Turning Tragedy Around
Out of the fire with Spirit: Buffalo Bayou boat tours are back & history's onboard
Houston has a slight tendency to frustrate history lovers. Let's face it — our town gets a little wrecker-happy when it comes to knocking structures down and quickly erecting new ones, as if the repurposed space had never seen a day of yore in its life.
But where the archive of human development has been erased on the surface, a record still exists — in some form — below.
All you need for front row seats to this trip back through time is a spot aboard Spirit of the Bayou, Buffalo Bayou Partnership's newest recreational pontoon boat.
Bubbling back to the surface
Back in July, the Osprey, Buffalo Bayou Partnership's touring pontoon boat, was deliberately destroyed in a malicious fire, as you may recall. But instead of allowing the beloved boat and its storied tours to go down in history, the Partnership bounced back, stronger than ever.
"We never let a good tragedy go to waste," said Buffalo Bayou Partnership chairman Chuck Carlberg.
And the Spirit of the Bayou, with a capacity of eight more than the Osprey, is poised to add a new chapter to the Buffalo Bayou's biography.
With boat captain Dave Rivers gliding you through the bayou's colorful past, historian Louis Aulbach narrates the forgotten tales of our town. And if you think you know everything there is to know about our city's largest drainage ditch, you're woefully mistaken.
Start at the start
Indeed, at the confluence of the White Oak and Buffalo Bayous downtown, stands the "finest art deco building in Houston." Dubbed the Merchants and Manufacturers Building, it was built in 1930 to further the ambitious retail, wholesale, and business goals of the Allen brothers. Loading docks were created for river navigation, and rail docks were installed to ensure seamless locomotive access.
Alas, these efforts never quite reached the pinnacle of success the Allen brothers intended, and the grand structure remained dormant for years. Today, you probably recognize this bold building sitting high above the concrete jungle as the University of Houston—Downtown.
And that's just a piece of the puzzle for posterity that fits into place when you pull back the city's skyscraper veil.
Golden Gate what?
Heading east out of downtown, where the bayou is steeper and deeper, you might find yourself losing perspective. The Bayou gains momentum as it exits the city, widening into a sizable channel — replete with an Austin-esque rock ledge! — that makes referring to it as a drainage ditch insulting.
While it might not be a real river, the Buffalo Bayou is a hulking mass of water. Whether you're back in the day or it's no day like the present, we Houstonians have always needed to efficiently traverse it.
Drawbridges were once all the rage. But calling what's left of them "remnants" would certainly be an insult to the architectural ingenuity that permitted the Houston Belt & Terminal Railway Co.'s bridge to withstand the test of time, modernization and abuse.
"Joseph Strauss erected his second most famous bridge here," Aulbach playfully teased about the stone-cantilevered bascule passage that lies tucked beneath Highway 59, connecting the two banks.
The most famous Strauss bridge? The Golden Gate Bridge, of course.
Boat it to believe it
We won't spoil the entire tour for you, but there's so much to discover while bobbing along the bayou.
But before you debark at your point of origin, be sure to take note of the dilapidated green building on the shore. What will eventually be home to a canoe and kayak rental headquarters was once the psychedelic enclave of artist and sculptor David Adickes, the Love Street Light Circus and Feel Good Machine discotheque. And you thought the only wild things left on the bayou were the non-native chinaberries.
Do yourself a favor and caper around the bayou for yourself. You'll find something old sandwiched within the something new to satisfy every piece of the hungry hometown historian in you.
Editor's note: The Buffalo Bayou Partnership is holding second Saturday boat rides this Saturday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Each tour lasts 30 minutes and costs $7 for adults and $5 for kids 4-12 (cash only). There will also be a New Year's Eve Cruise from 6-8 p.m. Dec. 31 that runs $50.