Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Houston during the Civil War

I've put a link to a file on my personal Web site that briefly summarizes how Houston fared during the Civil War.

The one-page document, which comes from a city directory published just after the war, doesn't go into much detail. In essence, it says the city was doing pretty well until the war started. Once fighting began, Houston didn't suffer as much as other Southern cities, but much of the city's growth was stunted. As the war came to a close, residents seemed eager to resume development.


A few days back, BCH logged its 10,000th visit. Since I've returned to Houston, site visits have increased month after month. Not bad for a little blog detailing Houston's past! Thanks to everyone who keeps checking in. Your comments/suggestions are always welcome.


In other news, expect some changes around here early next month. Watch this space.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A stop to street-spitting

People who spit on the street kill more people than criminals who walk the streets, according to Dr. P. H. Scardino, Houston's health officer.

In a statement released Dec. 12, 1917, Scardino was concerned about tuberculosis, which is spread through the air from one person to another. According to the CDC, the bacteria are put into the air when a person with active TB disease of the lungs or throat coughs or sneezes. People nearby may breathe in these bacteria and become infected.

Scardino was particularly concerned about spreading the disease through spitting. He was especially critical of Houston police officers, as well.

"One thing that stands out strongly in the city of Houston is the promiscuous spitting on the sidewalks, and I say it to the shame of our police officers that I have often seen them do this themselves and absolutely make no effort to prevent others from doing so," Scardino said, as reported in the Houston Post.

Scardino even placed a priority on catching those who should spit on the sidewalks.

"I personally feel that it would be far better for the police officers to prevent people from spitting on sidewalks, street cars and in other public places than to catch a burglar or common criminal, for the man who spits on the sidewalks and in other public places eventually kills more people by the transmission of the disease than all the criminals of the world combined have ever killed," he said.

Scardino's said that because it was winter more people would likely suffer from colds and other ailments. Therefore, immediate care was recommended to prevent something like tuberculosis from becoming an epidemic.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Check your attic...again

Sunday's Chronicle has a story about renovation work going on at the 1910 Harris County Courthouse. The $65 million restoration will take three years. The courthouse is slated to reopen Nov. 15, 2010 — 100 years after it first opened.

The county isn't sure what the interior looked like prior to the building's renovation in 1954. Anyone with photos or recollections of the interior prior to that year can contact Dan Reissig, special projects manager in the county's architectural and engineering division, at 713-755-5370 or


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Houston History Mystery VI: The case of the missing trophy

This is more of a Texas mystery, but this does have a small Houston connection.

In early May 1898, the Hernsheim Trophy went on display at Brown & Wolf on Main Street. The trophy pictured here was awarded to the 1897 Texas League pennant winners.

I contacted Bill O'Neal, noted author of a number of books on Texas and the West, including a book on the Texas League. He was unaware of the trophy and its whereabouts.

I'm not even sure who Hernsheim was.

I'm tempted to believe the trophy is lost.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Taking a tumble

The April 25, 1850, edition of The Democratic Telegraph and Texas Register mentions a tumble Judge Wheeler took off the second story of "the old City Hotel."

(Newspapers back then were notorious for not publishing first names. This could be a reference to Texas Chief Justice Royal T. Wheeler, but I'm not so sure.)

On April 16, Wheeler was attending a meeting of the Sons of Temperance at their room on the hotel's third floor.

"On descending to the second story, he walked out upon the piazza, supposing he was on the sidewalk a story below, and there being no railing he inadvertently walked off, falling about ten feet upon the pavement."

Suffering only a few bruises, Wheeler was able to take a boat to return to his family in Galveston.

The paper noted it was the third such accident at the hotel, "owing to the culpable negligence of the owners of the building to construct a railing along the piazza."

Then came the punchline:

"It is perhaps fortunate that the Sons of Temperance occupy the upper room, for if the devotees of intemperance were accustomed to meet there, the accidents of this kind might have occurred much more frequently."

The paper went on to mention another man that fell while trying to get a drink at the hotel.

"Jumping up, he cast an angry glance...cursed the high steps, and coolly walked over to get his glass of bitters."


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Opening night at the Alabama

Since the Alabama Theater has been in the news lately, I figured now is a great time to take a look at when it opened. I did a similar write-up on the opening of the River Oaks Theater that you can check out here.

The Alabama Theater opened Nov. 2, 1939, to some fanfare that included fireworks, city leaders and the Elkadettes.

While River Oaks leaders touted their theater as being "Houston's safest neighborhood theatre," the Alabama was advertised as having free parking, ticket prices ranging from 10 to 25 cents, and a Popeye Club for kids on Saturday morning at 9 a.m.

The theater opened with the the 1939 film "Man About Town," starring Jack Benny and Dorothy Lamour.

"The brightly-clad Elkadettes, girls drum and bugle corps sponsored by the Elks Club, furnished music for the occasion and the fireworks and giant searchlights gave the festivities the atmosphere of a Hollywood premiere," the Houston Post wrote.

Mayor Oscar F. Holcombe and County Judge Roy Hofheinz attended opening ceremonies. Others on hand included representatives from the major motion picture studios of the time.

  • Among the theater's features:

  • Extra-wide seats cushioned in the new bubble-foam sponge rubber

  • Broadloom carpeting on the floors

  • An 86-foot neon sign

New developments on the River Oaks shopping center can be found over at Houstonist.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Check your attic

Do you have any photos or memorabilia pertaining to Glenwood Cemetery?

If so, the Glenwood Cemetery Historic Preservation Foundation might want to have a word with you.

The foundation recently commissioned a book on the history of Houston's historic cemetery. An author has already been chosen and the book is expected to be published by fall 2008.

"We are seeking historic photographs, diaries, letters, programs, catalogues, deeds, maps, receipts, documents and ANY other memorabilia that depict or mention Glenwood Cemetery and its grounds, monuments and statuary, including sculptors, architects and landscape architects whose work is represented here," according to a foundation e-mail recently forwarded to me by Houston Arts and Media.

For more information, contact the cemetery at 713-864-7886.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

A hanging in Waller County

The May 1, 1897, edition of the Houston Post pieced together reports of a hanging that occurred in Waller County, just outside Sunny Side.

"Dangling from the limbs of a large oak tree are the bodies of six negroes, limp and lifeless," the Post reported. "The scene of this horrible picture is one mile north of Sunnyside and sixteen miles from here."

The article goes in detail to describe the location of the tree. Who knows if it still exists?

"The large tree is on the public road from Sunnyside to Pattison and for years to come this tree will be pointed by passersby as a tree with the records of having held at one and the same time the bodies of six men executed by popular fury, commonly called 'Judge Lynch.'"

Of the six that were hanged, four were brothers and three were teenagers.

They were:
Fayette Rhoan, 21
Will Gates, 35
Louis Thomas, 20
Aaron Thomas, 13
Jim Thomas, 14
Benny Thomas, 15

The six were suspected in the death of Henry Daniels, his stepdaughter Marie Daniels, and a 7-year-old child.

So what led up to the killings?

On April 28, Daniels' Waller County home was burglarized. "Marie Daniels and the 7-year-old child were ravished and old man Daniels clubbed to death, trying to protect those in his charge."

The Post said the child was thrown into a well. Authorities noted her skull had been smashed. The other two were left in a house that was set on fire.

Local authorities, with the help of "bloodhounds from Steele's plantation" helped in finding the Thomas brothers.

The brothers confessed, the article reported, and they implicated others that were believed to be involved in the crime. The men were being held to await an examining trial, but a mob surprised the officers and took the men to the oak tree. A seventh person, Willie Williams, was also taken by the mob, but his whereabouts were unknown.

"As far as can be learned, the mob was composed of white and black men, with the colored element largely predominating.

"Tonight, there is calm after the storm and public opinion is almost universal that if the right parties were apprehended no harm was done."

Apparently, the suspects had previously known Daniels; it did not appear to be a random crime.

The Post said that a Brenham man had been robbed months earlier of $65 (about $1518 in today's dollars). Of that, $30 ($700) was given to Henry Daniels.

"Daniels spent the money, and on Sunday evening last the four Thomas
boys, according to their confessions yesterday, decided to either collect their $30 or kill Daniels."

Word of what had happened in Waller County made its way to Houston by passenger train. Many of the passengers said there had been a great deal of commotion in Hempstead over the hanging.

The article concluded:

"The white citizens of Hempstead, it is said, are upholding the negroes who did the hanging."


Saturday, May 05, 2007

Wild over wireless

You'd think the above Houston Press headline is about the city's plan to install a city-wide Wi-Fi network, eh?

Ending out Radio Week here at BCH is a new blog on Houston radio history called, well, Houston Radio History. The last few entries have seen some interesting posts on the early days of radio from before WWII. Check it out when you get the chance.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A chat with an author

Christopher Varela informs me that more copies of his book, "Kotton, Port, Rail Center: A History of Early Radio in Houston" is available for purchase.

Anyone wanting a copy can send $21 to:

Christopher Varela
P.O. Box 12810
Houston, TX 77217-2810

Copies are also available the city's visitors center inside City Hall for $16.95. For questions, contact Varela at

"Kotton, Port, Rail Center" mostly covers Houston's broadcasting history from the prewar period of WWI to the formation of KPRC and KTRH and other AM stations. Much detail -- most of it available in a book for the first time -- is given to those early amateur radio enthusiasts who helped shape local broadcasting as we know it.

I recently posed some questions for Varela based on his book:

Q: How did you get the idea for a book on Houston's early radio history?

A: I got the idea for the book back in the mid-1990s when I had a conversation with a co-worker who is an amateur radio operator and a historian on radio broadcasting in Houston. I chose to condense my book to the "antique age" of broadcasting before 1930 because I felt that it would be a forgotten part of history and few historians would be interested in documenting it.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you discovered?

A: One of the things that surprised me was the distance these amateur radio operators and first broadcasting stations were reaching. Family legend has it that William John Uhalt of New Orleans, and who would later install station KTUE in Houston, was receiving the faint distress SOS signals from the Titanic as she was sinking some hundreds of miles away in April of 1912. Other Houston amateurs were reaching Europe and the Hawaiian Islands. Given good, atmospheric conditions, Houston's first broadcasting stations could be heard around the nation and into Latin America and Canada. No wonder broadcasting was viewed as an excellent attention getting gimmick at the time. I was also surprised how intimately related radio technology was to television. Without radio, there would be no television and some of pioneer radio broadcasters would go on to invent television. Radio stations KPRC, KTRH and KXYZ of Houston had some of the city's first television licenses. But only KPRC-TV (Channel 2) would realize this next evolutionary step of radio technology.

Q: Your book mentions Howard Hughes' involvement in amateur radio. Was he particularly instrumental to the history of radio in Houston?

A: Howard Hughes had little direct influence to Houston's broadcasting movement. But as an amateur radio operator during the late 1910s, he had the finest radio equipment with an ever-supporting father. Being the fact that he would go on to become a famed 20th century figure, the stories I have in my book of his amateur radio hobby in Houston just add more texture to the history. In 1920, Hughes' father would donate a radio set to the Rice University for its budding amateur radio activity. From this, Rice University's broadcasting station WRAA would briefly sign on in 1923.

Q: Local radio pioneers like Clifford Vick, Jimmie Autry and Will Horwitz have largely been forgotten when discussing Houston history. Is it safe to say Vick and Horwitz were local celebrities in their time?

A: Yes, these broadcasting pioneers were hailed as local heroes during the 1920s. Even as an amateur radio operator, Clifford Vick was recognized as a hero by the Houston Chronicle when he reported up-to-date information on a hurricane which struck the lower Texas gulf coast in 1919. These radiomen introduced an exciting new medium to the Houston public. I would equate their popularity to that of a star athlete or other prominent figure.

Q: I was surprised to learn how much the local business community became involved in radio just after WWI. There were licenses issued for the Houston Chronicle (WFAL), the Houston Post (WEAY) and the Levy Brothers Dry Goods company (WPAN). It sort of seems like the mid-1990s when every business tried to set up its own Web site.

A: Back in the early 1920s, the sole purpose one would establish a broadcasting station was to "advertise" an agenda, whether it be to sell radio sets, air an event from one's venue, or bring one's radio knowledge to light. As you have stated before, it is reminiscent of the World Wide Web craze we have now where one sets up a website to bring ideas to public domain.

Q: In general, how did Houstonians react to those early days of broadcasting?

A: Houstonians reacted to broadcasting with extreme acceptance. To have a radio receiving set in the 1920s would be like having the best HDTV today with a state-of-the-art stereo system connected. As you can see in my book, newspapers, the general public, musicians, public figures, entertainers and the hotel industry gravitated to broadcasting.

Q: Anything else you are working on?

A: I am currently not working on anything concrete. Just ideas that I am developing. Like you, I am looking for stories of Houston's past that have been forgotten or overlooked.