Houston, TX

By: David G. McComb

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: November 9, 2020

In 2015 Houston, covering 627 square miles, ranked as the fourth largest city in the United States with an estimated population of 2,296,224. The city passed Philadelphia in 1984 to take a position behind New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The 2015 population of the Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land Metropolitan Statistical Area (also known as Greater Houston), which encompassed Galveston, Fort Bend, Harris, Brazoria, Liberty, Waller, Montgomery, Chambers, and Austin counties, amounted to 6,656,947. This ranked it fifth in the nation and second in Texas to Dallas-Fort Worth. When first formed in 1949 the Houston Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area covered only Harris County and had a population of 806,701 people. More than 100 ethnic groups now shape the population of the city; the major components in 2015 were 26 percent non-Hispanic White, 25 percent Black, 43 percent Hispanic of any race, and 6 percent Asian. This spectacular growth developed as a result of the construction of transportation systems, the fortuitous nearby location of useful natural resources, and an entrepreneurial spirit.

The city began on August 30, 1836, when Augustus Chapman Allen and John Kirby Allen ran an advertisement in the Telegraph and Texas Register for the "Town of Houston." The townsite, which featured a mixture of timber and grassland, was on the level Coastal Plain in the middle of the future Harris County, at 95.4° west longitude and 30.3° north latitude. The brothers claimed that the town would become the "great interior commercial emporium of Texas," that ships from New York and New Orleans could sail up Buffalo Bayou to its door, and that the site enjoyed a healthy, cool seabreeze. They noted plans to build a sawmill and offered lots for sale at moderate prices. In the manner of town boomers the Allens exaggerated a bit, however. The forty-eight-inch annual rainfall, high relative humidity, and temperatures that averaged from a low of 43° F in the winter to 94° in summer later inspired Houston to become one of the most air-conditioned cities in the world. Moreover, in January 1837, when Francis R. Lubbock arrived on the Laura, the small steamship that first reached Houston, he found the bayou choked with branches and the town almost invisible.

The Allen brothers named their town after Sam Houston and persuaded the Texas Congress to designate the site as the temporary capital of the new Republic of Texas (see CAPITALS). The promoters offered lots and buildings to the government. On January 1, 1837, the town comprised twelve residents and one log cabin; four months later there were 1,500 people and 100 houses. Gail and Thomas H. Borden surveyed and mapped the town in typical gridiron fashion, with broad streets running parallel and perpendicular to the bayou. The legislature first met in Houston on May 1, 1837, and, despite the efforts of Masons who greeted one another in 1837 and the Presbyterians and Episcopalians who formed churches in 1839, the town remained infamous for drunkenness, dueling, brawling, prostitution, and profanity. The legislature granted incorporation on June 5, 1837, and James S. Holman became the first mayor. The same year, Houston also became the county seat of Harrisburg County, which was renamed Harris County in 1839. During the nineteenth century, aldermen elected by wards directed the city government. In 1905 the city began to use a modified commission form with aldermen elected at large. Houston switched to a city manager government from 1942 to 1947, and then subsequently to a strong-mayor with council form (see CITY GOVERNMENT). A 1979 United States Justice Department ruling led to nine city council members elected from districts, and five elected at large. Two additional districts were created in 2011, increasing the total number of city council members to sixteen. Voters selected the first African American for the council in 1971 and the first Mexican American in 1979. Houston's first female mayor was elected in 1981, followed by the first African American mayor in 1997. In 2009 Houston became the first U.S. city with a population over 1,000,000 to elect an openly gay mayor.

The early settlers used lumber to build frame houses, ditches for drainage, and pigs to clean the streets. Yellow fever struck periodically—in 1839, 1844, 1847, 1848, 1854, 1858, 1859, 1862, and 1867—until it was controlled by quarantine of the coastline. In 1839 the disease killed about 12 percent of the population. Since many of the first Houston settlers were from the South, they endorsed the slavery-plantation system and used urban slaves for menial tasks (see SLAVERY, URBAN). This started Houston on the same bifurcated pathway as other Southern towns, where the Black minority developed a subordinated and separate social structure. The slaves lived scattered through the neighborhoods, were subject to an 8:00 P.M. curfew, and could not take employment without their owners' permission. There were few free Blacks in the city.

After the Civil War, separation of the races continued with segregated schools and dissociated churches, clubs, bands, businesses, and sports teams. Segregation by law began with separation on trollies in 1903. It continued through the first half of the twentieth century, during which Blacks were excluded from or had only limited access to White parks, depots, schools, drinking fountains, buses, restrooms, and restaurants. Though residential segregation never became part of the legal code, it did operate as part of the social code. Separate residential areas developed for African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Whites by the end of the century. Despite occasional outbursts such as the Houston Riot of 1917, when a Black army unit shot up the town and left nineteen people dead, nothing changed the legacy of slavery until the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Although Houston started as a political boomtown in the nineteenth century, its livelihood depended upon cotton and commerce. The Texas government left Houston for Austin in 1839, and the city settled into the rhythm of agriculture. Businessmen such as William Marsh Rice, Thomas M. Bagby, Charles Shearn, William J. Hutchins, Paul Bremond, and A. S. Ruthven established trade connections. Activity was greatest during harvest and marketing times, while the rest of the year was spent in sending supplies to farmers. Oceangoing ships brought to Galveston cargoes of cloth, flour, whiskey, gunpowder, iron castings, lead, coffee, sugar, nails, books, and hundreds of little items. Small river steamships took the goods from Galveston to Houston. The merchants then sent them by ox wagon to the farmers in the hinterland. In the reverse direction came cotton, corn, and hides through Houston to Galveston and on to New Orleans, New York, and Europe. The Telegraph and Texas Register moved to Houston and began its publication there on May 2, 1837. The Houston Morning Star started on April 8, 1839. These early newspapers reflected the local interests in cotton production, roads, railways, and bayou clearance.

From the beginning, Buffalo Bayou was difficult to navigate. After the Civil War, businessmen mounted various efforts to dredge a better channel by forming the Houston Direct Navigation Company, the Houston Ship Channel Company, and the Buffalo Bayou Ship Channel Company. Charles Morgan, a Gulf Coast shipowner, eventually took over and in 1876 opened a twelve-foot-deep waterway to Clinton, a port town below Houston. The United States government assumed Morgan's work in 1881 and after delays dug a ship channel through Galveston Bay and Buffalo Bayou to a turning basin above Harrisburg. The Houston Ship Channel opened in 1914 and has been since widened and deepened. It made Houston a deepwater port variously ranked second or third largest in the United States, with access to the shipping of the world. Complementing this facility, Houstonians worked to build railroads into the countryside. Paul Bremond, a Houston merchant, began a slow northwestward construction of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad in 1853. This line started as the Galveston and Red River, changed its name in 1856, and reached Hempstead in 1858. Meanwhile, the Houston Tap and Brazoria, a seven-mile railway, joined the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway at Pierce Junction in 1856. This linked Houston with the sugar plantations of the Brazos valley. Other roads were started, and by 1861 Houston was the rail center of Southeast Texas with five lines stretching fifty to 100 miles south, southeast, west, east, and northwest. The Civil War interrupted construction, but building revived afterwards. When the Houston and Texas Central reached Denison in 1873, Houston joined the national rail network. The railroads efficiently spanned the muddy bogs of the coastal prairie. Although roads existed from the start, travel was often slow and rough. Roadwork was costly, and significant improvement came only with the construction of all-weather highways in the 1920s. The city's first expressway, the Gulf Freeway, connected Houston and Galveston in 1952 and later became a part of the interstate highway system. Houston opened its first airport in 1928, Houston International Airport in 1954 (renamed William P. Hobby Airport in 1967), and Houston Intercontinental Airport in 1969 (renamed George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 1997). The city acquired Ellington Airport (formerly Ellington Air Force Base) in 1984. The various transportation systems, along with the communication systems of mail, telegraph (built in 1853–54) and telephone (1878–95), allowed Houston to develop as a cotton and lumber market in the nineteenth century. The discovery of oil at the Spindletop oilfield dramatically changed the Houston economy in the twentieth century. Oil companies chose to locate refineries along the Houston Ship Channel, where they were safe from Gulf storms. By 1929 forty oil companies had located offices in the city. The most important were the Texas Company (now Texaco), Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon), and Gulf Oil Corporation. Sinclair Oil Company built the first major refinery in 1918.

World War II brought a demand for synthetic rubber, gasoline, materials for explosives, and ships from the area. Concrete barges, steel merchant vessels, and mid-size warships were built along the ship channel. Houston Shipbuilding Corporation, a subsidiary of Todd Shipbuilding Corporation, for example, built Liberty Ships and employed 20,000 workers by July 1942. The Brown Shipbuilding Company pioneered broadside launching and produced more than 300 war vessels by the end of the war (see SHIPBUILDING). Nearby coastal deposits of salt, sulfur, and natural gas supplied the ingredients for petrochemicals, and the United States government provided the contracts for war materials. On this foundation after the war Greater Houston developed one of the two largest petrochemical concentrations in the United States with refineries operated at various times by such companies as Dow, Du Pont, BASF, Shell, Sinclair, ExxonMobil, Chevron Phillips, Valero, LyondellBasell, and Goodyear. By 1990 a complex of some 250 interrelated refineries extended from Corpus Christi along the coast to the Louisiana border. The main exports and imports of the Port of Houston, consequently, were petroleum or petroleum-related products. Houston thus became a world energy capital in the 1970s, expanded with the rise in oil prices, and suffered with the downturn during the 1980s. As a result, in the mid-1980s, Houston lost population for the only time in its history.

The developments of the twentieth century, however, made Houston the largest city in Texas in 1930, when the population was 292,000. At this time Houston had three newspapers—the Houston Post (founded 1880), the Houston Chronicle (1901), and the Houston Press (1911)—and four radio stations—KPRC (1925), KTRH (1930), KTLC (1930), and KXYZ (1930). Facilities for urban living had to develop along with the growth. Merchants and others complained about the city streets from the beginning. Efforts to rise out of the mud and dust featured experiments with cypress blocks, gravel, planks, shell, limestone blocks, and later cement and asphalt. In 1915 Houston had almost 196 miles of paved streets. In 1922 the municipal government began to replace wooden bridges with steel and concrete. Electric streetlights appeared in 1884 and an electric streetcar system in 1891. Automobiles came at the beginning of the century and caught on fast; there were 1,031 in Harris County in 1911 and 97,902 in 1930. This growth led to traffic regulations on speed (fifteen miles per hour in 1907), one-way streets in 1920, and traffic signals in 1921. The increasing use of automobiles also led to the building of expressways in the 1950s that extended over 200 miles by 1990, as well as air pollution, urban sprawl, and traffic jams. The most important urban necessity, the water supply, improved in the late 1880s after several citizens discovered artesian water by drilling shallow wells. Well water thus replaced the contaminated bayou water supplied by the privately-owned Houston Water Works Company. The city took over the company in 1906 and rapidly expanded the number of artesian wells. Continued pumping from the aquifer, however, resulted in subsidence of the land in southeastern Houston in the 1960s. To avoid further sinking, the city turned to newly-built reservoirs on the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers for most of its water. The paving of land and consequent quick runoff of rain resulted in a flood problem. Severe floods in 1929 and 1935 led to the formation of the Harris County Flood Control District. After 1937 the district worked with the United States Army Corps of Engineers to construct two major floodwater detention reservoirs—Barker Reservoir (completed in 1945) and Addicks Reservoir (1948)—as well as hundreds of miles of man-made water channels, but storm flooding in parts of the metropolitan area has continued. Water pollution has also been a long-standing problem. Surges of rainwater into the bayous have flushed the contamination of the ship channel into Galveston Bay and caused fish kills. While building the channel, the United States Army Corps of Engineers forced the city to construct a sewage-disposal system that, when completed in 1902, was among the best in the nation. Urban growth and neglect, however, overcame the advance.

Land developers inspired the spread of the city when they built suburbs such as Pasadena (1892), Houston Heights (1892), Deer Park (1892), Bellaire (1911), and West University Place (1919). The most famous, because of its wealth, was River Oaks (1922–24), started by Mike and William Clifford Hogg and Hugh Potter. There, architect John F. Staub designed tasteful homes to match the curved streets and large green lawns. Suburbs have since spread out in the metropolitan region. An important example is The Woodlands, a HUD Title VII "new town" built by oilman George T. Mitchell between 1964 and 1983 north of Houston in southern Montgomery County. Mitchell blended homes, business places, and recreation facilities into the pine woods with minimal environmental disturbance. In 1948–49, to avoid encirclement by incorporated suburbs, the Houston City Council under Mayor Oscar F. Holcombe used its annexation power to envelop the older suburbs. As a result the city more than doubled in size, from 73 square miles in 1940 to 160 square miles in 1950. In 1956 the council voted more annexation—again doubling the size of the city—and in 1960 while fighting with neighboring towns, the council threatened to annex all unclaimed land in Harris County. Compromises finally brought the annexation war under control. Part of the dispute involved the rich and prestigious land around Clear Lake to the south, where in 1961 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration built the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. Houston eventually assumed control the land in 1977. Subsequent annexations grew the city from 540 square miles in 1980 to 627 square miles by 2015. The bitterly-contested annexation of Kingwood, Texas, in 1996 resulted in changes to state law that have since limited the city's annexation power.

In the ordering of urban space Houston politicians and voters have rejected the use of zoning. The administration of Mayor Kathy Whitmire in the 1980s brought the subject up for review, but Houston remained infamous as the largest unzoned city in the United States. The lack of zoning has not affected development to any great extent, however, since heavy industry concentrated in the area of the ship channel and subdivisions controlled construction through deed restrictions. This casual attitude toward land use encouraged business expansion. The greatest city builder in the first half of the twentieth century was banker Jesse H. Jones. By the mid-1920s he had constructed about thirty commercial structures, and in 1956 he controlled fifty buildings. He brought the 1928 Democratic convention to the city and later served as Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of commerce. His most impressive structure was the thirty-seven-story Gulf Building, completed in 1929. The prosperity after World War II brought the world famous Galleria shopping mall with its interior ice-skating rink in 1970; Pennzoil Place, a startling Black-glass downtown building in 1976; and the Astrodome in 1965. In 1992 Houston hosted the Republican national convention. Thanks to construction fueled largely by the 1970s oil boom, the Houston skyline became a showcase of modern architecture and home to seven of the state's ten tallest buildings by 1987. A second construction boom began in the mid-2000s, and by 2016 the city contained 360 high-rises, including forty-five skyscrapers over 400 feet.

The city meanwhile matured culturally and socially. The Texas Medical Center, once famous primarily for heart transplants, emerged as a global focal point for heart and cancer treatment and is now the world's largest medical complex. In 2016 the center was among the largest employers in Houston, with 106,000 employees, and was also home to the world's largest cancer and children's hospitals. In 1971 Dominique and John de Menil built the Rothko Chapel, which became a place of religious pilgrimage, and in 1987 Dominique de Menil constructed a gallery to house the Menil Collection of modern art. This added to the collections of art that began with the opening of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1924. A free secondary school system began in 1877 and became the Houston Independent School District in 1924. This district is now one of the largest in the nation. Rice University started in 1912, financed by a bequest from William Marsh Rice, who made his fortune in Houston in the nineteenth century. The University of Houston began as a junior college in 1927 and was supported by oilman Hugh Roy Cullen in its early years, until it became part of the state system of higher education in 1963. KUHT-TV, which started in 1953 at the university, was the first educational television station in the United States. Texas Southern University began in 1934 as part of the University of Houston. The University of St. Thomas began in 1945 and Houston Baptist University in 1963. In 1914 George H. Hermann donated Hermann Park, where a thirty-acre zoo was established in 1922. Memorial Park, the other major Houston park, developed from land purchased in 1924. The Houston Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1913, the Houston Grand Opera in 1956, the Alley Theatre in 1947, and the Houston Ballet in 1969. The Houston Public Library opened in 1904 with the help of Andrew Carnegie. Television began in 1949 with broadcasts from KLEE-TV, which became KPRC-TV in 1950. Seven other stations followed. Professional sports teams arrived—the Houston Astros (the Colt .45s until 1964) baseball team in 1962, the Houston Oilers football team in 1959, and the Houston Rockets basketball team in 1971. The Oilers, who relocated to Tennessee in 1997, were replaced by the Houston Texans in 2002, and the Houston Dynamo soccer team was established in 2005.

Howard Beeth and Cary D. Wintz, eds., Black Dixie: Afro-Texan History and Culture in Houston (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992). Marguerite Johnston, Houston, The Unknown City, 1836–1946 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991). David G. McComb, Houston, a History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). Beth Anne Shelton et al., Houston: Growth and Decline in a Sunbelt Boomtown (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989). Marilyn M. Sibley, The Port of Houston (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968).

  • Communities
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

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

David G. McComb, “Houston, TX,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/houston-tx.

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November 9, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects:

Currently Exists
Place Type
Town Fields
  • Has post office: Yes
  • Is Incorporated: Yes
Belongs to
  • Harris County
  • Fort Bend County
  • Montgomery County
  • Latitude: 29.78032850°
  • Longitude: -95.38637900°
Population Counts
People Year
2,396 1850
4,845 1860
9,382 1870
16,513 1880
27,557 1890
44,633 1900
78,800 1910
138,276 1920
292,352 1930
384,514 1940
596,163 1950
938,219 1960
1,232,802 1970
1,594,086 1980
1,637,859 1990
1,953,631 2000
2,100,263 2010
2,338,187 2019
Great Texas Land Rush logo
Adoption Status: ⭐
This place has been adopted and will not be available until May 29, 2025
Adopted by:
The Hughes Family