History of Houston
Houston's turbulent beginning
On the heels of the Texas Revolution, two real estate promoters who had arrived in Texas in 1832, John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen were seeking a new town site within the Galveston Bay system. They had invested in Galveston already, but they continued to make offers for other tracts in the region. They bid on land at Morgan's Point and Harrisburg before settling on the eventual Houston site. On August 26, 1836, they purchased half a league of land, or about 2,214 acres (27 km²) from Elizabeth (Mrs. T. F. L.) Parrot, John Austin's widow for $5,000.
The Allen brothers first landed in the area where the confluence of White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou served as a natural turning basin, now known as Allen's Landing. The "city to be" was named after Sam Houston, the hero of San Jacinto, whom the Allen brothers admired and anticipated to be the first President of the Republic of Texas. Gail Borden, Jr., a publisher and surveyor, who would later found Borden, Inc., exercised foresight when he laid out wide streets for the town.
The Texas Government started to promote colonization of the state. The Allen brothers started to promote their town at the same time that the Republic of Texas started promoting settling of Texas. They noted plans to build a sawmill and offered lots for sale at moderate prices. In the manner of town boomers the Allens exaggerated a bit, however.
The Laura, the first steamship ever to visit Houston, arrived in January 1837. On January 1, 1837, the town comprised twelve residents and one log cabin; four months later there were 1,500 people and 100 houses. The city was granted incorporation by the state legislature on June 5, 1837 and was made as the temporary capital of Texas. At this time, drunkenness, dueling, brawling, prostitution, and profanity began to become a problem in early Houston.
Soon, Houstonians were prompted to put an end to their problems; so, they wanted to make a Chamber of Commerce just for the city. A bill had been introduced on November 26, 1838 in Congress that would establish this entity. President Mirabeau B. Lamar signed the act into law on January 28, 1840. This move could not have come sooner, as the city was suffering from financial problems and numerous yellow fever outbreaks, including an 1839 outbreak that killed about 12 percent of its population. Also, on January 14, 1839, the capital had been moved to Austin, known as Waterloo at the time. On April 4, 1840, John Carlos hosted a meeting to establish the Houston Chamber of Commerce at the City Exchange building. E.S. Perkins presided as its first president. In addition to Perkins and Carlos, the charter members admitted were: Henry R. Allen, T. Francis Brewer, Jacob De Cordova, J. Temple Doswell, George Gazley, Dewitt C. Harris, J. Hart, Charles J. Hedenburg, Thomas M. League, Charles Kesler, Charles A. Morris, E. Osborne, and John W. Pitkin. Undergrowth and snags had been the greatest obstacle to navigating Buffalo Bayou; yet by 1840, there was an accumulation of sunken ships. This was the principle concern of the new Houston Chamber of Commerce. The city of Houston and Harris County responded by allocating taxpayer money for bayou clearance, and on March 1, 1841, the first wreck was pulled out the bayou under this program.
In 1840, the town was divided into four wards, using Main and Commerce streets as axes. The city added the Fifth Ward in 1866, and the Sixth Ward in 1877. The wards are no longer political divisions, but their names are still used. Digging for a proposed Port of Houston began when Congress approved a move to dig out the Buffalo Bayou on January 9, 1842. Funding was awarded which amounted to $2000. Houstonians had mixed opinions over the apparent statehood of their country.
When Mexico was again threatening Texas, President Sam Houston moved the capital to Houston on June 27, 1842. However, the Austin residents wanted to keep the archives in their city. This would be known as the Archive Wars. The capital was then moved to Washington on-the-Brazos on September 29. Austin became capital again in 1845, just before Texas gained statehood.
German immigrants started arriving in Texas and Houston after the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states. Many were educated and arrived with capital to set up businesses or buy farms. The port in Houston was getting some shipping business, but the shallowness of the water hampered massive shipping. During the 1850s, the Houstonians decided to build a rail system to connect their port with rail links. Eleven companies built 451 miles of track before 1860. Mexicans, who were one of the earliest immigrant groups to Houston, worked as railroad builders and stayed in the area.
Houston first started shipping cotton, lumber, and other manufacturing products. Alexander McGowen established the iron industry, and Tom Whitmarsh built a cotton warehouse. A fire ravaged Houston on March 10, 1859, but the city rebuilt itself soon after.
Thousands of enslaved African-Americans lived near the city before the Civil War. Many of them near the city worked on sugar and cotton plantations, while most of those in the city limits had domestic and artisan jobs. In 1860, forty-nine percent of the city's population was enslaved. Frost Town, a nearby settlement south of the Buffalo Bayou, was swallowed by Houston.
The Civil War
In 1860, most Houstonians supported John C. Breckinridge, an independent Democratic candidate for president. However, he lost the election to Abraham Lincoln. As the Civil War began, there was tension between supporters of the Confederacy and the few Union sympathizers. The Chamber of Commerce kept the city together during the conflict. Galveston was blockaded on October 4, 1862, which in turn soured Houston's economy. On January 1, 1863, John B. Magruder's Confederate forces recaptured the city. However, the war was won by the Union forces in 1865. Texas was governed under a military command during Reconstruction, but Federal forces could not control the anarchy and lawlessness that broke out after the war. Civilians settled old grudges and several counties were essentially without civilian government.
In 1869, the Ship Channel Company was formed to deepen Buffalo Bayou and improve Houston as a shipping port. Despite the postwar social unrest, migrants flocked to Texas for new opportunities. Texas businessmen joined together to expand the railroad network, which contributed to Houston's primacy in the state and the development of Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso.
In May 1870, Houston was the site of the Texas State Fair. The fair remained in Houston until 1878.
Reconstruction through 1900
After Texas was readmitted to the Union on April 16, 1870, Houston continued its growth. Houston became a port of entry on July 16, 1870. Its new charter drew up eight wards. Many freed slaves opened businesses and worked under contracts. The Freedmen's Bureau stopped abuse of the contracts in 1870. Many African Americans at the time were in unskilled labor. Many former slaves legalized their marriages after the American Civil War. White legislators insisted on segregated schools. After white Democrats regained power in the state legislature in the late 1870s, they began to pass laws to make voter registration more complicated, with the effect of disfranchising African Americans. The elections of 1876 were accompanied in many southern states with fraud and violence to suppress black voting. As white Democrats secured their power, they passed Jim Crow laws to establish and enforce legal segregation across the state.
In 1874, Houston's first permanent public transit system began to be operated by the Houston City Street Railway Company. From 1874 until 1891 all of the transit service was operated using mule-driven streetcars, when electric streetcars began to be implemented in their place. The conversion to electric streetcars was completed in 1892.
Lumber became a large part of the port's exports, with merchandise as its chief import. The Houston Post was established in 1880. The Houston Chronicle followed on August 23 of that year. Former U. S. President Ulysses Grant came to Houston to celebrate the opening of the Union Station, which had rail links with New Orleans. Fifth Ward residents threatened to secede from Houston because they felt they already had been separated. An iron drawbridge built in 1883 pacified them, and they did not secede. In 1887, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word established a hospital that would become St. Joseph Hospital.
In 1893, George H. Hermann donated a site for the purpose of a charitable hospital, which later became Memorial Hermann Hospital in the Texas Medical Center. In 1898, Houstonians appealed before Congress for permission to turn the Buffalo Bayou into a deepwater port, prompted in part by the Spanish–American War; construction of the Port of Houston was approved by Congress in 1899.
The Early 1900s
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On September 8–9, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 savagely tore apart the city of Galveston, Texas. After the incident, investors were afraid of its location, and invested in Houston instead. The oil discovery at Spindletop in Beaumont, Texas in 1901 prompted a new industry to be developed in Texas; the oil trade would transform Houston, the railroad hub of east Texas, from a smaller town into a large city. In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt approved a one-million dollar fund for the Ship Channel. 1902 also saw the arrival of the first Japanese in Texas, after Sadatsuchi Uchida gave a fact-finding tour of the Gulf Coast region. He helped establish rice as a major crop of the Gulf Coast area. With a large grant from Andrew Carnegie, the Houston Lyceum and Carnegie Library, later known as the Houston Public Library, was founded in 1904. By 1910, the population of Houston was larger than that of Galveston.
Mexicans displaced by the Mexican Revolution started flooding the city of Houston after 1910, and have been a strong influence in the city ever since.
In 1912, Joseph Jay Pastoriza introduced property tax reform to Houston. The "Houston Single Tax Plan" was based on Georgist principles and redistributed property tax burden from owners of personal property and developed land to owners of undeveloped land. While the Houston Plan was not a true single tax, it re-weighted appraisals to 70 percent of unimproved land and 25 percent of developed land. Personal property was exempt from local taxes according to this plan. This continued for a few years until 1915, when two courts ruled the plan illegal according to the Texas Constitution. Pastoriza continued to serve as Houston Tax Commissioner until 1917, when he became the first Mayor of Houston of Hispanic heritage. He died after just three months in office.
By 1912, Houston was home to twenty-five "tall buildings" ranging from six to sixteen stories. Office buildings extant in 1912 include the eleven-story Scanlan Building, the marble-clad South Texas National Bank Building, the eight-story First National Bank Building, the twelve-story Union National Bank, the ten-story Houston Chronicle Building, and the Southwestern Telephone Company Building. The sixteen-story Carter Building was the tallest in Houston. There were two major passenger train facilities, Union Station and Grand Central Station. Residential buildings included the Beaconsfield apartments, Rossonian apartments, the Savoy flats, and the Hotel Bender. Under construction in 1912 was the Rice Hotel.
By 1913, twelve oil companies had located themselves in Houston, most notably Humble Oil Company, which is now ExxonMobil. Howard Hughes was born in Humble, Texas, where the oil company started. President Woodrow Wilson opened the Port of Houston in 1914, 74 years after the digging started. Service started with the Satilla, a ship that ran from Houston to New York, New York. World War I put the gasoline-combustible automobile into widespread use, causing oil to become a precious commodity. However, the war caused the amount of tonnage arriving in the Port to drop. After the war, the rice business fell flat, causing many Japanese-Americans to find other work or to move out of Texas.
In early 1917 the War Department ordered two military installations to be built in Harris County: Camp Logan and Ellington Field. The Army deployed a battalion of the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment to guard the construction site at Camp Logan. Racial tension in the city rose as the black soldiers received hostile treatment in the racially segregated city. Tensions flared into a full-blown riot in August 1917; the Camp Logan Riot resulted in the deaths of 15 whites (including 4 policemen) and 4 black soldiers, and scores of additional injuries.
On May 30, 1922, George Hermann, a millionaire, donated land to the city that later became the Hermann Park. September of the same year saw the start of the Houston Zoo. The zoo was started when Houston schoolchildren bought two ostriches. The zoo was later moved from Sam Houston Park to Hermann Park. September 26 saw the first international-bound ship in the port. During the Roaring Twenties, more specifically 1927, the state highway to Houston was built. Bus and truck operations also fell into swing. Houston Junior College opened its doors that same year, which later became the University of Houston.
By 1928, the Niel Esperson building was the tallest finished construction in the city and remained as the tallest for a couple more years.
August 1929 saw the entry of the first Sears into Houston. Then Black Tuesday threw a devastating blow to the economy of the entire United States. Houston's growth was much smaller, but the city still grew. Mexican Americans no longer found it as easy to obtain jobs, yet several were successful by catering to the Anglo market in the city.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo came in 1932. In 1934, Houston Junior College became a four-year institution and changed its name to the University of Houston. A flood in 1935 suddenly turned conditions for the worst, and Houstonians were forced to clean up the mess. Air service by Braniff Airways and Eastern Air Lines came in 1935 and 1936. By the end of the decade, Houston was encountering growth pains, as the city had inadequate air service and that it was no longer a frontier town. Houston became the largest city in Texas in terms of population in 1939. Many immigrants and African-Americans from Louisiana and other parts of Texas moved to the city to find education or work. The city obtained a very multicultural atmosphere, with large African-American and immigrant communities scattered about. However, African-Americans faced bad housing and poor jobs during this time period. Nevertheless, African-American society developed so much that the city was, and still is, the African-American capital of Texas. The University of Houston moved to its present-day location donated by the Cullen family off of what would later be the first freeway in Houston, U.S. Highway 75 (now called Interstate 45), or Gulf Freeway.
In 1940, Houston was a city of 400,000 population dependent on shipping and oil. The war dramatically expanded the city's economic base, thanks to massive federal spending. Energetic entrepreneurs, most notably George Brown, James Elkins and James Abercrombie, landed hundreds of millions of dollars in federal wartime investment in technologically complex facilities. Houston oil companies moved from being mere refiners and became sophisticated producers of petrochemicals. Especially important were synthetic rubber and high octane fuel, which retained their importance after the war, The war moved the natural gas industry from a minor factor to a major energy source; Houston became a major hub when a local firm purchased the federally-financed Inch pipelines. Other major growth industries included steel, munitions, and shipbuilding. Tens of thousands of new migrants streamed in from rural areas, straining the city's housing supply and the city's ability to provide local transit and schools. For the first time high paying jobs went to large numbers of women, blacks and Mexican Americans. The city's African American community, emboldened by their newfound prosperity, became a hotbed of civil rights agitation; the Smith v. Allwright Supreme Court decision on voting rights was backed and funded by local blacks in this period.
When World War II started, tonnage levels fell at the port and five shipping lines ended service. April 1940 saw streetcar service replaced by buses. Robertson Stadium, then known as Houston Public School Stadium, was erected from March 1941 to September 1942. Also that year, Pan Am started air service. World War II sparked the reopening of Ellington Field. The Cruiser Houston was named after the city. It sank after a vicious battle in Java, Indonesia in 1942. August 1942 also saw the new City Manager government enacted. The M. D. Anderson Foundation formed the Texas Medical Center in 1945. That same year, the University of Houston separated from HISD and became a private university. Aircraft and shipbuilding became large industries in Texas as a result of the war. Tonnage rose after the end of the war in 1946. During the same year, E. W. Bertner gave away 161 acres (0.65 km²) of land for the Texas Medical Center. Suburban Houston came to be in the period from 1946 to 1950. When Oscar F. Holcombe took his eighth term in 1946, he abandoned a city manager type of government. Foley's department store opened in 1947. The Alley Theatre got its first performance in 1947. Also the same year, voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum for citywide land-use districts--zoning. The banking industry also rose to prominence in the late 1940s. Houston carried out a large annexation campaign to increase its size. When air conditioning came to the city, it was called the "World's Most Air Conditioned City". The economy of Houston reverted to a healthy, port driven economy.
Texas Medical Center became operational in the 1950s. The Galveston Freeway and the International Terminal at Houston International Airport (nowadays Hobby Airport) were signs of increasing wealth in the area. Millions of dollars were spent replacing aging infrastructure. In 1951, the Texas Children's Hospital and the Shriner's Hospital were built. Existing hospitals had expansions being completed. July 1, 1952 was the date of Houston's first network television. Later on that same year, the University of Houston celebrated its 25th anniversary. Another problem Houston had back in the 1950s was the fact that it needed a new water supply. They at first relied on ground water, but that caused land subsidence. They had proposals in the Texas Congress to use the Trinity river. Hattie Mae White was elected to the school board in 1959. She was the first African-American to be elected in a major position in Houston in the 20th Century. Starting in 1950, Japanese-Americans as a whole were leaving horticulture and going into business in larger cities, such as Houston.
In the year 1960, Houston International Airport was deemed inadequate for the needs of the city. This airport could not be expanded, so Houston Intercontinental Airport (now George Bush Intercontinental Airport) was built north of the city. September 1961 saw Hurricane Carla, a very destructive hurricane, hit the city. On July 4, 1962, NASA opened the Manned Spacecraft Center in southeast Houston in the Clear Lake area, now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. This would bring many jobs to the Houston, especially the Clear Lake area. Also in 1962, Houston voters soundly defeated a referendum to implement zoning—the second time in fifteen years. In 1963, the University of Houston ended its status as a private institution and became a state university by entering into the Texas State System of Higher Education after a long battle with opponents from other state universities blocking the change.
In April 1965 the Astrodome opened, under the name of the Harris County Domed Stadium. In July 1965, the Houston Metropolitan Area was expanded by the inclusion of Brazoria County, Fort Bend County, Liberty County, and Montgomery County. AstroWorld, a theme park adjacent to the Astrodome was opened in 1968. Houston Intercontinental Airport was built in 1969. Houston International Airport, renamed to Hobby Airport, was closed to commercial aviation until 1971.
Barbara Jordan was elected to the US House of Representatives by Houston residents on November 8, 1966.
1970s and integration
In the 1970s, the Chinese-American community in Houston, which had been relatively small, started growing at a rapid rate.
Because the Houston Independent School District was slow to desegregate public schools, on June 1, 1970, the Federal officials struck the HISD plan down and forced it to adopt zoning laws. This was 16 years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which determined that segregated schools were inherently unequal. Racial tensions over integration of the schools continued. Some Hispanic Americans felt they were being discriminated against when they were being put with only African-Americans as part of the desegregation plan, so many took their children out of the schools and put them in huelgas, or protest schools, until a ruling in 1973 satisfied their demands.
The Third Ward became the center for the African-American community in the city. By 1979 African Americans were elected to the City Council for the first time since Reconstruction. During the time period, five African Americans served on city council.
Water pollution of the Houston Ship Channel became notorious in 1972. Work on the Texas Commerce Tower, now the JPMorgan Chase Tower, began in 1979.
The late 1970s saw a population boom thanks to the Arab Oil Embargo. People from the Rust Belt states moved into Houston, at a rate of over 1,000 a week, mostly from Michigan, and are still moving to Houston to this day.
The city made changes in higher education. The Houston Community College system was established in 1972 by HISD. In 1977, the University of Houston celebrated its 50th anniversary as the Texas Legislature established the University of Houston System—a state system of higher education that includes and governs four universities. In 1976, Howard Hughes, at one time the world's richest man, died on his jet heading to Houston. He was born in Humble, Texas, the home of what is now ExxonMobil.
In 1981, Kathryn J. Whitmire became the city's first female mayor, holding that position for 10 years; after she left office, term limits were enacted to prevent future mayors from serving for more than 6 years. Several new construction projects, including The Park Shopping Mall, the Allied Bank Tower, the Gulf Tower and several other buildings were being carried out in downtown. The Transco Tower, the tallest building in the world outside of a central business district, was completed in 1983. METRO wanted to build a rail system connecting the city with the suburbs, but the plan was rejected by voters on June 11, 1983. Voters did, however, approve plans for the George R. Brown Convention Center. In August 1983, the University of Houston changed its name to "University of Houston–University Park" in order to separate its identity from other universities in the University of Houston System; however, the name was reverted to University of Houston in 1991. On August 18, 1983, Hurricane Alicia struck Galveston and Houston, causing $2 billion in damage. Houston's massive population boom was reversed when oil prices fell in 1986, leading to several years of recession for the Houston economy. The space industry also took a blow that year with the explosion of the Challenger in Florida. The first nine months of 1987 saw the closure of eleven banks, but also the opening of several cultural centers including the George R. Brown Convention Center, the Wortham Theatre, and the Menil Collection. On August 7, 1988, Congressman Mickey Leland died in a plane crash in Ethiopia. On October 3, a Phillips 66 plant exploded in adjacent Pasadena, Texas, killing 23 and injuring 130 people.The Houston Zoo began charging admission fees for the first time in 1988.
1990 saw the opening of Houston Intercontinental Airport's new 12-gate Mickey Leland International Airlines terminal, named after the recently deceased Houston congressman. In 1991 Sakowitz stores shut down; the Sakowitz brothers had brought their original store from Galveston to Houston in 1911. August 10, 1991 saw a redrawing of districts for city council, so that minority groups could be better represented in the city council. 1993 saw the G8 visiting to discuss world issues, and zoning was defeated for a third time by voters in November.
The master-planned community of Kingwood was forcibly annexed in 1996, angering many of its residents. The annexation put Kingwood in the jurisdiction of Houston's fire and police services, but it did not alter school district boundaries nor did it change postal addresses and postal services.
Rod Paige became superintendent of Houston Independent School District in 1994; during his seven-year tenure the district became very well known for high test scores, and in 2001 Paige was asked to become Secretary of Education for the new George W. Bush administration. Lee P. Brown, Houston's first African-American mayor, was elected in 1997.
2000 to present-day
The city's major sports teams were using outdated stadiums and threatened to leave. Eventually, in 1996, the Houston Oilers did so after several threats. The city built Enron Field, now Minute Maid Park for the Houston Astros. Reliant Stadium, now NRG Stadium, was erected for the NFL expansion team Houston Texans.
Tropical Storm Allison devastated many neighborhoods as well as interrupted all services within the Texas medical center for several months with flooding in June 2001. At least 17 people were killed around the Houston area when the rainfall from Allison that fell on June 8 and 9 caused the city's bayous to rise over their banks.
In October 2001 Enron, a Houston-based energy company, got caught in accounting scandals, ultimately leading to collapse of the company and its accounting firm Arthur Andersen, and the arrest and imprisonment of several executives.
In 2002, the University of Houston celebrated its 75th anniversary with an enrollment of 34,443 that fall semester. At the same time, the University of Houston System celebrated its 25th anniversary with a total enrollment of over 54,000.
The new international Terminal E at George Bush Intercontinental Airport opened with 30 gates in 2003.
METRO put in light rail service on January 1, 2004. Voters have decided by a close margin (52% Yes to 48% No) that METRO's light rail shall be expanded.
In 2004, the Mayor of the city was Bill White and Houston unveiled the first Mahatma Gandhi statue in the state of Texas at Hermann Park. Houston's Indian American Community were cheerful after 10 years, in 2010, when the Hillcroft and Harwin area were renamed Mahatma Gandhi District in honor of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as that area is the center of Indian commerce.
In the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, about 200,000 New Orleans residents resettled in Houston. Soon following Katrina was Hurricane Rita, a category 5 hurricane which caused 2.5 million Houstonians to evacuate the city, the largest urban evacuation in the history of the U.S.
Six Flags Astroworld, Houston's only large theme park, closed in 2005.
Memorial Day storms in 2015 brought flash flooding to the city as some areas received 11 inches or more of rain overnight, exacerbated by already full bayous. At least three people died and more than 1,000 cars were stranded on highways and overpasses.
In April 2016, historic flooding came to Houston which has killed 5 people.
In August 2017, Houston experienced record flooding as a result of Hurricane Harvey. The damages due to flash flooding are estimated at or above $50 billion, making it one of the worst and costliest natural disasters in the United States. Relief efforts are currently underway and are expected to last for years to come.
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- Houston, Texas from the Handbook of Texas Online
- 174 Years of Historic Houston a Chronology of Houston From 1836 to Present Day
- The Oral History of Houston
- A thumb-nail history of the city of Houston, Texas, from its founding in 1836 to the year 1912, published 1912, hosted by the Portal to Texas History
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