How Houston's Neighborhoods Got Their Names

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Houston is a city that prides itself on having no official zoning, and Houston neighborhoods have a decidedly freewheelin' feel. Management districts butt up against municipalities and unincorporated areas, which overlap with wards, which are part of super-neighborhoods, which are often referenced by other names.

Looking at the origins of those names gives a glimpse at the movers and shakers (and Quakers) of Houston's past. It's a past populated with farmers, industrialists, ministers, soldiers and philanthropists, not to mention a postmistress, a murderer, and a saloon-owning Prohibitionist.

This list is extensive but incomplete. The origins of some neighborhood names are long forgotten, and with others it's probably safe to assume a developer just mashed a few bucolic words together for marketing purposes. (Here's looking at you, Glenbrook Valley and Woodland Trails.)

I've included some communities outside of Houston proper, because a sprawl city doesn't have borders so much as subtle transitions into ruralness. And we all know everyone in Katy claims Houston anyway.

Marks Hinton's Historic Houston Streets: The Stories Behind the Names was a big help, as was The Handbook of Texas, and I'd definitely recommend both for further reading.

ACRES HOMES

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Originally marketed as country life with city access, Acres Homes was often divided by the acre instead of the plot, giving homeowners enough room for a garden and maybe even a few chickens.

ALDINE

Aldine was a stop on International-Great Northern Railroad in the 1890s. It was named after a family who owned a nearby farm, although not much information about that family is known.

ALIEF

In 1894 this community was surveyed and named Dairy, Texas. But there already was another town in Texas named Dairy, so the postal service started calling the town Alief in honor of its first postmistress, Alief Ozella Magee.

ALVIN

In 1872, the Santa Fe Railroad hired Alvin Morgan to supervise its cattle operations in the area, and he built the community's first house. The town originally was called Morgan, but Texas already had a Morgan, so Alvin was the next best thing.

ATASCOCITA

This area is named for what is probably the oldest road in the Houston area, a military highway laid out in the 1700s.  Even though the name is old, construction didn’t begin in the area until the 1970s.

BAYTOWN

Baytown is home to Burnet Bay, Crystal Bay, Scott Bay, Mitchell Bay, Black Duck Bay, San Jacinto Bay, Tabbs Bay, and Galveston Bay. That's a lot of bays.

BELLAIRE

Wikipedia Commons // Public Domain

Burlington Railroad executive William Wright Baldwin founded Bellaire after purchasing the Rice Ranch in 1908. Promotional materials in 1909 claimed Baldwin named the community for its fresh breezes, although it might've just been named for Bellaire, Ohio, a town on his railroad.

BRAESWOOD PLACE

The word "Braes" is commonly seen on signs around Houston, and Marks Hinton notes in Historic Houston Streets that it's the Scottish word for hillside. Scotland's hills are significantly steeper than Houston's, but accuracy isn't as important as aspiration when it comes to naming subdivisions. This spelling is sometimes confused with that of Brays Bayou, which is named for James Bray, a surveyor for the Mexican government who was one of the area's first Anglo settlers.

CHANNELVIEW

Channelview is located on the northern side of the Houston Ship Channel.

DENVER HARBOR

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Denver Harbor's original subdivisions were Denver, Harbor, Harbordale, and Liberty Heights, and the name "Denver Harbor" was used to describe the whole community. The place is also known as Podunk, in reference to that word being written on a local water tower in 1939. Authorities repeatedly covered the graffito, but it would usually reappear after a few days.

FRIENDSWOOD

At the turn of the last century, a group of Quakers bought 1,500 acres of land along the county line between Harris and Galveston. For 60 years they called this wooded area home. Quakers are also known as the Society of Friends.

FREEDMEN’S TOWN

Freedmen's Town is Houston's oldest black community. It was established after the Civil War when 1000 freed slaves settled on inexpensive swampy land along Buffalo Bayou.

FIRST WARD, SECOND WARD, ETC.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen founded Houston in 1836, they divided it into four geographic territories called wards. These wards were divided without regard to population, using geographic boundaries such as streets and the bayou. The first four wards intersected at Congress Street and Main Street. As Houston's population grew, the Fifth Ward was carved out of parts of the First and Second in 1866, and the Sixth Ward was created a decade later from a cut of the Fourth. Each ward elected two aldermen, with the mayor receiving votes citywide. The ward system was abolished in 1915, but that hasn't stopped members of the community, including the Geto Boys, from using the designations.

GARDEN OAKS

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Developer Edward Lillo Crain Sr. loved gardens. True story.

HARRISBURG

Harrisburg is older than Houston. It was given its name in 1826 by a New York entrepreneur named John Richardson Harris. He didn't look far for inspiration.

HEDWIG VILLAGE

In 1906, Hedwig Jankowski joined her sister and other German immigrants in what is now the Spring Branch Memorial area. She met and married Henry Schroeder, and the two set up a farm in what would become Hedwig Village.

HOUSTON HEIGHTS

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Heights is 23 feet higher than downtown.

HUMBLE

Humble was founded by Pleasant Smith Humble, a ferryboat operator on the San Jacinto River who arrived before the Civil War.

JERSEY VILLAGE

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Jersey Village began in 1953 when a dairy farmer named Clark W. Henry decided to develop the area. One story is that he named the neighborhood after his Jersey cows.

KATY

There are two theories: Either Katy was named for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, which was called the KT by railroad officials, or it was named for a barkeeper's wife. Which theory you choose to believe probably says something about you.

KINGWOOD

Kingwood was created by the Friendswood Development Company in 1971. The land was previously held by the King Ranch, which lent its name to one delicious chicken casserole recipe and owns enough acreage to cover Rhode Island. Take "King Ranch" and add "Friendswood," and you've got "Kingwood."

MEMORIAL

Camp Logan Development outside the Interstate 610 loop began in the 1950s along Memorial Drive. That arterial road was named in honor of the men who served in Camp Logan, a WW1 emergency training center, which is now the site of Memorial Park.

MEYERLAND

Meyerland was developed by George Meyer.

MIDTOWN

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1995, the City of Houston established the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. The area is located between downtown and the Museum District, and before revitalization it showed serious signs of urban blight. The name "Midtown" was no doubt seen as a better lure for young urban professionals than "that sketchy area around the Greyhound station."

MONTROSE

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Montrose was named after a historic town in Scotland by J.W. Link of the Houston Land Corporation.

MUSEUM DISTRICT

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Museum District is home to the Museum of Natural Science, the Children's Museum, the Holocaust Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Contemporary Art Museum, among others.

OAK FOREST

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Frank W. Sharp developed this community after World War II, presumably inspired by its trees. Sharp is also the man behind Jacinto City, Royden Oaks, Lamar Weslayan, and Sharpstown.

PASADENA

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Pasadena, California is named for the Chippewa Indian word for "valley." The Texas town's pre-industrial lushness apparently reminded early developers of the California community.

PEARLAND

This community was originally established as Mark Belt in 1893, but within a year the name was changed to account for the pear trees in the region (which was probably a good call).

RICE MILITARY

The Rice family owned a section of land near Camp Logan. Put those two together and you've got Rice Military.

RICE VILLAGE

Speaking of the Rice family, its most famous son was William Marshall Rice, a Massachusetts-born businessman who endowed Rice University in 1891 before being murdered nine years later in New York City by his butler and attorney. His ashes are underneath a statue on the campus, and the adjacent neighborhood also bears his name.

RIVER OAKS

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

River Oaks is named for the trees that line the banks of Buffalo Bayou.

SHARPSTOWN

Sharpstown was developer Frank W. Sharp's biggest project, so he went ahead and gave this one his own name.

STAFFORD

William Stafford was among the first settlers to receive land grants in Stephen F. Austin's colony. In 1835 he killed a man and fled to the United States, but three years later was granted clemency on the grounds that the man he killed was "destitute of character" and "much addicted to brawls." Stafford returned to his plantation and died two years later.

SOUTH PARK

South Park is south of MacGregor Park.

SPRING BRANCH

This community is named for the creek that intersected Buffalo Bayou at the spot where German farmers began settling in 1830. How that creek came to be called Spring Branch is unknown.

SUGAR LAND

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This community has been home to sugar mills since at least 1843, and it became a company town of the Imperial Sugar Company in the early 1900s.

TANGLEWOOD

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tanglewood was developed by William Giddings Farrington. Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls was one of his daughter's favorite books.

TOMBALL

Originally called Peck, Tomball was renamed in honor of Thomas Henry Ball, a big supporter of the Houston Ship Channel. In 1914, Ball ran for governor on the Prohibitionist ticket, but his quest was sidelined by his opponent who hired people to take photos of him in saloons and turned Woodrow Wilson’s endorsement of Ball into Washington interfering in Texas.

UPPER KIRBY

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This district is named for its location on Kirby Drive, which in turn is named for John Henry Kirby, a businessman whose lumber company dominated more than 300,000 acres of East Texas pines.

WEST UNIVERSITY PLACE

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This place is west of Rice University.

THE WOODLANDS

In 1972, the Mitchell Energy & Development Corporation created this community among the pines north of Houston. The area had been the site of timber mills for years.

The Florida Beach Town Where the Amish Go on Vacation

iStock
iStock

In the coming months, with the arrival of low temperatures and the slowdown of the farming season, thousands of Amish people in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania will pack their bags and head south to a snowbird paradise that has attracted Plain People since the early 20th century—Pinecraft, Florida.

Located on the Gulf Coast, Pinecraft is an idyllic place nestled a few miles from the crystalline beaches of Sarasota, dotted with cozy white bungalows and oak trees strewn with Spanish moss. The Amish first arrived in Pinecraft in the 1920s, back when the area was little more than a tourist campground. At first, farmers hoped to plant celery in the region, but the soil proved to be better suited as a spot to lounge in the sun than it did for gardening. In 1946, the Tourist Mennonite Church in Florida was established in Pinecraft so that the Amish could “take vacations without breaking their beliefs,” Atlas Obscura reports. Over the coming decades, word of mouth spread up north. Today, approximately 5000 Amish and (some) Mennonite people visit Pinecraft every year to relax during the winter months.

Most Amish visitors make the long trip by charter bus. In 2012, Miki Meek of The New York Times hopped on one such bus in Ohio and traveled 19 hours to Florida. She described the scene aboard: “Stiff black hats are gingerly stowed in overhead bins as the bus winds its way through hilly farm country ... grandparents, neighbors, sisters, and childhood friends ... talked into the night, using conversation as entertainment instead of movies or music.”

Down in Pinecraft, crowds of Amish people welcome the arrival of each bus. There, visitors can expect to see men and women in traditional dress. “Clothing choices clue you in to hometowns,” Meek wrote. “Men from Tampico, Illinois, wear denim overalls; girls from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, cover their dresses with black aprons; and women from northern Indiana have neatly pressed pleats on their white bonnets.” It’s one of the few places in America where different communities of Amish have the opportunity to mingle.

However, the rules here are much more lax, with vacationers often showing much more skin than usual. Many of the rental homes, which sometimes have to be booked a year in advance, have electricity. (Overall, the restrictions preventing the Amish from connecting to the public power grid aren't as tight when a home is temporary.) Rather than riding in a horse and buggy, many people move around Pinecraft on tricycles. Most days are punctuated by fish fries, auctions, yard sales, and fierce bocce matches, with shuffleboard, the nightly women’s volleyball game, and live musical performances being the biggest draws.

As Meek reported, many people joke that the village is the closest thing the Amish have to Las Vegas: “What happens in Pinecraft, stays in Pinecraft.”

15 U.S. Town and City Names With Unusual Backstories

Michael Swigart, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Michael Swigart, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While many towns and cities in the United States were named after historical figures or nearby topographical features, some monikers have origin stories that are a little more unusual. Here are 15 names with backstories that range from the curious to the downright bizarre.

1. TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, NEW MEXICO

Originally named Hot Springs, this New Mexico spa town changed its name to Truth or Consequences on March 31, 1950, in reference to the popular game show of the same name. Host Ralph Edwards had promised to host the show in the first town that changed its name to Truth or Consequences. Hot Springs obliged, and Ralph Edwards kept his promise. But rather than change their name back to Hot Springs once the novelty wore off, residents voted to make the name permanent in 1967.

2. ZILWAUKEE, MICHIGAN

An exit sign for Zilwaukee, Michigan
Ken Lund, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

If you noticed that the name Zilwaukee sounds a little bit like Milwaukee, that’s no coincidence. Zilwaukee, Michigan wasn’t just named after Milwaukee as a tribute to the Wisconsin city, but to trick potential settlers who were interested in moving to Milwaukee. Started in 1848 by New Yorkers Daniel and Solomon Johnson, the settlement initially consisted of little more than a few houses and a sawmill. In need of workers, the Johnson brothers decided the best way to attract settlers was through deceit. They named their little riverside settlement “Zilwaukie” (later changed to Zilwaukee) and waited for settlers to start pouring in. It’s unclear whether their plan was successful; settlers did eventually arrive, though it may have been the general desire for work (the founding of the town happened to coincide with an influx of German immigrants), rather than the Johnson brothers' clever scheme, that attracted the town’s residents.

3. PORTLAND, OREGON

If not for a momentous coin toss, Portland could have been named Boston. Founded by Massachusetts-born lawyer Asa Lovejoy and Maine-born Francis Pettygrove, the 640-acre site that would become Portland was originally known only as “The Clearing.” When it came time to give the town a real name, Lovejoy and Pettygrove began to argue. While Pettygrove insisted the town be named Portland after the city in Maine, Lovejoy wanted to name the settlement for his hometown, Boston. In order to settle the dispute, the two founders decided to flip a coin. Winning two out of three tosses, Pettygrove got his way, and gave Portland its name.

4. EGG HARBOR, WISCONSIN

While there are a few theories regarding Egg Harbor’s origins, one of the most popular (and well-documented) centers on the great battle that took place just offshore in 1825. According to an 1862 recounting, a group of traders traveling in a handful of small boats to Mackinac Island decided to take shelter in an unnamed harbor overnight. As they paddled toward shore, a friendly race broke out, with each boat trying to overtake its neighbor. In order to slow each other’s progress, the traders began tossing bits of hardtack (a type of biscuit or cracker) at each other. But they soon realized they might need the hardtack later, and so they started throwing eggs. According to one witness, the fighting didn’t stop once the traders reached shore. Instead, they repeated their egg fight on land, stopping only once they ran out of eggs, and had “laughed until exhaustion.” The next day, speeches were made commemorating the great egg battle, and Egg Harbor was given its name.

5. NAGS HEAD, NORTH CAROLINA

Some believe Nags Head was named for one of the several towns of that name on the English coast. Others, however, believe Nags Head has a more nefarious backstory. According to legend, recounted in the 19th century by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, pirates once used the beach at Nags Head to lure in their prey. They’d attach a lamp to the neck of an old horse (or nag), which would slowly walk the beach at night. Mistaking the nag’s lantern for the lights of another boat, ships would sail toward the light, grounding themselves in the shallow waters near the beach and making themselves a perfect target for pirates.

6. BASTROP, LOUISIANA & BASTROP, TEXAS

A sign in Bastrop, Texas
Wil C. Fry, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Another town name with a criminal backstory is Bastrop. The two towns with the same title in Louisiana and Texas were named for Dutch nobleman Felipe Enrique Neri, the Baron de Bastrop, who played an important role in settling the future Lone Star State. Only it turns out the Baron de Bastrop wasn’t a baron at all: Historians now believe the self-proclaimed Dutch nobleman was actually one Philip Hendrick Nering Bögel, a former tax collector who left Holland after being accused of embezzlement. Bogel fled to America with a 1000 gold ducat price on his head and reestablished himself as a Dutch nobleman. He went on to help establish several Anglo-American colonies in Texas, and even acted as a representative to the state of Coahuila and Texas in the 1820s.

7. MODESTO, CALIFORNIA

From towns and cities, right down to buildings and park benches, people seem to love naming landmarks after themselves; it’s the nature of the human ego. Which is why the story behind Modesto, California's name is particularly surprising. Founded in 1870 and incorporated in 1884, Modesto was the last stop on the Central Pacific Railroad line. Town residents decided that they wanted to name their new town after financier William Chapman Ralston, to honor the man who brought them the railroad and connected them to the rest of the country. But Ralston was too humble, and asked the town to find a more suitable namesake. Instead, residents decided to call their town Modesto, in honor of Ralston’s modesty.

8. CHICKEN, ALASKA

A town sign in Chicken, Alaska
J. STEPHEN CONN, FLICKR / CC BY-NC 2.0

Originally a mining town, Chicken got its unusual name from a group of gold miners who weren’t great at spelling. The miners wanted to call the town Ptarmigan, after the grouse-like bird that inhabited the area, but couldn’t figure out how to spell the word. So they settled on naming the town for an easier-to-spell bird: the chicken.

9. FROG EYE, ALABAMA

According to legend, Frog Eye was named after a ceramic frog. During the prohibition era, the proprietor of a local saloon kept the little frog sculpture in his shop window at all times: When police officers were in the bar, he’d close one of the frog’s eyes so that customers would know not to order illegal liquor.

10. HOT COFFEE, MISSISSIPPI

A sign in Hot Coffee, Mississippi
Jimmy Emerson DVM, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Mississippi community known as Hot Coffee was, you guessed it, named for its damn fine cup of coffee. According to a WPA history of Mississippi written during the Great Depression, a Civil War veteran named J.J. Davis built a store at the intersection of two major thoroughfares in Mississippi, hoping to attract travelers. “He hung a coffee pot over his door, and served coffee that was both hot and good, made of pure spring water and New Orleans beans,” explains the WPA historian. “He used molasses drippings for sugar and the customer could have either long or short sweetening; he refused to serve cream, saying it ruined the taste.” The 19th-century coffee connoisseur soon developed a reputation for his superior beans, and both travelers and local politicians would frequent his shop. According to legend, Davis started calling the community Hot Coffee after a traveling salesman burnt his mouth trying to drink Davis’s coffee too quickly, calling out, “Mister, this is hot coffee!”

11. SLAUGHTER BEACH, DELAWARE

There’s some debate as to how Slaughter Beach got its name. While some believe the bayside community was named for local postmaster William Slaughter, others claim it was named after the hordes of horseshoe crabs that lay their eggs on the beach of the Delaware Bay each spring. Because of unpredictable tides, the horseshoe crabs often ended up stranded on the beach, at the mercy of predatory animals like foxes and raccoons—which resulted in something of an annual horseshoe crab slaughter.

12. KITTS HUMMOCK, DELAWARE

According to local legend, the little Delaware community now known as Kitts Hummock was originally named Kidd’s Hammock, after Captain William Kidd. The notorious pirate terrorized America’s east coast during the 17th century, and though there is little historical information to tie him specifically to the community of Kitts Hummock, legends of Kidd’s treasure buried somewhere in Delaware persist to this day.

13. TELEPHONE, TEXAS

Back in the 1880s, having a telephone was a really big deal. Such a big deal, in fact, that one Texas community decided it was worth naming their town after. According to the Texas State Historical Association, the tiny community of Telephone was established in 1886. General store owner Pete Hindman submitted a series of town names to postal authorities, but all were already in use. Frustrated, Hindman submitted the name Telephone, in reference to the fact that the only telephone in the area was in his store.

14. TIGHTWAD, MISSOURI


View this post on Instagram

A post shared by James (@jimmyperigoso) on

According to Tightwad residents, the little Missouri town’s name dates back to the early 20th century, when the local mailman asked the local grocer to set aside a watermelon for him while he made his rounds. The postman came back after delivering the community’s mail only to find that the grocer had sold the watermelon to a customer who had agreed to pay 50 cents more. The postman accused the grocer of being a tightwad, and apparently the rest of the community agreed, and even embraced the accusation. They unofficially called the little community Tightwad until the village was incorporated in the 1980s, making the title official.

15. JIM THORPE, PENNSYLVANIA

Originally two towns called Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, this Pennsylvania town became one and changed its name to Jim Thorpe after the legendary turn-of-the-century Olympic athlete, baseball player, and football star in the 1950s. The two towns didn’t have any pre-existing connection to Thorpe, who was from Oklahoma and had played for Milwaukee and New York teams. Rather, after Thorpe’s death, his third wife made a deal with them. Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were looking for a way to promote tourism; at the same time, Thorpe’s wife wanted what she considered a proper memorial for her husband, so she essentially sold the towns on rebranding themselves as Jim Thorpe. The towns merged, bought Thorpe's remains from his widow, built him a monument, and became Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Two of Jim Thorpe’s sons then fought a legal battle to have his remains returned to Oklahoma, but in October 2015 the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving in place the appeals court ruling in favor of the town.

A version of this story originally ran in 2016.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER