Our Ward Series is winding down as we begin our journey through Houston’s final ward: The Sixth Ward. Joining the others in 1876, just ten years after the Fifth Ward was created, the Sixth was formed from the northern portion of the Fourth Ward. In fact, prior to becoming its own district, the area above Buffalo Bayou was simply referred to as Fourth Ward North, though eventually it would also become known as “The Sabine”. The Sixth Ward was bounded by Washington Avenue and Union Street to the north, Glenwood Cemetery to the West, Capitol Street to the south, and Houston Street to the east.
The Sixth Ward’s proximity to the Houston and Central Texas Railroad made it an appealing choice of residence for workers in the railroad industry. Also among its residents were German immigrant farmers, who kept townhouses in the area. Though their farms were located outside of the city, they often needed a place to stay when they came to town to sell produce and goods in Market Square. Nearby Vauxhall Gardens, one of Houston’s earliest parks, sat where Eleanor Tinsley Park is today. Many recreational activities and German festivities took place there in Houston’s earlier days. Eventually, the area diversified to include more immigrants from many other European nations as well as Mexico.
In addition to being conveniently located to the railroad and nearby farms, the Sixth Ward also had the added luxury of cable cars. This combined with having what was at the time the highest elevation in the city and access to aquifer-fed water, made it a very desirable area to live. A building boom erupted in the 1890s, and homes with running water and electricity began rapidly appearing. Sixth ward houses were constructed in several different styles over the decades. Those built from the mid-1800s through the 1910s were most commonly in the Gulf Coast Colonial or Greek Revival style, Folk Victorian Style, and Queen Anne style. From 1895 through 1940, Classical Revival homes and Bungalows were more prevalent.
Vinegar Hill and Tin Can Alley
Despite its reputation for being a highly regarded place to live, the Sixth Ward also had its share of less reputable neighborhoods. Tin Can Alley was a little spot, one block long, located near the Houston and Texas Central Railroad yards. The area was within the triangle formed by Washington Ave., Preston Street, and Buffalo Bayou, and a subset of Vinegar Hill. In the late 1800s, many gypsies resided along this thoroughfare and the street was well-known for hosting many unruly characters.
Vinegar hill was a little area south of the Preston Avenue bridge and was so named because it was teeming with vinegaroons or whip scorpions—which, despite their lack of venom, spray a strong vinegary smell when threatened. Sig Byrd, a writer integral to Houston’s journalistic history, is famously quoted referring to the area as a “kind of arrogant slum…scowling down on a good portion of the proud new city itself.”
Though much of the original Fourth Ward’s African-American population remained south of Buffalo Bayou when the Sixth Ward split off to become its own district, Chaneyville was a notable exception. It was a small African-American enclave in the middle of the Sixth Ward, named due to its proximity to Chaney Junction, the first stop on the Houston and Central Texas Railroad going west out of Houston to Washington-on-the-Brazos. Also nearby were Chaney Court and Chaney Avenue.
The Future of Old Sixth Ward
Eventually, the rise of suburbs and popularity of automobiles drew people away from the city-center, and like many of the other wards, the Sixth Ward saw a period of decline. Most of the large homes were converted to multi-tenant properties and landlords often neglected the state of the buildings. Despite this, the Old Sixth Ward remains the oldest intact neighborhood in Houston and has the largest concentration of Victorian houses in the Houston area. Sabine Street even still has some of its original paving.
In 1978 Old Sixth Ward became Houston’s first neighborhood to be listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places, but this did little by way of preservation or restoration. Unfortunately, the area was still in desperate need of help. Eventually, in 1997, the city named it a Municipal Historical District. Families began moving back into the neighborhood and restoring the run-down buildings into single-family homes. In 2007, at the petition of residents, the Old Sixth Ward was finally given Protected Historic District status. Restoration efforts still continue today, with stricter guidelines in place to protect one of Houston’s oldest neighborhoods.
In the next installment, we will show you some of the Sixth Ward’s greatest discoveries.