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It snakes through our lives day after day. We pay little notice to it when it’s at peace. We fret over it when it’s full and angry. Sometimes its behavior is over the top and makes for a mess with flooded streets and neighborhoods lined with soggy carpets.
It is Brays Bayou.
Long before there was a Houston, there was a bayou — a family of bayous, that is, bearing names such as Buffalo, White Oak and Brays. These numerous waterways gave Houston the moniker, the Bayou City; Even the early Spanish explorers made note of these bayous on their maps in the early 1500s.
Step forward 300 years. In 1824, New Yorker John R. Harris came to this area and spotted the place where Brays Bayou joins Buffalo Bayou. He started a small trading post on 4,428 acres the Mexican government granted him. It was an inland spot where a lazy river was navigable for schooners and barges within easy reach of Galveston and the Gulf of Mexico. His trading post grew and he named his new town Harrisburg — the very name his great-grandfather had given to a town in Pennsylvania he had founded in 1785. Harrisburg, Pa., would become that state’s capital in 1812. In those days before Key Maps and Google Earth, the Texas version of Harrisburg was simply the south bank of Buffalo Bayou at Brays Bayou.
In 1836, arrived two brothers, Augustus and John Kirby Allen. They had been building canals up in New York State and these bayous looked familiar. Sharing the same idea as Harris to build a town on navigable waters close to the Gulf of Mexico, the brothers did the prudent thing: They tried to buy out Harris’s town. No deal, said Harris, who would give us his name for our county but not for our city.
The Allen brothers then settled for 6,642 acres they purchased upstream where the Buffalo and White Oak bayous converge at the very end of navigable water for barges and schooners that transported goods to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. They paid less than $2 per acre and named their new town Houston in honor of Sam Houston, hero of the Battle of San Jacinto and president of the new Republic of Texas. Houston was a name that resonated through the countryside and would help sell lots – trading land for profit was the brothers’ mission. They pitched their new town with colorful ads boasting blue skies and fair climates that “rival California on its very best day.” They forgot to mention mosquitoes, but land was sold and the town grew. They hired surveyor Gail Borden who would soon come up with an idea for condensing milk, a more lucrative venture for which Borden eventually left surveying behind.
So what happened to Harrisburg? Turns out Santa Anna’s troops may have lost the battle of San Jacinto but not before taking out their frustrations on John Harris’s nearby town. Harrisburg was burned and efforts to rebuild just did not work out. Drive down Harrisburg Road to Magnolia Park on the Houston Ship Channel and you are there. This was once a town with large homes and a 5-cent trolley.
In 1926, Houston Mayor Oscar Holcombe annexed Harrisburg, ending the story of John R. Harris and his town.
However, the sagas of these bayous continue. While Buffalo Bayou, the largest of the bunch, gets the most attention, Brays Bayou, the Texas Medical Center’s neighbor that meanders through our community to eventually feed Buffalo Bayou, deserves its own focus.
If the Buffalo Bayou at the former site of Harrisburg is the end, where does Brays Bayou begin? And, for heaven’s sake, why is it spelled “Brays” Bayou when the two streets that flank the waterway are spelled “Braeswood?”
Tracking down the source
You have to go west to Fort Bend County to find the source of Brays Bayou. The year was 1861. A small community called Dairy was created on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Ashford was a small town to the north of Dairy so Dairy Ashford Road seemed like a good name for a country road connecting the two towns. In the 1890s, Dairy’s townsfolk wanted a post office and decided to rename the town in honor of their first postmistress, Alief Ozella Magee. Dairy became Alief. It is here a bit further west of Alief in Fort Bend County where Brays Bayou begins.
The Brays Bayou watershed covers some 127 square miles providing storm water relief for cities including Missouri City, Stafford, Houston, Bellaire, West University Place, Southside Place and Meadows Place. In the Texas Medical Center, the bayou comes right through our backyard. We are the natural drainage for the entire Rice University area. In the early days of the medical center, an old wooden bridge over the Harris Gully in front of today’s TMC Library Building was the crossing Baylor College of Medicine faculty members used to walk over to Hermann Hospital. The bridge is gone today, and two 12-foot box culverts now carry that runoff to the bayou on its last half-mile stretch.
Long before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cemented the Brays Bayou in the early 1950s, Brays Bayou actually came through our front yard. Take a look at Grant/Fay Park on Holcombe in front of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health and next to UTHealth School of Nursing and you will see a rolling ravine. That deep depression in the ground that gives the park its unique character marks Brays Bayou’s past route.
In June 2001, Tropical Storm Allison ravaged the Texas Medical Center and the city of Houston at large as the bayous crested over their banks. While the bayous are blamed for the flood woes the “glass half full” school of thought will remind us that for every deluge like Allison, there are hundreds of potential flood events that never happen thanks to the bayous doing their job as drainage outlets.
Even the Allen brothers realized that their new city was not immune to flooding just months after launching their real-estate venture.That deluge in April 1837 was followed by another six months later when a hurricane hit and Buffalo Bayou rose four feet on Main Street.
Interesting to note, a 17-inch rainfall on Dec. 6, 1935, flooded two-thirds of the county. But on the bright side, it gave many unemployed Houstonians a new opportunity during those Great Depression years: fishing crates of food and clothing out of the bayou that had washed out of warehouses. According to the late Galvin Berry, a Houston news reporter and historian, residents at the Rice Hotel fished from the mezzanine level of the hotel for – not crates of clothes to wear – but fish to eat.
Brays vs. Braeswood
Of more contemporary importance, there’s that puzzling spelling issue. We drive into the medical center along “Brays” Bayou on a boulevard named “Braeswood.” What’s with that? There is much debate about it but the early Houston maps, long before the street came along, note variations of “Bray’s” and “Brays” Bayou. But “Brays” is officially adopted as the correct version in the ongoing $450 million improvement project by the Harris County Flood Control District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, known as the Brays Bayou Flood Damage Reduction Project, or Project Brays for short.
Perhaps “Braeswood” comes from the Scottish word “Braes,” which means hill or slope. An early area developer who arrived from New Hampshire in 1873 was a Scotsman named Henry Frederick MacGregor. MacGregor is the name of another well-known street in the Texas Medical Center area. One suggestion is that given MacGregor’s Scottish roots, the spelling of “Braeswood” for the streets along the bayou’s sloping banks is his doing.
As for where the name “Brays” for the bayou comes from,historians differ to this day. Louis F. Aulbach, a Houston historian who served the Harris County Historical Commission for 17 years, notes in his book about Buffalo Bayou that the name, sometimes spelled “Bray’s,” dates from the earliest days of the Austin Colony and was in common use by 1828. He also notes a man named Bray arrived in 1822 and settled along the bayou’s banks. That sounds plausible but he also suggests that a Frenchman named DuBraisze may be connected to the name. Clearly there is no clear answer.
What is a given is that the Brays Bayou is an important part of Houstonians’ daily lives. There’s an old saying that you can’t really stop water, you can only move it. For the most part, our medical center’s neighborhood bayou does a pretty good job of moving water. After all that’s its only job description – and thankfully so.
‘Bout Time is about connecting our past to our present. Dr. Bryant Boutwell is the John P. McGovern Professor of Oslerian Medicine at the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics and a Distinguished Teaching Professor. He is the author of two books on the history of Houston and the Texas Medical Center and writes this column to share the stories of our past—stories that define who we are and how we got here.
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