Buffalo Bayou
An Echo of Houston's Wilderness Beginnings
   Louis F. Aulbach   
Wastewater Treatment, and more.

Willow St Pump StationThe front page of the Houston Chronicle on December 19, 2007 blared: "Bayous are flush with fecal bacteria."

Although the city has made significant progress in wastewater treatment since the 1980's, Buffalo Bayou still does not meet state standards for contact recreation activities such as swimming or wading because, at times, the levels of bacteria from human and animal waste are elevated beyond what is acceptable.

Houston has had to deal with the pollution of Buffalo Bayou many times in its history. In 1895, in response to a demand from the US Army Corps of Engineers to clean up the scum-covered Houston Ship Channel, the City Council approved a $300,000 bond issue to construct the city's first wastewater treatment plant, the Willow Street Pump Station.

The Willow Street Pump Station, completed in 1902, is located on White Oak Bayou, a short distance above the confluence with Buffalo Bayou. The Romanesque Revival style building can be seen on the east bank, opposite the University of Houston-Downtown campus at One Main Street. The name of the facility derives from its address on Willow Street which was renamed North San Jacinto Street some time after 1907 (probably after the construction of the San Jacinto Street bridge in 1914).

Mule drawn street carBy 1907, the City Street Cleaning Department was added to the site, and in 1915, the crematory facility was constructed adjacent to the sewage pumping station. During the early twentieth century, wagons pulled by horse and mules hauled merchandise in the city. The trolley system also used mules to pull the cars. If, and when, these animals died on the job, the city street cleaning crews handled the removal of the carcasses and their disposal at the Willow Street facility.

The Willow Street Pump Station was built on the south half of the tract initially set aside in 1837 by A. C. Allen for a steam saw mill. The president and several others members of the Texas Steam Mill Company fell victim to shipwreck in the Racer's Storm of October and to yellow fever in late 1837 on their journey to Houston. The company collapsed and the steam saw mill envisioned by Allen never materialized. The site lay vacant until the 1880's when the Houston Press Company Compress was constructed on the site. Ziegler's Warehouse and Gin occupied the site in 1890, but the structure was dilapidated and falling down by 1896.

The Willow Street Pump Station was an essential component of the city's sewage disposal system as the North Side Sewage Treatment Plant, located on Buffalo Bayou east of town at Japhet Street, was constructed in 1928. Subsequent wastewater treatment facilities have been built on the bayou at 69th Street and at Lockwood Avenue in order to keep up with the growth in the population of Houston throughout the twentieth century.

The Willow Street facility eventually was decommissioned, fell into disuse and lay in ruins until 2003 when the University of Houston leased the property from the City of Houston and renovated the buildings into a community conference and exhibition center. The beautifully restored facility is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Copyright by Louis F. Aulbach, 2007

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