So, when I have just about any free time at all, I’m generally out riding. I spent today putting 275 miles on my Harley. One of the things I love about riding the back roads of Texas is that there seems to be no end to the various decaying structures to explore and photograph. Here’s just a few:
What’s left of an old 1850s “sulfur spring” called Piedmont Spring Resort that was famous for curing just about any ill. At one point, this spring had a four-story 100 room hotel which attracted dignitaries from around the US who would pay to sit in a spring that smelled like farts.
While this motel is still renting rooms, I can’t help but think this place is a horror movie waiting to happen.
North Zulch, Texas
And no, there’s no South Zulch.
A friend and I were out on an extended motorcycle ride when we unexpectedly came upon an abandoned mansion in Galveston, Texas. After exploring and taking photos, I came pack home and began doing research on the mansion. The history of this mansion and the land its built upon is quite unique. This history includes Native Americans who ate human flesh, a very real and very famous pirate, a war and ghosts.
We entered the mansion’s grounds though an arch that reads, “Stewart’s Mansion”
George Sealy Jr, a famous industrialist and infamous union-buster, commissioned the Spanish Colonial Revival style mansion which overlooks Lake Como as a family getaway in 1926. In 1944 the founder of the Stewart Title Guaranty Company, Maco Stewart (a man who made his fortune in insurance, banking and war), purchased the mansion as a resort home.
Behind the abandoned mansion, there’s a hidden courtyard with a mature oak tree, courtyard fountain and outdoor fireplace.
The entire courtyard is adorned with handmade tile depicting various scenes of Spanish conquest. (Until 1825, Galveston was under the control of Spain.)
Inside the mansion the rooms are generally quite long and the entire structure seems to be made of brick and concrete.
The washroom in the front of the house holds a once ornate vanity.
Even the crown molding and filigree are made from concrete.
Located only a few hundred feet from the mansion is a State of Texas historical marker, which reads:
Fort and settlement established here in 1817 by the freebooter
Who maintained headquarters here while preying on shipping in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Battle of the Three Trees was fought here between Lafitte’s men and Karankawa Indians, February, 1821.
Fort abandoned and burned in 1821 by Lafitte after his departure was ordered by the United States government.
The Karankawa Indians were a cannibalistic tribe (they engaged in the practice of eating their enemies) indigenous to the area. Jean Lafitte was an honest to goodness pirate who built a pirate colony of more than 1000-strong on Galveston Island.
The Stewart Mansion was built on the land in which Karankawa warriors went to war with Lafiette’s men in what is known as the Battle of the Three Trees. Lafitte’s men stole the Karankawa chief’s daughter and Karankawa warriors retaliated by attacking and killing four pirates. Lafitte found out and sent a few hundred of his men along with two cannons to attack the Karankawas. The Stewart mansion sits where Karankawa warriors equipped with only bow and arrow fought pirates equipped with guns and cannon for three bloody days. The Karankawa lost about 10% of their fighting force before retreating while the well-armed pirates lost none.
Walking into the main hall of the mansion, one is greeted by murals of various pirates. Legend has it that when the pirate Lafitte was ousted from Galveston by the US army, he burred treasure on or near the Stewart mansion property.
I find it interesting and more than a little disturbing that the owner of this mansion – the founder of an international insurance company and war profiteer – was apparently very taken with pirate mythos.
Particularly disturbing to me is that the largest mural in the room depicts a band of murderous pirates – weapons drawn – boarding a ship.
Many wild tails about Stewart Mansion hauntings abound. The pirate murals supposedly change places, disembodied voices and footsteps are said to be heard and ghostly apparitions are supposedly seen by those who dare to visit this mansion. I did not encounter any of those things. However, I did see a bloody hand print on the wall:
The bloody hand print is located on the south wall of the east wing (you can see this wing in the photo with our motorcycles parked outside). The print was dry and looked to be no more than a week old. While I’m sure this would be a sure sign of a Hollywood-style haunting to some, it just looked like a bloody hand print to me.
I have to admit that I felt a bit like Lara Croft while getting my shots for this photo essay. Last night I read that there was supposed to be a large family tomb that had been built over, but is still somewhat accessible in downtown Houston. Of course this rumor caught my attention and so I began researching. As I conducted my research, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the collective stupidity Houstonians displayed. Not only did I locate the crypt, I also learned that Buffalo Bayou – the bayou that runs through downtown Houston – is apparently full of unexploded ordnance.
The story begins when the US Army marched into Houston and defeated the confederate army stationed here. The confederates wanted to deprive the US Army of rebel munitions and their best and brightest idea was to toss it all into Buffalo bayou.
In June of 1865, as Union forces approached Houston, three barges, “loaded with rifles and cannon balls were driven up stream as far as possible and sunk.” The low Milam Street bridge was as far upstream as the barges could be moved, and it was there – at what is now the Milam Street bridge – they were scuttled. In addition to the 3 barges of live munition, the entire Houston confederate arsenal was dumped into Buffalo Bayou at the same location.
Obviously sinking tons of live munitions into a bayou doesn’t make them just magically disappear from the face of the earth. Instead, they tend to pop up from time to time. And, from time to time, kids discover them. The Donnellans owned the land where the Franklin bridge now stands. As noted in the above article, the Donnellan youth found one of the unexploded bombs and it blew up while they were handling it. After the Donnellan youth were, “blown to bits” the City of Houston organized a volunteer committee to search for hidden bombs in the bayou using sticks to search through the mud. The many bombs that were recovered where taken to Fort Sam Houston and exploded.
No professional ordnance removal has ever occurred at the Franklin and Milam street bridges. In 1906 the Houston Yacht and Power Boat Club blew up a sunken confederate blockade runner named the Augusta to clear the way for a “harbor for pleasure craft and launches.” While they were setting the charges, they recovered, “cannonballs, bombshells and other dangerous Civil War relics.” In 1924, the Milam street bridge was replaced and more unexploded bombs were found. In 1947, 351 cannon balls were discovered during bridge repairs. In 1968, a local history group got a local gun club to finance a one-day dredge of the bayou at Milam and Franklin. They found a number of cannon balls, weapons, guns and unexploded ordnance. Since 1968, there has been no effort to recover any of the civil war artifacts. Today, the only reminder of the possible danger lying under the mud is the Donnellan tomb:
The crypt is located under the Franklin bridge. From what I can tell, there’s some question as to whether the City of Houston owns the crypt. Some speculate that since the City may not be able to prove ownership, the crypt was built over and around instead of torn down.
From the above Chronicle article, “You might even find a tomb buried in the bank under the Franklin Ave. bridge. This tomb was placed there in 1868 and contains the remains of the two boys who were blown to bits while playing with one of the bombs which they took out of the bayou… We gathered what we could of the remains and placed them in a coffin, which we buried in the bayou banks under what is now the Franklin Ave. Street bridge. So far as I know, that tomb still is there.”
If you’d like to read more about this supposed forgotten tomb, here are a couple of interesting links:
Near downtown Houston, there is an enormous graveyard full of slaves, confederate solders, members of secrete societies and even a mass grave containing the jumbled remains of victims from the 1867 yellow fever outbreak. This purportedly haunted grave yard has designated places for “Paupers, Negroes, Families and those that committed suicide or died in a duel.” While the cemetery is large and packed full of human remains, you wouldn’t know 10,000 corpses were under your feet if you took a walk through the cemetery today because the headstones were removed and an insane asylum was built over the graves.
That’s right. You might be thinking of the movie Poltergeist right now and you wouldn’t be far from the truth. In 1986, construction on the Houston Fire Department maintenance building unearthed dozens of unmarked graves. Legend has it that a number of human bones were stolen by locals who came out to gawk at the then exposed graves.
Numerous stories of ghostly doctors, nurses and patients exist and activity is supposedly concentrated on the 3rd floor of the hospital. Some paranormal investigators have photographed what they claim to be ghostly “orbs” floating in front of the hospital. A local paranormal organization called Lone Star Spirits claims that they’ve received first-hand reports from people who claim that ghosts followed people home after visiting the old hospital. To me, stories like this are very reminiscent of the supposed Demon Road haunting and just as credible.
On April 8, 1840, the City of Houston purchased five acres in the First Ward from brothers Henry R. and Samuel L. Allen for $750. This became Houston’s first City-owned cemetery and was the second cemetery built in Houston. The 1840 City ordnance that established the cemetery stated that the cemetery would be segregated into four sections: “1.) A Potters Field for criminals, suicides and the persons killed in duels; 2.) the Negroes Burying Ground; 3.) the Commons for all not otherwise provided for; and, 4.) Family Plots for sale to the highest bidder. Later, a special section of the cemetery was set aside for members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Masons. The City discontinued use of the cemetery in 1879. Afterwards, the only new burials that took place occurred in family plots – the last of which took place in 1904.
The Jefferson Davis hospital was named after the President of the Confederacy and is built on the graves of slaves and confederate solders alike. It’s estimated that as many as 3,000 graves lie under the hospital. The hospital was built in 1924 and features an above-ground basement because the builders didn’t want to disturb the graves.
The only accessible evidence that this location is in fact a cemetery full of human remains is the concrete curbing surrounding the Super family plot which now serves as a flower bed. This evidence remains because during the construction of the hospital, Mr. Super stood vigil over his family plot with a loaded shotgun. It’s reported that Super actually took a few pot-shots at construction workers who got too close to his family’s remains. In 2006 a new marker was placed withing the confines of the Fire Department maintenance facility to remember the confederate solders buried under the parking lot of the Houston Fired Department maintenance building.
The first floor of the old hospital held the pharmacy and the so-called “negro-ward.” The second floor held staff quarters and the men’s ward. The third floor held the women’s ward an asylum complete with padded rooms. The fourth floor held the children’s ward. The hospital closed its doors after only 13 years of service and a new larger hospital was built on Allen Parkway. The old hospital was used for various purposes over the years (including acting a psychiatric hospital, STD clinic and a City storage building) before being completely abandoned in the 1990s.
Today the old Jefferson David Hospital is knowns as the “Elder Street Artist Lofts.” While the hospital was rehabed, its old power station was not is still stands in ruins:
The only other interesting structures are these two abandoned homes that stand empty across the street from the abandoned power house:
Perhaps the most interesting and noteworthy thing about this plot of land is that when the Fire Department expansion uncovered human remains, archaeologists uncovered graves that were much, much older than any that should be in the area. In 1986 Ken Brown, professor of Archeology at the University of Houston led a team of researchers who discovered 40 graves which dated back to the 1600s. Both the burial style and accompanying pottery discovered with the remains are consistent with English practices for the disposal of diseased bodies.
Olivewood Cemetery is located just off I-10 and White Oak Bayou right next to a store called Party Boy. The neglected grave yard is supposedly haunted.
With exposed human remains of ex slaves and thicket covered graves, it is no wonder Houstonians have spun ghost stories about this place for generations.
There are a number of unmarked graves in the cemetery. Before the land was purchased in 1875 by Houston’s first black alderman Richard Brock (who is buried in Olivewood), the land had been used as a slave burial ground.
Pivotal leaders if Houston’s post-emancipation African-American community are buried in the Olivewood Cemetery. For instance, Rev. Elias Dibble (pastor of Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church) is buried in Olivewood. Rev. Dibble had lived as a slave before becoming the first black Methodist minister in the country.
Basically, Olivewood represents a Who’s Who of influential African-American Houstonians in the post-slavery era of Texas. Businessman James B. Bell, attorney J. Vance Lewis, the first principal of Jack Yates High School (which was the 2nd black school in Houston) James D. Ryan and “the singing dentist” Milton A. Baker are all buried in Olivewood. Incidentally, Dr. Baker wrote Houston’s official bicentennial song.
Work is being done to reclaim the historic cemetery from nature. By chance, I got to speak with a descendant of one of the people buried in the cemetery, Charles Cook. Cook was at the cemetery by himself mowing and doing some weeding. I spent some time talking with him about the history of Olivewood and filmed the last bit of our conversation. Cook happens to be on the Board of Directors for a 501c3 nonprofit that is trying to restore the cemetery. They have a PayPal donation button. I encourage you to give what you can 🙂
A now-defunct City of Houston newsletter called “City Savvy” had this to say about the alleged hauntings:
Over the years, there have been numerous reports of mysterious after-dark sightings and strange movements within the graveyard.
Louis Aulbach, a Finance and Administration division manager, heard those stories while working on his soon-to-be-completed book, “Buffalo Bayou: An Echo of Houston’s Wilderness Beginnings.”
“But I remain skeptical,” he said. “It seems people think a cemetery should be haunted, so they make it so. But if they want to scare themselves silly with stories, it’s up to them.”
Cathi Bunn, a paranormal investigator, began exploring Olivewood in 1999. One moonlit midnight, Bunn said she videotaped the ghost of Mary White, buried in 1888, hovering above her headstone.
Intrigued by the anecdotes, Williams stayed late Halloween night, 2004.
“Only haunting I saw were from two big field mice,” she said.
Haunted or not, Aulbach said the important thing is for people to know about Olivewood and its significance.
As noted above, at least one ghost hunter believes to have caught an actual Olivewood ghost on film. In the photo, you can see what looks like fog. This mist is purported to be the ghost of Mary White.
The cemetery features obelisks, statuary, curbing and interior fencing. The burial ground also includes examples of pre-emancipation burial practices, including upright pipes (symbolizing the path between the worlds of the living and the dead), ocean shells as grave ornaments and text containing upside down or backwards letters (as used in some West African cultures to signify death).
If you are interested in some of the remnants of Houston’s black history, check out my photo-essay of Freedman’s Town in the Fourth Ward – which is the location of our nation’s most serious race riot.
Huntsville, Texas locals refer to the road that leads to a small 1800s graveyard as “Demon Road.” Supposedly, some people report seeing hovering red lights traveling down the road. Others report that have been pushed and shoved by invisible hands on their way to the cemetery.
At the end of this road lies Martha Chapel Cemetery. Doing a google search returns all sorts of ghost stories about this little grave yard. People report seeing full body apparitions, some of which like to follow you home.
In 1985, the people of Huntsville became convinced that a nefarious coven of devil worshipers were calling up demons at the cemetery. Apparently the County Sheriff even went to the local high school and warned the kids to stay away from the road for their own safety. Hence the name, “Demon Road”.
I didn’t see any demons or ghosts and there’s no invisible hitchhiker helping me to write this. While I didn’t find any phantoms, I did find a spot just outside the cemetery gates where someone had built a large fire. I also found lots of tire tracks and beer cans. Personally, I think this is a place where young people from a small town come to scare each other and to prove themselves by vandalizing the cemetery. So, my guess is that the most frightening thing one might encounter at night is a bored teenager with a cooler full of beer.
Here are two different “ghost hunter” videos investigating the area.
1.) The better of the two. They basically stand around until they find a snake. The spookiest thing they find is that road dust stuck to their truck. Seriously. Click here.
2.) This “investigation” is a joke and is only funny because the ghost hunter is serious. He uses what he calls a “Ghost Box” to talk to ghosts. If you don’t pull a facepalm when you see what this ghost box actually is, you get a point. Click here.
The area was originally called “Robinson’s Settlement” and was located seven miles southwest of Huntsville in south central Walker County. It became a stronghold for Methodist activity in Southeast Texas in the early 1830s. The site is on a dirt road midway between Farm roads 1374 and 1791. By 1839 a campground, church (possibly the first church in Walker county; they shared their church building with other denominations) and school were established when land was given by William and Elizabeth Robinson (who are both buried in Martha’s Chapel Cemetery) to the Rev. Littleton Fowler, Superintendent of Methodism in the Republic of Texas. Early clergy who visited and served there included Isaac Strickland, Jesse Hord, Joseph P. Sneed, and Bishop Thomas A. Morris. The Fourth Texas Methodist Conference met on the land that is now Martha’s Chapel Cemetery in 1843, with Bishop James O. Andrew presiding. Sometime after the conference the local congregation adopted the name Trinity Church. The church and the area became known as Martha’s Chapel in 1854 after Martha Palmer, wife of a church trustee, died and was buried behind the church building. In 1855 John C. Black added twenty acres to the original Robinson Settlement, and a new building was erected near the old church. The original log church structure was then moved and turned into a barn. During the Civil War attendance at Trinity Church declined, and Rev. James G. Johnson (1812-1887) constructed a smaller building in 1863 that was known for a while as Johnson’s Chapel. When he died, Johnson bequeathed funds to complete the construction of the third and last place of worship at the cemetery site. It was dedicated on October 18, 1887, by Bishop W.W. Duncan. The congregation disbanded in the 1930s and ended a century of Methodism in the area.
The surrounding rural neighborhood maintained a school, though the bell rang only sporadically in the early years. In 1896 the Martha’s Chapel school employed two teachers, Miss Ona Randolph and Miss Mary Sterne (who is buried in Martha’s Chapel Cemetery). The schoolhouse remained as late as 1936 but was closed soon thereafter. By 1990 only the cemetery remained at the site.
On my way there, I ran across a couple of interesting abandoned buildings:
I discovered what looked like the remains of an abandoned town on google maps last week and had decided that I’d drive out towards Baytown and check it out. What I found turned out to be what must be the creepiest park in Texas.
As it turns out, the area has a really funky history. It started out in 1891 as unincorporated community in Harris County called Wooster, Texas. It was hit hard by the 1900 Galveston hurricane and by the time World War II rolled around, Wooster had become an internment camp for captured German prisoners of war.
After the war, the Wooster internment camp became the Brownwood subdivision. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was a highly desirable residential neighborhood with almost 400 large homes. It was nicknamed “The River Oaks of Baytown” and was home to many well-to-do engineers and oil executives.
In 1961, Hurricane Carla devastated Brownwood and subsidence became a serious problem. Industrial and municipal water users pumped out aquifer groundwater faster than nature could replenish it. Additionally, industry pumped out massive quantities of oil, natural gas and sand. The sustained attack on the environment lead to Brownwood sinking between 10 and 15 feet into the San Jacinto Bay:
In 1983, extensive damage from Hurricane Alicia finally led to Brownwood’s total abandonment. By 1990, the steadily encroaching waters had submerged many Brownwood streets:
In 1991, the residents of Baytown took a small step towards doing something about Brownwood by voting to approve $300,000 in bonds to deal with the sinking ghost town. Eventually in 1997, Brownwood was declared a Superfund site due to the “legal”, but ethically dubious toxic dumping activities of various local oil companies.
Nowadays, the ex-environmental disaster area / ex-Nazi internment camp / ex-exclusive neighborhood / ex-toxic dump is now a place where people can bring their kids to play and fish.
However, Superfund money and playground equipment can’t seem to erase the fact that this place is actually a ghost-town with a sordid past as a dump:
Walking the abandoned streets of Brownwood was evocative. This is such an interesting area. In this place, children grew up; they enjoyed things like Christmas mornings, riding bikes and playing house. In this place, people fell in love, fought and dreamed. In this place, engineers and oil-executives unwittingly designed the destruction of their own homes. In this place, Nazis were held in captivity, people died in natural disasters and the land became toxic.
Best FaceBook comment: “I went to high school in Deer Park, then went off to college, but in th emiddle of those yrs actually went to Lee College in Baytown for a sememster. I dated a girl that lived out there in Brownwood, actually if I remember correctly, on Crow Rd. That was in 1973, if I recall. Those pictures really are frightening. Her family had this gorgeous ranch style rambler, and they were a happy family. Too bad that area has disappeared. I haven’t been back down there since probably 1975, so I had no idea it had changed so much. So sad……so sad.”