Category Archives: Houston History

“The Blue Tile Project” takes root in Houston

By Christopher Daigle

After driving on Houston streets that were named over 100 years ago, it’s pretty easy to take roads for granted. They are getting noticed, however, by people who spend less time looking up to see our history, and have been looking down to see the history of our paths.

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Joey Sanchez (Photo: Chris Daigle)

“You get a sense of how this city came together,” says Joey Sanchez, looking out the window of Catalina Coffee on busy Washington Avenue, especially on a Labor Day holiday. He’s not referring to the brick buildings that line the road; Sanchez’s focus is on the street curbs.

Sanchez started The Blue Tile Project about nine months ago on a bike ride with his wife from downtown to Hermann Park which took them through Midtown, and caught on to the blue tiles. Sanchez is now on a mission to document all the remaining blue curb tiles left in the city, which is an undertaking that’s making people wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

The beautiful blue and white tile letters told drivers which block they were on, as well as the street name. “Everybody’s best estimate is that curb tiles came with the first curbs – about 1920,” Sanchez said. “Before the 1920’s, roads were paved with shell, so knowing what street you were on was important.”

“They are such a reminder of a simpler time,” said Sanchez. “A lot of people think that these names were just put there in one piece, but if you look carefully, you’ll see that these were made by hand, piece by piece, by a tile mason, right when the curb was made. That must have taken a whole day!”

What drives The Blue Tile Project is the realization that this, “original street art” as Sanchez calls it, is disappearing at a rapid rate. “The city decided to put ramps on the curbs in the late 1980’s, right where the blue tiles are, and instead or relocating them a foot away, or saving them, they were just destroyed,” he said.

This awareness has highlighted some very unique tile “personalities” across town. At the corner of Andrews and Crosby, in Freedmen’s Town, the curb tile name for Crosby was installed upside down. Considering the time it took to lay a tile pattern in a new curb at the time, it’s pretty certain this was no mistake. The reason, however, may never be known.

In River Oaks, a street is named “Locke Lane,” according to the modern street sign and the concrete pillar at the corner, but the tile curb suggests “Lock Lane” as the proper spelling. Without spending days at the City Planning Department, we may never know.

Spelled correctly or not, the tile signs are being mapped and tagged for any Houstonian to see and share using the hashtags #WordOnTheStreet, #StreetArt and #Houston. So far The Blue Tile Project has cataloged 1,280 blue tile street names throughout Houston.

According to Sanchez, “[The blue tiles] seem to be primarily inside Loop 610, though some are found in Spring Branch and Bellaire. By the early 1960’s, this lettering just wasn’t done anymore.”

The Blue Tile Project is an idea whose time has come. “The way this city is changing so fast and tearing down its history, people are now coming around to those things that are still here to remind them of a simpler time.” Sanchez said. “They don’t have to go away. Rather, let’s emphasize them and help make them a part of our city’s character.”

Sanchez says the six goals of The Blue Tile Project are to document, preserve, restore, recreate, reimagine, and celebrate this original piece of history, and they are already becoming a reality: During the recent renovations to the Alley theatre, craftsmen created a “Nina Vance Alley” tile pattern right at the entrance.

“It is the kind of thing that stores and businesses in the 1920’s and 1930’s did, and a new version lives on today,” he said.

“Wanna see something interesting?” Sanchez asked. “The parking lot of Spring Street Studios is a Blue Tile graveyard.” Sure enough, the artists at the old warehouse turned art studio collected over 50 curb sections from all over Houston, rescued from construction sites before they could be destroyed. Now they are parking stops standing guard against the ravages of time. 1500 Studewood, 500 Houston Avenue and 1100 Omar represent a museum of tile craftsmanship. “This started before The Blue Tile Project began,” Sanchez explained.

Mark Hinton is another student of Houston’s streets. Hinton is a Houston native, retired from the banking and finance business. When he retired, he says he wondered about the names of these streets around him. Various attempts at research at the Houston Library yielded very little information. “I started talking to little old ladies, and neighborhood people who lived there for 50, 70 years, and got story after story,” Hinton said. “The more I researched, I also noticed that no one had done a book like this yet, so with the help of my wife Barbara, we got a book published, called “Historic Houston Streets; The Stories Behind The Names.”

Now in it’s second printing, Hinton’s book has expanded to 384 pages, about one and a half times as long as the first edition.

“The stories just kept coming,” Hinton said. “Some names came in unusual ways. Wister Lane, for instance, in Timbergrove Manor, was meant to be Wisteria Lane because the plant grew there. The first wooden sign with the name Wisteria blew over in a storm, breaking off the ‘IA’, so the street planners called it ‘Wister.'”

Hinton explained that many street names originally came as honor for heroes of Texas battles, such as Travis, Jefferson, Dowling, Lamar, Clay and Austin, and neighborhood streets generally bore the names of the developer’s family, or the trees in the area. Nina Lee Lane in Oak Forest is named for Nina Lee Hill, wife of Harold P. Hill, office manager of the Oak Forest Addition. Frank Sharp, the developer, suggested the name for the street. Chantill Lane is named for Nina Lee’s silver pattern. Nina Lee Hill celebrated her 95th birthday on August 24th of this year.

So, what’s all this interest in blue tile leading to? “We’re hoping the city can be persuaded to save these sections of curb when they tear up the streets. People can create these designs in their front walk or their house numbers. It would allow neighborhoods to to keep their individuality while sharing a common thread,” Sanchez said.

So get involved! snap a picture and use the hashtags #WordOnTheStreet, #StreetArt and #Houston. Visit the website and Facebook to see the latest tagged tiles.

The streets of Houston have as much personality as the residents that drive on them. “Look around you,” said Joey Sanchez, “There’s a history lesson on every block.”

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Chris Daigle is a Houston historian and regular contributor to The Grapevine Source. To email him, click HERE.

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Houston historian selected for Austin exhibit

Legendary photographer and Houston historian Chris Daigle has been chosen by the Bob Bullock Texas State Museum in Austin to exhibit several artifacts from the Astrodome as part of its, “The Story Of Texas” exhibit, to be on view until March, 2019,

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Daigle (L) and Wancho

Seen here with  Exhibits Director Tom Wancho, Daigle examines a 1980’s Astros Pennant to commemorate the outstanding season of 1986 for the team. Among other artifacts on display will be the Sports Illustrated magazine featuring the 1968 UH vs. UCLA basketball game, called, “The game of the century,” and the 1978 recording of “Houston Oilers Number One,” the theme song of the “Luv Ya Blue” days of the Houston Oilers football team.

This exhibit will be in the company of such Texas artifacts as a 700 year old sailing ship, swords and cannons from the Alamo, and saddles used by Texas Revolution pioneers.

For more information, visit https://www.thestoryoftexas.com/.

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Chris Daigle is a contributing Editor to The Grapevine Source. To contact him, email blue69@att.net.

One of Houston’s historic rail cars waits for permanent home

By Chris Daigle

Before Houston had freeways or overpasses or traffic jams, it had railroads. It had so many railroads in fact, that Houston was for many years known as, “The city where 17 railroads meet the sea.” One reminder of that phrase remains today. Southern Pacific 982, a locomotive donated to the City of Houston, was a fixture in Hermann Park for almost 50 years, reminding us of our past, until progress changed its future.

In 1957, changes were being made to America’s trains. Newer, more efficient diesel locomotives were replacing the steam driven, smoke producing, heavier machines that required their own tender to carry coal and water just to run them. These locomotives were essentially a rolling boiler with wheels, a style that had been in use since railroading began in the mid 1800’s.

Southern Pacific 982 was such a machine. It was built in Philadelphia at the Baldwin Train Works, and by 1920, she was running with Southern Pacific to carry freight on the Texas And New Orleans Railroad, making regular stops between Lufkin, East Texas and throughout Louisiana.

The locomotives of the early 20th century were built to survive 40 years of daily use. World War II brought about the greatest use of railroads in America, having to carry war materials and personnel across America, pulling 100 cars at 50 miles per hour. Because there were fewer automobiles in use at that time, nearly anything that was sent anywhere went by rail.

Locomotives that had long been resigned to “dead tracks,” where they could be stripped of their parts, were instead rebuilt and sent back into service. New locomotives could not be purchased because of the war effort. Southern Pacific 982 was fitted with steam lines to heat passenger cars. Because of these different circumstances, trains were now rolling coast to coast instead of on just local routes, as they were designed for originally.

Locomotive 982 saw continuous service until December 28, 1956. Its last movement was documented in a memo: “H.M. Goodson, chief clerk to P.B. Rice phoned at 11:00 AM January 7, 1957, advising engine 982 departed Lafayette, Louisiana at 8 A.M. Handling train 2/243 should reach Houston some time this afternoon.”

Newspaper accounts from the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post indicate that in the following months, several locomotives, including 982, were on their way to being scrapped. The steam locomotives were being replaced by the greatly more efficient diesel power plants. No more billowing smoke; no more coal, oil or water to carry with them. The Houston Chronicle reported that Mr. Ed Teague, the caretaker of the locomotive for many years, said that he saw the 982 in a scrap line and convinced the man in charge to place “Old 982” at the end of the line. Its career had ended after traveling over 3.5 million miles! Peter Whitney, a train buff, appealed to the City of Houston to save one of the old engines as a icon of Houston history, but was met with a “no funds” response.

The idea of saving SP 982 was presented to the Houston Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees. This sounded like their kind of project, since they had undertaken things like this before. An estimate of the cost of moving the locomotive was prepared in January, 1957, in the amount of $2,540. Negotiations with Southern Pacific were positive, but talks with the City of Houston proved more difficult. Mayor Oscar Holcombe was against placing the locomotive in any park because it posed a liability problem. The councilmen were generally in favor of the idea, but they couldn’t decide where to put it. Memorial Park and Hermann Park were debated as sites by City Council, and in the press. Eventually, Hermann Park was chosen since it would provide a more secure location. The necessary motions were passed by City Council while Mayor Holcombe was out of town.

Hermann Park locomotive 1957#7In May 1957, it was decided to move the engine and tender into Hermann Park down Fannin Street from the crossing at Blodgett, where the Southwest Freeway (Highway 59) crosses today. Called, “Operation Choo Choo,” sections of track were laid down and the engine was pushed along until the next section of track was in place. The Houston Chronicle reported that it was a hot week in May to move a heavy engine, and the tracks kept sinking into the hot asphalt. It took the efforts of two tractors to keep the engine from falling over. This went on for a week until Southern Pacific 982 finally arrived at Hermann Park.

Hermann Park locomotive 1957#6On June 2, 1957, the old locomotive was dedicated to the City of Houston. The engine was presented by B.S. Sines, Vice President of Southern Pacific Lines, and was accepted by Mayor Pro Tem Louie Welch. The Houston Chronicle reported that seven former engineers came to see her in her new home.

J.R. Glass said, “She used to go 100 miles on a tank of water. I’d get up at 2 A.M. go to the roundhouse, fire her up, and head for New Orleans.” The oldest retired engineer present was W.K. Larkin, 82, who thought Old 982 was once the most modern power plant on the railroad.

Fast forward to the summer of 2005. It was time for Hermann Park to go through some changes. The Hermann Park Conservancy, with the City of Houston, would transform the area near the lake into the Hermann Park Cultural Plaza, with a café, a covered plaza, and public art pieces. The miniature train that had carried kids around Hermann Park since the mid 1950’s would also be upgraded. That meant that SP 982 would have to move. The Houston Jaycees once again stepped up and hired Barnhart Crane and Rigging, a company with 36 years experience moving heavy equipment.

trainliftIn August, 2005, the engine was attached to a giant hydraulic gantry assembled over it to lift a combined weight of 199 tons between the engine and the tender. Slowly, SP 982 was lifted up six feet, and a long 120 wheel trailer rolled in under it. Two days later, the tender and the engine rolled out of Hermann Park on separate trailers.

It’s tricky maneuvering nearly 200 tons of train through Houston streets.

“There’s a lot of different ways we will use tonight to get downtown,” said Richard Davenport of Barnhart. “If it’s a four mile trip the straightest way, we may go 14 or more miles to get it there.”

After crossing a route through the night on 20 different streets in east Houston, on a clear Saturday morning the engine and tender arrive at their new home on Avenida De Las Americas at Capitol, right between Minute Maid Park and the George R. Brown Convention Center.

“Operation Choo Choo II” had arrived. Again, Barnhart had assembled its 800-ton hydraulic gantry over new tracks, and train buffs from the Texas Railroad Preservation Association helped guide the engine and tender down into their new home.

Operation Choo Choo II was a true community effort. Over 100 financial donors and individuals combined to make the preservation a success. The History Channel taped the move of SP 982 for their “Mega Movers” series. Now baseball fans had something new (Minute Maid Park), and something old! Southern Pacific 982 had made a complete circle in 48 years, from Union Station in the 1920’s to Hermann Park, and back near Minute Maid Park, which is where Union Station used to sit.

CoveredNow the once proud Southern Pacific 982 sits all alone, wrapped in white plastic to preserve her new coat of paint, missing her coal tender, which was sold off to the Heber Valley railroad in Utah. Here she waits, along with two turn-of-the-century houses that were original to that area’s “Quality Hill” neighborhood.

In 2015, plans halted for old 982 and the plaza she occupies.

“We’re working with the Houston Jaycees to deed it back to them, and negotiate a permanent home for the locomotive,” said Carolyn Campbell, communications director with Houston First Corporation, which manages the entertainment and convention venues downtown. “One of the old houses has been adopted by Annunciation Church next door. As to the old Cohn house, some options for that and the locomotive are still being worked out.”

Along with the Astrodome, the history of Houston’s historic icons is waiting for progress. It’s sort of a slow replay of “Back To the Future” for Houstonians.

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Chris Daigle is a contributing editor to The Grapevine Source. He is a Houston historian, specializing in Astrodome history. To contact Chris, email blue69@att.net.