Andrew Hall's book The Galveston-Houston Packet: Steamboats on Buffalo Bayou is a welcome addition to both local history and the under-appreciated topic of water transportation in Texas. The author admirably succeeds not only on the level of local history but also in presenting an interesting and thoroughly researched maritime history. Hall is well suited for this research being a widely experienced and respected maritime historian, museum professional, and nautical archaeologist. Hall's deep knowledge of the Galveston Bay region is enhanced by his being native to the area.
The route between Galveston and Houston was a vital one connecting the oceans of the world with the interior of Texas and the western United States. Hall explains how the riverboat leg connected and evolved with the railroads that grew vigorously after the Civil War. Railroads ultimately supplanted steamboats in importance, but the boats had a key role as long as roads were unpaved and the rail network incomplete. The author argues that the river steamboat should have an equal place alongside the dusty wagon train and the smoke puffing locomotive in our imagination of the American West.
Chapter one covers the historical and geographical situation of Galveston Bay and the Texas coast, and in chapter two the author discusses the beginnings of steam navigation in the area. Hall uses the histories and stories of individual ships and their colorful captains throughout the book to show how the trade developed, flourished for but a few decades, [End Page 210] and then declined as the railroads gained ascendancy. The author relates the remarkable and interesting experiences of steamboat men, travelers, and merchants with a very enjoyable writing style. The trade began in the 1830s and saw its heydays in the 1840s and 1850s. By the 1870s and 1880s obsolescence set in. "The influx of settlers into Texas . . . during the period of the Texas Republic fueled the booming Buffalo Bayou trade. The 'great commercial emporium' of Houston . . . drove the upstream trade, while Galveston's preeminence as the leading port in the region guaranteed rapid growth" (112). Dry and stiff the account is not. At the same time, academic standards are very well met.
With eight chapters in all, Hall follows the history in an evolutionary framework. He uses numerous period photographs, drawings, maps, newspaper advertisements, and quotes from letters and memoirs. In an interesting and skillful way these all provide life and understanding to the account. In the importance given to graphic illustrations the author parallels the present reviewer's own preferences. The Civil War and Reconstruction chapters are particularly well done, covering events such as Battle of Galveston. An appendix lists the boats that navigated the Galveston-Houston route with particulars on each. The author's map of Galveston Bay on pages 20-21 shows notable locations, hazards to navigation, and the sites of the most important historical incidents. A minor improvement might be to include a legend identifying the event for each number in addition to referencing the numbers in the text.
The reviewer is happy to recommend this book to a wide audience: general readers, steamboat enthusiasts, and professional historians or nautical archaeologists. It sheds light on the important but little studied field of maritime history in Texas.