Harris County Towns and Cities

Harrisburg and John Richardson Harris


“the way to preserve old customs is to enjoy old customs.”

--- Walter Bagehot


J. C. Clopper, passing through Harrisburg in 1828, described in hisjournal the area with “timber consisting principally of tall pine andoaks.”  An 1831 anonymous traveler described Harrisburg near the mouth ofBrays Bayou full of deep mud.  The traveler described the forests atHarrisburg as comparable with those of northern states for quality, butthat “the pine is inferior.  At this place was the only steam sawmill atthat time in the county” (Wagner, J.K.: Buffalo Bayou HistoricalVignettes, 1825-1928).

Dr. Pleasant W. Rose described Harrisburg in April 1833 with two dry goodsstores, a steam sawmill and twenty homes, but no church, preacher, schoolor courthouse to be found.  Founded as a sawmill town, Mrs. Maggie G.Milby spoke of the “primeval pine forest along the bayous and streamsemptying into Buffalo Bayou made rafting the logs an easy method ofgetting them to the mills” (Smith: 1934, 50).At one time, there was a bakery near the intersection of Broadway andWalnut Streets operated by a German immigrant named Schilling.  Adescendant recalled that the bakery was “framed with hand-hewn cedarbeams, many of the beams being ten to twelve inches thick; and securedwith wooden pegs”(Smith: 1934, 49).

Harrisburg, where John R. Harris lived, is still a landmark to many wholive in and around the area.  Harrisburg lies east southeast of Houstonalong the continuation of Prairie Avenue on a street named Harrisburg thatterminates at Navigation Boulevard, just before reaching the Houston ShipChannel, a short distance above Brays Bayou.  Lawndale Avenue is more orless its southern boundary.  Brays Bayou forms the north boundary ofpresent Harrisburg and Broadway runs through the center of the once livelycommunity.

John Richardson Harris immigrated to Texas with other Anglo-Americans inthe early 1820s.  Harris, leaving his wife and four children in New York,arrived in Texas in 1823 in his own boat, The Rights of Man, from NewOrleans, Louisiana (Looscan, Adele, B., Southwestern Historical Quarterly,April, 1928).  Harris visited several places before deciding to settle onBuffalo Bayou.  He chose a spot near the junction of Buffalo and BraysBayous, on the crown of a sloping bank on Buffalo Bayou and about one halfmile from the confluence of the two waters.  He chose this site to buildhis home and erect a sawmill.   John Harris had secured a contract withthe Mexican Government to supply lumber from Buffalo Bayou forests to thecity of Tampico on the eastern Mexican coast.

Before dredging, Buffalo Bayou historically provided access to vesselsdrawing five to six feet of water that could transport logs.  Thesesawmills on the bayou were known at one time to have furnished more lumberthan any other in Texas.  Tie production for railroads continued into thelate twentieth century.  Early grist and sawmills on were set in thestreambed in order to create waterpower using waterfalls.  Some createdwater sluices to fill lakes for waterpower.  As soon as steam wasavailable, the mills converted their operations to the higher powermachinery.

At this particular time, the place Harris had selected was the “practicalhead of tide” and navigation on Buffalo Bayou (Looscan, Adele, B.,Southwestern Historical Quarterly, April, 1928).   When he received titleto his league of land, 4428 acres, he built a house, a store, and starteda shipping business, with schooners sailing between there, Mexico, and NewOrleans.  In 1826, Harris hired a surveyor by the name of Francis W.Johnson, to lay out a town site.  He named the town Harrisburg, in his ownhonor and after the city by the same name in Pennsylvania, named for hisgrandfather.

The mercantile business owned by Harris flourished and he soon opened asecond store at Bell’s Landing in Brazoria County.  In 1827, David, hisbrother, an able ships captain joined him at Harrisburg to help handle hisfleet of ships. Later two of his other brothers, William and Samuel joinedhim in his business ventures (Smith, Daisy L., History of Harrisburg,Texas 1822-1927, Masters Thesis, August 1934).  In 1828, J. C. Clopper,along with his father and two brothers formed a trading company,constructing their warehouse in Harrisburg.

In 1829, John R. Harris ordered and was busy constructing a steam-drivensawmills and gristmill on the south bank of Brays Bayou near its junctionwith Buffalo Bayou.  For the effort of adding these necessities for thebenefit of the community, the Mexican government subsidized Harris bygranting him another two leagues of land (Jones, C. Anson, “Early Historyof Harris County, Texas,” Burke’s Texas Almanac for 1879).  The sawmillwould be the first in Texas. During that same year, J. R. Harris signedwhat is believed to be the first filed contract for cotton in Texas, withJared Groce, owner of the Groce Plantation on the Brazos River (Jones,Julia, Harris County Early Settlements, December 28, 1936).  The contractcalled for Groce to deliver, all of the cotton Groce owned, ninety to onehundred bales annually, to Harris for export from Harrisburg.

During the summer of 1829, John R. Harris found himself in need of someparts for his still uncompleted sawmill.  He boarded his Schooner, TheRights of Man, and set sail for New Orleans, the center of business atthat time on the northern coast of the Mexican Gulf.  He would neverreturn.  New Orleans at that time was in the grips of an epidemic ofyellow fever.  John R. Harris contacted the disease and within five days,on August 21, 1829, died from its effects (Texas Gazette, October 3,1829).   His widow, Jane Birdsall Harris, did not come to Texas until1833, at which time her eldest son, DeWitt Clinton Harris, reached anacceptable age to accompany her and the remainder of the family.  Jane andDeWitt traveled by stagecoach, canal boat, steamboat, then sailing ship toreach Harrisburg.  David Harris had set up residence in his brother’shouse then on the north side of Brays Bayou in Harrisburg.

Upon her arrival, Mrs. Harris began to construct a home for herself andher family.  Although John Harris had died four years prior to herarrival, his estate would not be settled for another five years, owing tothe ineptness of the Mexican courts and family disagreements.  On 21 March1836, the home of Jane Birdsall Harris, located in Harrisburg became theCapitol of the Republic of Texas, when the President David G. Burnet withVice President Lorenzo de Zavala and members of the presidential cabinetmet there.  The house was not quite suited for this many guests, so thePresident and Vice President were the only ones afforded beds, while themembers of the cabinet had to sleep on the floor.  Plentiful Spanish mosswas common for mattress stuffing at this time.  The settlers gathered themoss and buried it in the earth until partially rotted, dug it up,thoroughly cleaned the moss, dried and picked over the rest.  The balancewas shaped into a suitable size mattress and encased in ticking.  New woolwas layered on top of the moss before the ticking was sewn around themattress.  Other convenient materials utilized included hay, straw orcotton ( Colquhoun:  1976, 10.).

Early Inns and Hotels along Eastern Buffalo Bayou were generallyconstructed as two square log buildings about twenty feet square in spaceand set about fifteen feet apart to be joined by a covered and flooredopening known as a “dog run.”  One of the square rooms would have a mudand brick (if available) fireplace, the other square housing guests.Meals were served in the covered breezeway.  The table would offer, at thebest Inns, cornbread, milk, eggs, and wild game.  Coffee was served whenavailable.  Sometimes, when out of coffee beans, the Inns would offerAcorn coffee.  The receipt was simple:  “Take the husks off, roast nutuntil brown adding a bit of butter while hot to supply the place ofempryreumatic oil that is generated during the roasting of real coffee.Shake well and grind (Telegraph & Texas Register: March 14, 1851).”Charges for the meals and lodging ranged from one dollar to adollar-fifty.  As flour was not often available, ground Indian corn wasthe staple for cooking and baking.  If the community were moreestablished, as in the case of Harrisburg, there would be abundant butterand cheese and local fruit.

During April 1836, the elected officials of the state, along withthousands of other Texans were trying to avoid being captured by theadvancing Mexican army under the command of Generalissimo Santa Anna.Shortly thereafter, the Mexican army paid a visit to Harrisburg in pursuitof the renegade officials. The leaders of the state, and the Harrisfamily, along with many others had fortunately retired to Galveston.  TheMexican Army torched Harrisburg, threw the local printing press intoBuffalo Bayou, and marched east to burn the warehouses of James Morgan athis town of New Washington near the mouth of the San Jacinto River, as itwas known at that time.  Morgan remarked years later that Santa Anna hadburned his town due to Morgan snubbing the Mexican leader at an 1832dinner party in New York.

After the Mexicans were defeated by the Texas Army near San Jacinto onApril 21st, the Harris’ returned to Harrisburg, and began to rebuild theirhome.  There was a house left standing, outside the limits of Harrisburg,known as the Farmer House.  It was here that Mrs. Harris lived while herresidence was rebuilt.  The new house, could not be compared to her formerresidence, but was built on the same lot.  It was built from logs, hewn byMexican prisoners, since the Harris sawmill had also been destroyed by theMexicans Army.

On 28 August 1839, an advertisement appears in the local papers for aresidence:
“Grove Cottage for sale, beautiful residence on Buffalo Bayou, two milesbelow Harrisburg. Dwelling house 20 ft x 24 feet, ten-foot gallery infront, two gallery rooms in rear of 10 ft x 10 ft, upper room.  Fourrooms in front dwelling. Sealed and painted.  Dining room 8 ft x 24 ft,sealed and painted.  Neat kitchens with brick chimneys, stable, oven.Good wharf in front of house.  Steamboats land at all times.  Handsomegarden with fruit trees and summerhouse.  Six-acre field that hasproduced two good crops of corn and melons, plenty of wood.  Whole undergood palings and fences.  Inquire of Andrew Briscoe, Harrisburg(Colquhoun:  1976, 10-11).”

Since the estate of John R. Harris was not settled and still in thecourts, Harrisburg was bypassed by development for the new city of Houstonseveral miles upstream on Buffalo Bayou, five miles by land.  Thedelegates to the Capitol of the new Republic of Texas moved to Houston inMay 1837 and Houston became the new Capitol as well as the seat ofgovernment for Harrisburg County.

Harrisburg grew little during the next few years.  One visitor remarked,“It is a pleasant place containing about twelve or fourteen houses.  Itwas a place of some importance previous to the revolution, but was burntdown by the Mexicans, a few days preceding the battle of San Jacinto andhas never been rebuilt (Bonnell, George W. Topographical Description ofTexas. 1840 ).}

By 1840, the Harris family had regained enough business to remodel theirhome.  Dewitt Clinton Harris was in New York on business when he purchasedthe doors and windows from the former governors’ home, which was beingdemolished.  These he shipped to his mother in Harrisburg, for use in theenlargement of the family home. This was a time when all fine carpentrycame from New York, Boston, or Bangor (Maine).  Also in 1840, AndrewBriscoe, a relative of the Harris family dreamed of bringing new life toHarrisburg with the introduction of a railroad.  Unfortunately, Mr.Briscoe was somewhat before his time.

Mrs. Harris was a stockholder of the Harrisburg Town Company, whichpromoted Harrisburg business, and contracted to bring a French Colony tothe town in 1843.  Several brick buildings were constructed and a numberof French immigrants made their way to the town (Muir, Andrew Forest,Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 1943).  Parties serving French winesabounded in the community with talk of vineyards surrounding Harrisburg.Most of the French immigrants were disappointed, staying but for a shorttime, then returned to their homeland.   The harsh pioneer life andmalaria fever proved too much for the French and the plan failed (Smith,Daisy L., History of Harrisburg, Texas 1822-1927, Masters Thesis, August1934).

Jane Birdsall Harris then turned to operating an Inn at her home and waswell patronized.  By 1851, Andrew Briscoe’s dream had been fulfilled, asthe first railroad in Texas, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and ColoradoRailroad (BBB&C) was being constructed linking Harrisburg with Alleyton onthe Colorado River, giving another boom time to Harrisburg.  BuffaloBayou, Brazos & Colorado Railroad Company was headed by Sidney Sherman, aTexas General at the Battle of San Jacinto.  The earliest portions of therailroad were in operation by 1853 and after many years became a part ofthe Southern Pacific Railroad System.

The railroad began in Harrisburg, very near the Harris House, as the Innwas known, and adjacent to the wharves owned by the Harris shipping firm.Travelers changed modes of transportation from steamships to railcars andhorse drawn vehicles almost at the door of the Harris Inn. (Muir, AndrewForest, “Railroad Enterprise in Texas,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly,April 1944).  Business was brisk and for a time, new life was breathedinto Harrisburg.  Many prominent personages gathered there, not tomention, the railroad officials on their yearly inspection tours.  Justsouth of Brays Bayou, along the east side of Broadway Boulevard is thesite of the mill and store that was the terminal and depot of the BBB&Crailroad.  The J. R. Harris 15 horse-powered steam sawmill had an investedcapital of $13,000 by 1860 and processed thirty Pine, Oak, or Cypress logsa day.  The sawmill employed fourteen men who produced 1,408,500 boardfeet of rough-cut lumber a year.  The gross value of the mill productionannually was estimated at $24,000.

When the War Between the States broke out, having a seaport connected tothe railroad,played an important role to the Confederacy.  Arms and munitions wereshipped from Houston, with the ships stopping at Harrisburg to take onadditional cargo.  There were several confederate army camps, one of whichnamed Camp Van Dorn, established in the immediate area of the town (.Muir,Andrew Forest, “The Destiny of Buffalo Bayou,” Southwestern HistoricalQuarterly 1943).  The bayou at Harrisburg lent easy access for troopmovements to the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually to other destinationswhere they were needed. While the war raged in other parts of the UnitedStates, Harrisburg continued to be a quiet, small seaport town.  Mrs.Harris opened her home to sick confederate soldiers, who her sister nursedback to health.  After the war, the railroad expanded and changed its nameto the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railroad (GH&SA).Harrisburg remained an important railroad town and port during the CivilWar period.  Mrs. Jane Birdsall Harris died at her home in Harrisburgduring August 1869. The next year a fire destroyed the railway yards andwarehouse, bring the era of the railroad to an end in Harrisburg.  The newrail yards and terminals were built in Houston.

The years immediately following the war saw brick manufacturers come toHarrisburg.  In 1867, Van Liew and Hennessey opened a brickyard on thenorth bank of Brays Bayou.  Bricks from this yard were the first used topave some of the Harrisburg streets (Smith, Daisy L., History ofHarrisburg, Texas, 1822-1927, Masters Thesis, August 1934).  John Van Liewemigrated from Louisiana to begin work as an engineer for the BBB&Crailroad in Harrisburg.  In 1870, W. C. and Monroe Cogland, located abrickyard near a sawmill close to the original railroad.  By 1884, Milby,Dow, and Shoemaker were in the brick making business at Harrisburg.Henry L. Dow left the shipyards of Maine in 1853 to immigrate to Texas.Dow was working at the San Jacinto docks as a ship carpenter in Oct 1870before moving to Harrisburg.  The C. H. Milby family figured greatly intothe business dealings of Harrisburg until well into the early part of thetwentieth century and operated in 1900 as a coal dealer.

Harrisburg had a handle factory on Myrtle Street, about 1889.  The factoryproduced handles for garden instruments such as hoes and axes, as well asother tools; the factory seems to have stopped production just before theturn of the century (Smith, Daisy L., 49)

Another driving force involved in private business of Harrisburg was theJames S. Deady family.   Accompanied by his father, he arrived on August1, 1889.  They set up a pottery shop in the old roundhouse vacated by therailroad.  The business was a success, even after the older Deady died in1898.   Deady moved the business next door to the Milby brickyard in 1900.

Milby and Deady had talked of plans to enlarge the Deady pottery businessand a possible incorporation with the Milby interests.   Sarah A. Deady,born in Kentucky, ran an Inn that boarded a railroad section foreman, arailroad engineer, tile worker, and gardener in 1900.  The Deady Potteryand Tile business continued until World War I (Smith, Daisy L., 49).

The Texas Gulf Coast weather turned deadly in the late summer of 1900.Harrisburg suffered the same fate as Lynchburg during the 1900 storm. TheDeady pottery factory and the Milby brickyard were no exceptions.  Thestorm surge flooded the town while the gales raked havoc with thestructures. Unable to rebuild, Deady collaborated with a hardware firm fora short time, manufacturing charcoal fired furnaces; but was forced tomove to Arizona for his wife’s health. Upon his return in 1910, Deady andMilby’s son again engaged in the pottery business.  Business was good andboth men profited.  Then in 1916, the advent of the electric kiln, more orless ended the pottery business for Deady and Harrisburg.

About 1910, the City of Houston quietly annexed the waterfront of thesmall community of Harrisburg, including a 2500-foot wide path downBuffalo Bayou, along the shipping lanes in Galveston Bay to the bar pastGalveston Island, extending the City of Houston limits to the Gulf ofMexico.  The act effectively destroyed the Harrisburg wharves andshipping, coincided with the opening of the new Houston Ship Channel as adeep-water port, and the moving of the Turning Basin to Constitution Bend,just upstream from the town of Harrisburg.  Then some years thereafter, in1926, the entire City of Harrisburg became part of the City of Houston.

The new Turning Basin location had been recommended and approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1905, as well as the channel cut atHarrisburg to straighten Buffalo Bayou, leaving the town of Harrisburg inthe oxbow of the stream.  Harris County residents approved the plan tosplit the cost of dredging Buffalo Bayou to a depth of twenty-five feet in1909.  The next year, the project became known as the Houston Ship Channelwith dredging commencing at Harrisburg.

No improvements in the shipping channel had been made below Harrisburgbetween 1836 and 1845.  In 1850, a small amount of improvements wereundertaken and by 1872, $10,000 in Federal money had been allocated to thechannel.  Deep water efforts began in 1897 promoted by Congressman ThomasH. Ball and received one million dollars in 1902 funded from the UnitedStates Congress.  By 1904, the funds ran out and the channel depth wasonly 18.5 feet.  The 1910 citizen participation in the project secured thefuture of Houston as a deep-water port, beginning at the point originallychosen by John R. Harris.
By 1925, the Houston Ship Channel deepened to thirty feet with selectedwidening and dredging to thirty-two feet completed by 1932.  The width atHarrisburg and downstream of the channel was increased in 1945 to 400 feetand continued through Galveston Bay.  In 1966, the channel at Harrisburgand below was dredged to forty feet.  The latest efforts to deepen thechannel at Harrisburg to fifty-two feet came about at the turn of thetwenty-first century and is the present depth.

Nearby historical markers, include Harrisburg itself, the Holy CrossMission, Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado Railroads, and the Tod-MilbyHome site.  Glendale Cemetery, the burial place of John R. Harris, isimmediately south of Buffalo Bayou.  There are several shipwrecks in theBayou as well, dating from the Revolution period through the Civil War tomore modern periods, unfortunately those wrecks nearest to Harrisburg areof unknown vessels.  The shipwrecks located in the Houston Ship Channelwere destroyed during various dredge operations before 1966.
The historical marker commemorating the Holy Cross Mission cites theMission as being founded under the name Nativity in 1865 and completed, asthe Holy Cross Mission, in 1895.  Heavily damaged in the 1900 Hurricane itwas repaired but eventually fell into ruin.  The current Holy CrossMission was dedicated in 1920.
The John Grant Tod historical marker notes that Tod moved to Texas fromKentucky in 1837 and served the Republic Navy as a naval agent andcommodore.  He then served as an agent of the United States NavyQuartermaster’s Department during the Mexican-American War.  He was one ofthe organizers of the earliest Texas Railroad (Buffalo Bayou, Brazos &Colorado) and is buried in Glendale Cemetery.  The original house,modified by Tod’s son-in-law C.H. Milby, was demolished in 1959.


Janet K. Wagner​

Harrisburg