Houston Flood of 1935

By: Ron Bass

Type: General Entry

Published: August 28, 2019

Updated: September 10, 2019


With sixteen major floods in Harris County from 1836 to 1936, the devastating flood of 1935, the worst in Houston’s history up to that time, precipitated formation of the Harris County Flood Control District to mitigate damage from future flooding. In 1935 Austin, the Hill Country, and much of North Texas experienced unseasonably heavy rains. With Houston receiving heavy runoff, its bayous quickly reached maximum capacity in December. On December 7, 1935, Houston itself received heavy rains—five inches in the downtown area and higher north of the city—enough to flood the Houston bayous.

The Magnolia Bridge, constructed in 1912 by the Magnolia Brewery, greatly aggravated downtown flooding. The brewery, which had begun as the Houston Ice and Brewing Company in 1893, covered forty acres of downtown Houston and was considered one of the best breweries in the nation. To help transport its products, in 1912 the brewery constructed the Magnolia Bridge across Buffalo Bayou at Louisiana Street. With the heavy rainfall in December 1935, runoff water backed up behind the narrow base of the bridge until Buffalo Bayou overflowed into downtown. The flood waters, which reached eight feet in depth on Milam Street, washed away bits of some buildings and took several other buildings completely off their foundations. The deluge reached the Heights before subsiding.

The flood overwhelmed emergency responders and knocked out every firewater pumping station in the area. When the Yellow Cab company caught fire, the fire department drove trucks directly into the flood waters and sacrificed the vehicles so they could pump water from the flood to put out the flames.

The flood lasted until December 10 and caused historic damage. The central water station and its wells were inundated, which limited the water supply for days and risked contamination. Almost every bridge in downtown was out. Normally forty feet above the water level, the Capitol Avenue Bridge was inundated. Downtown buildings suffered serious structural damage; between 20 to 40 percent of the buildings were a total loss. The flood destroyed the Magnolia Brewery, city post office, the farmer’s market, the MK&T railroad, and the city archives. Twenty-five blocks of Houston’s business district were inundated along with 100 residential blocks. Seven people were killed. The flood crippled the Port of Houston for months as it contended with submerged docks, the ship channel clogged with sediment and wreckage, and uprooted railroad tracks. Railroad yards were flooded and railcars submerged. Houstonians fished crates of food and clothing that had washed out of warehouses out of the bayou. Residents at the Rice Hotel fished from the mezzanine for fish to eat.

The city, still recovering from a severe flood in 1929 that caused almost $1.4 million in property damage, suffered more than $2.5 million in losses in the 1935 flood, enormous sums during the Great Depression.

In light of Harris County’s 100-year history of major flooding and the devastation of the 1935 disaster, local leaders sought relief from future flooding. In 1937 they prepared a report for state legislators with descriptions of the flood damage and photos from Houston’s three newspapers, the Houston Chronicle, the Houston Post, and the Houston Press.

The state of Texas ordered an investigation of the cause of the severity of the damage of the 1935 flood. The commission issued a scathing condemnation of the Magnolia Bridge and declared the structure as the sole cause of the downtown Houston disaster. On April 23, 1937, the Texas legislature unanimously passed a bill to establish the Harris County Flood Control District. The district proceeded to construct reservoirs to hold excess runoff during heavy rainfall.

Devastated by the flood, the Magnolia Brewery scraped by until it closed down in 1950. As of the 2010s, remnants of the old Magnolia Bridge remained under the Louisiana Street Bridge across Buffalo Bayou, and sections of the old Brewery survived as the Magnolia Ballroom and Brewery Tap.

Harris County’s Flooding History (https://www.hcfcd.org/flooding-floodplains/harris-countys-flooding-history/), accessed August 14, 2019. H. G. Welch, “Houston's Lost History: Downtown Flood of 1935” (http://www.redpub.com/images_articles_2015/culture_1935_flood.php), accessed August 14, 2019. “‘Wild River’: A Pictorial Petition Presented to the State Affairs Committees of the 45th Legislature in joint session assembled at Austin, Texas, March 4th, 1937,” Report to Texas State Legislators by local Houston leaders (https://www.hcfcd.org/media/1345/wildriver1937_hcfcd_created.pdf), accessed August 14, 2019.

Time Periods:

  • Great Depression

Places:

  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ron Bass, “Houston Flood of 1935,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 26, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/houston-flood-of-1935.

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August 28, 2019
September 10, 2019

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