mus Manford called early Houston, when
he was there, " . . a moral desert. Vice
of every name and grade reigned triumphant,
it was a hell on earth."
Yet it is important to remember that
these travelers were describing a very new
town, a frontier settlement that was admittedly
still rough and ready, but who
should have expected otherwise? Boston
in 1836 was older than Houston is today,
so it was unrealistic to compare the infant
town on the bayou to established eastern
or European cities. That lesson constantly
needs teaching, as we shall see.
And soon Houston did grow out of some
of its worst habits. By 1850, Melinda
Rankin, in a book published in Boston
could say that "The commercial facilities
... are rapidly advancing the city of
Houston in wealth and importance.
Every department of business is successfully
pursued, and an uncommon degree
of enterprise and public spirit is
manifested by the citizens in advancing
the city in its general interest."
"The society of Houston is refined and
intelligent, and the religious and educational
advantages are such as are calculated
to exert their salutary and moral
400'Block of Main Street, circa 1910, courtesy
Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston
izing influence .... The people of
Houston are proverbial for their politeness
and hospitality to strangers . . .
public sentiment is as elevated as may be
found in any other portion of the United
States." That quintessential Yankee traveler,
Frederick Law Olmsted, a few years
later could almost agree with Mrs.
Rankin, describing in his famous account
the "many agreeable signs of the wealth
accummulated in homelike, retired residences,
its large and good hotel, its wellsupplied
shops, and its shaded streets."
But not all of the rougher edges were
gone. Olmsted also noted "a most remarkable
number of showy barrooms and
gambling saloons . . . , while a poster
announced that 'the cock-pit is open
every night, and on Saturday night five
fights will come off for a stake of $100."'
Olmsted also forcefully reminds us that
Houston was very much an Old South
city. He describes a wounded, "downcast"
runaway slave who was captured, and
presents a vivid portrait of a vile commerce
in human beings: "There is a
prominent slave-mart in town, which
holds a large lot of likely-looking negroes,
awaiting purchasers. In the window of
shops, and on the doors and columns of
the hotel, were many written advertisements
headed 'A likely negro girl for sale.'
'Two negroes for sale.' 'Twenty negro boys
for sale,' etc." Some eleven years later, on
June 19, 1865, slavery ended in the Lone
With growth came more stability and
institutions, schools, churches, and opera
houses, that lent respectability to a town.
British traveler Sir Arthur James Lyon
Fremantle visited Houston during the
Civil War and found it, as he said, "a
much better place than I expected. The
main street can boast of many well-built
brick and iron houses." A decade before,
nearly all the buildings were frame, and
the transition to brick and iron both represented
and enhanced the air of permanence.
By the early 1870s Houstonians
were talking of dredging Buffalo Bayou
into a bona fide ship channel. Horace
Greeley, the New York newspaperman
who had once exhorted young men to go
West, in 1871 reported that Houston was
"intent on so deepening and straightening
her bayou that any vessel that can
pass the bar at Galveston may discharge
at her wharves, fifty miles inland. ..."
"It is a spirited enterprise," he wrote, "in
good hands, well backed, and its early
success fully assured." The ship channel
was completed in 1914, forty-three years
Greeley liked the can-do attitude he
saw in Houston, which he called a
"smart, young, growing community." If
the city only "rejoiced in a few hills and
ledges," he added, "he would like it even
better." To which we can all say, "amen."
"As she is," continued Greeley, "Houston
is one of the loveliest cities that ever rose
from a level plain, and stands so high
above the Bayou that she may cleanse and
keep sweet if she only will." We can all
agree with that. Houston has no San
Francisco Bay or Rocky Mountains for a
backdrop, but we can attempt, through
Bayou beautification projects, the planting
of live oaks, and creation of parks,
to make the best of what nature has
Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 04, Number 02, Fall 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45442/. Accessed March 12, 2014.