Houston - A City of Shipping, Oil Drilling, Air Conditioning

DELEGATES riding air-conditioned buses between air-conditioned hotels and the air-conditioned Astrodome stadium cannot entirely escape the shrimpboil that is Houston's summertime weather. The humid heat frazzles hair styles, moistens brows, wilts "power" clothes, and prompts one to wonder, "Why here?"

Most folks assume the Republicans chose Houston because President Bush wanted to do a favor for his adopted hometown. The Houston Host Committee insists it won a competition for the honor by forking over the most cash for the bash.

Either reason plus 80 cents will buy delegates a bar of Irish Spring bath soap. If there's an enigma worth perspiring over, perhaps it's why anyone bothered to inhabit the Republic of Texas in the first place.

According to a prominent Texas history buff, the weather ahead was often less sticky than the circumstances that caused settlers to flee the (then 24) United States a century and a half ago.

"The best way to beat a debt or get out of a marriage was to leave three letters on a piece of paper on your home - G T T - which stood for `Gone To Texas,' " says Mark Davidson, who presides over the 11th District Court in Houston, the oldest court in the state. "Bankers would write off the debts, and wives would know that they'd never see their husbands again."

To gauge how widespread this practice must have been, consider that the first five Texas constitutions prohibited the legislature from outlawing bigamy. "As long as only one marriage took place in Texas, that was fine," Judge Davidson says.

From New York came Augustus and John Allen. The brothers speculated in real estate and advanced supplies on credit to Sam Houston's army of Texans in the rebellion against Mexico. When independence was won in April 1836, the Allens correctly assumed that Texans would elect their military leader as their first president, as had happened in the US. Namesake of rebel Sam Houston

The Allens also thought it appropriate that the capital bear Houston's name. If that city were built on their land, so much the better. So they bought 6,642 acres along Buffalo Bayou and in August 1836 proclaimed it Houston. It was one of several "paper cities" in the vicinity for which promoters were seeking inhabitants. But Sam Houston's namesake town got a boost over the others in 1837 when, with the new president's influence, it did become the capital.

Only two years later, however, Houston's successor and archrival, Mirabeau Lamar, relocated the Texas capital to Austin to escape the climate and yellow fever of the Gulf Coast and to pursue his vision of a Texas republic that extended westward to the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, the value of the republic's currency had plunged, causing New Orleans suppliers to cut off credit to Houston merchants.

With their town's future in danger, seven men formed the Houston Chamber of Commerce in 1840. This organization provided the leadership that restored confidence in Houston, establishing a precedent in which city government implemented growth-oriented policies dictated by the business community.

And the city did grow, despite turmoil on the political scene: statehood in 1846, secession in 1861, readmission in 1870. Houston's population of 2,396 in 1850 quadrupled by 1870, by which time the city had trolleys and gaslights. Fortunately, fighting during the Civil War never got closer than Galveston.

By the 1880s, Houston was the terminus for 17 rail lines. By 1900 it was the world's largest cotton port, despite the inadequacy of Buffalo Bayou. Galveston was a much better port, but its vulnerability was dramatized by a hurricane that washed over the island in 1900, killing 8,000 people, almost one in four.

In 1910, desperate for better port facilities, the Houston Chamber of Commerce offered to split the cost with Congress of dredging a ship channel out of Buffalo Bayou. Congress accepted, and the precedent of federal matching funds for local projects was born.

Meanwhile, oil had been discovered at Spindletop, east of Houston, in 1901. Other discoveries followed to the north. In the following decades one of the world's largest concentrations of refineries and petrochemical plants grew up along the Houston Ship Channel. Largest foreign cargo port

Now the port and oil industry are entwined. Today Houston is the nation's largest port for foreign cargo, and the third largest overall. Oil was the leading imported commodity in 1991 at 34 million tons, far exceeding the next item, iron and steel, at 1.7 million tons.

There are no more Spindletops to be discovered in the US, but "oil is going to be an integral part of the economy [of Houston] for a long time," says Jim Kollaer, president of the Greater Houston Partnership, an umbrella organization that includes the Chamber of Commerce.

The oil crash in the mid-1980s took away 221,000 jobs, but the city has since gained back 271,000. Mr. Kollaer expects companies in Houston to direct and to provide services to the oil industry worldwide.

Houston has prospered even as recession has squelched the economies of other cities. "Essentially, we've led the country in job growth for the last three years," Kollaer says, adding that it is the only city in the top 10 to add jobs over the 12 months ending last March.

Today Houston is the nation's fourth-largest city, home to 1.6 million people - 681 times the population of 1850. It sprawls over 580 square miles - 56 times Houston's original land area.

The Allens would be proud, even if Houston is no longer the capital of Texas. Besides, the city has achieved a status that probably is far more important to its growth. As measured by $1 billion in electricity consumed annually for the purpose, Houston is the air-conditioning capital of the world.

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