The Laura – Small Ship, Big Contributions

Looking at the Houston Ship Channel today, it’s hard to imagine taking three days to cover the twelve-mile voyage from Harrisburg to Houston by water. In the early days of the Republic of Texas, however, conditions were very different. The founders of Houston envisioned their town as the link between the Gulf Coast and the mainland of Texas, and Buffalo Bayou was going to facilitate that connection. The passengers on the small steamboat Laura had no idea what impact they would have on Houston and on Texas as they made their way up Buffalo Bayou, through overgrown trees and branches, to become the first steam-powered vessel to reach Houston on January 22, 1837.[1]

John Kirby Allen (left) and Augustus Chapman Allen (right) founded the city of Houston in 1836. Image courtesy of the Houston Chronicle.

In 1836, two real estate promoters from New York, brothers John K. and Augustus C. Allen, were in search of a site to develop a city. In August of that year, they purchased 6,642 acres from Mrs. T.F.L. Parrot, widow of John Austin, for the price of $9,428, or about $1.27 an acre. The Allen brothers recognized the economic potential of the land, located near the head of the tidewater on Buffalo Bayou, if the bayou could be navigated to the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, the waterway was overgrown and difficult to traverse, and no one had yet been able to travel past Harrisburg to reach Houston.[2]

The Allen brothers took up the challenge of navigating Buffalo Bayou by ship. Their chosen vessel was a river steamer named Laura. Constructed in Louisville, Kentucky, and measuring 85 feet long and 16.5 feet wide, the little steamship had already made an impact on Texas history before her first voyage up Buffalo Bayou to Houston.

The Laura’s first owners were Thomas F. McKinney and Samuel May Williams, who operated the largest commission-merchant firm, and controlled most of the cotton trade in Galveston and Houston. They intended to use the ship to travel the Brazos River; however, the outbreak of the Revolution presented the steamer a new role.[3]

On September 1, 1835, the Laura was staged near Velasco, unloading goods from the Tremont, an American merchant vessel. A Mexican ship, the Correo, captained by the notorious and unpopular Thomas “Mexico” Thompson, harassed and attempted to seize the Tremont. Outraged, Thomas McKinney and about thirty Texians retrieved their rifles, boarded the Laura, and commenced firing upon the Correo. The Mexican ship’s crew answered with three cannon volleys, all of which missed their target, and ultimately retreated.[4]

The John Austin survey, purchased by the Allen brothers, was the location of the landing of the Laura. [detail] Herman Pressler, Harris County, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1896, Map #66857, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

The Laura next rendezvoused with the San Felipe, an armed schooner also owned by McKinney and Williams. The schooner was inbound from New Orleans carrying Stephen F. Austin, who was returning to Texas from his time imprisoned in Mexico, as well as Lorenzo de Zavala. Upon arrival in Velasco, Austin and de Zavala boarded the Laura to be ferried to shore, then the Laura towed the San Felipe out to sea to place her in position to help capture the Correo. The morning after a tense night-time battle between the two warships had stagnated amid listless winds, the Laura once again towed the San Felipe out to accept the surrender of the battered and drifting Correo.[5]

After the confrontation with the Correo, the Laura was chartered by the Texas government to help deliver troops and supplies and to tow larger schooners in and out of various ports. After the Texian victory at San Jacinto, government officials, including Vice President Lorenzo de Zavala and Secretary of Treasury Bailey Hardeman, boarded the Laura at Galveston and were the first to arrive at the battlefield. The government continued to make use of the ship until her return to private service in September 1836.[6]

It took the Laura three days to cover the short distance between Harrisburg and Houston.

In January 1836, the Laura earned another place in the history books by making the first trek up the heretofore impassable Buffalo Bayou. Captained by Thomas Wigg Grayson[7]and bearing passengers including the Allen brothers and various government officials, the Laura set out from Harrisburg on what became a three-day journey to Houston. It was a difficult voyage, and the efforts of the passengers were required to clear snags and help keep the ship on course. Republic of Texas Comptroller and future governor of Texas Francis R. Lubbock even pitched in to help clear the path. His account of the historic trip noted that “Capitalists, dignified judge, military heroes, young merchant in fine clothes from the dressiest city in the United States, all lent a helping hand.”[8]

Advertisement for the steamboat Laura nearly a month after it completed the Harrisburg to Houston voyage. Image courtesy Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library.

Despite the arduous journey, this was a momentous occasion that marked the first time a steamship had successfully navigated Buffalo Bayou past Harrisburg. On January 27, 1837, Columbia, TX newspaper the Telegraph and Texas Register reported on the Laura’s arrival in Houston, remarking that the voyage “proved that Houston will be a port of entry.”[9] The Laura continued to serve the citizens of the Republic of Texas — in fact, an advertisement posted in the Telegraph and Texas Register nearly two years after she first arrived in Houston solicited passengers for a trip aboard the Laura from Houston to Sabine City. This service continued until June 1840, when she ran atop a sand bar in the Brazos River. The impact broke both shafts and the ship had to be towed back to port, thus passing out of the historical record.

The Telegraph and Texas Register of Columbia, TX reported on the successful arrival of the Laura. While the voyage may not have been exactly “without obstruction,” the newspaper correctly predicted Houston’s future as a port city.

The “little steamer” Laura’s arrival in Houston on January 22, 1837, was the result of a twelve-mile voyage that set the stage for what became one of the most important economic engines in Texas, the Houston Ship Channel. The growth of the shipping industry in the Houston area helped Texas grow into the powerhouse it is today, creating nearly 1.2 million jobs and $265 billion in statewide economic impact.[10]

A voyage on the Laura departing Houston for Sabine City was advertised in the Telegraph and Texas Register nearly two years after her first arrival in Houston. [11]

[1]Handbook of Texas Online, Marilyn M. Sibley, “Houston Ship Channel,” accessed June 05, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/rhh11. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on March 28, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[2]HoustonHistory.com, 178 Years of Historic Houston, accessed October 13, 2017, http://02db39d.netsolhost.com/decades/history5.htm

[3]Handbook of Texas Online, Curtis Bishop, “McKinney, Williams and Company,” accessed November 01, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/dfm01. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[4]Jonathan W. Jordan, Lone Star Navy, Texas, the Fight for the Gulf of Mexico, and the Shaping of the American West (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006), pp. 10–16. Doublas V. Meed, The Fighting Texas Navy, 1832–1843 (Plano, TX: Republic of Texas Press, 2001), pp. 30–35. Alex Dienst, The Texas Navy (FireshipPress.com, 2007; originally privately published, 1909), pp. 1–5.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Handbook of Texas Online, Margaret Swett Henson, “Laura,” accessed November 01, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/etl01. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on May 8, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[7]Handbook of Texas Online, Emma E. Pirie, “Grayson, Thomas Wigg,” accessed November 01, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fgr30. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on June 1, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[8]Stephen L. Hardin, Texian Macabre, The Melancholy Tale of a Hanging in Early Houston (Abilene, TX: State House Press, 2007), pp. 83–84

[9]G.& T.H. Borden, Telegraph and Texas Register, Columbia, TX, Vol. 2, №3, Ed. 1, Friday, January 27, 1837, newspaper, January 27, 1837, accessed November 2, 2017, texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth47916/m1/2/?q=steamboat%20laura, University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

[10]Statistics according to a 2014 study, accessed November 1, 2017, http://porthouston.com/portweb/about-us/economic-impact/

[11] Cruger & Moore, Telegraph and Texas Register, Columbia, TX, Vol. 4, №30, Ed. 1, Saturday January 19, 1839, newspaper, January 27, 1837, accessed November 2, 2017, https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth48036/m1/4/?, University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

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