History of Buffalo
Winding through Houston’s patchwork of diverse landscapes is our
very own muddy oasis, Buffalo Bayou. Houston’s rich history has
been shaped by those who depended on her waters for their livelihoods,
native Texans, foreign businessmen, travelers, soldiers, and seafarers
who charted territory and staked their claim in the commercial goldmine
that was and still is Houston.
For centuries, before explorers descended on the Gulf of Mexico, native
Indians, such as the Bidais and Akokisa, camped and traded along the
lush banks of Buffalo Bayou and prowled its clear clay bottomed waters.
The French and the Spanish maintained trade with these tribes, but did
not establish settlements along the Bayou until the 1820’s.
In the early 1800’s, the city of Harrisburg, located near today’s
Ship Channel, was the focal point for shipping along the Gulf, but General
Santa Anna burned it to the ground on his march to the Battle of San
Founding of Houston, 1836 - 1850
In 1836, the Allen Brothers, John K. and Augustus, discovered tracts
of land in a navigable area upstream from Harrisburg at the convergence
zone of Buffalo and White Oak Bayou. The land-speculating brothers are
attributed with the strategic genius and commercial foresight that heralded
the founding of Houston along Buffalo Bayou.
Once Mrs. Elizabeth Parrott, heir of this land, officially handed over
the title to the Allen Brothers for $5,000, the planning process began.
The Allen Brothers laid out the city in a grid pattern, oriented not
to a compass but to the Bayou, and therein laid the foundations for
booming shipping industry in their new city.
The brothers possessed 6,000 acres of land and a bold vision: to transform
this fertile region in the southeastern corner of Texas into a bustling
metropolis. Soon, flocks of oceangoing vessels and steamers loaded and
unloaded from the docks of Allen’s Landing, the gateway into the
city nestled between Buffalo and White Oak Bayou, at the foot of present
day Main and Commerce Streets. Cotton from plantation giants in the
west was shipped overland and loaded onto steamers at the Bayou for
their return voyage.
The Bayou was more than a means of shipping and transportation. Real
estate development began to sprawl along the embankments overlooking
the water and settlers began to call Houston home. It was designated
“National Highway of the Republic” in 1840 to symbolize
its economic power.
Reinventing the Bayou, 1850-1870
The Bayou was too shallow and narrow to support large ocean-going vessels
and steamers and competed with Galveston for transportation supremacy.
Furthermore, Texas’ entrance into the Civil War on the side of
the confederacy led to a Federal Blockade in Galveston in 1861, stifling
the Bayou’s commercial activity.
Efforts to reinstate Houston as a primary maritime station began with
Colonel Brady, upon his return from the Civil War, who orchestrated
the dredging of the Houston Ship Channel to clear the way for large
ships. The Buffalo Bayou Ship Channel Company, partially owned by the
city, maintained the water’s depth at nine feet.
In 1870, Congress designated Houston a port of delivery and the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers conducted a survey of the Bayou with recommended
designs to improve navigation.
The Bayou and Houston’s Commercial Boom
However, not until the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 did the two proposed
projects, widening and deepening of Galveston Bay and Buffalo Bayou,
merge as the “Galveston Ship Channel and Buffalo Bayou, Texas
Project.” Progress stalled due to the Spanish-American War, but
the project resumed with vigor once the 1900 hurricane devastated Galveston.
Though most ocean-going vessels could now deliver goods to Houston,
adamant congressmen from 1896-1911 voiced their concerns for expansion
and deepening of the Houston Ship Channel. Finally, funding was secured
in 1911 and construction of the Houston Ship Channel, which would reach
a depth of 25 feet, was completed ahead of schedule in 1914. To memorialize
this occasion, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in Washington,
D.C. that fired a canon located at the Port of Houston Turning Basin.
Devastation: Floods and Mosquitoes
Although the Bayou attracted settlers and merchants with its connection
to Galveston, it brought disease-carrying mosquitoes along the way.
Killing almost as many Houston men as the Civil War, Houston experienced
two Yellow Fever epidemics in 1839 and 1867.
But the Bayou faces a natural force that surpasses war and disease in
scope: floods. In 1879, Houston experienced its first devastating flood,
followed shortly after by others in 1929 and 1935, which submerged Main
Street and other high traffic farm to market access roads. The only
flood since to take a comparable toll on lives and property was that
of Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.
In response to the 1935 flood that devoured the city, local officials
petitioned the Corps of Engineers to build a reservoir for flood control
along the Buffalo Bayou watershed. The plans for installment of Barker
and Addicks Dam and Reservoir, to regulate the flow of water to the
Bayou, were approved in 1940.
Hero of the Bayou: Terry Hershey
In the 1960’s, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers executed a flood
mitigation project for Brays Bayou, which required clearing out all
riparian vegetation and straightening channels in favor of a concrete
waterway. After the lining of White Oak Bayou with concrete, local residents
were in outrage and were determined to prevent the similar lining of
One such advocate was Terry Hershey. She was appalled by the channeling
and concrete lining designs because they would change the natural meanders
and ecological composition of the Bayou. Vowing to preserve the integrity
and wildlife of the Bayou, Hershey took her case to congress with then
congressman, George H. W. Bush. Terry and Bush successfully thwarted
the city’s flood control plan through a bulwark of federal opposition.
Today, Terry Hershey Park, almost 500-acres near the Barker and Addicks
Reservoirs of the Bayou, honors her legacy and symbolizes the necessity
of stewardship between city residents and the natural systems that sustain
Past, Present, and Future
Today, the 52-mile stretch of Buffalo Bayou is the nation’s number
one port in foreign cargo and one of the largest ports in the world.
From the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel, boasting tons of commercial
cargo every day, to the dense forests of Memorial Park, Buffalo Bayou
will continue to be the lifeblood sustaining our social, cultural, economic,
and environmental well being.
To find out more, visit Louis Aulbach and Linda Gorski’s website,
Bayou: An Echo of Houston’s Wilderness Beginnings: http://www.hal-pc.org/~lfa/Buffalo.html
Or read Marguerite Johnston, Houston: The Unknown City, 1836 –
1946, College Station: Texas A & M Press, 1992.