As the water recedes, the sun shines and Houston sets out on its long road to recovery, I think of John James Audobon. In May 1837, the world-famous naturalist stepped off the steamer Yellow Stone, clambered up the west bank of Buffalo Bayou and caught his first glimpse of the new town of Houston, capital city of the Republic of Texas.
Following in his footsteps on Wednesday, I found the west bank at the foot of Main Street underwater and “un-clamberable.” It wasn’t much better on that May morning 180 years ago, but then, as now, Houstonians were making the best of their soggy situation.
Slogging past mud-splattered tents, half-finished houses and roofless buildings in a clearing hacked out of a pine forest, Audobon made his way to the “mansion” of newly elected President Sam Houston. A gathering of Cabinet members welcomed their distinguished guest into a rough 12-by-16 log cabin consisting of two rooms separated by a dog run. Audobon couldn’t help but notice how cluttered and filthy everything was, in the anteroom and in the president’s private chamber. While impressed with Sam Houston, he would recall that “the place of his abode can never be forgotten.”
Hanging around town for a few days, Audobon wandered into the roofless capitol building. When Congress assembled six days after his arrival, he noted that it had rained the night before and the floor was a muddy lake. Lawmakers glanced down at their wet boots and soaked pant legs and at the soggy, smudged papers on their desks and promptly adjourned.
Water from bayou
They stepped out of the building into odiferous streets that relied on the appetite of feral hogs for sanitation. Drinking water came from the bayou, which also was the sewer. Inside the tents and rudimentary houses were Houstonians laid low by typhoid and dysentery. Frank Lubbock, a passenger on the first steamship to reach Houston via Buffalo Bayou, recalled decades later: “It was a very muddy place …with very poor drainage, so that, with the immense wagon trade, the roads and streets, although very wide and handsome, were almost impassable in wet weather.”
Austin writer Jeffrey Stuart Kerr compiled several of these early-Houston anecdotes for his 2013 book, “Seat of Empire: The Embattled Birth of Austin, Texas,” including the following from a young Texas immigrant named Granville Rose. When Rose and his buddies wandered into a swarm of mosquitoes “as large as grasshoppers,” they jumped into the bayou to escape, only to discover that the water was aboil with alligators. Their mad scramble to shore left one of their party stranded on the opposite bank, so the others found a canoe to ferry him back across. As the vessel nosed into the bank, a large panther sprang out of the brush and bounded away.
“Houston is now one of the muddiest and most disagreeable places on earth,” another early-day visitor, John Winfield Scott Dancy, observed in 1838.
Why would Lubbock and Rose and an ever-growing number of immigrants have made their way to one of the muddiest and most disagreeable places on earth? Many, of course, had been wooed by two young New York promoters, brothers touting “an abundance of excellent spring water and enjoying the sea breeze in all its freshness,” a city that’s “handsome and beautifully elevated, salubrious and well-watered.” Despite the fact that one of those brothers, John Kirby Allen, died at 28 of a “bilious fever,” (possibly yellow fever or malaria), people yearning to start anew kept coming.
If the Allen brothers’ advertising genius helps explain why people came, we still have to wonder why they stayed in what sounds like a god-forsaken, pestilential swamp. Local historian and author Dan Worrall (“Pleasant Bend: Upper Buffalo Bayou and the San Felipe Trail”) offers a partial, and very practical answer.
“They found good, fertile land around here,” he reminded me a couple of days ago. “Particularly the German immigrants. They were coming from a place where land was very expensive.”
Worrall is right, but there was something more, something else John Dancy observed that helps explain the pull: “It is the most animated town I have seen in Texas.”
And still is. Then, and now, Houston was a place where you could build – new lives, new fortunes, a new city.
Veteran broadcaster Doug Miller, now a Chronicle editorial writer, likes to point out that 60-odd years after the Allen brothers envisioned a thriving town along the bayou, second- and third-generation Houstonians were quick to seize an opportunity, quick to build. The Monday after the great storm of 1900 devastated the state’s leading port city, the Houston City Council had three items on its agenda: humanitarian aid for Galveston, repairing Houston’s storm-damaged roofs and expediting a plan for dredging a ship channel. If you’ve hacked a thriving city out of a mosquito-ridden swamp, what’s so daunting about gouging out a 40-mile ditch to the sea?
Houston not only was audacious but also welcoming. Unlike more insular (and suspicious) communities, this town recognized from the beginning that newcomers breathed life into the city. They brought energy, ideas, business. Their success nourished their neighbors’ success. Today’s Houston, its people from Bangladesh and Bug Tussle, Iraq and Idalou, is no different.
I have no doubt that the mud, floods and mosquitoes drove away a number of early-day dreamers, and you can’t really blame them. Life was hard and dangerous. And yet those who stayed and managed to find a foothold in the swampy soil helped build a city.
I think of Dilue Rose, the feisty, adventurous 11-year-old who endured the harrowing Runaway Scrape in the cold, wet spring of 1836. Fleeing the advancing army of Mexican Gen. Santa Anna, the Rose family of Stafford’s Point (now Stafford) joined several thousand of their fellow Texans as they trudged eastward along roads turned into quagmires of red or black mud, attempted to cross rivers spilled out of their banks – the Trinity was more than a mile wide – and skirted lowlands that had become impassable swamps.
Livestock drowned. Women and children, cold, sick and exhausted, walked barefoot. Young Dilue saw her infant sister die in her mother’s arms. She saw a man pulled under by an alligator in a rain-swollen bayou.
Back home at Stafford’s Point after the Texians’ victory at San Jacinto, the Rose family discovered that their house had been broken into. Dr. Rose’s bookcase had been ripped apart and hogs lay sleeping on his books and medicines. Meanwhile, the corn field needed plowing, so he hitched up his oxen and went to work before cleaning out his office.
“Mother was very despondent, but Father is hopeful,” Dilue wrote. “Says Texas would gain her Independence and become a great nation.”
Like Dilue Rose and her family, we’ve endured our own watery baptism this week, a baptism of more than biblical proportions. And like those Houstonians who came before us, who endured, we rise up together. We set to work building.