are all familiar with the fact that on August 30, 1836, John K. Allen
and his brother Augustus C. Allen advertised the new town of Houston to
be established on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou near its junction
with White Oak bayou. Many persons of the time spoke of the Allen
brothers as land speculators, or even worse, but few persons would have
used another term for the pair, namely, visionaries. One excellent
example of their visionary qualities can be found in the story of the
Texas Steam Mill Company.
Some time in the earliest stages of the creation of the town of Houston
in late 1836 or very early 1837, the Allens, or perhaps more likely,
Augustus Allen, convinced the distinguished mathematician and scientist
Elijah Hinsdale Burritt to build a sophisticated industrial enterprise
Elijah Burritt was born in New Britain, Connecticut on April 20, 1794.
He was trained as a blacksmith and then graduated from Williamstown
College in Massachusetts. He published his first book "Logarithmick
Arithmetick" in 1818. The book contained a new and correct table of
logarithms of the natural numbers from 1 to 10,000, extended to 7
Burritt married Ann W. Watson of Milledgeville, Georgia on October 28,
1819, and there he edited a weekly paper for several years. After an
incident in 1829 involving an abolitionist pamphlet which caused him to
flee the state, Burritt returned to New Britain where he was the
principal of a private school. It was during this period that Burritt
published his most significant works.
His "Universal Multipliers" was published in August, 1830. The book was
used for computing simple and compound interest, and it also included
tables of annuities. Burritt sold the copyright to this book in
November, 1830 for $10,000.
An astronomy textbook, 'The Geography of the Heavens', was published in
1833 and the accompanying volume of celestial maps entitled "Atlas,
Designed to Illustrate the Geography of the Heavens" was printed in
1835. The "Atlas of the Heavens" was a set of six hand-colored
engravings of 16"x14" celestial charts of constellations with figures
derived from Greek and Roman mythology. Even today, these engravings
are highly prized. A set sells for about $4500.
Yet, in spite of this apparent success, Burritt, at age 43, decided to
embark on a challenging new adventure. He was "going to Texas." The
letter written to his wife Ann in the early morning of his departure
from New Haven reveals the strong emotions that he felt:
"The commencement of this Texas
Expedition has been full of toil and sacrifice. It has pressed upon my
spirits, not to say upon my frame, with the weight of many mountains.
My energies, mental and feeling sound, have grappled with the great
duties and consignments involved in it, for the last month or two, with
so ever present consequences that I am dealing with the elements of my
own destiny and those of my family. There is nothing of sport or of
pastime in it, to me."
Within one year of the announcement of the establishment
of the town of Houston, Burritt had recruited a colony of skilled
craftsmen and artisans to join him with their families in the new
Republic of Texas. On August 30, 1837, Burritt and his associates left
New Britain, Connecticut for Houston, transporting equipment and
machinery along the interior waterways of the Ohio and Mississippi
Rivers through New Orleans to Galveston on September 29 and, then, to
Houston on October 3.
The Texas Steam Mill Company was incorporated by an act of the
Congress of the Republic of Texas on December 16, 1837 and it was
established to "operate by steam power or otherwise in Texas a saw
mill, a grist mill, a planing mill, a lathe and shingle mill" and any
other manufacturing or mechanical business they wish to pursue.
Burritt himself outlined the terms of the agreement with the Allen
"The owners of the city lots in
Houston and vicinity have donated all the timber upon a 1,000 acres
immediately opposite the city (as here represented) with a fee simple
of 2 acres for our buildings and garden together with the privilege of
cultivating as much other ground in the neighbourhood as we please."
The location of this steam saw mill tract was on the east bank of White
Oak Bayou, immediately north of its junction with Buffalo Bayou. The
site is prominently displayed on the Girard map of Houston of 1839.
Burritt party arrived in Galveston aboard the brig Elbe on September
29, 1837, one month to the day from their departure from New Britain.
A brig is a vessel with two square-rigged masts. Brigs were especially
popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries and they were fast and
maneuverable and were used as both naval war ships and merchant ships.
They fell out of use with the arrival of the steam ship because they
required a relatively large crew for their small size and were
difficult to sail into the wind.
While Burritt waited for a boat to take him to Houston, he and his
friends found the conditions at Galveston to be quite extraordinary:
"There are several thousand persons
hanging about the place, said accommodations only for about 500. The
daily arrival of Emigrants from the States averages from 50 to 100
– all hungry – all worn out with the fatigues of their
journey. There is nothing to be had here to eat, except fresh meat and
bread. One of our fellow passengers had about a ½ a bushel
of potatoes left from his stores, which he sold for $3. — and
another gentleman has just informed me that he paid $10 a bushel
yesterday! Sweet potatoes bring $3 and $4 a bushel. Common bar soap is
$1.00 per pound, milk $1.00 a gallon, eggs $1.00 - $1.50 a dozen. Flour
was 30 cents a barrel the day before our arrival, but so much was
brought in by our vessel that the price fell to 15 cents. I bought a
barrel of sugar yesterday at 15 cents and a barrel of pork for $28.
Rice is 12 ½ cents. Molasses $1.12 cents a gallon. Lamp oil is
$2.50. Spinner Candles $1.00 a pound. Thick Cowhide boots $10.00. Shoes
(men’s) and clothing in proportion. If Mr. Ward could come over
here immediately with the articles I have named, say even but $1000
worth, he could not fail to realize $3,000 clear profits. The
best single article which could be brought is Irish potatoes. They are
just as certain to fetch $2 a bushel here as they are 20 cents there!"
Elijah Burritt and other key personnel took a boat to Houston on
October 3 to look over their site and handle other business. His
observations provide a unique assessment of the town as well as a
glimpse of the frontier nature of the town:
"Houston is 15 miles above Harrisburg
and is just this distance too far up the bay for the seat of
Government, so far as navigation is concerned, the head of which is
properly at Harrisburg. Steam Boats ascend beyond that with difficulty.
The grounds at Houston are however, decidedly, preferable. They rise
about 40 feet above the water and they maintain an unbroken level for
many miles. I think the ground opposite Houston is handsomer than
Houston itself, and would have been chosen for the site of the city had
it been prairie instead of a dense forest."
"Brother William Cornwall Smith (our
engineer) and two hired men went with me to spy out the country.
We staid [sic] in Houston 2 days. Selected a location for our
buildings, and the 2nd night slept under a rude shelter constructed
with our own hands in the wild Forests of Texas, and there ate our
first meal by the light of the fire which cooked it. An Indian brought
along a fine deer for the hind quarter of which I paid him 50 cents."
Burritt returned to Galveston on October 9 to find that the Racer's
Storm had destroyed all but one of the 13 vessels in the harbor at
Galveston. The Racer's Storm was a major hurricane that was first
observed near Jamaica by the British vessel HMS Racer, and
subsequently, the storm has taken its name. Their ship, the Elbe, was
beached high on land and a total
loss. The boat, nevertheless, was pressed into service first as a
hotel, then converted into a multi-cell jail for the county and city of
Galveston which it functioned as for six years.
Fortunately, all members of the colony were safe and "all our property
escaped unimpaired." The women of the party, though abandoned by the
Elbe's Captain's Mate and half the crew during the Racer's Storm,
endured the wreckage of the storm with the falling masts and spars
"cool and collected" and without panic. Elijah Burritt and his party
left Galveston for Houston with their goods on October 12, 1837.
Racer's Storm was the least of the difficulties for the members of the
Texas Steam Mill Company. Six members of the party contracted yellow
fever in Houston and died. Nathan Hosmer Andrews, Burritt's cousin and
a skilled carriage maker, died in Houston of fever on Oct 27, 1837.
Jabez Cornwall, a director of the company and Burritt's brother-in-law,
died on November 9, 1837. Elijah Burritt himself died of yellow fever
on January 4, 1838. Even after Elijah Burritt's death, the Texas Steam
Mill Company took about six months to get started and recorded its land
on June 23, 1838 (see HCDR Vol. A, p. 232, 203, 513). Nevertheless,
after the death of so many members of the company, the project was
abandoned and the survivors returned to Connecticut.
Although the Texas Steam Mill Company venture ended in complete
failure, that does not deny the "vision" of the Allen brothers in this
enterprise. No steam saw mill, or other mills, were ever built on the
tract awarded to the company. In 1902, the city built its first sewage
treatment facility on the site. The full extent of the extraordinary
nature of this business venture can only be found in a review of the
estate of Elijah Burritt.
Elijah H. Burritt died intestate about January 4, 1838 in
Harris County. His sister Mrs. Emily Taylor (nee Emily Burritt) was the
sole heir and blood relation in the county. She inherited his estate of
approximately sixty books and several fine scientific instruments which
were sold at auction to Robert A. Irion, the secretary of state of the
Republic of Texas, on April 15, 1838 for the rather meager sum of $467
for the lot.
The key to Burritt's intentions for the Texas Steam Mill Company lay in
his books. In addition to books on religion, philosophy, mathematics,
astronomical navigation, geography and political science, there was an
inordinate number of technical publications on the construction and
development of railroads. For instance:
Mitchell's Compendium of the Internal Improvements of the United
States: Comprising General Notices of All the Most Important Canals and
, Throughout the
Several States and Territories of the Union, Together with a Brief
Notice of Works of Internal Improvement in Canada and Nova Scotia
By Samuel Augustus Mitchell, Mitchell, Samuel Augustus, 1792-1868
Published by Mitchell & Hinman, 1835
Lectures on the Steam-engine
In which Its Construction and Operation are Familiarly Explained : with
a Sketch of Its Invention and Progressive Improvement : and an Account
of the Present State of the Liverpool Railway, and the Performances on
It, and of Steam Carriages on Turnpike Roads
By Dionysius Lardner
Published by J. Taylor, 1832
Treatise on Rail-roads
Internal Communications: Compiled from the Best and Latest Authorities,
with Original Suggestions and Remarks
By Thomas Earle
Published by J. Grigg, 1830
A Practical Treatise on Rail-roads
and Interior Communication in General: With Original Experiments, and
Tables of the Comparative Value of Canals and Rail-roads ...
By Nicholas Wood
Published by Knight and Lacey, 1825
Report on steam carriages
By Parliament, Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons. Select
Committee on Steam Carriages, Great Britain Parliament. House of
Commons, Benjamin Chew Howard, Great Britain, United States. Congress
(22nd, 1st session : 1831-1832). House, United States. Congress. House.
Committee on Internal Improvements, United States. Congress House,
United States, Congress
Published by Duff Green, Printer, 1832
An historical and practical treatise upon elemental locomotion
, by means of steam carriages
on common roads:
showing ... the rise, progress, and description of steam carriages; the
roads upon which they may be made to travel ...
By Alexander Gordon
Published by Printed for B. Steuart, and W. Blackwood, Edinburgh, 1832
A treatise on practical surveying
which is demonstrated from its first principles. Wherein every thing
that is useful and curious in that art, is fully considered and
By Robert Gibson, John D. Craig, Jun Fielding Lucas, Joseph Cushing, J.
Robinson, John W. Suggett, Mathematical tables: difference of latitude
and departure ...
Published by Published by F. Lucas, Jun. and Joseph Cushing. J.
Robinson, printer., 1818
A system of geometry and trigonometry: together with a treatise on surveying
: teaching various ways of
taking the survey of a field : also to protract the same and find the
area : likewise, rectangular surveying, or, an accurate method of
calculating the area of any field arithmetically without ...
By Abel Flint
Published by Cooke & Hale, 1818
From these titles in Burritt's collection, it seems
reasonable to conclude that Burritt intended to do more than simply
build a steam saw mill. The articles of incorporation mention the
company's plan operate a saw mill, a grist mill, a planing mill, a
lathe and shingle mill, but, also, any other manufacturing or
mechanical business they wish to pursue. Augustus Allen was a man of
grand ideas. Allen knew the potential that a railroad could bring to
his commercial center and he placed the manufacturing center in a
prominent location in town.
Although the Burritt venture failed, Augustus Allen continued to pursue
his vision for a railroad. Allen was a director of the Houston and
Brazos Rail Road which was chartered on January 26, 1839. However,
lacking the technical expertise of Burritt and his craftsmen, the
Houston and Brazos Rail Road was unable to construct a viable rail
system. It's charter was revoked. It was not until 1853 that Houston's
first railroad, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado Railroad,
began operations. By 1912, Houston was a major regional rail center
that boasted of a network of seventeen railroads -- the embodiment of
The transcriptions of the letters
that Elijah H. Burritt wrote to his wife are found at: