Down the Bayou
by Christopher Dow
Outside my front door, the future is calling. From the porch, I see the modern cars, satellite dishes, and electrical wires that will take my southeast Houston neighborhood into the twenty-first century. A mile across the nearby Gulf Freeway is Hobby Airport, from which jets whisk passengers to points near and far.
But outside my back door, the world is a different place. My yard is on the banks of Sims Bayou, and living here has shown me that the founders of modern Texas are but a moment gone, just as we are but a heartbeat from the future.
My stretch of Sims between the Gulf Freeway and the Houston Ship Channel isn’t cemented or manicured. As I sit here, looking up and downstream, I see banks lush with riparian forest.
This is how Sims—like all Houston bayous—must have looked when the Mexican government granted this land in 1824 to John R. Harris as part of Stephen Austin’s colony. Harris, for whom Harris County is named, founded the first town along Buffalo Bayou, between the confluences of Braes Bayou upstream and Sims downstream. At Harrisburg, he set up a trading post and built a steam sawmill, the first industry along the waterway that would become the Houston Ship Channel.
Harris died of yellow fever soon after founding Harrisburg, but his town survived, even though it was burned to the ground as Santa Anna’s army pursued Sam Houston’s army of irregulars toward San Jacinto and defeat. The years following Texas independence saw Harrisburg grow as a center of commerce. From the wharves on Buffalo Bayou, cotton and cattle were shipped to Galveston on shallow-draft side-wheel steamers. In 1852, Harrisburg became home to the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railroad—the first operating railroad in Texas. The line is still there, though the tracks are new, running down Griggs Road as they head off through south Houston to end at Stafford, then called Stafford’s Point.
Eventually, though, the future caught up with Harrisburg, and that future had a name: Houston. In the years after 1836, when the Allen brothers founded the larger city just upstream on Buffalo Bayou, Harrisburg began its slide into obscurity.
Today, only a sharp eye can discern that this was once more than just another old neighborhood. Sandwiched between railroad tracks and a shipyard, there is a small but remarkable cemetery where monuments with names like Harris, Milby, and Allen honor early settlers. It’s old as cemeteries go in Houston—the oldest, in fact—but a look at the dates shows that, in truth, our Texas heritage isn’t really far in the past. And that past is alive on this side of town.
Ten minutes east by car lies a nondescript bridge that barely clears the dark waters of Vince Bayou. A weathered stone historical marker lurking in the weeds explains that a former bridge on this site played a pivotal role in Texas independence. Santa Anna’s army marched across the old bridge on the last leg of its journey to San Jacinto. After the soldiers passed, a handful of Sam Houston’s men circled back and burned the bridge, cutting off the Mexican army’s only escape route.
It was a crucial move. A five-minute drive farther east leads to a small park on the banks of the Ship Channel, tucked into a nook between a petrochemical plant and a paper manufacturing company. The park’s stone marker memorializes the capture of Santa Anna, who was found nearby the day after the battle of San Jacinto. He couldn’t swim, and with the bridge over Vince Bayou burned, there was nowhere for him to go except into the arms of his enemies.
My stretch of Sims Bayou may look primordial, but the Ship Channel couldn’t be more different now than it was on that day in 1836 when Santa Anna desperately sought escape. Could he have imagined the huge ships churning the water he could not cross? Could he have foreseen the petrochemical plants rearing twisted pipes into the sky or the city of Houston with its towers of steel and glass shining on the horizon beyond the small town he had just burned? Surely not, but his actions help set the stage for all that now is here.
As I sit on my own bank of quiet Sims Bayou, staring into the murky green water, I wonder if we are not all a little like Santa Anna, trapped by bridges burned, faced with uncrossable obstacles, and performing actions that will touch an unimaginable future in ways we can never comprehend.
Most likely so. But that doesn’t matter much right now, because suddenly I hear the future calling me again. This time it’s my teenage daughters. They want to go to the mall.
This essay originally appeared in Texas Journey, Nov.–Dec. 1998.