We all know that Willow Street Pump Station used to be, well, a pumping station. Some of us even know that it also was the city’s main trash incinerator. What probably very few people realize is that it was also the site of the first mill in the city of Houston, and at the epicenter of the history of the city’s growth throughout the years.
In the late 1980s, when the Harris County Jail was set to expand its facility into the Houston Terminal Warehouse and Cold Storage, there was an archaeological and land use survey done of the surrounding area. Since this land happens to be right across from Allen’s Landing, the most historic site in all of Houston, it should have been no surprise that there was a lot of historical use to cover in this nearly 50 page report. A copy was sent to the University of Houston-Downtown, probably as a courtesy, since we were already interested in the pumping station and it was generally included in the report. The details are quite fascinating, and negate the idea that the area north of the bayou was not important or historic.
In the report, they cannot resist the account of the first time someone mentions visiting Houston (June 1836):
“There was so much excitement about the city of Houston that some of the young men in our neighborhood, my brother among them, visited it. They said that it was hard work to find the city in the pine woods; and that when the did it consisted of one dugout canoe, a bottle gourd of whiskey and a surveyor’s chain…they said the mosquitoes were as large as grasshoppers…the bayou water was clear and cool, and they thought they would have a bath, but in a few minutes the water was alive with alligators. One man ran out on the north side and the others got a canoe and rescued him. He said a large panther had been near by, but that it ran off as the canoe approached.”
There was also the first documented use of the land where the pump station now resides:
Listed as “M. Bakers Mill Tract,” it would later come to be called Allen’s Steam Saw Mill, and is the reason that the street it still called “Steam Mill Street” today. Although the area looks like it is inhabited, in 1854 it was really just surveyed–there were very few buildings on the north side of the bayou at this time. Incidentally, is also known that at the foot our own M&M building, originally the area was used to repair boats and ships away from the main port at Allen’s Landing.
By the latter part of the 19th century, that mill was gone, but the pump station was put in place in 1902, as part of many water control projects through the years. In 2001, there was discussion of whether to tear the building down or renovate it, and a comprehensive investigation of the building’s challenges was undertaken by a group of outside engineers and architects.
The buildings were in serious disrepair:
From the introduction to the 2001 study, we learn that the pump station was actually in use until the 1980s, and the adjacent incinerator building, while not original to the 1902 site of the pumping station, was built in 1917 and expanded in 1925. The red bricks used in the construction are also considered quite historic, coming from a brickyard near Nacogdoches.
In the end, since the buildings were becoming an eyesore but presented a unique opportunity for adaptive reuse, the University went forward with its renovations and subsequently beautified an integral part of this area, which, though part of the history of Houston from the earliest days, was too long ignored.