Houston started operating its first electric street cars, and the 12 railroads hauled increasing tonnages of freight into and out of the city each day.

Seeing Houston's past progress as but a promise of future possibilities, the Chamber of Commerce pushed programs of civic development, encouraged expansion of commerce and industry, fought for competitive rates, and furnished information to everyone interested in Houston's development. With the frontier days behind it, the Chamber of Commerce changed from being principally a mercantile association, regulating business practices and settling merchant's disputes, to a wider scope of community development effort.

When Pianist Jan Paderewski played a concert in the new Main Street auditorium in 1896, Houston had a dozen public schools, 44 churches, and a shell road running east as far as Harrisburg. As the first horseless carriage was demonstrated in 1897, Houston put down its first asphalt paving.

When the century drew to a close, even more pressing matters than the Spanish-American War engaged the interest of Houstonians, and an enormous new concept challenged the vision and vigor of the community's leadership. Houston's dream of a deepwater seaport would be made a reality if only Buffalo Bayou could be dredged into a suitable deep Ship Channel. As usual, the Chamber of Commerce organized the effort. Factories and industries brought to Houston by the Chamber of Commerce joined the fight.

In 1898, Houstonians went to Washington to appear before the Rivers and Harbors Committee of the Congress to lay hard logic before that body, since the federal government by law maintains navigable waterways. The project for a channel twenty-five feet deep from the foot of Main Street in Houston to Bolivar Roads in Galveston Bay was approved by Congress on March 3, 1899, and amended on February 20, 1900. Under this project, a channel was to be dredged from Bolivar Roads to Harrisburg, 18.5 feet deep, with cuts through Irish, Clinton and Harrisburg Bends. Senator Thomas H. Ball, noted Rivers and Harbors Committeeman in Congress, could get only $400,000 appropriated, however, and this was barely enough to deepen the channel to 17.5 feet.

 

 




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