The best kept secret around here is that Houston has a history. Oh sure, it’s hard to compare our past to Boston’s or San Antonio’s, but we can beat Dallas, Denver and Detroit without breaking a sweat. Houston has been a national capital, survived two military invasions, and endured what historians call the ninth most important battle in history. This is where Houstonians could bump into someone who walked on the moon, been president of a country, or held the title of richest man in the world.
We do not celebrate our history as other cities do, mainly because there is little to point out. No Alamo or French Quarter, and no crumbling ruins, unless you count Galveston. In Houston, we put a historical plaque on anything due for a second coat of paint. We consider old timers those who were here during the last smog alert. The Historical Society’s Guidebook opens with, “Our story begins in 1922 when the city’s first air conditioning was installed in the Rice Hotel cafeteria. Before that, Houston was totally unlivable.”
We live in one of the few cities which can identify the day it was born. It was on Aug. 30, 1836 when two developers from New York ran an ad: “There is no place in Texas more healthy, having an abundance of excellent spring water, and enjoying the sea breeze in all its freshness.” Ads ran in German newspapers touting the glories of Houston. In Hamburg, or maybe Brennan, I found pamphlets that were passed around town back then. They showed Houston with snow-capped mountains in the background. Ski the Heights. Why is Congress Street so named? Because when Houston was capital of the Republic of Texas, our Congress met where the Rice Hotel now stands. You may have read that UH-Downtown, located in a big, red building, wants to change its name to something else. How about UH-Stalag? A Confederate POW camp for Yankees once sat there.
How many presidents have lived in Houston? Five. It’s sort of a trick question. We all know George H.W. Bush is a resident and George W. lived here during his wild bachelor days. Lyndon B. Johnson taught public speaking and coached debate at Sam Houston High School from 1930 to ’31. The two others are Sam Houston and Mirabeau Lamar, who were presidents of the Republic of Texas when its capital was in Houston.
Yes, History ‘R’ Us. Everyone knows about the Battle of San Jacinto, but we may forget both the Mexican and Texian armies marched across Harris County to the battlefield. Santa Anna’s forces came from San Antonio and the Battle of the Alamo, marching roughly down today’s I-10, through downtown and on to San Jacinto. The Texian Army came from the northwest through Hempstead, cut due south to the Heights, and then east to the battlefield.
There was no Houston when Santa Anna’s army passed through, only Harrisburg, which he burned. But on the broad median of Bellaire Blvd. at Second Street is a Texas Historical Monument noting “in this vicinity” on April 18, 1836, Deaf Smith and some other Texas scouts captured three Mexicans — Capt. Miguel Bachiller, a courier and a guide. Between questioning the three, and analyzing papers they carried, Smith learned about Santa Anna’s army, strength, position and battle plans.
On Christmas Eve 1837, word arrived in Houston that the Mexican Army was returning here. Among those joining the instant militia was new arrival William Marsh Rice. As Houston was the capital, we had embassies here. U.S. ambassador Mr. Labranche, who lived in “a good cabin,” offered “protection of the flag if necessary” to his Texas friends. This may explain how LaBranch Street got its name, although with a different spelling.
Houston newspaper editor, Dr. Francis Moore, was elected to the Republic of Texas Senate and lobbied for an anti-dueling law. Sen. Oliver Jones labeled it “An Act for the Protection of Cowards.” The measure became law and until 1939, all Texas officials had to swear an oath they had never taken part in a duel.
William Sydney Porter, aka O. Henry, lived here while writing for the Houston Post. In the early 1920s, Clark Gable worked for a winter stock company in Houston, but he could not conquer his stage fright. The show’s producer recalled, “Rehearsals went smoothly enough, but performances for him were a nightmare: his jaw became rigid, he forgot his lines, cold sweat beaded his forehead.” Gable was fired.
Then there were the Camp Logan Riots, among the worst race riots and military mutinies in American history. They happened during World War I, but you can still see the streets where angry black soldiers of the Third Battalion Twenty-fourth United States Infantry broke from their camp in what is now Memorial Park. The ringleaders were later court martialed, hanged and buried at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio under tombstones with no names, only numbers.
Finally in our Houston history lesson, consider a fellow named Charles Hedenberg who persuaded an uncle living in New Jersey to come here and set up a carriage shop in the 1830s. The uncle arrived one morning and transferred his bags to his nephew’s business, Hedenberg &Vedder. Charles was quite busy at the time, so he suggested his uncle should go over to the Capitol and watch Congress in action.
The uncle agreed and went to the Capitol, whereupon he heard gunshots. He rushed to a hallway just in time to see Algernon Thompson, a Senate clerk, being carted off. Thompson had been severely wounded by another clerk. The uncle had seen enough of Texas government in action, so he left and walked down the west side of Main Street.
As he passed the Round Tent Saloon, inside, one Texian soldier shot another. The wounded soldier staggered out and almost fell on the New Jerseyian. He ran across the street and arrived at John Carlos’ Saloon. Just then a man fell out of the saloon with his bowels protruding from a huge wound made by a Bowie knife. The newcomer raced back to his nephew’s store and asked, “Charley, have you sent my trunks to the house?” “No, uncle. Not yet.”
“Well, do not send them. Get me a dray so I can at once take them to the boat that leaves Galveston this afternoon.”
“Why, Uncle, what do you mean? You have seen nothing; have not had time to look at the town.”
“Charley,” said the uncle, “I have seen enough. I wish to return home immediately. I do not wish to see any more of Texas.” With that, he left, never to return. And they say Houston has no history.