Thursday, September 28, 2006

Censorship scores a KO

A film showing the July 21, 1927, fight between Jack Dempsey and Jack Sharkey had been showing for two days at the Best Theatre, 212 Main, when it was ordered deleted by the Houston censor board.

Mrs. T.H. Eggart of the censor board said she thought the film showed some parts of the bout. When she learned the film showed the entire seven-round fight, she demanded the film be removed from exhibition.

Paul Barraco, the theater’s manager, told the Houston Chronicle for its Sept. 28, 1927, edition that Eggart was told the film was a “clean fight picture.”

At the time, it was against state law to show films of prize fights. The Sims Act of July 31, 1912, also made it a federal offense to transport boxing films from one state to another.

By the way, Dempsey knocked out Sharkey in the seventh round.

This wasn’t the first time Houston’s censor board judged what Houstonians should and should not see.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Pack your bags!

These advertisements were published in the Sept. 14, 1901, edition of the Houston Daily Post.

According to an inflation calculator, what cost $45.00 in 1901 would cost $997.00 these days. A $1 round trip on the Santa Fe to and from Galveston would cost $22.16 in 2005 dollars.

I think I’ll take I-45 instead.


Monday, September 25, 2006

Yellow fever blues (Part 2 of 2)

"The present generation can not appreciate the horrors of a yellow fever epidemic. One case would appear, then two or three, and then people would be taken down by the hundreds. In a week the death roll would begin to swell and everything like business, except at the drug stores, would be suspended."

The next time you want to read up on Houston's pre-oil boom days, check out Dr. S.O. Young's "True Stories of Old Houston and Houstonians." It's not available at any bookstore, or at, but it can be found at either the Harris County or Houston public libraries.

Young perhaps left us with some of the best descriptions of how Houstonians reacted to a yellow fever outbreak.

"For the first few days pandemonium broke loose, and then people settled down and waited, in grim desperation, for the inevitable, knowing full well that only a complete exhaustion of material or a frost could stop the ravages of the fever," he writes.

"For instance, every exposed place was inundated with lime and, at night, huge bonfires, composed largely of tar barrels and tar were burned at street crossings."

It's interesting to imagine these bonfires -- designed to keep the mosquitoes away -- burning in what we today consider downtown.

Young also mentions that rumors would spread of the dead coming back to life.

"Dr. Massie died and was laid out. All preparations were completed for burying him, when he came to life. He was placed in bed again and heroic efforts were made to save him, but all in vain. He lived 24 hours and died, the last time for good."

On Sept. 17, 1867, the Houston Daily Telegraph offered some advice for anyone who might begin to feel the effects of yellow fever:

"Have mustard, castor oil, orange leaves, or some other materials for making a sweating tea, on hand, ready at a moment's call."

And finally:

"Let nobody enter the room, from first to last, but the doctor and the nurse. Visitors and friends who come to see the patient and talk with him or her are messengers of death."


Friday, September 22, 2006

Hook, line and sinker (Part 2 of 2)

Nearly two weeks after the truck-house of Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 burned to the ground, investigators scratched their heads trying to figure out why it went up in flames.

Equally disturbing was how the company's new fire truck managed to wind up destroyed in the blaze.

Also unsettling was that the blaze started while everyone was occupied with the bonfire going on in the First Ward.

An investigation led to a youth named Diggs. He was brought before a grand jury and implicated two fire fighters in the blaze.

According to information published April 12, 1883, in the Houston Daily Post, the driver of the fire truck wanted to burn down the truck-house "for the purpose of getting a new one built in its place."

Knowing that a bonfire would occur after midnight on April Fool's Day, the driver figured it would be a good time to put his plan into action.

An accomplice stashed some hay in the back of the truck-house and saturated it with coal oil. The driver and the youth stayed behind and set the building on fire while the truck driver went to look into the First Ward bonfire.

"Their plan was to save the truck and burn only the house, but the flames, when once started, spread so rapidly that they were unable to do anything toward saving the new truck," the paper reported.

Both the truck driver and his accomplice were arrested and indicted for their part in torching the truck-house. The youth was able to testify against the two, which led to their arrest.

The history of the Houston Fire Department can be found here.

Still on the subject of fires, this Web site has some pictures from past fires in Houston. For example, does anyone remember when the Borden's Ice Cream plant exploded in downtown in Dec. 1983?


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Yellow fever blues (Part 1 of 2)

Fever? Burning eyes? Back and neck pain?

If you had those ailments while living in Houston 139 years ago, you were in trouble.

September 1867 was a particularly nasty time as the town was hit with a yellow fever epidemic. This wasn’t the first time “yellow jack” or the “black vomit” made an appearance. In 1858, 175 Houstonians died of the disease (about 3.6 percent of Houston’s population at the time). The following year, 15 to 24 people were dying at its peak. Before then, yellow fever and cholera killed so many people in such a short amount of time that bodies were dumped into long trenches at the old city cemetery (on West Dallas) and covered without a funeral ceremony.

But in the midst of the 1867 outbreak, the alarm raised by the Houston Daily Telegraph was mitigated by reports that few were dying of the disease.

“The number of cases will doubtless exceed 700. The mortality when we consider the number of cases, is very light,” the newspaper reported on Sept. 15, 1867.

From Aug. 12 to Sept. 14, 105 people had already died of yellow fever. In all, 492 would die by the time the outbreak subsided.

(That number is nearly 6 percent of the town's population. In 1860, Houston had a population of 4,845, according to Census figures. Ten years later, the town had a population of 9,382. For this calculation, the population of Houston at 1867 was estimated at 8,700. To put that in perspective, Houston's population in 2005 was estimated at 2,016,582. Six percent of that is 120,994. It makes one wonder how people today would react if that many residents of one city were to die of a particular disease in the span of a few months. Math experts are more than welcome to correct me!)

Galveston took a harder hit as more that 720 people died there by early September, according to the Handbook of Texas.

Among the dead:

Dick Dowling – Born in Ireland, settled in Houston and became a successful businessman. Among his businesses were Shades (a saloon) and the Bank of Bacchus near the Harris County courthouse. He fought for the Confederacy at the Battle of Galveston and played a key role in its victory at the Battle of Sabine Pass. A statue erected in 1905 that once stood on the site of the old City Hall at Market Square now stands at the entrance of Hermann Park on North MacGregor.

J.F. Wallace – Harris County assessor and collector

M. Bawsell – Deputy postmaster

General Charles Griffin – Born in Ohio, Griffin graduated from West Point in 1847. He went on to fight in the Mexican-American War and led Union troops during the Civil War battles at Antietam and Bull Run. He was present when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.

In Texas, Griffin took command of the Freedmen’s Bureau and military district of Texas during Reconstruction. During that time, he became heavily involved in Reconstruction politics.

But as yellow fever began to take hold of Galveston, he was urged to move his headquarters to Houston and establish a military quarantine, the Houston Daily Telegraph reported.

“But, with the true spirit of a soldier, he refused, saying that he was at his post and there he intended to remain,” according to the paper.

Yellow fever claimed his only son during the epidemic. By mid-September, Griffin also was dead.

“All who visited him, whatever differences of opinion might exist between them, came away pleased with him. … He was a stranger among the people of Texas, had fought against them in the war and was their military ruler at the time of his death. … Nevertheless, they feel sad at his untimely death and deeply sympathize with his excellent lady,” the Daily Telegraph reported on Sept. 17.


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Hook, line and sinker (Part 1 of 2)

Sometime between midnight and 1 a.m., fire crews were notified of a blaze in the First Ward.

"The teams all turned out promptly, and on arrival at the Central Depot, found that some persons had built a big bonfire, evidently for the purpose of getting up an April Fool alarm," the Houston Daily Post reported on April 1, 1883.

But while firefighters showed up to put out that fire, another fire alarm sounded. This time, the blaze was in the Third Ward.

"This turned out to be the truck-house of Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, which had caught fire during the absence of the driver and team," the paper reported.

Uh-oh. Residents and fire crews rushed back to the old building, which had burned down pretty quickly. A new fire truck inside was ruined.

"This truck was $3,500 ($67,000 today) when purchased, and had an extension ladder that could be raised to the height of seventy-two feet," according to the paper. "It has as complete a rig as any truck in the state."

So why did the Hook and Ladder Company building burn down? Find out Friday.


Hillendahl (Blue Light) Cemetery (Part 3 of 3)

This 1970s photo is far different from the Hillendahl cemetery of today. Some diseased trees at Bear Creek Park forced officials to remove dozens of trees in the area. The cemetery now sits on the edge of this clearing. Getting to the cemetery is a tad difficult since it's not visible from any roads inside the park.

If you do manage to find it, there isn't much to see. Well, when I went six years ago, there wasn't much to see. The small cemetery is enclosed in a high fence that's locked. Inside are a few plaques left by the Boy Scouts that identify some of the bodies buried there. There are no visible headstones.

Past posts on Hillendahl Cemetery are here and here.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Showtime at the auditorium!

In Houston, auditoriums and concert halls come and go. The Astrodome will likely end up as some kind of entertainment complex, the Summit is now Lakewood Church, the Astrohall is gone and the Sam Houston Coliseum and Music Hall have been replaced by newer performance halls.

The building pictured above was home to the 1928 Democratic National Convention. According to Marguerite Johnston's "Houston: The Unknown City," Jesse H. Jones was largely responsible for bringing the convention to the city. Jones, who was the party's national finance director, put up $200,000 and the promise of a 25,000-seat coliseum if the Democratic National Committee chose Houston.

The DNC did, and a coliseum was built between January and mid-June of 1928.

Eventually, the building would be torn down, and by 1940, the Sam Houston Coliseum would go up in its place. The $2,000,000 building ($26,000,000 in today's dollars) seated about 18,000. The adjacent Music Hall seated another 2,200.

The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts now occupies the site.

But before all those structures, there was the old City Auditorium.

Located where Jones Hall is today, the old City Auditorium was home to everything from wrestling to the Houston Symphony. It opened in 1910 and was torn down in the early 1960s.

Going back further, there was another city auditorium located at Main and McGowen.

I don't have much information on this structure except that it was located at the streets mentioned above.

Many of Bob Bailey's pictures of Houston, including the City Auditorium, can be found here.

For those wanting a tangible piece of history, the city visitors' center at City Hall sells bricks from the old coliseum and Music Hall.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Houston History Mystery #3: Strange formations in east Houston

Maybe this isn't so difficult to solve, but for weeks, members of the Houston Architecture Info Forum have been trying to figure out some odd-looking ovals located off Clinton Drive.

The above image is from a WWII-era map of Houston. Note the three circular shapes set inside a pill-shaped circle. Does anyone know what this once was?

The second image is from a 1950s map of Houston. As you can see, Tite and Mississippi street cut through the area. Part of the shape remains, but it appears that the original landmark no longer exists.

The last image is from Google maps. The landmark doesn't appear to exist at all anymore.

Some have speculated that it could have been a park though no one is completely sure. Can you solve this mystery?

Meanwhile, our previous Houston History Mysteries remain unsolved:
The case of the missing murals
The case of the missing flagstaff


Monday, September 11, 2006

Disaster relief

It didn't take long for Houston to help its neighbor.

Remember when that happened? Just days earlier, a hurricane decimated a major American city on the Gulf Coast. Many were killed or left homeless.

In response, Houstonians organized relief agencies, rounded up supplies and collected donations.
You remember that, right?

Probably not.

It was 1900. On Sept. 10, local residents gathered at City Council chambers for a meeting to coordinate supplies for Galveston. The meeting, led by Judge Norman Kittrell, resulted in the formation of a citizens' committee to take charge in organizing the relief effort. Benjamin Riesner, a blacksmith, was named chairman of the committee. Mayor Samuel Brashear was also named to the committee.

During the meeting, Texas Gov. Joseph Sayers sent Brashear a telegram saying that he had "taken the liberty of directing that all supplies for food and clothing for Galveston be shipped to you."

Three messages were also read:

  • On Sept. 9, G.N. McElroy, an Arcola station agent for the International and Great Northern Railway, sent word to Brashear seeking assistance. "There are 25 or more people here who are in urgent need of relief, quite a number of whom are sick ladies and children. One lady died before being rescued and a little girl is dying from injuries. The sick and homeless people need to be carried to a place of shelter."
  • Houstonian Rosine Ryan offered to volunteer her time to help with the relief effort.
  • Finally, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal might have been looking for a scoop. "Can you give the Journal an idea of the extent of the calamity as to loss of life and property, what relief measures in your opinion should be inaugurated?"

President McKinley sent a note to Gov. Sayers inquiring about the number of rations and tents Galveston would need.

In the end, Katrina wasn't the first time Houston mobilized to help a storm-ravaged town.

(The above proclamation was published in the Sept. 10, 1900, edition of the Houston Daily Post.)

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Gone, and largely forgotten (Part 3 of 3)

Frost Town
Almeda: State Marker
Golden Acres
Sunny Side
Busch Terrace
Clover Leaf
North Houston

Here are parts 1 and 2.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

While Galveston suffered...

Houston also took a serious hit from the 1900 storm.

One of the first reported deaths from the hurricane was that of Henry C. Black, a hired driver for funeral director Sid Westheimer.

A Second Ward alderman was going home at about 1:30 a.m. Sept. 9 when he noticed a body lying in a gutter in front of the Wells Fargo Express Company building. A downed power line was lying across the body.

The body was taken to the Houston Daily Post offices and was quickly identified as Black. Officials said it appeared Black was electrocuted by the downed power line.

"There were burns on the hands and on one of the legs, the flesh was seared to the bone," the Post reported.

Black was taken to his home in the 2200 block of Center Street once the storms subsided.

Other damage reported in Houston:

  • The roof of the Post building was torn off, flooding the presses.
  • The windows at the police station were shattered and the roof of the "prison department" was blown off.
  • A house at Tuam and Fairview caught fire after it was blown off its pillars.
  • The roof of the dining room at the Capitol Hotel was blown off.
  • Windows at the Southern Pacific offices at Franklin and Main Street were blown out.
  • The Grand Central depot and its hotel also lost much of its roof.
  • "The roof of on one wing of the Lawler Hotel was blown off and many of the windows in the building were shattered. The guests became alarmed and the crying of the ladies and children increased the excitement."

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Trouble beyond the horizon

This appeared in the Sept. 7, 1900, edition of the Houston Daily Post.

On Sept. 6, Isaac Cline, the Weather Service official in charge at Galveston, wrote that he had seen scattered clouds and northerly winds that day. Nothing too out of the ordinary.

That afternoon, he received a note from Washington, D.C., saying the tropical storm was over southern Florida. He figured it would head out toward the Atlantic.

Life continued on the island. Trouble -- was just beyond the horizon.

Plenty has been written about the Galveston storm of 1900. The information provided above came from Erik Larson's excellent book, "Isaac's Storm."

In the coming days, I'll post how the storm affected Houston and how local residents managed in its aftermath.


Sunday, September 03, 2006

Valentine's Day snowfall

The worst recorded snowfall in Houston's history likely occurred on Feb. 14 -15, 1895. In all, the city received about 20 inches of snow. Measurable amounts of snow would not be recorded again in Houston until 1912.

Today's weather forecast is located here. For better or worse, there's no mention of snow.


Friday, September 01, 2006

Lost to demolition

Page 10 of the July 14, 1926, edition of the Houston Chronicle carried a brief but nostalgic look back at the “Old Kidd Mansion” – one of the first homes in Houston installed with a modern bath.

The home, located in the 900 block of Lamar (Lamar and Travis) was built in 1871. It is believed the widow of Dick Dowling was responsible for its construction.

Some prominent Houstonians called the place home, including architect Michael DeChaumes and Jesse H. Jones.

When Captain J.C. Kidd “was owner of the place, it was the scene of much gaiety,” the Chronicle wrote. “Where now the Metropolitan Theatre (Main Street between McKinney and Lamar) is being erected, was Bremond Square, a beautiful park. Main Street and Rusk Avenue saw the most traffic in those days.”

The city had a population of about 17,000 in the late 19th century.

But by the 1920s, the house became so obsolete that it could not be rented or leased profitably. Seeing that there was no Greater Houston Preservation Alliance at the time, the landmark was soon demolished.

“No plans have been drawn for a new structure to be erected on the site,” the paper reported, attributing that to the owners.

The downtown Foley’s was built on that block decades later.

(More about Houston's opulent homes of yesteryear can be found in "Houston's Forgotten Heritage: Landscapes, Houses, Interiors, 1824-1914," likely available at most large bookstores.)

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