Wednesday, March 11, 2015



Three days after leaving the frozen wastelands of Chicago, we arrived in Houston on a rainy, foggy Sunday morning, carrying our tickets for a cruise to Belize.  Houston is not located on water, so we weren't sure where we would be cruising from.  As it turned out, the harbor is in Pasadena, a suburb of Houston.  In 1893, Pasadena was named after the California city where the Rose Bowl is located, because of the perceived lush vegetation.  We didn't see much of that.  The Texas Pasadena is a working class suburb whose major industries are oil refineries and petrochemical plants with big smokestacks.  The harbor is by the Houston Ship Channel, with tanker ships lined up to serve the heavy industry.

Obviously shipping and energy are major drivers of the Houston economy, but the city of over 2 million is a transportation center and also a leader in biomedical research and aeronautics.  Recently, Forbes Magazine rated Houston the top city for employment creation and number one for paycheck worth.  You get good value in Houston.  We were only in town for a couple days and we look forward to seeing the rest of the city next time.   


The most famous attraction in Houston is the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, spread over 1600 acres, and employing thousands of contractors and civil servants.  We know it best as Mission Control ("Houston, we have a problem").  The space center directs the International Space Station and trains astronauts for their missions.  The public can view and interact with replicas of the lunar modules, space suits, moon rocks, control rooms and other space related exhibits.  No space center would be complete without "Angry Birds Space" for the kids to play interactive video games for fun and learning.  Angry Birds!  We had lunch  at the Zero-G Diner on overpriced hamburgers and pizza. 

This place is really spread out, so NASA furnishes trams to carry visitors to see the behind the scenes work in the outbuildings.  They took us on a tour of the Saturn V facility and the Rocket Park.  The Saturn V rocket lies on its side in a very long building.  We walked around it and took many photos.  I wasn't sure if we were allowed to do so, but apparently the technology is public knowledge.


San Antonio with a population of 1.8 million is the second largest city in the U.S. without an NFL team (Los Angeles is the largest, but it used to have one, actually two).  It is the 7th largest city in the U.S..  In the late 1800's, many Germans settled there.  They originally came and built communist (with a small "c") communities which, not surprisingly, didn't work out.  The problem was too many people wanted to supervise but not many wanted to do physical labor.  The Germans eventually settled down and started businesses and prospered.  They build substantial houses in the King William neighborhood named after the Prussian King Wilhelm I who died in 1888.  His successor was the guy who started World War I.

The main street in the neighborhood was King William Street, but during World War I, they changed the name to Pershing Avenue.  A few years later, after the anti-German hysteria died down, they restored the old name.     Today, this area is a National Register Historic District.  Walking tours are very popular to see the architecturally notable houses.

We ate a wonderful dinner at Schilo's German delicatessen where we ordered their specialty, a large bowl of split pea soup with homemade root beer to wash it down.  The restaurant is also famous for its horseradish flavored mustard which they bottle and sell.  It was so good that I brought a bottle home to use on my daily salami sandwiches. 


It's hard to forget, but at the Alamo, we learned much about the history of Texas which used to be part of Mexico in the 19th Century.  Incidentally, the Spanish word alamo means "poplar tree" in English.   The mission was built around a grove of cottonwood trees.  As the symbol of Texas independence, it is the most popular tourist attraction in Texas.

Americans started coming to Texas in the early 1800's.  In 1820, if an American wanted to start a farm, he could purchase land from the U.S. government for $1.20 per acre, cash upfront.  Spain decided to encourage immigration into Mexico (Texas), and they promoted this in the U.S. by selling land for 25 cents per acre on easy credit terms.   They didn't even have to give away free dinners to get Americans to come.  The only catch was that the immigrants had to convert to Catholicism and become Mexican citizens. 

The result was that 30,000 Americans went to Texas as (legal) immigrants.  They called themselves "Texians".  By the 1830's there were so many Americans in Texas that native born Mexicans, who were outnumbered by 2 to 1, were becoming alarmed about American immigration--does that sound familiar?  The Americans didn't assimilate well with the Mexican population.  The Mexicans had good reason to be alarmed about the Texian immigrants who openly expressed displeasure with Mexican policies. 

General Santa Anna became the dictator of Mexico and abolished the 1824 Constitution which was similar to ours.  The Texians didn't take kindly to that and they resisted.  The revolt started in Gonzalez, Texas, and spread from there.  In late 1835, the Texian volunteers, American settlers and other adventurers, led by Ben Milam, attacked the Mexican troops quartered in San Antonio and kicked them out of the heavily fortified Alamo. 

Not surprisingly, Santa Anna was furious, and he personally led an inexperienced 2000 man Mexican army and marched them to the Alamo where they began a 13 day siege.  The Mexicans had to train their ragtag troops on the fly while marching them to San Antonio.  Many of these guys were bringing  their families along!  Santa Anna described the Texians as "pirates" and declared he would take no prisoners.  The Texians were commanded by Col. William Travis who was the highest ranking American officer in the area. 

Col. Travis sent out messengers seeking help all over Texas.  On the eighth day of the siege, 32 volunteers came in from Gonzalez, TX, bringing the total to 188 defenders.  With the prospects of reinforcements fading, Col Travis drew a line on the ground and asked any man willing to stay and fight to step over.  187 men did so--a man named Louis "Moses" Rose allegedly declined.   Actually that story surfaced long after Rose's death, and many historians assert that never happened.  However, several Texians did sneak out during the siege. 

Ultimately, Santa Anna's army broke through and killed every defender including the famous ones like knife-fighter Jim Bowie and frontiersman David (Davy) Crockett.  Approximately 600 Mexican troops were killed.  Our history books and the John Wayne movie imply that everyone in the Alamo was killed.  That is not true.  There were survivors--approximately 44 couriers, women, children and slaves. 

The couriers left before the final battle.  One, Samuel Maverick (yes THAT Maverick) left to serve as  a delegate to the convention where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed. In the movie, John Wayne starred as Davy Crockett, Richard Widmark played Jim Bowie, and Laurence Harvey played Col. Travis.  Even Frankie Avalon was in the movie.   The movie set was built 120 miles away in Brackettville and is a popular tourist attraction. 

Of the survivors, two year old Angelina Dickinson was carried out by her mother Susannah who told the story for posterity.  Santa Anna wanted to adopt young Angelina, but her mother refused.  In later years, Angelina achieved a certain level of notoriety as a courtesan in New Orleans and Galveston. 

After his victory at the Alamo, Santa Anna pressed his luck.  He ordered the execution of hundreds of Texians who surrendered , further inflaming the local population.  Although his troops were exhausted and ill trained, Santa Anna marched them to confront Sam Houston's Texian army at San Jacinto near present day Houston.  The outmanned Texians surprised the Mexicans at siesta time  and blew them away in an epic 18 minute battle and declared their independence.  The 2000 man Mexican army suffered 630 casualties and 730 captured (including Santa Anna) while the Texians lost 9 men.    They eventually sent Santa Anna back to Mexico where they told him "don't forget the Alamo" or something like that.  He remembered it the rest of his life. 


There are five missions in San Antonio which are administered by the National Park Service.  The most famous is San Antonio de Valero which is also known as the Alamo.  We also visited San Jose and Concepcion missions.  The purpose of the missions was to "civilize" the local Indians by immersing them in Spanish culture and converting their souls to Catholicism.  The Indians received protection from their enemies in the fortified missions.  Essentially, the priests said "C'mon in and we'll make you Spanish." The missions were financed by the Spanish Crown who, as their dreams of great wealth faded, concentrated on spreading the Catholic faith to the heathen Indians.


The famed Riverwalk flanks the San Antonio River which is essentially a concrete storm sewer less than 50 feet wide.  The plan, as it was conceived by architect Robert Hugman in 1929 was to line the river with apartments, restaurants and parks.  It was not built until years later when the Work Progress Administration provided funds to do so.  Even then, the area was largely neglected until the 1960's when the city brought in the designers of Disneyland to assess the commercial potential.  Today, the Riverwalk is the trendy area of San Antonio where diners eat outside under colorful umbrellas watching the tourist boats glide by.  We boarded the 35 minute evening boat ride winding through the downtown area, to enjoy the spectacular city lights. 


On the way to Corpus Christi, we spent the night in nearby Refugio, a small town which would otherwise be insignificant except that we ate dinner at the Gumbo Seafood Restaurant a family restaurant just down the road from our motel.  If you're into seafood and Cajun cuisine, this is the place.  I had the best crawfish etoufee I've ever had, and I've tried it in classier places. 

The next morning we arrived in the coastal city of Corpus Christi on a beautiful sunny day.  They probably could not name it that today, the city would be sued by the anti-religious police.  We called it Corpus Crispy.  CC is a Navy town with a Naval Air Station and an aircraft carrier open to the public, but you have to buy a ticket.  Near the waterfront is the Museum of Science and History.

I went inside to use the facilities and decided to stay and look around.   We found it very interesting.  CC is by the coast and many people are interested in shipwrecks.  The museum provided exhibits about that.  They had a wonderful section filled with geodes and geology in general.  We saw dinosaur bones.  The museum is geared toward kids who think Columbus's three ships wound up here.  Wooden replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria stood here for many years until they were demolished last Summer because they were too expensive to maintain. 

After touring the museum, the curator recommended a seafood restaurant on the waterfront called Pier 99.   We had to cross over an enormous highway bridge to the barrier island.   We dined outside on the patio enjoying the balmy breezes while eating delicious fried oysters, shrimps and hushpuppies. 


About 80 miles East of Houston on I-10 is the City of Beaumont.   It became famous in 1901 when a wildcatter named Anthony Lucas, after several dry wells, spent the last of his money to drill an oil well and hit a gusher at a area known today as Spindletop.    If he had drilled 50 feet over, it would have been another dry well.  The oil was highly pressurized and like Old Faithful, sprayed the black goo 100 feet in the air over the derrick for ten days, polluting everything around it.  It marked the beginning of the Texas oil industry. 

The story began several years earlier with the dream of Pattillo Higgins, a self taught geologist from Beaumont who was convinced that a vast amount of cheap oil lay beneath Spindletop Hill.  Higgins talked it up with a few friends persuading them to invest in his venture.  He named it Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing Co. because he was particularly fond of Gladys Bingham, a little girl in his Sunday School class.  The company attempted several times to drill for oil and failed because of inadequate equipment.    Everyone lost faith; Higgins left the company, and his investors derisively called him "the millionaire".

Meanwhile, Lucas, an Austrian mining engineer, was developing salt mines in nearby Louisiana.  He visited Beaumont and was also convinced there really was oil there.  He leased land from the Gladys City company in 1899.  His first attempt to drill for oil failed and he was ready to throw in the towel, but his wife persisted and urged him to seek outside financing and try again.  He went to Pittsburgh in the Pennsylvania oil patch and talked the experienced wildcatting team of James Guffey and John Galey into working with him.  They approached the prominent banker Andrew Mellon seeking funding to continue operations. 

Guffey and Galey knew oil, and they hired the best drillers available, the Hamill Brothers of Corsicana, Texas, who came to Beaumont to begin drilling in October, 1900.    They encountered numerous problems with solid rock, but were able to drill down over 1000 feet where the drill lodged in a crevice.  As they attempted to extricate it, all hell broke loose. 

They eventually cleaned it all up and a boomtown sprang up nearby.  Today it is preserved as a museum with the old wooden shops and houses.  The buildings are all replicas based on old photos of the town.  The period furniture and objects inside are authentic, but not necessarily from the buildings in the town.  The 13 stores in the boomtown include a dry goods store, a printer shop, post office, general store and, of course, a saloon.  A large 58 foot obelisk along with a wooden derrick in a grassy field marks the alleged location of the Spindletop well.   I say alleged, because the actual well is about one mile South of the monument.  They had to move it from the actual site because it kept sinking in the loose soil.  The boomtown is called Gladys City.  Its motto is "where the wildcatter spirit lives on."

A few miles down the road on the Gulf Coast is Port Arthur which is arguably the most polluted city in the U.S. Its other claim to fame is Janis Joplin was from there.  Port Arthur is heavily industrialized and contains the port where the pipelines end.  It may smell bad, but it is the smell of money.  We decided not to visit. 

NEXT:  Deep South, Part 2, More Interesting Stuff in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri


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