Not the second-largest port for nothin': Join us for the Summer Energy Teacher Workshop

When most people think of a port city, they think of beaches and a lot of waterfront property. They think of palm trees and salty sea breezes. But not all port cities are on the coast. In the United States, there are numerous inland ports (ports on fresh waterways) such as those in Milwaukee and Chicago.

But when you think of ports, Houston is not one that readily comes to mind (especially to non-natives or out-of-towners). Given that we are the second-largest port in the United States, this seems a bit odd.

photo courtesy wikimedia

Houston had an odd way of coming to be. Before Texas won its independence from Mexico, there was no city of Houston. After independence, the Allen brothers, a couple of real-estate dealers from New York, convinced the new president of Texas, Sam Houston, to have the government buy the land that would become Houston and establish the seat of government there.

In the early days of the Republic, the streets of the city were dominated by a tents. Slowly, buildings went up. And after a few years, a port was established on the bayou to run trade to and from Galveston. For a while there was an overnight passenger steamboat from Galveston to Houston. In 1900, the big storm came to Galveston and destroyed a large number of the businesses and buildings on the island, and Houston promoted the idea of an inland port that would be protected from hurricanes.

The Houston Ship Channel was dug and opened in September of 1914. Since then the Channel has grown to be one of the largest ports in the United States. Now Houston ranks second in the United States for total tonnage (weight/mass of cargo) and first in international waterborne tonnage. As you can imagine, the port adds a lot to the city’s economy. In fact it brings about $200 million into the state each year.

As the energy capital of the world, a lot of crude oil, natural gas, and coal move through the Port of Houston. Several refineries are located on the waterfront, including the largest in the US, the ExxonMobil refinery. As in the energy industry, the majority of the maritime workforce will reach retirement age soon.

Join us for our week-long Summer Energy Teacher Workshop, where we will be going to energy destinations like the Port of Houston and learning about what kinds of opportunites exist in the energy industry.

Richard Dowling, The Battle of Sabine Pass, and The Davis Guards Medal

In Texas! The Exhibition you can view hundreds of objects, each with fascinating back stories. Some of these amazing artifacts belonged to well known national heroes and some to local heroes.

As I stroll through the exhibit’s Civil War section, I’m often drawn to one small and shiny object named the Davis Guards medal. I’m a history nerd, but until recently I wasn’t familiar with Davis Guards metals.

Engraved on the metal are the words: Jack White| Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863. A document in the case above the metal has the signature of a 1st Lieutenant by the name of R W Dowling.

Together, these objects reveal an interesting story.

It’s a story this history “connoisseur” still might have overlooked if something in the text panel had not caught my eye. According to the panel, the Davis Guards medal on display is one of three held in private hands, and it is one of only seven that are known to still be in existence.

However, being rare does not always translate to being fascinating. As I was preparing to begin my research for our upcoming Discovering the Civil War exhibition, I noticed something interesting.

On a rough draft of objects we hope to have on display is yet ANOTHER shiny disk with the words: Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863. I was intrigued. If only three of these are in the hands of private collectors and HMNS may have the honor of displaying a second Davis Guard medal, this piece is more fascinating.

But who was R W Dowling? What was his connection to the Davis Guards medal? What happened at the Battle of Sabine Pass? And most importantly, why is this medal significant? Since the discovery of the second medal to be displayed I have been obsessively researching to find more about these topics.

The Davis Guards Medal
The Davis Medal
See more photos from the Texas exhibit on Flickr.

Richard William “Dick” Dowling was born in 1838 in an area called Tuam (pronounced choo-um), which is located in Ireland.

He and his family left Ireland at the start of the potato famine in 1845 and settled in New Orleans, Louisiana. While living in Louisiana, Dowling’s parents and four of his siblings died of yellow fever in 1853. After the loss of his parents, he and a few siblings moved across the Louisiana border to Texas.

Dowling settled in Houston where he met, fell in love with, and married Elizabeth Odlum. With the support of Elizabeth’s family, Dowling was able to start and maintain several successful saloon businesses and became a founding member of the Houston Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 (which later became the Houston Fire Department), and even owned one of the first oil and gas companies in Texas. His saloons were outfitted with gas lighting as a result of this investment. Richard Dowling was indeed a prominent local businessman.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, like many men during this time, Dick Dowling went off to war.

He joined a group of other Irish immigrants. His group would help the Confederate army remove the Union blockade during the Battle of Galveston. During that battle, the USS Westfield sank off the coast (HMNS will display some objects from the USS Westfield in the Discovering the Civil War exhibition). Dowling and his group were in charge of guarding the coast of Texas until they were given a new assignment, the Sabine Pass.

Dowling was placed in charge of a group of 47 men of the Davis Guards, which was named after the current Confederate States of America’s president. Under his uncompromising leadership, he drilled his men until they could properly shoot up to 2,000 yards, which was the length to clear the Sabine Pass.

What Dowling and his men did on September 8, 1863 would go down in history as one of the greatest military upsets on American soil.

The 47 men of the Davis Guard were faced with 5,000 enemy soldiers. Instead of drawing back, according to his official report, Dowling and his men used a motto that once brought heartache to Texas.

They shouted “Victory or Death” as they aggressively attacked the Union forces.

After 45 minutes, the Union soldiers retreated and the battle was over. The Davis Guards hadn’t lost a single man. They captured 350 prisoners, and 50 Union soldiers lay dead that day in a solid victory for the CSA. The Union forces would never again threaten Texas in a major confrontation until the Battle of Palmito Ranch (also a CSA victory), which was fought over a month after the Civil War had ended. The victory at the Battle of Sabine Pass was one of the reasons that Texas was the only southern state to never be successfully occupied during the Civil War.

President Jefferson Davis was so pleased with the underdog victory that he asked the Confederate Congress to approve the commission of medals for the Davis Guard.

The medal is thought to be the only one commissioned by the Confederate Congress. Each Guards member would receive a silver round medal attached to a green ribbon (in honor of their Irish background) that was engraved with Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863 on one side, and on the other D.G. with either a Maltese cross or the CSA flag below the initials. Naturally, being an honorary member of the Davis Guards, President Davis was also given a medal along with every Davis Guards member.

The Confederate flag was the shortest reigning flag in Texas’ history, and even though the “war of northern aggression” would bring this chapter in our history to a close, it provided us with local Texas heroes.

In Texas! The Exhibition there are amazing artifacts from Texas’ proud past. Don’t miss the chance to see a rare part of history that is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

And don’t forget to join us in October for our new special exhibition Discovering the Civil War!

Second Saturday – Celebrating Texas Pioneers

Celebrating Texas Pioneers is the theme for Novembers Second Saturday event at the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land.

Downtown we are exhibiting Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America through Galveston Islandwhich explores the history of Galveston Island acting as a port of entry for immigrants to America.  At our Second Saturday event in Sugar Land, you can investigate what life was like for the immigrants who left everything behind to become Texans. Participate in crafts that are appropriate for this era like creating your own family tree, and learning how to weave and quilt.  Also make memory trunks by deciding what would your pack if you had to immigrate and could only pack a single bag.  There will also be story time, and the opportunity to learn the origin of Fredericksburg’s famous Easter Fires!

This event is November 13, 2010 from 10 am to 2 pm at HMNS – Sugar Land.  Free with museum admission.

Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America through Galveston Island

Forgotten Gateway is opening a week from today at HMNS. Gail Larsen Peterkin, one of our HMNS volunteers with a Ph.D in anthropology, gives us a preview as well as the background of this new exhibition. Make sure to see the exhibit after it opens Friday, October 1, 2010.

Although many of us think of New York’s Ellis Island as the premier immigration gateway to America, the Port of Galveston played a major role in immigration in the second half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Over 150,000 immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa entered Texas and the American Midwest through Galveston. Galveston served as a major transoceanic gateway for approximately seventy-five years, from 1845-1924, although federal immigration facilities in Galveston were abandoned after World War I.

The exhibition is divided into four sections, supported by more than 200 original documents and artifacts. “Difficult Journeys” covers the period from 1845-1865. European immigrants dominated this wave of migration, and most left their homes voluntarily to seek freedom, land, and a new life. Once in Texas, they were not welcomed with open arms. Long-term residents resented newcomers, especially when they had claims to land. Prior to the Civil War, forced migration also brought thousands of African slaves to Texas, and Galveston was one of the state’s major slave auctions. Upon reaching Galveston, immigrants had to wade to shore, cross on a makeshift plank bridge, or take small boats called “lighters.” Indianola was another major port and immigrant gateway on the Texas Gulf Coast at this time, although it fell into obscurity by the 1870s.

Jewish immigrants at the North
German Lloyd Wharf in Galveston.
July 1, 1907

The second wave of immigration, from 1865-1900, was dominated by big business. Texas was branded as a commodity, and recruiters lured European immigrants to the state with ads and promotional materials. Immigration was open until the first state and federal immigration laws were passed in 1875, restricting certain groups such as Chinese “coolies” and undesirables. Xenophobia, a fear of the foreign “threat,” became more prevalent in the early twentieth century from 1900-1915. Americans feared competition from immigrants for jobs, housing, and social services. A wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe exacerbated the growing hostility, and these new immigrants with swarthy complexions and different religious beliefs (Catholic and Jewish) did not integrate well with the largely northern European Protestant population that preceded them. During this period, Galveston became an official federal immigration station. Inspections at the Pelican Island station were very strict, and many immigrants were turned away or deported from Galveston. The federal station closed during World War I and never reopened. As the U.S. entered the twentieth century, a “closed-door” immigration policy took shape, and it became more and more difficult for immigrants to enter the country. At the same time, political events around the world, such as World War I and the Mexican Revolution, changed the pattern of immigration. Transoceanic immigration through Galveston ceased, as “pedestrian immigration” from Mexico increased along the border.

The exhibit not only chronicles the role of Galveston as a major immigrant gateway, but also traces the history of American immigration policy and the changing attitude towards immigrants during this formative period—all of which provides a timely background to the current national controversy over immigration. Forgotten Gateway: Coming to American through Galveston Island, on view at HMNS from October 1, 2010, through February 20, 2011, was organized by the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, under the guidance of UT professor Dr. Suzanne Seriff and a team of historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, designers, novelists, evaluators, educators, and community members. In addition to artifacts and primary documents, the exhibit engages visitors with personal immigration stories, interactive visitor kiosks, and audiovisual materials. Supplemental materials for educators and community organizations are available through the exhibition website.