It was time to make a decision. On April 21, 1836, General Sam Houston and his newly formed army of the Republic of Texas squinted across the Texas prairie at the men sent to gun them down: the Mexican army. The Texans were outnumbered, undertrained, and desperate to avenge what they felt was unfair treatment by the Mexican government. As the day warmed and the mosquitoes swarmed, their rage came to a head. The Mexican soldiers, having failed to post a lookout during their afternoon siesta, were awakened by the panicked screams of their leaders and the smell of gunpowder. The Battle of San Jacinto lasted only eighteen minutes, creating a new nation: the Republic of Texas.
Houston was officially established on August 30, 1836, just 20 miles (32 km) from the San Jacinto battleground. Its founders were Augustus C. and John K. Allen, brothers from New York who had befriended General Houston before the Texas Revolution. The Allens were imaginative and ambitious land speculators. They supported the Texas Revolution with gold rather than lead, contributing money and supplies to the badly underfunded army of the Republic of Texas. When the war concluded, they purchased over 6,500 acres (2,631 hectares) of land near the Buffalo Bayou for less than $1.50 per acre, naming the new town site after their old friend and new official leader, Sam Houston. Envisioning a lucrative trading post on Buffalo Bayou, they immediately began promoting the town to anyone who would listen.
By 1837, the Allens had successfully lobbied for Houston, at the time consisting of just a handful of tents, to become the temporary capital of the Republic of Texas. As in other parts of the new republic, land grants were offered to settlers meeting certain qualifications. People trickled in as crude frame houses sprouted, birthing a rough and somewhat rowdy village typical of frontier Texas. It was not an easy place to live or do business. The bayou they banked on for generating trade was constricted and difficult to navigate. Even the most basic amenities and infrastructure were scarce commodities. But in a town started by and for entrepreneurs, people continued to see more hope than hassle in the future of Houston.
Houston’s role as the republic’s capital lasted only two short years. It was crushed by San Houston’s political opponents and the possibility of Texas acquiring New Mexico which necessitated having a capital farther to the west. But its commercial momentum continued, and the adrenaline associated with establishing a new nation pulsed through the United States and Europe. Immigrants poured in from around the world.
Cotton would make Houston an important city during the Civil War. Insulated by its geography and trade, little of the Texas soil was seen by Northern forces. Despite its failed affair with the Confederacy, the latter half of the nineteenth century brought a modest amount of prosperity. In 1853 Houstons first railroad, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado, was built. First National Bank was chartered in 1866. Telephones, public schools, and even an automobile or two all made their way to the Bayou City. In the 1880’s New York and Houston were the first American cities to build power plants. Efforts were also started to make the bayou more accommodating to trade.
In January of 1901, in the nearby town of Beaumont, a group of wildcatters ushered in a new age of Houston history: Oil. Spindletop, the name of the knoll where the oil was found, marked the beginning of an economic windfall that would make the California Gold Rush pale in comparison. Enterprising engineers and businessmen rushed to the region by the thousands. Merchants prospered and many financial alliances were formed. Though their enterprises began outside the city limits, these new oil barons would center their operations in Houston.
Despite the Great Depression, the period between 1901 and World War II was a perfect storm of enterprise and economic prosperity for Houston. Accompanying the discovery of oil, engineers finally brought the Houston Ship Channel (formerly Buffalo Bayou) to a depth of 25 feet (7.6 meters). In 1915, the first deep-water vessel – the Satilla – landed at its wharf. The one-time tent city now had both unlimited access to a valuable international commodity and an efficient means of delivering it. Over the next two decades, oil refineries sprouted up everywhere along the ship channel. The oil went out, and the opportunities came in.
In Houston, culture started to boom. Social clubs of every variety proliferated and Texas’s first fine arts museum was born. Theaters, music halls, and drama societies of every size and variety drew heavy patronage. Universities were born and began to set a high standard. A symphony orchestra was established. Mansions built in the High Victorian architecture style flooded the streets as the names of its pioneering families ceased to be associated with their former lives in New York, Massachusetts, and Germany. These families became the fabric of what had just become the most populous city in Texas. It is true – success really does breed success. The decades following World War I brought a growing skyline, luxurious suburbs, and dramatic improvements in the city’s infrastructure. The Texas Medical Center was founded in 1943. Five years later, Houston saw the construction of Texas’s first freeway. The arts continued to develop. National recognition for Houston’s progress was shown in 1963 when NASA moved in Manned Spacecraft Center to the city [and again in 1965 with the completion of the world’s first completely enclosed air-conditioned stadium]. Houston today is part Manhattan, part Republic of Texas, and part United Nations. Life in Houston brings the world to one’s doorstep. One is as likely to come across a Hindu temple, a Haitian poetry recital, or a horse race. There is almost no ethnic food that can’t be found, no type of art that can’t be enjoyed, and no enterprise without potential. Despite its urbanization, the institutions and incidents defining Houston since its days of Mexican rule have left many footprints across its 620 square miles (approx. 1000 sq. kilometers) and following them is a fascinating journey. From Sam Houston’s fateful battle to today’s ongoing fight for continual progress and prosperity, the city of Houston has – then and now – proved itself an unbeatable champion.
Source: Introduction to Houston Then & Now by William Dylan Powell
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