Monday, November 12, 2012

The Galveston-Houston Packet - Interview with Author Andrew W. Hall

"As you may know, the central emblem in the official seal for the City of Houston is an old-time steam locomotive... [but] years before the first rail of track was laid, it was the water route between Galveston and Houston, via Buffalo Bayou, that established Houston in the first place." - Andrew W. Hall 

One of the great pleasures I have had in writing this blog, magazine articles, and books is meeting some people who are experts in their areas of interest, sometimes professionally, sometimes as an avocation, and sometimes a combination of the two.  In every case, these people also prove to be extremely generous with their support and advice.

Such is the case with Andrew ("Andy") W. Hall, author of the new an excellent book, The Galveston-Houston Packet" Steamboats on Buffalo Bayou (The History Press, 2012), who was kind enough to answer a few questions about his book and his other research and writing interests.

I first met and corresponded with Andy through his excellent blog, Dead Confederates.  Among other subjects, the blog is loaded with excellent information about Texas and the Civil War, especially his hometown of Galveston.  The information was invaluable in my research for my own recent book, Galveston and the Civil War (also with The History Press).  Andy answered questions, reviewed parts of my manuscript, and provided some excellent photographs and drawings that appear in my book.  We have since become good friends, have met in person several times (a blessing which I hope I can share with others who have helped me along the way), and have recently been doing some shared book events.

I was so happy to learn, about a year ago, that Andy had a book project of his own.  The Galveston-Houston Packet was released just a few weeks ago.  I'm even more pleased to introduce readers of this blog to Andy and his excellent work.  His answers are interesting, thoughtful, and funny!

My review:

More than a look at steamboat life on the important Galveston-Houston waterway, Buffalo Bayou, the book explains the influence of the steamboat trade on the growth of both cities; the challenges faced in the early years in navigating the sandbars in the shallows and the hidden threats in the depths; races and terrible boiler explosions; the important and colorful personalities involved in the steamboat industry; the role of steamboats in Houston and Galveston during the Civil War; and the waning years of the steamboat industry.  Firsthand accounts give life and voices to steamboat life for pilots and passengers alike.  Appendices give details on dozens of steamboats known to traverse the Bayou.  More than 30 period illustrations and photographs, and EXCELLENT maps (prepared by Andy himself), add to the value of this wonderful book.  There's even more supplementray material at his excellent blog.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!


About the book and Andy, from the publisher:

Many imagine the settlement of the American West as signaled by the dust of the wagon train or the whistle of a locomotive. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, though, the growth of Texas and points west centered on the seventy-mile water route between Galveston and Houston. This single vital link stood between the agricultural riches of the interior and the mercantile enterprises of the coast, with a round of operations that was as sophisticated and efficient as that of any large transport network today. At the same time, the packets on the overnight Houston-Galveston run earned a reputation as colorful as their Mississippi counterparts, complete with impromptu steamboat races, makeshift naval gunboats during the Civil War, professional gamblers and horrific accidents.

Andrew W. Hall
Andy Hall is a native of Galveston and has spent most of his life on the Texas coast. He spent his early working years, beginning while still an undergrad student, in local history museums, including the Texas Maritime Museum in Rockport. Hall holds degrees from the University of Houston Clear Lake and Texas Tech University.  For the last twenty years, Hall has served as a volunteer with the Texas Historical Commission in investigating shipwrecks and in 2001 was part of the first group of state marine archaeological stewards appointed in the United States. Hall has worked on numerous marine archaeology projects in Texas, notably from 1995 to 2002 on the Denbigh Project, the most extensive excavation and research program on a Civil War blockade runner in the Gulf of Mexico.

And now to our interview!

Jim (JS):Andy, can you start off with a little background about yourself?

Andy (AH): I’m from Galveston originally, and have lived here most of my life. I started out early on working in local history museums here and at the Texas Maritime Museum in Rockport, near Corpus Christi. I have an undergrad degree in history and a master’s in museum studies, although I haven’t worked day-to-day in museums for years.  

JS: How did you get interested in studying maritime history?

AH: There’s no place in Galveston more than a mile from saltwater, so, yeah.  But seriously, when you live on the coast it’s all around you. That, and reading a lot of C. S. Forester when I was younger, pretty much ruined me for anything else.

JS: Why steamboats (as opposed to Galveston's oceangoing traffic)?

AH: Twenty-some years ago, we did an exhibit on Texas riverboats at the museum in Rockport. I don’t remember where the original idea for that came from, but the museum director there, Jerry Moore, and I put together an exhibit on steamboats that spanned rivers across the state, from the Red River and Caddo Lake up near Jefferson, to Brownsville and the Rio Grande. Before we began researching that, I just had no idea how much a fixture those boats had been in the early development of the Texas Republic, and later the state. About that same time, I got to take a week long cruise on the lower Mississippi, from New Orleans to Vicksburg and back. I was hooked.

Museums like the one in Rockport and the Texas Seaport Museum in Galveston have done a good job, I think, of showing Texas’ maritime links to the rest of the United States and to the world beyond. They do a fantastic job, but mostly it’s looking outward, toward the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. The other half of Texas’ maritime history starts at the coast and looks inland, to Buffalo Bayou, the Brazos River, the Sabine, the Neches, and so on. That’s a story I wanted to help tell.

JS: What do you hope people will learn by reading The Galveston-Houston Packet?

AH: I hope that they get a better sense of the early development of both Galveston and Houston, and how important that water link between the two was to those cities, and to the creation and expansion of Texas generally.

As you may know, the central emblem in the official seal for the City of Houston is an old-time steam locomotive – an American 4-4-0, as the ferroequinologists would say. That recognizes the importance of the railroads in establishing Houston as what the Allen Brothers, the founders of the city, claimed would eventually become the “great commercial emporium” of Texas. That’s not wrong, as one might say, but it’s not entirely right, either. Years before the first rail of track was laid, it was the water route between Galveston and Houston, via Buffalo Bayou, that established Houston in the first place.

(I should also point out that, just as the Allen Brothers’ advertising their new city as being “at the head of navigation” of the bayou was a bit of a fraud, because no steamboat would get anywhere near the site for months yet, so was the adoption of a locomotive on the city seal. When they chose that symbol, it was YEARS before there was actually a working railroad existed.)

Someone asked me recently if it was true that Houston, not Galveston, was the origin of the first railroad in the state. It’s true – the earliest railroads in Texas spanned out like the spokes of a wheel from Houston in the years leading up to the Civil War – but it’s true because of the success of the Buffalo Bayou steamboats as part of the transportation network. Getting from Galveston on the coast to Houston wasn’t a problem, because of the boats. It was getting goods and people to and from Houston and the bayou that was the next step, because the roads were uniformly awful. So, the first railroads in Texas mostly started in Houston, going north to Millican (near College Station), east to the Sabine River, and west toward Richmond. The rail link between Houston and Galveston wasn’t established until 1860, just on the eve of the war – it was probably not the highest priority when it came to railroad-building in the region.

JS: What did you lean along the way in doing research and writing?

AH: I hadn’t realized until I really got into the research for the book how important Charles Morgan – and resistance to Charles Morgan – was in establishing the Houston Ship Channel and, by extension, Houston’s current status as a major U.S. port. Morgan dredged a private channel for deep-draft vessels to a wharf he established at Clinton (near Galena Park today), and then promptly put a chain across the cut he’d made through Morgan’s Point. His intent was to stick it to the Galveston Wharf Company, which had up to then been exploiting its monopoly on deep-water navigation. (This was in the mid-1870s.) Morgan was somewhat successful in pushing back against the Galveston Wharf Company, but his actions in exploiting his own monopoly ended up being as bad or worse, in the eyes of many Houstonians, than those of Galveston had been. Eventually the federal government made its own channel, and bought out Morgan’s improvements, which became the core of the Houston Ship Channel that exists today. (It was day of widespread celebration in 1892 when the “old rusty chain” was ceremonially cut through.) But Morgan was the one who’d made it happen, and in fact, his was the first to apply the wards “ship channel” to the project.

JS:Are there any remnants of the great steamboat era in either Galveston or Houston (warehouse districts, wrecks, extant businesses, etc.)?

Allen's Landing - Houston, TX
AH: Allen’s Landing in downtown Houston is the site of the old steamboat wharf, although it’s quite a bit greener and less cluttered now than 150 years ago. There are several buildings in the Main Street/Market Square Historic District in downtown Houston that date from that period, including the Kennedy Bakery, which I think goes back to the 1840s.

On the Galveston end, Elissa and the Texas Seaport Museum are now right about where Central Wharf was, which was the main landing for the boats coming to and from Buffalo Bayou. In fact, the line of wharves that existed in Galveston in the mid-1800s are substantially the same wharves that exist today, although rebuilt and refurbished many times over the decades. A hundred fifty years ago there were at the end of long piers that extended out into the deeper water of the channel, where seagoing ships could tie up; in the latter part of the 19th century the individual wharves were gradually joined to make one continuous wharf front, and the space between them and the buildings on the Strand was filled in. So when you go down to the Seaport Museum and look out over the harbor, you’re standing essentially where you would’ve been if you were at Central Wharf, waiting for the Houston Navigation Co.’s boat to arrive.

JS: Having lived most of my life in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Illinois. . .

AH: I’m so sorry.

JS: Hey - be nice! I'm doing you a solid here :-) ... As I was saying: until now, my only exposure to maritime life was canoes, bass boats, and party pontoons.  Seriously, though, I am always amazed at the scale of actual ships.  You just can't get a sense of them by reading or photos.  Two of my favorite "museum ship" experiences were seeing the Civil War USS Cairo at the Vicksburg (MS) National Military Park and the WWI/WWII dreadnought, USS Texas, here in Houston.  Would we be impressed at the scale of a steamboat plying Buffalo Bayou between Galveston and Houston?  What's the best way for a person to see an extant steamboat to get a sense of the scale and amenities?

AH: There are two steamboats kinda-sorta-maybe close to this area that folks should take a ride on if they can...The excursion steamboat Natchez in New Orleans is similar, though substantially larger, to the sternwheel boats like St. Clair that ran on Buffalo Bayou after the Civil War. Natchez is a wonderful boat because she was designed by a naval architect, the late Alan L. Bates, Jr., who was himself a licensed steamboat master from Louisville. In Natchez, Captain Bates designed a real, late 19th/early 20th century steamboat, with some obvious modern concessions to technology and safety.

The other boat is Graceful Ghost, that runs on Caddo Lake in far northeast Texas. She’s a very small, wooden-hulled boat, built to the pattern of a c. 1900 towboat, by Captain Lexie Palmore, her original owner. The boat’s a little gem, really, and is technologically very close to the boats on Buffalo Bayou, right down to the wood-fired boiler.

JS: The maps in the book are just terrific.  So is the wonderful digital art you have done for your websites (links here) and your archaeology projects.  From whence comes that talent? How important is digitization - in all its forms (modeling, photography, websites, archival documents, etc.) - becoming in archaeology and in communicating findings to the public?

Andy's beautiful scratch-built model of the Bayou City
AH: Thanks. I wanted the maps to have an individual, hand-drawn feel to them, even though they were entirely digital. Not sure that came across in the final version, but I hope they’re clear and concise enough to follow. They’re keyed to events mentioned in the text; they were originally to have extended captions listing those events, but there wasn’t enough real estate on the printed page. Readers have to flip back and forth between the text and the map, so that’s something I need to watch out for in the future.

One of the challenges I found is that, in preparing a map, you almost always have more information, more detail, than the viewer can easily digest. You can’t put everything in, and the author and map designer have to be pretty ruthless in excluding extraneous material that may be neat to shoehorn in there, but ultimately doesn’t contribute to the reader’s understanding.

In my map of the Battle of Galveston, for example, there’s a whole series of piers and wharfs shown, but only two of them – Central Wharf and Kuhn’s Wharf -- are labeled, because they figure prominently in the text. Similarly, there are a number of structures shown on the map that are still extant, but I chose not to label them for fear of making the map too cluttered.

My father is an artist, so my early childhood was spent around it. Drawing was something that was encouraged, and it just sort of seemed natural for me in a way that I gather it’s not for other folks. Later, I became more interested in technical illustration – blueprints, maps, schematics, and so on – which has been an interest that served me well all the different history/archaeology work that I do. It’s useful just about anywhere.

JS: What role did enslaved African-Americans play in the antebellum and wartime steamboat traffic, especially in Galveston and Houston?

AH: Slave labor was as much a part of the steamboat trade on Buffalo Bayou and on other Texas streams as it was on parts of the Lower Mississippi, or in any other aspect of daily life in that region at the time. And like those other examples, it often goes almost un-commented-upon, until something happens that necessarily focuses attention on it. Steamboat accidents are a good example of that, because in virtually every case where there’s a bad accident, there’s a mention of enslaved persons in the crew of the boat being among the casualties. Quite apart from the human suffering these events represented, such casualties also made for a monetary loss for their owners. That contemporary perspective is hard for modern readers to stomach, but was a factor of significance at that time and place, and it needs to be recognized.

I didn’t use it in the book, because I couldn’t relocate the source again, but years ago I came across an item in a Texas newspaper from the 1850s that urged steamboat owners to hire “Germans” (i.e., immigrants from northern Europe) to work on the boats, instead of slave labor. The reason for this was that, when one inevitably fell overboard and drowned, or got scalded to death in a boiler explosion, the boat’s owner would not be liable for the value of another person’s lost property, and most likely no one would pursue legal action against the boat owner on behalf of an immigrant. That’s some cold-blooded logic, right there

JS: The racing you describe reminds me of Han Solo bragging on the Millenium Falcon in Star Wars, Episode IV: " It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. I've outrun Imperial starships. Not the local bulk cruisers mind you, I'm talking about the big Corellian ships now. She's fast enough for you old man. What's the cargo? "  Why was this so important to the Galveston-Houston steamboat competition?

Period engraving of a boiler explosion
AH: Racing was an important part of Western Rivers steamboat culture in the United States for a number of reasons, many of them practical. On a long route, the faster boat would arrive at intermediate landings first, and so be able to skim off the passengers and cargo waiting for a boat there. A boat’s reputation for fast runs would be a strong selling point, and beating a boat with a reputation for fast passages could establish a new boat and master in a particular trade.

And, passengers often encouraged the practice, because it added some excitement to what might otherwise be a dull passage.

Of course, the route between Galveston and Houston was a short run, and these particular boats don’t seem to have made many intermediate landings between Houston and Galveston, apart from at Harrisburg. But the practice remained popular, if controversial, and resulted in at least one horrific accident in 1853, when the steamboat Farmer’s boilers blew up a few miles north of Galveston. 

JS: What were some of the most useful repositories you used for your research? Any research and writing advice for aspiring authors or avocations scholars?

AH: As I mention in the acknowledgements, this book could not have been done without the assistance of the archivists at both the Houston Metropolitan Research Center at the Houston Public Library, and Galveston and Texas History Center at Rosenberg Library. Nothing beats time in the archives, with skilled assistance from the staff. They’re invaluable.

At the same time, though, in the last several years there’s been a tremendous expansion in the scope and depth of original, primary sources available online, particularly in the form of historical newspapers, published accounts, census records, and so on. A lot of these are available only by subscription, but many are available free of charge. These are making the slog of research much easier, by putting lots of resources immediately available to the writer. Traditional archives play a role in this phenomenon, too; the staff at the Galveston and Texas History Center took the initiative a while back to put all their newspaper microfilm holdings available online through a partnership with a commercial company, in exchange for giving free access to library card holders. It’s a hell of a deal, and it’s to the archives’ great credit that they’re using this technology to make their unique resources available to researchers everywhere.

As for advice for other authors, let me just say that I understand now why we all know people who say, “I’m gonna write a book about ________,” and never do. Even a small book like this on a very narrow subject is a challenge if you’re new to the process. My only advice would be to write as much as you can to find a “voice” you’re comfortable with (blogging is good for this), and when it comes time to developing an idea for a long-form writing piece, like a book, work within very clear parameters. Developing this project for the History Press has very good for me in that respect, because they had a clear idea of the form and structure of the completed work, based on their publication experience. It helps tremendously when you sit down to outline the project.

JS: Do you have another book in you (or more?)? (I hope so!)

AH: Yes, I’ve got several ideas in mind. I think at least one of those will come together in a book proposal soon.

JS: What's the best way for folks to get a copy of your book? 

AH: It’s available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, at local booksellers, and I’ll have them available directly through PayPal soon. Keep checking at for updates.

Many thanks, Andy, for answering my questions and for all the kind help you have given me!  Best wishes for continued success and inspiration!

Andy and I at the recent Houston History Book Fair & Symposium (Andy is the handsome one)

No comments: