Get to Know the City of Houston and Its History

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Houston, a city known affectionately as the Bayou City, has a rich history. Its story begins in 1836, just a few months after Texas won its independence from Mexico. Founded by the visionary Allen brothers – who named it after the Texas Republic’s hero, Sam Houston – the city was destined from its earliest days to be a place of significance.

Today, Houston stands as the fourth-largest city in the United States, renowned not only for its crucial role in oil and gas but also as a leader in healthcare and space technology. Let’s explore how Houston grew into the global metropolis it is today.

The Founding and Early Growth of Houston

Houston in 1873

The Visionary Beginnings

Houston was conceptualized by the Allen brothers, Augustus Chapman and John Kirby Allen, New York real estate entrepreneurs who saw potential in the fertile land along Buffalo Bayou. They purchased over 6,600 acres in 1836 and advertised Houston as the town that would become the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas” in the Telegraph and Texas Register. Despite initial skepticism, the city’s advantageous location near the Gulf of Mexico and its potential as a transportation hub spurred early interest and settlement.

Establishment of the Government

Artist's depiction of the former Capitol building in Houston

The city’s growth was rapid. In January 1837, the town was initially a modest settlement with only twelve residents and a log cabin. After four months, it quickly grew to 1,500 people and 100 houses. The city had wide streets, as planned by the Allen brothers, accommodating both the bayou’s commercial traffic and the burgeoning population.

Houston first hosted the legislature in May 1837. Despite early challenges with lawlessness and vice, Houston was incorporated in June 1837, with James S. Holman serving as its first mayor. Over the years, the city’s government evolved from a ward-based system to a modified commission and later to a strong-mayor council system.

In 1842, amid renewed threats from Mexico, President Sam Houston relocated the Texas capital to Houston. However, the residents of Austin insisted on keeping the state archives, leading to the tense period known as the Archive Wars. Later that year, on September 29, the capital was moved again, this time to Washington-on-the-Brazos. Austin was restored as the capital in 1845, shortly before Texas joined the Union as a state.

Opening The Port of Houston

In 1914, another significant milestone was the opening of the deepwater Port of Houston, which transformed the city into one of the world’s busiest ports. The Port’s opening was strategically aligned with the discovery of oil at Spindletop, prompting an economic boom that reshaped the city’s landscape and workforce.

Oil companies seeking proximity to shipping routes safe from Gulf storms established refineries along the Houston Ship Channel. By 1929, notable players like Texaco, Exxon (formerly Humble Oil), and Gulf Oil had set up operations in Houston, cementing the city’s role as an industrial powerhouse.

The Arrival of the Railroad

Parallel to waterway development, Houstonians also focused on expanding their railroad network. In 1853, Paul Bremond, a local merchant, started building the Houston and Texas Central Railroad, which was crucial for linking Houston with broader national networks and promoting economic growth. By 1861, despite interruptions by the Civil War, Houston had become a central rail hub for Southeast Texas, with connections stretching in multiple directions. Post-war efforts saw these rail links extend even further, integrating Houston into the national rail system by 1873.

Enhancing Road and Air Travel

Though early road travel was slow and cumbersome, significant improvements came with the construction of all-weather highways in the 1920s and the city’s first expressway, the Gulf Freeway, in 1952, which later joined the interstate system. Houston’s focus on transportation extended to the skies, with its first airport opening in 1928, followed by major developments with the Houston International Airport in 1954 (later William P. Hobby Airport) and Houston Intercontinental Airport in 1969 (now George Bush Intercontinental Airport).

American Civil War

During the American Civil War, Houston supported the Confederacy strongly, with Harris County voting overwhelmingly for secession in early 1861. The city became a crucial Confederate hub, serving as a military logistics center and headquarters for a wartime district encompassing parts of the current Southwest U.S.

Despite Union blockades, Houston managed to remain economically active and relatively prosperous due to its role as a port for blockade runners and a refuge for displaced individuals from nearby areas. While there were shortages and inflation, the city adapted by finding substitutes like okra seeds for coffee. Houston’s strategic importance and its economic resilience highlighted its significance during the Civil War.

Economic Diversification

City Hall of Houston in 1913

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Houston’s economy began to diversify. The city became a focal point for various industries, including manufacturing, energy, and transportation. This diversification helped stabilize Houston’s economy, making it less susceptible to the fluctuations of any single industry and setting a precedent for the economic resilience the city is known for today.

After the Civil War, Houston businessmen initiated several projects to improve access through the bayou, creating companies like the Houston Direct Navigation Company and the Buffalo Bayou Ship Channel Company. Charles Morgan, a prominent Gulf Coast shipowner, made a breakthrough in 1876 by developing a twelve-foot-deep waterway to Clinton, a port town below Houston.

The U.S. government took over in 1881, eventually connecting the channel to Galveston Bay and creating a turning basin above Harrisburg. Officially opening in 1914, the Houston Ship Channel has since been expanded multiple times, establishing Houston as a major deepwater port, frequently ranked among the largest in the United States.

Houston in the 20th Century

The 1920s: Expansion and Modernization

Houston in 1922

The 1920s were a period of significant growth and modernization for Houston. The city’s population nearly doubled from 1920 to 1930, spurred by the oil boom and the increasing industrialization of the area. This era also saw the emergence of Houston’s aviation industry, further diversifying its economic base. The opening of the Houston Municipal Airport in 1930 (now William P. Hobby Airport) was a testament to the city’s burgeoning status as a transportation hub.

World War II and Industrial Diversification

World War II significantly boosted Houston’s industrial sector, especially in shipbuilding and petrochemicals, due to the high demand for synthetic rubber, gasoline, and other war materials. Key facilities like the Houston Shipbuilding Corporation and the Brown Shipbuilding Company rapidly expanded, with the latter innovating in ship construction techniques and producing over 300 war vessels by the war’s end. The region’s natural resources, including salt, sulfur, and natural gas, were crucial for the burgeoning petrochemical industry, which flourished with government contracts.

Growth and Modernization

In the 1950s, the operational commencement of the Texas Medical Center shaped the city’s healthcare landscape. This decade also saw the construction of the Galveston Freeway and the expansion of Houston International Airport (now Hobby Airport), reflecting the area’s increasing prosperity.

Significant investments were made to update and replace aging infrastructure. Notably, in 1951, the Texas Children’s Hospital and the Shriner’s Hospital were established, along with expansions in existing hospitals, enhancing the city’s medical services. The 1950s also brought Houston’s first network television broadcast on July 1, 1952, and that same year, the University of Houston celebrated its 25th anniversary, marking its role in the city’s educational advancement.

In the area of civil rights, Hattie Mae White was elected to the school board in 1959. She became the first African American to be elected to a major position in Houston in the 20th century. Additionally, the 1950s saw a shift in the Japanese-American community, moving from horticulture into business sectors in larger cities, including Houston, indicating a broader demographic and economic shift.

Houston as “Space City”

Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center

The 1960s marked a new chapter in Houston’s history with the establishment of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (renamed Johnson Space Center in 1973), which solidified Houston’s nickname as “Space City.” This center became the hub of the United States manned spaceflight program, including the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions, highlighting Houston’s role in technological and aerospace advancements.

Economic Challenges and Resilience

Despite its booming industries, Houston faced economic downturns, particularly during the oil crisis in the 1980s. In 1986, a sharp decline in oil prices reversed the city’s population boom and plunged the local economy into a recession. That same year, the space industry faced its own tragedy with the Challenger disaster in Florida, adding to the city’s economic woes.

In August 1983, Hurricane Alicia hit Galveston and Houston, wreaking havoc and causing approximately $2 billion in damage, marking one of the most significant natural disasters in the city’s history.

Despite these setbacks, Houston showed signs of cultural and infrastructural resilience. The first nine months of 1987 were tough, with eleven banks closing, yet the period also saw the opening of critical cultural and convention venues.

The Cultural Flourishing of the Late 20th Century

By the end of the 20th century, Houston had developed a vibrant cultural scene, with investments in arts, music, and cuisine reflecting its diverse population. Institutions like the Houston Theater District, which houses nine performing arts organizations, and the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo became central to the city’s cultural identity.

Must-Visit Historical Sites in Houston

The San Jacinto Monument and Museum of History

San Jacinto Monument

The San Jacinto Monument is a must-see for anyone interested in Texas history. Standing at 567 feet, this monument marks the site of the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive battle of the Texas Revolution. Visitors can explore the museum housed within the monument, which offers exhibits on the Texas Revolution and the broader history of the state. The observation deck at the top provides panoramic views of the surrounding area, including the Houston Ship Channel.

Battleship Texas

Located near the San Jacinto Monument, Battleship Texas is the last remaining World War I-era dreadnought battleship. Commissioned in 1914, it served in both World Wars. Today, it serves as a museum ship, allowing visitors to explore its decks, rooms, and history, offering a tangible connection to the past and a reminder of the sacrifices made during these global conflicts.

Historic Sixth Ward

The Historic Sixth Ward offers a glimpse into Houston’s Victorian past with well-preserved homes and buildings dating back to the late 19th century. This neighborhood reflects the architectural diversity and history of Houston, featuring Queen Anne, Cottage, and Folk Victorian styles. Walking tours are available, providing insights into the lives of Houstonians during the city’s early days.

The Houston Astrodome

Houston Astrodome

Once dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Houston Astrodome was the world’s first multi-purpose, domed sports stadium, opening in 1965. It revolutionized the design of sports stadiums and hosted countless sports and entertainment events until its closure. Though it no longer hosts events, its iconic structure remains a testament to Houston’s innovative spirit and 20th-century architectural ambition.

The Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park

Sam Houston Park, established in 1900, is home to The Heritage Society, Houston’s only interactive outdoor museum of local history. The park features historic homes that have been meticulously restored to reflect their original condition. It’s an excellent place for history enthusiasts to learn about Houston’s community life from the 1820s to the early 20th century.

Modern Attractions and Districts

Space Center Houston

Space Center Houston is the official visitor center of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where much of the history of U.S. space exploration was made. Here, visitors can take behind-the-scenes tours, see historic spacecraft, and touch a piece of the moon. The center’s interactive exhibits and talks from real astronauts make it a must-visit for anyone interested in space.

Museum District

The Museum District is home to 19 museums within walking distance of each other, offering a diverse range of experiences from art and science to history. Key places include the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Many museums offer free entry on certain days, making them accessible to all.

Discovery Green

Discovery Green is a vibrant 12-acre park in downtown Houston, complete with a lake, playground, and places to eat. It’s a popular spot for locals and visitors, hosting events like concerts, movies in the park, and fitness classes.

Montrose and The Heights

Montrose and The Heights are two of Houston’s most vibrant neighborhoods. Montrose features eclectic shops and cafes, while The Heights offers a mix of old charming homes and modern stores and eateries. Both areas are perfect for experiencing the creative and diverse spirit of Houston.

The Energy Corridor

The Energy Corridor is known for its concentration of energy firms, but it’s also rich in green spaces like George Bush Park and Terry Hershey Park. These parks offer trails for biking and hiking, showing Houston’s balance of industry and nature.

Conclusion

Houston is a city where history and modernity blend seamlessly. From its early days as a fledgling port town to its current status as a bustling metropolis with a stronghold in industries like energy and space exploration, Houston has consistently demonstrated growth and resilience. The city’s rich past is still visible in its many historical sites, while its vibrant cultural scene and dynamic neighborhoods showcase its ongoing evolution.

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