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    Texas | Columns | "Wandering"

    Island Hogs a Lot of History

    by Wanda Orton
    Wanda Orton
    “If walls could talk” we wonder about old houses, pondering what stories and secrets they could yield from yesteryears.

    When it comes to little ol' Hog Island in the Houston Ship Channel, we might contemplate, “If waves could talk ... or if sand could say ...”

    The sand and surf of Hog Island, through two centuries, beheld myriad scenes in state and local history, running the gamut from pigs to petroleum.

    To end an argument once and for all, the island really was named for hogs so spell it, please, with one G. Even mapmakers and historians have been known to double-G it, under the spell perhaps of a former Texas governor. Jim Hogg, however, had no connection with Hog Island, save for the sound of his name. Not to say the rotund guv didn’t pig out on occasion, as evident from his photos, but that’s irrelevant.
    Jim Hogg

    Jim Hogg
    Photo wikipedia

    Dr. Ashbel Smith, who lived on the south rim of present-day Baytown on Evergreen Road, acquired the island in the mid-1800s, turning it into hog haven. Maybe there wasn’t enough room for Smitty’s piggies to roam around on the Evergreen plantation, or maybe – just sayin' – the swine didn’t smell fine. To the island!

    Today, little is left of Hog island but you can still see it from the Fred Hartman Bridge on the Houston Ship Channel. Look eastward on the channel for a lonely speck of land. Erosion and subsidence have claimed the island that once provided a vital link between Baytown and Morgan’s Point. The Morgan’s Point Ferry landing on the island preceded the Baytown-La Porte Tunnel which preceded the Fred Hartman Bridge.

    View of Fred Hartman Bridge from Hog Island
    Photo by Terry Marshall ourbaytown.com.

    But the island was more than a ferry connection, serving as a recreation spot as well. We had picnics on the beach and went swimming off shore, in spite of the huge tankers churning by.

    "Watch out for the ships," our beach party chaperones would warn us kids. "Undercurrents ... They'll pull you down under." Watch out for high tide, too. A young couple parked one night on the beach forgot about high tide and before they knew it, water was rushing through the open windows of their car. (So much for romance on the high seas.)

    Before World War II, community leaders in Baytown envisioned Hog Island as the second Sylvan Beach. Plans for its development, though, were dropped during the war and never picked up again, postwar.

    By the late Forties attention was focused on another travel connection between Baytown and La Porte and getting off the island. By the time the Baytown-La Porte Tunnel opened upstream in 1953, the concept of turning Hog Island into a tourist attraction was all but forgotten.

    Giving Hog Island its due, it has an multi-faceted history. Before the hogs were turned loose, a steamboat landing operated on the island, and a whole lot of Houston-to-Galveston shipping activity went on.

    In the early 1900s Hog Island played a pivotal role in the oil boom and housed a boarding house for Goose Creek oil field workers.

    John Gaillard, who bought the island from the heirs of Ashbel Smith, had been leasing it for grazing his livestock. In Tabbs Bay, which separated his home from the island, Gaillard had noticed bubbles but thought they were stirred up by buffalo fish. Royal Matthews, a friend from La Porte, rowed over one day, noticed the bubbles and lit a match. Natural gas, not buffalo fish, will ignite when you do that. Natural gas bubbling up in a bay also will give a hint about the possibility of oil down below.

    There was.

    The first offshore drilling in Texas occurred in Gaillard’s favorite fishing hole while the Goose Creek oil field sprang up in his front yard and all around.

    The first barge load of Goose Creek oil sailed from the landing on Hog Island. Ross Sterling’s pipeline company routed crude from the Goose Creek field to the ship channel via Hog Island, installing two lines of pipe across Tabbs Bay. The oil emptied into cypress storage tanks on the island, and tankers received the oil through a line extending from the tanks.

    And that’s when the industrial revolution began in Baytown.

    Little ol' Hog Island wasn't for hogs any more.


    © Wanda Orton

    Baytown Sun Columnist
    "Wandering" July 1, 2012 columns

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