The Past Is Present

Uncovering Frost Town, Houston's First Working-Class Community

A sneak peek at a few of the most interesting artifacts from the neighborhood established at the same time the Allen brothers founded Houston, and what they reveal about a neglected part of Houston’s past.

By Gwendolyn Knapp September 25, 2019 Published in the October 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Located in an industrial part of town, south of Buffalo Bayou and north of Minute Maid Park, James Bute Park features green space, benches, and a historic marker—the only indication that it was once Frost Town, Houston’s first working-class community.

The neighborhood, established by early settler Jonathan Benson Frost and his brother Samuel Frost at the same time that the Allen Brothers founded Houston, was home to three waves of hardscrabble Houstonians—German and Irish immigrants beginning in the 1830s and 1840s, African American freedmen after emancipation, and Mexican Americans after the 1910 Mexican Revolution, who called it El Barrio del Alacrán. Most residences were destroyed during the 1950s, after construction of the Elysian Viaduct bridge and the start of US-59.

In 2016, when the Texas Department of Transportation began a roadwork project to rebuild and widen the bridge, it also initiated an archaeological excavation of this long-overlooked historic site, in compliance with state and federal law. The idea was to secure significant areas—defined as those containing artifacts that could be linked to intact houses—as TxDOT determined the parameters of the bridge project, which is still underway.

The digs, which took place during the summers of 2016 and 2018, provided an opportunity to look back at Houston’s past. And what they revealed, says TxDOT archaeologist Jason Barrett, is a neighborhood of “working-class citizens who helped to build our port and shipping businesses,” along with “a fuller history of the diversity of Houston.”

Field crews, including volunteers from the Houston Archeological Society, uncovered house foundations, cisterns, (very dead) pets, brick sidewalks, and nearly a quarter million artifacts—wares used during the Republic of Texas, early 20th-century German doll heads and alarm clocks, and rusty nails and shards of glass aplenty.

Today, with the digs over, the sites have been covered up, and the project’s principal investigator, Doug Boyd—an archaeologist with Prewitt & Associates, contracted by TxDOT—is busy analyzing artifacts. In 2021 TxDOT will release the most significant findings; local museum exhibits and a documentary of oral histories from Frost Town descendants and former residents are also forthcoming.

In the meantime we asked Boyd for a sneak peek at a few of the most interesting artifacts and what they reveal about a neglected part of Houston’s past:

Bottle Alignments, late 1800s

“One really interesting feature that we found tends to be associated with German households,” says Boyd, “was empty bottles upturned in a line,” which were used to border yards and gardens. Backhoes stumbled upon a still-intact bottle alignment— “Only one got nicked,” says Barrett—including three original Carl Conrad & Company Budweiser bottles from the 1870s.

French-made Bone implement Handle, Late 1800s

“We don’t know if it’s from a toothbrush or a small butter knife,” Boyd says of this three-and-a-half-inch polished handle engraved with French trademarking on one side and the name Adolf Dreiss on the other, but one thing is clear: “This was found in one of the German-household areas in Frost Town, and came from another German businessman in San Antonio.” Dreiss ran the Alamo Drug Store in that city from 1866 to 1904. “Many Germans certainly would’ve visited,” Boyd says. “They were a tight-knit community.”

Opium Smoking pipe Bowl, early 1900s

Found in a fireplace at a home listed in a 1907 fire-insurance map as FB, or “female boarding”—“a code word for a brothel or house of prostitution,” Boyd notes. The little clay cylinder etched with Chinese symbols for happiness, office, and nine is similar to many others uncovered in the West at locations where Chinese immigrants worked on railroads or in mining. “We have no evidence any Chinese ever lived in Frost Town, but it’s possible working girls there were Chinese,” says Boyd, “or other girls had picked up an opium-smoking habit.”

Metal Shipyard employee Badge, 1940s

Boyd says he was able to link this artifact to its likely owner. Stamped with “TODD Galveston Dry Docks 1318”—a World War II–era shipyard—it was found in a cistern-turned-trash-pit in a lot that was once a corner store. “When we did some research, we found out a man living there was Pedro Ambriz,” says Boyd, “who shows up in a city directory, listed as a ship-fitter.”

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