America is a land of immigrants, and one immigrant in particular helped create one of the nation’s greatest cities, Houston, thanks to Thomas House. In his life, he went from pastry chef to natural gas pioneer and sugar baron. With House, a penniless immigrant rose to become one of the wealthiest men in Texas and laid the foundation for Houston’s extraordinary growth.
Thomas William House was born in a small town in Southwest England in March 1814. Looking for a better life, as a young man, he saved up his money and sailed to New York City in 1835. Immediately departing the boat, he set out in a sprawling new city in an unknown country to make his way.
He soon found work as a baker, making all sorts of pastries that quickly earned him a reputation. This reputation, coupled with a chance meeting of one of the owners of the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans led him to move to the South in 1836. New Orleans was jumping with rumors and organizing as the Texas Revolution played out just to the West. Volunteers went to Texas to join the fight while businessmen and diplomats discussed how to keep the movement alive. Though a baker at the hotel, House heard all of this and decided to join the excitement, moving to Texas within a few months.
House settled in the newly founded Houston. He set up a successful bakery; and as his business expanded, he built partnerships with other business owners, investors, and political figures in the city. Before long, he expanded from baking to selling all sorts of dry goods – hardware, seed, tools, cloth, and more.
House and other Houston leaders realized that as Houston grew, it needed a steady and reliable system of steamships to transport goods to and from the port at Galveston. In 1851, he teamed with a number of investors to found the Houston and Galveston Navigation Company. He invested in other shipping new companies as trade expanded.
Two years later, he bought a huge local dry goods firm. House quickly expanded the wholesale business, moving into cotton trading as well. Eventually, he co-founded the Board of Trade and Cotton Exchange, which accelerated the city’s move to becoming a major center of trade. House nearly always had some new idea or business plan he was trying. He invested heavily in the growing Texas railroad business by the 1850s, moving to the Board of Directors of the Houston and Texas Central Railway. At one point, he also made and sold the first ice cream in Houston.
In 1862, he had earned such respect among residents that he was elected mayor. However, this was during the Civil War, the Union blockade of Galveston critically damaged Houston’s economy. His term of mayor was frustrated by the shortages and economic conditions. His business partners steadily deserted him. He chose not to run for a second term and attempted to shore up his business empire while observing Union blockade movements for the Confederate army from his second home in Galveston.
By 1866, the oil and gas industry was far from a reality. However, enterprising scientists and inventors noted that using natural gas for lighting was practical for homes, buildings, and public streets. By the end of the 1790s, some streets in the mining communities of England were using natural gas lighting at night. By 1813, entire neighborhoods in London were using gas light. The entire city of Paris was using natural gas lighting by 1820. Slowly, hotels and private residences subscribed to what was Houston’s first utility. Eventually, the city streets also were lit by gas. Houston was still a city of less than 9,000 residents in 1866, still overshadowed by neighboring Galveston, but men like House had great plans for the city.
House also helped develop the city’s first horse-drawn rail car system. This system, sometimes called horsecars (even though mules were often used), were an early form of mass transit for many communities. They had already been in operation in New York for several years by the time House immigrated to the United States, and the trams were steadily expanding across the nation.
Though he had amassed the third-largest fortune in Texas, he moved into still more enterprises. Banks became legal in Texas after the Civil War, and House was once again at the forefront of opportunity and established one of the first banks in the city. In 1872, he bought a 70,000 acre sugar plantation near Arcola, just north of Houston.
It was a life of remarkable success, one visited upon most of his children as well. His youngest son, Edward, went on to become a trusted advisor to President Woodrow Wilson and a respected diplomat years later. House died in San Antonio in 1880.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org