Houston’s ward system has defined the city virtually from its inception and continues to be a crucial part of the identity of the town and the people who call it home. While Houston’s wards began as an early version of today’s district system and were used as a way to govern and provide representation for the residents, they also helped shape the culture and industry of the region in ways their architects could have never anticipated.
In the early days, the wards each had their own strictly defined sectors, which meant what a person did for a living was the greatest influence on which part of town they lived in. This often culminated a unique blend of people from different economic classes and ethnic backgrounds all living together in one geographic location.
In 1839, the original four wards were established through a charter by the city’s founders, John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen, as a way to help run the newly incorporated city. At the time Texas had just recently liberated itself from Mexico and was operating as a Republic. The fifth and sixth wards were then created some years later from portions of their predecessors to accommodate the rapidly growing city. Though Houston’s ward system was discontinued in the early 1900s, its lasting effects can still be felt today.
THE ORIGINAL FOUR
Where Congress and Main meet downtown is also the point where the original four wards met. At the time Houston’s size was only a tiny portion of what it is today with barely 1,000 residents and spanning less than 100 blocks.
The First Ward was once the center of the city’s business district and covered the northwest portion of the city, encompassing parts of Buffalo Bayou and White Oak Bayou. It is also the home of Allen’s Landing, so named because it was the site where the two Allen brothers first landed in what would soon become Houston in 1836. Unfortunately, most of the original First Ward is now almost entirely indiscernible, having been overtaken by today’s modern downtown buildings. Some parts of the original residential area do remain and are protected in the High First Ward Historic District, created in 2014.
Spanning the northeast area of the city was the Second Ward, which would come to be known as Segundo Barrio. The courthouse was located in this ward, and the area was also popular among merchants due to the many large warehouses found there. Initially, the ward had a large Jewish population, but it was also home to African Americans and additional communities making it a diversified area. Eventually, Mexican immigrants began moving into the ward in the early 1910s during the Mexican Revolution, resulting in today’s mostly Hispanic population.
To the southeast was the Third Ward, which was Houston’s management district and was considered an elite neighborhood, full of Victorian homes with residents from predominantly white-collar professions. The area ultimately underwent a major transformation after the construction of Union Station was completed in 1910, resulting in a more transient population and industrial environment. The Third Ward has also played a crucial role in Houston’s struggle for racial equality.
Finally, the Fourth Ward covered the southwestern part of Houston, and would eventually become the location of Freedman’s Town, a post-Civil War community of recently freed slaves. The ward’s population continued growing to become one of the most densely populated areas of Houston. Because of the area’s rapid expansion, older buildings and homes were always being torn down to make room for the new. Very little of the old Fourth Ward is left today, except Sam Houston Park.
HOUSTON GETS TWO MORE WARDS
To accommodate Houston’s expanding population, the city would charter two new Houston wards in the coming decades.
Created in 1866 from portions of the First and Second Wards, the Fifth Ward was bordered by White Oaks Bayou to the west and Buffalo Bayou to the south, but the late 1800s would prove tumultuous for the community. Due to complaints about the state of various public and municipal services, the Fifth Ward threatened to secede on two separate occasions, once in 1875 and again in 1883. February 21, 1912, would mark the date that 40-blocks of Houston would ignite into flames. Miraculously there were no deaths, but the Great Fifth Ward Fire would be the largest in Houston history and a defining moment for both the ward and Houston as a whole.
The Sixth Ward was founded in 1876 from the northern border of the Fourth Ward and is the only one of Houston’s wards that doesn’t extend deeply into downtown Houston. Two railroads met at Chaney Junction, located in this ward, drawing many craftsmen to the area. Parts of the Sixth Ward have been known as Chaneyville and much later, Vinegar Hill, and a portion of the Sixth Ward, now referred to as Old Sixth Ward, is the oldest intact neighborhood in Houston.
MODERN MEANING OF HOUSTON’S WARDS
Though what Houston’s wards mean to today’s residents has shifted significantly since their early days, there is no question that the areas still hold a sense of cultural significance. Boundaries have been obscured, and much of the old structures and sentiments have faded or transformed with time, but these unique districts continue to shape Houston’s modern identity.
Stay tuned for the rest of our Houston Wards Series, where we’ll take you on an in-depth look into the history, culture, and modern sights of each of Houston’s six wards.