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Born on the bayou: city's murky start


Build it and they will come: Commerce flourished at Allen’s Landing on the foot of Main Street circa 1900. Photo courtesy the Houston Metropolitan Research Center.

By John Perry

It’s no accident that Houston is called the Bayou City. Events on and around the waterway have shaped the city and its history.

“Buffalo Bayou played the most important role of any natural feature in the settlement of Houston,” said Louis Aulbach, whose soon-to-be-published book, “Buffalo Bayou: An Echo of Houston’s Wilderness Beginnings,” explores the bayou and Houston’s parallel history.

“The city began on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou at its junction with White Oak Bayou that flows in from the northwest,” said Aulbach, a Finance and Administration division manager.

Two brothers, Augustus Chapman Allen and John Kirby Allen, paddled their “canoe-like boat” from Harrisburg, up Buffalo Bayou to its confluence with White Oak Bayou.

Documents show that they purchased “half a league,” about 6,000 acres, of the John Austin stake along the fertile southern banks of the murky bayou for $5,000 from Mrs. T.F.L. Parrott, John Austin’s widow and Stephen F. Austin’s daughter-in-law.

The brothers founded Allen’s Landing, establishing Houston’s original port on Aug. 30, 1836, only four months after Gen. Sam Houston’s volunteers routed Santa Anna’s larger army at the junction of Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River on April 21.

Co-opting the name of the battle’s hero, the brothers began laying plans for the future city along a grid pattern that wasn’t oriented to the compass but to the bayou.

To prove the bayou navigable, they arranged for the steamboat Laura M to carry supplies from Galveston to their fledgling port in January 1837. It took three days for the 85-foot craft to negotiate the twisting, snag-filled, vine-choked 16-mile stretch of Buffalo Bayou upstream from Harrisburg.

But the feasibility of bayou commerce was proven.

Houston served as capital of the new Republic of Texas from spring 1837 to November 1839. And with the creation of a chamber of commerce in 1840, the born-on-the-bayou city was ready for waterborne business.

Soon, oceangoing vessels and steamers were loading and unloading at Allen’s Landing. More and more settlers arrived. In 1840, Buffalo Bayou was designated National Highway of the Republic. The Port of Houston was established in 1841.

Texas’ entry into the Civil War led to a federal blockade of Galveston in 1861 stifling the bayou’s commercial traffic through 1865.

After the war and the yellow fever epidemic in 1867, the bayou was dredged to a depth of nine feet to clear the way for larger ships.

After the Spanish-American War and the 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston, the widening and deepening of the bayou that had begun in 1899 continued until the 25-feet-deep Houston Ship Channel opened in 1914.

In the ’60s, environmentalist Terry Hershey, with the help of then-congressman George H.W. Bush, thwarted the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood mitigation plan for clearing the banks of vegetation and straightening channels to create a concrete waterway.

Out of the past, into the present
Buffalo Bayou is an ancient stream. Geologists theorize it began wending its serpentine way over primordial Texas countryside 300,000 years ago. Archeological findings indicate that Bidais and Akokiska Indians paddled the bayou in dugout canoes during the 1600s.

The bayou remains Houston’s largest waterway. The 52-mile stretch flows west to east from the Addicks prairie in the Katy-Brookshire area through the dense forests of Memorial Park into the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel.

“Houstonians who get better acquainted with Buffalo Bayou will be well rewarded with a living arcade of history, flora and fauna,” said Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a nonprofit organization created in 1986. The partnership, a coalition of civic, environmental, government and business representatives, helps improve and preserve the Buffalo Bayou system with park enhancements, better bayou access and compatible bayou-front development.

In 2004, the partnership unveiled a 20-year master plan for the Buffalo Bayou sector running from Allen’s Landing eastward to the Ship Channel Turning Basin. Organizers envision an extensive green belt extending along the bayou.

Proposed amenities range from an aquatic center for small-boat users including the Rice University Rowing Team, soccer fields, playgrounds, a wildlife habitat, picnic tables, a linked system of hiking trails, gardens and a permanent performance center.

The first phase, or “anchor” project, was completed with the June 10 opening of the Sabine-to-Bagby Promenade. This new 23-acre segment of the Buffalo Bayou Walk bordered by the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and Bayou Place on the east and the 198-unit Sabine Lofts on the west.

Improvements included gently sloping banks leading to the water’s edge, 12 street-to-bayou entryways, artistic lighting, native landscaping, a pedestrian bridge joining the north and south sides of the bayou, hike-and-bike trails, and bayou-themed public artwork.

“This project has taken a neglected segment of the bayou and transformed it into an attractive and exciting gateway to downtown,” Mayor Bill White said.

“We’re delighted to give this amenity to the city,” Olsen said. “There’s no doubt that Buffalo Bayou is going to be as important to Houston’s future as it was to its past.”

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For more information about the Buffalo Bayou Partnership or to arrange a canoe trip or a 90-minute excursion on the new Bayou Breeze pontoon boat, call Trudi Smith, (713) 752-0314, or visit www.buffalo
bayou.org
. For more history, visit Louis Aulbach’s www.hal-pc.org/~lfa.

 

 

 

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