Paved in History
The Colorful Stories Behind Houston’s Historic Street Names
by Marks Hinton and Aaron Howard
Nothing says more about a city than its street names. Its history, heroes, civic-minded citizens, philanthropists and sometimes just colorful characters are all chronicled in a Key Map. There is only one problem — while the maps and street signs pose the questions, they fail to deliver any answers. However, with an innate sense of curiosity and the willingness to invest some time at the public library, the city’s Planning and Development Department, homeowner associations and real estate development firms, the code can be cracked.
In Houston, we have streets named for their importance (Main Street), for a location (Railroad), for a developer’s whimsy (Betty Boop), for battles (Iwo Jima) or for thoroughbreds that won the Kentucky Derby (Secretariat). Less known are the thoroughfares named to honor important settlers, merchants and men of the cloth. Our purpose is to breathe life into these names and tell their stories. Let us begin this journey around our city in the central business district where Houston took root at the confluence of Buffalo and White Oak bayous.
Franklin Avenue Benjamin Cromwell Franklin arrived in Texas in 1835. He actively supported the Texas Revolution and fought at the Battle of San Jacinto. Thomas Rusk, then-secretary of war, sent Franklin to Galveston to inform Republic President David Burnet of the victory at San Jacinto. In December 1836, the Republic of Texas established four district courts, and Franklin became the first person in the new Republic given a judicial position. Harrisburg was designated as District 2 with Franklin as the district judge. He was not re-elected in 1838 and once was fined $20 for sitting on the bar in the new courthouse. Franklin died in 1873 and is buried in Galveston.
LaBranch Street As the last official act of his administration, U.S. President Andrew Jackson appointed Alcee Louis LaBranch as charge d’affaires from the United States to the Republic of Texas. LaBranch served in this position from 1837 to 1840. He returned to his native New Orleans and was elected to Congress. During the campaign, he was challenged to a duel (the only one of his career) and killed his opponent, a Whig from Baton Rouge. LaBranch Street was formerly known as Milton Street after John Milton, the author of “Paradise Lost.”
McKinney Avenue As one of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old Three Hundred” colonists, Thomas F. McKinney was given a league of land in what is today Brazos County. He became wealthy through trading, lumber and agriculture. In 1834, he partnered with Samuel M. Williams and established the largest commission-merchant firm in Texas. That company helped finance the Texas Revolution by advancing the Republic $150,000 and issuing notes that circulated as legal tender. McKinney later became a famous thoroughbred breeder.
He was opposed to secession but reluctantly accepted it. Employed as an agent for Simeon Hart, the Confederate quartermaster for Texas, McKinney sold cotton to Mexico to purchase arms, ammunition and other necessary supplies for the Civil War. The war and a disastrous speculation in cotton ruined McKinney, and he died broke.
Rusk Avenue Thomas Jefferson Rusk arrived in Texas in 1832 in hot pursuit of a gang of con artists who absconded with some of his money. It is not known if he found them and recouped his investment, but Rusk liked Texas and stayed. He signed the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico and was elected secretary of war in 1836. He fought with Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto. In 1838, he was a founder and second vice-president of the Houston Jockey Club. Rusk County was named for him in 1843 and the town of Rusk in 1846. After Texas’ annexation by the United States, he and Sam Houston were elected as our first U.S. senators in 1846. Rusk served in that august body until his death in 1857. He and General Sam often made public addresses from the pulpit of one of the three churches in Houston at that time (Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic). Depressed over the death of his wife, Rusk committed suicide in Nacogdoches in July 1857.
Moving south, we enter Midtown, one of our older residential districts and home of the neighborhoods of Montrose, Westmoreland and Binz.
Binz Avenue A Chicago native, Jacob Binz built Houston’s first “skyscraper” in 1895. A Renaissance- and Romanesque-style structure at 513-19 Main St., it cost $60,000. The Binz Building was the first in Houston to be built out of concrete, stone and steel. The structure was six stories high, plus a basement. Architects said the foundation and superstructure could have supported a 20-story building. When it was opened, people came from miles around to ride its elevators to the top floor and admire the view of the surrounding countryside. The building was demolished in 1950.
Holman Avenue James S. Holman was elected district court clerk of the county of Harrisburg in early 1837. The city of Houston was incorporated a few months later, and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Andrew Briscoe called an election. Holman was elected the first mayor in a tight contest, collecting 12 votes to Francis Lubbock’s 11 and Thomas W. Ward’s 10. At this cliffhanger, there were no reports of hanging chads, lawsuits, lawyers, Supreme Court intervention or even sore losers.
McGowen Street Andrew McGowen was a tinsmith. He also owned a general store that sold copperware, cooking stoves and hardware, much of which he manufactured. Elected mayor in 1867, the election was remarkable, according to a newspaper account, because it was “unmarred by a single fight.” During his term, enough wooden rails were laid on McKinney Avenue to operate the city’s first mule-drawn streetcar in 1868. The fares were a dime for adults and a nickel for children.
Montrose Boulevard Sir Walter Scott, famous poet and romantic novelist, created the historic town of Montrose for use in his stories. In 1910, J. W. Link acquired 165 acres west of Courtlandt Place and laid out the neighborhood. He named the boulevard Montrose. He built the first of many mansions that were to grace the subdivision. His home on the southwest corner of Montrose at West Alabama cost $60,000 to build in 1912 and was famous for its large gold doorknobs. Today, it is the administration building of the University of St. Thomas.
West Gray Avenue Peter Gray was a Harrisburg judge and founding member of the Houston Library. Texas Chief Justice Oran Roberts named him the “very best district judge upon the Texas bench.” Another judge fined him for sitting on a courtroom table ($20) and smoking in court ($20) in 1838. A year later he was named district attorney. He was an organizer of the law firm Gray, Botts & Baker, predecessor to today’s Baker Botts. Gray founded and captained the Civil War Texas Grays, was General John B. Magruder’s aide at the 1863 New Year’s Day Battle of Galveston and was elected to the House of the Confederate Congress. He developed tuberculosis in 1873. In 1874, Gray was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court but only served two months due to his failing health. He died Oct. 3, 1874, at the age of 54. Roberts said he was “a man who ought to be remembered.”
Yoakum Boulevard Although his parents wanted him to be a minister, Benjamin Franklin Yoakum was taken with railroad fever. His first job was on a survey gang laying out the route of the International-Great Northern Railroad into Palestine. Working his way up the corporate ladder at several rail lines, Yoakum joined the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway Company (Frisco). Under his tutelage, this railroad grew from 1,200 to 6,000 miles of track. In 1905, the Frisco and the Rock Island Line merged to form a 17,000-mile system, the largest in America at the time. As one of Texas’ leading agrarians, he is credited with creating the great agricultural counties of the Rio Grande Valley and south Texas. In 1907, he moved to New York City and became a financier, activist agrarian and prize-winning cattle raiser. Yoakum died in 1929 and is buried in New York.
Leaving Midtown, we enter parklands, historic neighborhoods and arguably the greatest medical center in the world.
|Medical Center and South
Hermann Drive George H. Hermann, one of Houston’s greatest philanthropists, was born Aug. 6, 1843, in a log cabin where the City Hall reflection pool is today. He came from humble beginnings. His parents arrived here in 1838 with $5 and three kids. Mrs. Hermann pawned her jewelry so they could open a bakery. George’s first job was as a stock keeper for Governor Lubbock’s Simms Bayou ranch. Active in the Civil War, he served with distinction in Company A of the 26th Cavalry. Hermann took up cattle ranching in 1872. He made his fortune on livestock, land and oil. In 1885, as Houston’s importance as a world port increased, he traveled by train to New York City and caught a steamship to Europe. This tour was possibly the only big indulgence he allowed himself in his long and frugal life.
When the Board of Park Commissioners was formed in 1910, Hermann was named one of its founding members. Later that year, Hermann gave the land where he was born to the city for a park. One condition of the gift was that anyone who was drunk could sleep it off in the park without being arrested. The reason: Hermann did not want to constantly bail out his employees, thus wasting time and money when they could be working. On May 30, 1914, he gave the city 278 acres of beautifully wooded land that became Hermann Park. He died Oct. 21, 1914. Hermann Park officially opened July 4, 1915. As Hermann never married, his estate, valued at $2.5 million, was willed to a foundation to build and operate a hospital. Hermann Hospital, built at a cost of $1 million, began operations on July 1, 1925. Hermann is buried in Glenwood Cemetery beside his parents and two bachelor brothers.
Holcombe Boulevard Oscar Holcombe was one of Houston’s legendary politicians. First elected mayor in 1921, he would be re-elected 11 times. In 1922, the Ku Klux Klan controlled many county offices. The Klan asked Holcombe to fire three city administrators who were Catholic. He refused, and the KKK set out to defeat him in the most outrageous campaign in the city’s history. In its newspaper, the KKK claimed Holcombe was a drunk and a gambler. Actually, he was a member in good standing of the First Baptist Church and had no vices. Slandered by a rumor that he shot craps at a New Year’s party, Holcombe challenged the Klan to prove it. He asked the Baptist Ministers Association to try him on the charges. The Klan produced two witnesses who claimed they peeked over the transom and saw the mayor, but he produced six attendees who swore he was not there. Holcombe won acquittal and a second term.
Early in his career, he became known as the “Gray Fox” for his political showmanship. Holcombe was a good businessman and became very wealthy through investments in lumber, home building, gas stations, apartments, oil and a turkey farm. He combined the power of city manager and mayor, giving mayors of Houston more power than those in other American cities. Under his administrations, the Harris County Navigation District and the Houston Independent School District were created.
M. D. Anderson Boulevard In 1904, Monroe D. Anderson, his brother Frank and William L. Clayton incorporated Anderson, Clayton & Company. This firm became the largest cotton broker in the world and was the basis of Anderson’s wealth. In 1936, he founded the M. D. Anderson Foundation. As a bachelor, his $20 million estate went to the foundation upon his death in 1939. The bulk of the funds went to establish the Texas Medical Center. One of the finest hospitals in the complex is named in his honor.
Old Spanish Trail This thoroughfare is named in honor of one of Texas’ earliest highways. However, the actual route of the Old San Antonio Road, the King’s Highway or El Camino Real, its original names, is nowhere near Houston. It started on the Sabine River near what is today the Toledo Bend Reservoir, went southwest to San Antonio and ended on the Rio Grande River in Maverick County near Eagle Pass. Initially traversed in 1691, it was ordered surveyed by the Texas Legislature in 1915 and named a state highway worth preserving in 1929.
As we wind up our tour, it’s time to go west to visit the stately neighborhood of River Oaks and discover the citizens who merited street names there.
Kirby Drive John Henry Kirby was called the “father of industrial Texas.” He owned the two largest lumber companies in East Texas. In 1895, the Houston Baseball Association was chartered with capital of $3,000 and Kirby as its president. In 1922, Kirby and Joseph Cullinan formed the American Anti-Klan Association to force the Ku Klux Klan to disband. He completed construction of his luxurious mansion at 2006 Smith in 1928. The Kirby Mansion had one of the city’s most beautiful gardens. It contained baroque water parterres, conservatory, pergola, natatorium and a lake with a rustic bridge. He owned Camp Killcare on Armand Bayou where he and influential friends partied on weekends, swam, fished and hunted alligators. Kirby and Howard Hughes Sr. were among the first Houstonians to own an automobile. The Great Depression took its toll on Houstonians, including Kirby, who filed for bankruptcy in 1933.
San Felipe Road This was the route from Harrisburg in eastern Harris County to Stephen F. Austin’s colony at the town of San Felipe on the Brazos River. Listed on early maps as Route Number 6 by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, commissioner of the Association for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, the road’s distance was set at 49 miles, and the prince noted the lack of water between Houston and Piney Point (now one of the Memorial Villages) 10 miles to the west.
Shepherd Drive Benjamin A. Shepherd was a Virginian who came to Houston in 1844. In 1847, his Commercial and Agricultural Bank became the first chartered bank in Texas. Although he was not invited in 1866 to be a founder of the city’s first national bank, he was elected to the board of directors a year later. In 1867, he was named president of the First National Bank when it encountered financial difficulties following the Civil War. Shepherd managed the bank with an iron hand for the next 25 years. He was one of the incorporators of the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado Railroad, as well as one of the founders of the Board of Trade and Cotton Exchange in 1874. The town of Shepherd in San Jacinto County was named for him following his laying out of the route of the Houston, East and West Texas Railroad in 1875. The family, now six generations old, gave the city land for Shepherd Drive and funded the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.
We wrap up our street tour of Houston with the longest named roadway in Texas, at just over 43 miles in length.
Westheimer Road An immigrant from Germany, Michael Louis Westheimer came to Houston in 1859. He was quite an entrepreneur. Westheimer owned a flour mill, a livery stable on the corner of Milam and Congress, was a hay merchant and laid the city’s first streetcar tracks. At auction, he bought a 640-acre farm for $2.50 an acre west of town where Lamar High School is today. He started a school on the property for his brother’s children, as well as nieces and nephews from Germany. The shell lane that led to the schoolhouse became known as “the road to Westheimer’s place.” Out of the family livery business came the Westheimer Transfer and Storage Company. The family also once owned the Westheimer Undertaking and Embalming Company and remains prominent in the city today.
While we have only scratched the surface of the stories behind our historic and interesting street names, our highways and byways, whatever they are called, are an encoded chronicle of our history, heroes, pathos, ethnicity, idealism, sense of humor and attitude about ourselves.