What is a Tour?
500 Years Ago
Five hundred years ago, the only excursions over the Houston area would have been by the local original Texans, ancestors of the local Karankawas, Bidais and other tribes, probably in search of food and shelter provisions and other resources, although keeping an occasional eye for the novel or amusing circumstance. Their later recounting through oral tradition of their travels could constitute the first "virtual" or "audio" tours.
Shortly thereafter in the 1500’s a Spanish shipwreck cast Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and fellow castaways upon the nearby Texas coast, and he later wrote two accounts, including light references to his travels and times in this area, establishing a "tour" commentary in printed form. Subsequent other Spanish conquistadors, missionaries, military officers, and bureaucrats provided accounts (some extensive and detailed) of their Texas travels, but there was little reason to dwell on the Houston area although the naming of the San Jacinto River and occasional such mementos occurred. The Spanish lack of records on our area is primarily due to their own prohibition of settling near the Gulf coast and the consequent attention paid elsewhere. Later, scattered missions, forts, settlements, and ranches in parts distant from later Houston tended to focus on those individual’s practical concerns rather than unauthorized exotic excursions and explorations.
The 1568 shipwrecked three Englishmen’s northward travels apply far beyond the bayou. The 1600’s English settlement on the Buffalo Bayou has not been found described in British records as yet.
LaSalle’s 1680’s French settlement near Matagorda Bay and its subsequent survivors’ narratives do not touch us here. Much later the French did provide the first novel about Texas in L’heroine du Texas (Paris, 1819).
In American English most early accounts were in newspapers, e.g., Nile’s Register, or in military sources such as Zebulon Pike, of Pike’s Peak fame, who also did not see the double yellow line in the highway and wandered into Spanish Texas in 1806 and published his Expeditions account in 1810. Moses and Stephen Austin’s colonizing efforts were remarkably successful in the 1820’s. Spots in Harris County were occupied. Harrisburg’s John Harris came in 1824. Cousin Mary Austin Holley’s 1833 volume simply titled Texas is the first extensive English language description and describes colonial life, typical of times nearby. The Gustav Dresel and Fairfax Gray diaries are commonly used. Adele Looscan’s work is often cited.
Common and uncommon folks came and went after the 1836 revolution and establishment of Houston. John James Audubon documented local birdlife.
100 Years Ago
A hundred years ago, 1900, tours were still primarily for the wealthy. General mobility was restricted, and tours were thought of as exotic. Newspapers were the main source of exotic "virtual" tours; the Chronicle being established in 1901 after a $30 investment in a wild oil speculation yielded $5,000 - it was a Spindletop investment. What out-of-town newspapers said about Houston and Harris County has yet to be investigated. Stage productions were augmented with movie houses. For a nickel you could see far away lands. Travel magazines emerged. Occasional train rides to Galveston for weekend holidays came within reach of more families. Hunting and fishing along the Bay were popular. Boat rides on the Bayou were common, and Pasadena’s petroleum refineries could have been a herd of elephants for the notice they drew and still do. Annual trips on San Jacinto Day to the Battleground were common for the rich and the un-rich.
Automobiles and their subsequent travel clubs were augmented by radio and then television as means of projecting a public profile of Harris County and Houston attributes - other than the cotton, rail, port, and the oil businesses. Fishing and swimming at Sylvan Beach became the rage. The Houston Fat Stock Show and Exhibition came to town in the 1930’s, and so have countless visitors looking at the sights every year.
With the arrival of the Democratic National Convention in 1928, Jesse Jones made Houston a destination spot for the nation. The training facilities of World War I, the military industry of World War II, and the related port business of those and other wars all sensitized outsiders’ awareness of Houston. Houstonians kept a continuous presence in Washington, D.C., exemplified by the House family, the Jones family, and on through the Bush and Baker families. Even Lyndon Johnson taught school here before moving to the Capital as a young man. Houston earned a place in folk’s imagination as worthy of notice and tours.
Printed booklets are preserved from the 1920’s and 1930’s to show the formal development of "tour" publications, including those from the Esperson Building, the Motor Club of South Texas, and even the Woman Club of Houston.
50 Years Ago
Fifty years ago, 1960, a tour was a tour. A tour was still a real-time, real-world event. Tourists were carted around by friends. Professionals were shown the highlights by office staff. Visits of the Texas State Historical Association, and later the Texas Library Association and the Texas Historical Commission, led to lists of sights to see, in addition to San Jacinto. The Chamber of Commerce was not a laggard touting points here and there and was willing to arrange a guide to provide informed comments while escorting folks through a sequence of places tied together with some theme. Sometimes a printed itinerary for a self-guided tour gave addresses and instructions to travel from place to place. A "tour" conducted by oneself in a serendipitous browsing manner was a tour in the most casual definition. Printed brochures, booklets, and formal volumes were available, and magazines also printed itineraries and abbreviated commentary.
Today - The 21st Century
The 21st electronics environment and the Internet offer a carnival of other options. But what is a tour? Short videos on Youtube are available but the fuzziness of what is a tour or just a few minutes caught on tape can be difficult to discern. Checking "Will’s Texana Youtube Collection" shows a superficial but remarkable diversity of opportunities. Web photo databases offer other options. Flickr accounts offer the option of loading and sequencing photos and providing written commentary for each photo, as from the Friends of San Jacinto. Audio commentary is available to listen to at points along a tour as with the Heritage Society’s Sam Houston Park collection of saved homes. Some historical and religious institutions and organizations have websites with formally organized visual tours of their architectural and social history. Others offer written narrative with illustrative photos in sequence to a walking tour, e.g., the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association. E-mail attachments now permit the distribution of slide show presentations quite usable for virtual tours. Indeed, a driving tour of the East End, using Navigation, Canal, Harrisburg, Polk, and Lawndale as the backbone, would be a prime candidate for such a photo narrative.
The modern world’s aggressive print publication option is still healthy and offers may new channels for authors and organizations to publish or manufacture short run books and booklets. Guidebooks, surveys, essays abound which while not actually tourist itineraries, they do offer the raw material from which many different tours can be developed. Indeed, even the national tourist industry which often relies on the ever growing number of city sightseeing books, includeing Fodor, Frommer, and Marmac offering volumes on Houston.