Dirty Water, Dirty Past: Buffalo Bayou by Dennis Bray

Behind the Brewery Tap Pub
717 Franklin Street Houston, Texas

January 2004–There’s a side of Houston that not many people know about, or even want to. Its history is as rich, if not more rich than any other place in Houston. The place has been around for as long as the Romulus and Remus of Houston, the Allens, settled here and has changed its contour due to the large growth of the Houston metropolitan area. Buffalo Bayou has been a natural trademark of Houston for as long as anyone can remember. Not far from where the bayou crosses Louisiana Street and not far from where I-45 passes over the bayou, there’s an English style pub by the name of “The Brewery Tap.” The bar is directly on the “water” and is often filled with the unpleasant smell of old trash, bums, and urine that are carried up by the bayou breeze.

If you leave out the back door towards the bayou, you’re taking a chance with your life. Only after hopping a fence, squeezing through a locked gate, and walking along a boardwalk with an incline of 65-degrees, you reach the bayou. With the stench of piss and ragweed in your nose and the thought of falling into the most mortifying water on earth at the forefront of your mind, keep walking. It’s worth it. You’ll go under three or four more bridges with similar circumstances as the first until you reach Houston’s answer to San Antonio’s “River Walk.”

The two worlds collide at a cheap green plastic fence. Hop the fence and you’ve returned to reality and a life of security. No more transients and their headquarters, just cool, lush grass and the comfort of a main street. After rejoining civilization, sit and relax in the shade of one of the many trees that have been transplanted near the water with the intention of beautifying the park. You can tell that they’re young so don’t climb on them. When you’re finished relaxing, stroll on down to the water. Don’t get too close, though, there isn’t a retention wall and the water is the same here as it was 50 yards up stream. It probably has the same infectious diseases that the other water did. But at least now you have beautiful surroundings with the grass and trees and all.

When you think that you’ve had enough serenity for one day, start up the red and beige brick path toward Louisiana Street. Look to the left and you’ll see a series of plaques giving brief details of the history of the bayou and the park. The plaques highlight things like the role the bayou played in the Civil War to how it affected slavery. The history of the bayou is unknown to virtually all over who drove on the many bridges that cover it. It is known that no real Civil War battles took place in the city of Houston. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a major strongpoint for the Confederate army, and a major target for the Union soldiers. Houston was a lot closer to battle than anyone thinks. And actually would have been a major battleground had a few steamboats and Irishmen not run their course in history.

In 1861 the Civil War had officially begun in Texas when the Confederate Constitution was ratified, making The Lone Star State: The Lone Star State that wants slaves. Two different units, the Here We Are Guards and the Bayou Guards began training day in, day out with expectations and hopes that they might get some fighting time. By the end of April, 1861 over 500 citizens of Houston were enlisted with the various units all around the growing city. Their jobs titles included: soldiers, doctors, cooks, recruiters, and of course, bugle boys. They were trained and willing for a “good fight.”

The Northerners took notice to the amount of goods being shipped out the Gulf of Mexico and placed a Naval blockade on Galveston. This severely hindered the bayou’s constant traffic of steamboats and their ability to ship goods. Cotton farmers were warned not to ship any more cotton because if Galveston fell, Houston might be next. And if it was, the Union soldiers would show no mercy in burning every bit of cotton they found. This was a direct example of the slash and burn technique exhibited by North and South alike. The citizens of Houston, however, reacted with an imagination never previously exhibited. They began to create alternative uses for many common goods. For instance, instead of coffee, they used dried okra. And instead of lamp oil and stationary, they used castor oil and wrapping paper.

With people making changes, buildings soon followed as some of Houston then downtown buildings transformed into valuable utilities. The incomplete courthouse was converted into a factory for gun cartridges and many other buildings were converted into hospitals and other useful community necessities. Despite the immense changes to the city, Houstonians were still determined to fight and win a war. On Christmas Day, 1862, two cotton ships, The Neptune and Bayou City, were taking on cotton as usual. One thing stood out to onlookers though. The ships had also been equipped with a sharp device meant to ram other ships. The Galveston-bound ship had also stationed troop of sharpshooters behind the bales of cotton. The Houstonians had waited long enough and now thought that it was time for them to fight back.

It took the two ships some time to get to the bay of Galveston, and on New Years Eve, the small assault began. News reached Houston that The Neptune had been sunk but that the Bayou City had sunk one Union ship and had run another aground. The two small ships from Buffalo Bayou had made a difference in the outcome of a battle. The Bayou City returned with over 350 Union prisoners to a returning party made up of many other ships that were anchored in the bayou at the time. The prisoners were then walked through downtown to a warehouse converted prison on what is today the University of Houston. The Texans had done it. They had defended themselves well and protected their city. Through the next few years, many key battles were fought all over the southern United States, although no more were fought in Houston. The Northern troops made on last attempt at taking Houston in September of 1863. Businessman Dick Dowling led a group of 46 Irish-Americans to defend the onslaught of four gunboats and 4000 troops with just six guns. The Battle of Sabine pass was more like the savior of Sabine Pass. Had the Southern troops not fought so hard, the fall of Houston would have been inevitable.

Not long after the successful defending of Houston, the Confederate armies officially fell to Union soldiers on April 9, 1965 with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Through the events at Buffalo Bayou and the Civil War, America was shaped. It was events like the Civil War that helped to define who we as Americans are and what we believe in.

In this instance, the spirit of America is a bayou and the surrounding park is its citizens. No matter what happens to the park or people, the spirit of America and the bayou are unaffected. Both are packed with symbolism as though the events of the past have a direct effect on the events of the present. If I hadn’t walked through some of the most disgusting circumstances imaginable, then I would have never gained appreciation for the River Walk. Just like if we never had a civil war, we would have never been able to truly value human life as much as we do today. Who would have known that a small bayou in Houston, Texas would be part in the shaping of America and the ideals that we believe in today? When we look at America today, we don’t think of the factors that shaped America as a whole. We just think of the Civil War, not what made the Civil War. This park is a great example of how to get to the good things after going through the bad things. Even though one would have to risk life and limb to get to the park, it’s definitely worth the walk and the effort. If you have a free afternoon with sunshine and not a cloud in the sky, I definitely suggest making your way down to the park near the Louisiana Street Bridge. It will allow you appreciate the good things of today and learn about the mistakes of the past. But go the long way: over the fence and bums and under the bridges. You’ll gain a much deeper understanding of the infrastructure of downtown Houston. The experiences that you’ll gain will be lasting memories. You can see the direction the city of Houston is trying to go in and also how through history, some things never change. They just continue to flow and let everything grow and expand around them. The landmarks remained unchanged and untouched. But it’s the landmarks that touch and change people through experiences that transpire. This particular area of downtown gives a sense of serenity in the present, and the sense of pride and purpose of our past.

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