Buffalo Bayou
An Echo of Houston's Wilderness Beginnings
by
   Louis F. Aulbach 
Shepherd's Damn Road

The bridge at Shepherd Drive is visible from the bayou several hundred yards upstream since the bayou set its course nearly due east, toward downtown. The bridge marks the location of a manmade feature on the bayou, originally situated far to the west of the city, that was well known as early as 1900. A dam was built at a point immediately upstream of the present bridge.
Shepherd Drive Bridge
The dam on Buffalo Bayou was the idea of David Phillip Shepherd. Shepherd, who otherwise is nearly forgotten in the history of Houston, gave his name to the dam on the bayou and, subsequently to the road leading to the dam from the San Felipe Road and the small crossing that passed either near the dam or across the top of the structure.

Characterized as a 'get-rich-quick' type of personality, David Shepherd, like many other young Houstonians in the second half of the 19th century, had grand ideas for commerce and enterprise.

Born in Virginia in 1838, David Shepherd came to Houston and, in 1866, was the superintendent at the Southwest Telegraph Company. He and his wife Olivia lived on Main Street between Rusk Avenue and Walker Avenue.

Near the turn of the century, Shepherd built a dam on Buffalo Bayou on ten acres which he had acquired some time earlier. His plan was for a sawmill and a flour mill at this location. This design was merely one part of a larger scheme of dams, mill races and navigation locks up and down the bayou.

Shepherd actually organized a company to carry out his ventures. In addition to the dam at the present day Shepherd Drive, he built one other dam on the bayou. The precise location of that dam is not clear, but it may have been upstream of Preston Avenue. His vision for Buffalo Bayou was to create a system of dams and mill races to power flour and grist mills as well as factories using the power of water in a manner similar to what had been successfully accomplished in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
 
One critical element in his plan was a scheme to divert water from the Brazos River into Buffalo Bayou in order to build up the water supply and to provide a consistent flow. Since such a diversion plan required the approval of the state, the rejection by the legislature of his proposal brought his company to financial ruin.

Although the financial problems wrecked the plan, the dam became known as Shepherd's Dam and the impounded water became a popular swimming hole. The failure of his plan did not escape local ridicule, either. The 1913 J. M. Kelsen Map of Houston cleverly labeled the road to the dam as "Shepherd's Damn Road."

In time, floods washed away his dams, although a remnant of the one could be seen from the Shepherd Drive bridge as late as 1938. The name of the street and the bridge crossing near the site of his dam remains the sole legacy of David P. Shepherd and his grandiose scheme.

Yet, before we dismiss D. P. Shepherd's dreams as a far-fetched delusion, we should recall that by 1927, the Brazos Valley Irrigation Company had obtained a permit to take 99,000 acre feet of water annually from the Brazos River to irrigate the rice crops north of Sugar Land. This system then merged with the Briscoe Irrigation Company which had developed a network of canals to provide Brazos River water for irrigation and industrial uses to Fort Bend, Brazoria and Galveston Counties. In the 1930's, the entire system was sold to the American Rice Growers Association. The Briscoe Canal, which draws water from the Brazos below Sugar Land, and the American Canal, which taps the water from Oyster Creek in Sugar Land, became part of the American Canal Company of Texas. The company was acquired by the Brazos River Authority in 1967, and the canals continue to be major components in the management of the Brazos watershed in this area.

You can canoe past the large pumping station on the Brazos River for the Briscoe Canal opposite the town of Thompsons, a few miles below Sugar Land, and the pumping facility for the South Texas Water Company Canal a couple miles farther downstream, near the community of Juliff.

Near Fulshear, the Brazos River is less than ten miles from the upper reaches of Buffalo Bayou. It makes you realize that Shepherd's idea was, perhaps, only a little ahead of its time.

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Copyright by Louis F. Aulbach, 2009


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