Bayous of Houston

Houstonians laugh that there isn’t any topography there. They’ll joke that it’s flat, like a table top. In reality, Houston has some natural features — you just have to squint to see them. Most notably, Houston boasts nearly two dozen low and slow-moving natural waterways called bayous. Some are channelized with concrete banks, some are restored to their natural appearance, but all are vital to keeping the swampy coastal prairie called Bayou City free from flooding… mostly.

This photograph shows Buffalo Bayou, just east of Houston.
Buffalo Bayou is one of the longest bayous in the Houston area at 53 miles in length. This photograph shows Buffalo Bayou, just east of Houston. Photo courtesy of HCFCD.

On August 30, 1836, just months after Texas won its independence from Mexico, New York land speculators Augustus Allen and John Kirby Allen placed an advertisement in the local Telegraph and Texas Register bragging of their new “Town of Houston.”  Their description of the area was highly exaggerated, and filled with downright lies. The biggest boast was that Houston was “situated at the head of navigation,” where Buffalo Bayou and White Oak Bayou meet, and “at a point on the river which must ever command the trade of the largest and richest portion of Texas.”

Banner ad of the Bayous of Houston.
A photo showing a cotton barge.
In the South, the term “King Cotton” was used liberally, because ever since the first cotton plantation was established in Texas in 1822, cotton has been a dominant crop. The crop was shipped overland from across the state and then loaded into barges, such as the Jackson (pictured in this 1899 photograph), which moved down Buffalo Bayou and the Ship Channel to waiting steamers and then shipped to markets worldwide. Between 1854 and 1860, the volume of cotton shipped from Houston nearly tripled, and that trend continued into the next century. Photo courtesy of HCFCD.

A few months after their colorful ad, the Allen Brothers hired a captain to see if a commercial ship could, in fact, make it all the way from the Gulf of Mexico, through Galveston Bay, and up to Buffalo Bayou. In January of 1837, the packet steamer Laura arrived at Allen’s Landing, the foot of Main Street, proving that Houston could be a port city. Local commercial enterprise was limited to regional activity until the years following the Civil War. When the new railroad network connected Houston to the nation, lumber and cotton could be shipped efficiently from the wharves along the banks of Buffalo Bayou. Dredging and widening the channel kept Houston competitive with Galveston.  In the early 20th century, civic leaders would form the Houston Ship Channel, and made sure Houston received federal funds to build it. By 1914, the Ship Channel had been dredged to a depth of 25-feet, and today, it is a thriving, fifty-two-mile, 45-feet deep water port connecting Houston to the world.

An 1891 map of Houston.
An 1891 map of Houston. Photo courtesy of the author.

Buffalo Bayou remains Houston’s signature waterway. It meanders its way from neighboring Ft. Bend County, into the western edge of Houston, through its most posh residential neighborhoods, through Memorial Park, into Downtown, then splitting industrial Houston on opposite banks, and finally out to Galveston Bay, providing access to the Gulf of Mexico. 

A photo of the Buffalo Bayou Promenade.
The Buffalo Bayou Promenade is a 23-acre urban park situated along Buffalo Bayou near downtown Houston. The 1.2-mile long promenade links Buffalo Bayou Park to the west with Houston’s Theater District and the downtown area. Traditionally, development had turned its back on this portion of the bayou, which was littered with trash, debris, and silt. The promenade creates a linear park that takes what was once wasted space and transforms it into landscaped spaces with trails and walkways. The success of the park has spurred similar improvements along other parts of the bayous. Photo courtesy of HCFCD.
The Bayous of Houston book cover.