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Liam McDaid

FIRST WARD, HOUSTON. First established by 1840 with the founding of Houston, the First Ward was one of the original four wards in the city. These wards were defined with reference to the intersection of Main Street and Congress Avenue in Houston. The First Ward was northwest of that intersection, and the other of the original four wards increased numerically in a clockwise direction. Two wards—the Fifth and Sixth wards—were later formed out of the original four wards in 1866 and 1877 respectively. The First Ward consisted of mostly farms at the time of its founding. Many of the early farmers were German immigrants and included the Guese, Puls, Wichman, and Tiekoetter families. First Ward was also noted for its springs, which in the mid-nineteenth century often provided a cleaner source of water than Buffalo Bayou, upon which most Houstonians depended.  

Given the location near the main docks of Houston, a warehouse district emerged in the First Ward. Commerce Street became informally known as “Produce Row” and was an important factor in the growth and development of the First Ward. By the early 1900s many of the grocers who established shops there were European immigrants, particularly Italians. The First Ward was also a “working-man's community” composed of grocers, laborers, and others engaged in service jobs. Being located near railroad lines, including the Houston and Texas Central, the First Ward was home to many railroad employees as well. By the early twentieth century the railroad became a major source of jobs in the First Ward. From the late 1800s through the early 1900s a system of streetcars, initially mule-drawn and later electric, provided public transportation for residents. A popular recreational area, Highland Park, opened in 1903.

The First Ward remained the smallest of the original four wards. Demographically, it was “highly integrated” by 1870. The white population was 448; African Americans numbered 250. Such a composition made it difficult for black citizens to gain enough votes to be elected to office, although the First Ward was represented by two African American aldermen (Jason Rice and Taylor Burke) during Reconstruction. African American children were served by the First Ward Colored School, which was the ward’s oldest school. Despite having the smallest black population of Houston’s wards, a number of black churches were located there, including St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Burton Grove Baptist, and Brown’s Chapel AME. 

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, gambling houses had become prevalent in the First Ward. More notorious activities were found in a district known as Vinegar Hill, particularly a one-block region nicknamed “Tin Can Alley.” Jefferson Davis Hospital, called the “first hospital for poor people” in Houston, opened in 1924. It closed by 1938 and housed a variety of operations until the building was closed and abandoned in the 1980s. 

Over time, the First Ward declined as many of its houses were either boarded up or abandoned. Despite these changes, by the late 1900s much of the downtown area of the First Ward remained “relatively unchanged” since the early twentieth century as even some of the early warehouses were still extant. By the early twenty-first century the First Ward had been divided into two areas: the Low First Ward, east of Houston Avenue, and the High First Ward, west of Houston Avenue. The informal boundaries of the entire First Ward were generally recognized as IH 10 to the north, Washington Avenue to the south, IH 45 to the west, and Sawyer Street to the west.

By the 2010s citizens focused on restoration and economic development for the First Ward. The old Jefferson Davis Hospital, for example, was renovated and opened in 2005 as Elder Street Artist Lofts. With the regional transformation came both positive and negative consequences. By the 2010s the First Ward enjoyed a national reputation for its thriving art community and attracted mixed interest over issues centering on development. Concerns existed that development would destroy the First Ward, making it similar to the Fourth Ward, which, according to Houston Chronicle metro editor Tony Freemantle, “essentially doesn’t exist anymore.” Being so close to downtown Houston, the area appealed to investors who wanted to raze the older buildings and replace them with townhouses for urbanites who worked nearby. Other groups advocated establishing a historic district to preserve some of the First Ward’s architectural integrity. The fate of low-income renters, displaced by gentrification, was another concern, as a historic district would also increase the property values of the houses within it. The quest for protected historical status was partly fulfilled when a historic district was created out of the High First Ward on May 28, 2014. The houses there were built mostly in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. 


Betty Trapp Chapman, “Houston’s First Ward—Producing Food from Farm to Counter,” Houston History 8 (Fall 2010). Betty Trapp Chapman, “A System of Government Where Business Ruled,” Houston History 8 (Fall 2010). First Ward Civic Council, Inc. (http://www.firstwardhouston.org/), accessed October 1, 2016. Houston Chronicle, March 18, 2010; September 29, 2013; April 23, 2014. “High First Ward,” Historic Preservation Manual, City of Houston Planning & Development Department (http://www.houstontx.gov/planning/HistoricPres/HistoricPreservationManual/historic_districts/high_first_ward.html), accessed October 1, 2017. Brian Wallstin, “Renovated Out of Existence,” Houston Press, July 6, 2000 (http://www.houstonpress.com/news/renovated-out-of-existance-6564493), accessed October 1, 2016.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Liam McDaid, "FIRST WARD, HOUSTON," accessed August 13, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hpf03.

Uploaded on February 9, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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