The Early Days
La Porte, Texas, the oldest incorporated town in east Harris County, was incorporated on August 10, 1892. It had its beginning as a real estate venture by a group of developers and colonizers from Denver, Colorado. Although the group advertised the areas as being suited for agriculture, it was soon obvious that the temperature was too cold during the winters for citrus orchards and that the black gumbo soil was unsuited for truck farming. The town soon gained recognition as the home of Sylvan Beach Park and remained primarily a resort town until World War II and a series of hurricanes brought about the demise of Sylvan Beach as a resort. World War II and the coming of NASA and the Bayport Channel eventually changed La Porte into a bedroom community for industry. La Porte is built primarily on the Johnson Hunter grant of 1824 and the Enoch Brinson of the same year. Small parts were developed on the David Harris and Pearsall grants. I.R. Holmes was a town builder who saw the opportunity for a town at the mouth of Buffalo Bayou. On a visit to Houston in early July 1890, he had occasion to visit Morgan’s Point with Captain Frederick Leon Allien who was trying to develop the town of Bayview there. Holmes returned to Denver where he interested the York brothers in the idea of a new town at the Morgan’s Point location.
The two brothers, A.M. and J.H. York formed a colonization and real estate company called the Interior Land and Immigration Company which was headquartered in Denver. Along with Tom Lee, an experienced railroad man, the Yorks and I.R. Homes formed the La Porte Land and Town Company. They purchased several hundred acres from Allien. After examining the location more closely the investors decided to retain the area at Morgan’s Point for wharfs and warehouses and move the town further inland. They purchased over 1,000 acres from Dr. John Beazley in what is now La Porte. A 3rd York brother, Edward, was instrumental in forming the La Porte Investment Company which purchased a parcel of land which included the old home of General Sidney Sherman at Sloop Point. Other investors came to the area. Ex governor Thayer of Nebraska joined with the group and formed the Nebraska Syndicate to purchase more land. John Caplan from Galveston formed a company and bought acreage. The La Porte Land and Town Company began laying out the town in the fall of 1891.
The strategy of the developers called for them to advertise the wonders of the Gulf Coast Country. Advertising was heavy in New York State and in the Midwest. A group set up and advertised at the Chicago World’s Fair. Excursion trains were organized by Tom Lee and prospects were brought to the area in special trains. On January 13, 1892, construction was begun on the huge Artesian Hotel on Main Street to house these prospects. A sale of lots was held on January 1, 1892. Among the first to purchase was Mr. E.P. Sereau of Red Bluff. Mr. Sereau built a general mercantile building on the corner of Main and Third. The first Post Office was opened in this building on April 12, 1892 with Mr. Sereau as Postmaster. On October 7, 1892, the La Porte, Houston and Northern Railroad was chartered. By 1895, the railroad had laid track on 13 miles of the 22 miles from Houston to La Porte. This enabled the prospects to travel by train to Strang and on to La Porte by hack. Rechartered in January of 1895 as the Galveston, La Porte and Houston Railway, it was sold under foreclosure to the Galveston, Houston and Northern Railway Company on April 27, 1899. Shortly after, the line was completed to Sylvan Beach. The developers had borrowed the money to purchase the acreage needed for the new town. The national bank panic of 1893 disrupted their plans and by 1895, they were in financial trouble. Many of the original settlers left at this time. In April of 1896, the assets of the La Porte Land and Town Company were taken over by the Galveston firm of Adoue and Lobit.
La Porte Improvement Company
In July of 1898, a group of New York investors formed the La Porte Improvement Company and purchased the land. They started to develop an area just east of the existing town. The area was known as East La Porte and the older part of town was called West La Porte. Contemporary maps show them by those names. Local residents also called them Old Town and New Town. Lobit Street became the main business street of East La Porte. A number of buildings, including the Palace Livery Stable and the Artesian Hotel, were moved to Lobit Street about 1899. The post office was also moved there. There was a great deal of resentment from the residents of West La Porte (Old Town) about the move. Shortly after the La Porte Chronicle was moved to East La Porte in 1899, the La Porte Herald was established to serve the citizens of West La Porte. The city election of 1901 was contested. An anti-administration government was formed and an alternate mayor and council were elected. The problem was taken to court and the alternate officials were removed. The post office was ordered to be moved to a point halfway between old town and new town.
Sylvan Beach Park
The focal point for the economy of the town was the picnic and swimming area known as the Grove and later as Sylvan Beach Park. In 1893, the land was given over the city as a city park. The park was included in the property foreclosed on in 1895. In 1898, the park was taken over by the La Porte Improvement Company and the name was changed Sylvan Beach. In the summer of 1900, the Moonlight Excursion that made the park famous began running. The train left the old Central Depot in Houston at 7 p.m. and arrived back downtown in Houston at midnight. After 1900, a number of other changes took place in the town’s economy. After the 1900 storm, Bishop Gallagher, of Galveston, purchased the Sylvan Beach Hotel and established St. Mary’s Seminary. It graduated its last class in La Porte in 1954. Since that time, it has been located in Houston.
The York brothers had been nurserymen in Kansas and had encouraged the land purchasers to plant orchards on their land. They planted oranges, satsumas, pears, and other fruit trees. The winter of 1899, which was the coldest in recorded Texas history, destroyed many of the trees and although many farms were replanted another freeze a few years later ended most efforts on citrus trees. The only thing that seemed to be able to grow well in the area were fig trees. There were several prosperous orchards near the town and at least two fig packing plants were built. The fig plants packaged the figs into small jars of fig preserves which were sold to the railroads for use on dining cars.
On June 6, 1915, the most destructive fire in the history of the city occurred. The fire started in a garage and filling station in the Besson building on Main Street. Fanned by a strong wind the fire quickly spread over a three block area on both sides of Main. Hampered by the lack of fire fighting equipment, the citizens could only stand by and watch it burn. Although a call was put in to Houston asking for help, heavy rains made the response so slow that the town was in ashes when they arrived. Six weeks later, as the town was rebuilding, the terrible storm of July 1915 hit. Many of the buildings were just being replaced and were damaged again. The hurricane also destroyed the fig trees. The skylights were blown in and the fig vats were covered with broken glass. The only crop that farmers could count on was hay. Fortunately, the coastal hay was of the best quality and was raised commercially west of town until the 1950s. The Goose Creek oil boom of 1916 brought a number of new residents to La Porte, adding to the prosperity of the town.
The Great War
World War I put the town on hold for a time. The young men were in the service and attendance dropped at Sylvan Beach. After the war, Sylvan Beach began to prosper again. In 1918, work was begun on an oil refinery at Morgan’s Point. It was operated until 1925 when it went into receivership and was sold.
The depression that started in the late 1920s hit La Porte as it did the rest of the state and nation. The town managed to survive only because of visitors to Sylvan Beach and to the summer cottages.
The shipyards and chemical industry of World War II brought La Porte out of the depression. After World War II, industry continued to flourish. In 1945, Du Pont built a plant in La Porte. NASA, the Bayport Channel, and the opening of the Barbour’s Cut terminal in recent years have supported the growth of La Porte. In 1980, the town of Lomax consolidated with La Porte and in 1987 Bayshore Municipal Utility district was annexed. In the 1990 census, 2 years before its centennial year of 1992, La Porte had a population of over 27,000.