Tucked away on a forgotten corner of
Buffalo Bayou, the ghostly structure of the Gable Street Power Plant
sits in quiet retirement. Once the throbbing electrical pulse of
Houston, the plant has been decommissioned for over two decades. Yet,
for over fifty years, this one facility provided a large percentage of
the electricity that the city could consume.
Although the story of electric power
in Houston begins in the early 1880's at a time when candles and gas
lights were much more common than electric lights, the story of the ten
acres of land on which the plant sits takes us back to the earliest
days of the Town of Houston.
In the aftermath of the Battle of San Jacinto, the Texas Army was
disbanded over the period from May through the summer of 1836. Many of
the young men who enlisted or who were recruited to come join the fight
for Texas found themselves on the prairie of southeast Texas without
land or homes. But, there future was promising. The rumors that
Augustus C. Allen was planning to establish a new town in the area were
widespread among those who remained. Allen was meeting with the Harris
family near the ruins of Harrisburg and he also was communicating with
William T. Austin in Columbia in an attempt to secure land for the new
A. C. and his brother John K. Allen announced the founding of their
town of Houston in August, 1836, and the new Congress voted to
establish the seat of government of the Republic of Texas in Houston on
November 30, 1836. The construction of homes and government buildings
began in early 1837, and President Sam Houston wrote that, when he
arrived in late April, 1837, there were about one hundred houses
already built and approximately 1500 people were engaged in various
pursuits around town.
Many veterans came to the area to become a part of the new venture.
They settled in and around the new town on Buffalo Bayou, and, it is
highly possible that some of them had already been living in the area
since the summer of 1836. Although the Allen brothers focused their
attention on the sale of town lots, they also were willing to sell some
tracts of land outside of the town limits. On April 13, 1837, two
veterans of San Jacinto, William F. Hodge and Jonathan B. Frost, bought
adjacent tracts of land along Buffalo Bayou downstream of town at $100
per acre. The deeds indicated that each man already had a residence on
his tract at the time of the purchase.
William F. Hodge acquired ten acres of land
that encompassed the south bank of Buffalo Bayou from the the first
bend of the bayou downstream of Houston to a point that is
approximately at the modern McKee Street bridge, then down a line that
now parallels McKee Street to a point parallel to the origin, and then
back to the beginning.
After the death of his thirty-two year old neighbor Jonathan Frost of
congestive fever in September, 1837, Hodge was
involved in the probate of the Frost estate. Hodge held the security
bond for Samuel M. Frost who was appointed the administrator of
Jonathan Frost's estate. The death of his friend and neighbor and
Samuel Frost's intention to subdivide the Frost tract and sell lots may
have motivated Hodge to pursue his opportunities elsewhere. While
Samuel Frost acquired title to the Frost tract from his brother James
Frost on May 5, 1838, William Hodge completed the sale of his land to
fellow veteran John Beldin on May 8, 1838. Taking advantage of the
rising value of land near the capitol, Hodge
sold his land to Beldin for $3,000, reaping a $2,000 gain on the sale.
John Beldin was a more recognized veteran than either Hodge or Frost.
Born in New York in 1812, Beldin enlisted in Captain William J. Cook's
"New Orleans Greys" in October, 1835 and fought at the Storming and
Capture of Bexar in December of that year. The twenty-three year old
soldier sustained the loss of an eye while "spiking a cannon" and he
was mustered out of the Texas Army in January, 1836 after convalescing
in New Orleans. Yet, Beldin returned to Texas to join Amasa Turner's
Company B at San Jacinto.
For his service to Texas, John Beldin received various grants of land.
For his service in the Army in 1835, he received a certificate for 320
acres of land. It is said that he traded that certificate for a three
year old grey mare. On December 18, 1837, he was granted a league of
land in compensation for his permanent disability while serving in the
Army. He later sold the certificate for that land to Bucknam Canfield
for $200 on July 10, 1840. On January 5, 1838, Beldin was issued a
Headright Certificate for one third of a league of land. On October 25,
1838, Beldin was issues a Donation Certificate for 640 acres for his
participation at San Jacinto. This tract, surveyed near Brays Bayou, is
now part of the City of Bellaire along Loop 610, a tract approximately
bounded by Bellaire Boulevard on the north, South Rice Avenue on the
west, Beechnut Street on the south and the Southern Pacific Railroad on
Like many of the veterans who had been paid for their military service
in land certificates, John Beldin instantly became a land speculator,
whether it was his intention or not. It was probably while in this
frame of mind that he purchased the Hodge land in 1838. Although he
married Frances Bartlett on October 23, 1839, it is not likely that he
planned to settle on the land he acquired from William Hodge. Within a
year, on September 11, 1840, John Beldin sold the ten acres he bought
from Hodge to Leonard S. Perkins and Levi Butler. As fate would have
it, a year later, John Beldin, though still a young man, was struck
down by one of the series of epidemics that were the scourge of Houston
during the mid-1800's. He died of "congestive fever" in Houston on
September 15, 1841 and was buried in the City Cemetery.
The partnership of Perkins, then 31 years old, and Butler did not
exploit the ten acres tract in the way that was being done with the
Frost tract and the adjacent Moody tract. While the neighboring land
was subdivided into small home lots and sold to individuals, the Hodge
tract remained undeveloped for over a decade. At some point during that
time, Levi Butler obtained complete control of the land and, on June 1,
1853, Butler sold the entire property to a partnership of Peter Gabel
and Henry Schulte.
The language of the property description used in the deed to Gabel and
Schulte provides us with one of the earliest associations of this tract
with the neighborhood in Houston that became known as Frost Town.
"...Ten acres of land on the south side of Buffalo Bayou in the lower
part of the City of Houston and part of what is called Frost Town..."
The apparent success of Samuel Frost's sale of lots in the Frost Town
Subdivision also attracted residents to the adjoining blocks of the
Moody Addition and the Second Ward. A community developed and it
encompassed an area larger than the eight blocks of the Frost's tract.
A year and a half later, on December 12, 1854, Henry Schulte deeded his
one half interest in the property to Peter Gabel. Schulte, about ten
years younger than Gabel, was a brewer who immigrated from Prussia.
After they dissolved their partnership in this tract of land, both men
established successful breweries in downtown Houston.
Peter Gabel, in his early 30's at the time, arrived with his wife Mary
in Houston in the late 1840's from Bavaria. By profession, he was a
cooper, that is, a barrel maker, and he listed that as his occupation
in the census of 1850. Shortly thereafter, however, Gabel began brewing
beer. And, by 1857, his brewery had more than doubled in volume. Gabel
became well established in the community and was a successful brewer,
distiller and wine dealer. By 1866, he owned a brewery on the corner of
Preston Avenue and Caroline Street and the Exchange Bar Room on
Franklin Avenue, between Main Street and Travis Street.
From the time of his arrival in Houston, Peter Gabel showed a
gregarious and socially active side of his personality. In January,
1854, Gabel hosted a meeting at his home on Preston Avenue in which ten
young German men founded a club called the Houston Turnverein. As a
social organization dedicated to intellectual and athletic activities,
the Turnverein became a popular civic organization among the local
German community, eventually reaching a membership of over 1400 men. It
was out of this group of men that the city's first fire-fighting
company was established. Since many of these German men lived in the
Frost Town area and the Second Ward, some historians have attributed
the first fire-fighting company to Frost Town, whether that is wholly
accurate, or not.
Peter Gabel himself probably never lived in Frost Town or on the tract
of land along Buffalo Bayou. However, as a consequence of his long
ownership of the property that had originally belonged to William
Hodge, Gabel put his own stamp on the land. It became commonly known as
the Gabel property, and the street along its eastern boundary became
Gabel Street, with the spelling later Anglicized to "Gable" in almost
Unlike the Frost Town Subdivision across the street, the development of
homes and businesses on the Gabel property proceeded slowly although
the Galveston and Houston Junction Railroad was built across the middle
of the tract in 1865. By 1869, there were two houses on lots on the
south half and a few scattered buildings in the north section of the
tract. By 1873, there were three houses along Gabel Street and a couple
outlying barn-like structures in the north section. The most
significant and enduring development to the Gabel tract was to be the
construction of the Citizens Electric Company Power Plant in 1890.
Gas lights were introduced in Houston shortly after the Civil War and
were in widespread use in businesses and homes by 1880. The inventions
by Thomas A. Edison in the late 1870's with the new source of energy of
electricity were about to change the lives of Americans and Houstonians
in particular. Edison's improvements to the incandescent light bulb and
his development of an electric power distribution system led to the
installation of the country's first incandescent light and power
station for private consumers in New York City in 1882.
Within the summer of the same year, Emmanuel Raphael obtained a
franchise to build a plant utilizing Edison's concept of generating
electrical current by means of a central dynamo, then distributing it
in small quantities to thousands of homes and commercial buildings.
Raphael received a charter for the Houston Electric Light and Power
Company on May 20, 1882, and the company constructed its plant on
Buffalo Bayou at the foot of Main Street near Commerce Avenue. Today,
the site is a parking lot for the Spaghetti Warehouse
The difficulties of introducing a new technology to society and making
it an economical and profitable business are monumental. The Houston
Electric Light and Power Company had technical problems resulting in
chronic low load conditions and financial problems caused by an
inadequate rate structure. The company went into receivership in March,
1886 and was acquired by its rival, the Houston Gas Light Company, in
Sensing that there was still an
opportunity in the Houston marketplace,
investors chartered the Citizens' Electric Light and Power Company on
July 29, 1889, and then purchased the franchise and the equipment of
the Fort Wayne Jenny Electric Company. Citizens' Electric built its
plant on Gabel Street, just north of the Galveston Houston and
Henderson Railroad tracks. A rail siding provided access for coal to be
piled on the south side of the coal fired plant which had two smoke
stacks. A thirty-five foot tall, wooden water tower was located off the
northwest corner of the facility.
The plant itself, a wooden structure that was sheathed in corrugated
iron and covered with a tin roof, housed fifteen dynamos to provide
electrical power. The power plant operated continuously, and, at any
one time, the plant's seven horizontal tubular boilers and three
engines, with a capacity of 720 horsepower, were driving ten arc
dynamos which enabled the three bipolar power generators to produce a
total capacity of 150
Rather than compete for the electrical power market in Houston, the
Houston Gas Light Company sold its interest in the Houston
Electric Light and Power Company that it had acquired when the company
went into receivership to Citizens' Electric in January, 1891.
Citizens' Electric became the sole electric power provider for Houston.
Financial difficulties plagued the Citizens' Electric Light & Power
Company and the company went into receivership on January 7, 1898. The
fortunes of the company suffered another blow a few weeks later. In the
early evening of March 26, 1898, the No. 6 boiler at Citizens' Electric
Gabel Street plant exploded. The force of the explosion toppled one of
the smoke stacks causing it to break in two and fall across the
GH&H trestle. The plant was destroyed and two men working at the
plant died instantly. Another two men died within a week, and,
miraculously two workmen survived.
The devastation of the power plant was compounded by a fire that was
touched off the next day. A spark ignited the vapors in and around the
facility, and hundreds of gallons of oil and solvents went up in
flames. Fortunately, it does not appear that any of the ten homes that
are depicted along the west side of Gabel Street in the 1891 "bird's
eye" map were damaged by the explosion or fire.
The company struggled to survive the repercussions of the disaster. A
new plant, constructed on the south side of the GH&H tracks to
replace the Gabel Street plant destroyed by explosion, began operation
in April, 1900. Never the less, in December, 1901, the court ordered
the transfer of the Citizens' Electric assets to its creditors who
reorganized the company as the Houston Lighting and Power
The revitalized company made a
commitment in 1905 to enhance the plant on Gabel Street with enough
generating capacity to provide electricity to all the citizens of the
city. By 1907, the plant consisted of an engine and dynamo room in the
largest building, an adjacent office on the northeast corner of the
structure, oil tanks off the northwest corner of the building, and
other outlying buildings for storage.
In spite of the increase in industrial development in the area, the
Gabel tract, by 1907, continued to have considerable residential
development, as did the rest of Frost Town. Seventeen lots with
dwellings lined the Gabel Street side of the south half of the tract
and extended along the southern boundary as well. Nine lots with
dwellings were on the north side of the tract lining the railroad
tracks and extending northward along Gabel Street (which by this time
is spelled "Gable"). A steel bridge across Buffalo Bayou at McKee
Street connected Gable Street and Frost Town with the rail yards and
commercial businesses on the north side of the bayou.
The electric utility attempted to
keep up with the demand for electrical power service in Houston for the
first quarter of the twentieth century. Industrialization of the local
economy, the influx of population and the introduction of consumer
appliances meant that the demand for electricity continued to rise in
Houston. Construction on the Gable Street plant to improve the capacity
took place at repeated intervals prior to the Depression with additions
made to the facility in 1913, 1917, 1918 and 1921. However, by 1922,
the Gable Street plant was considered inefficient since Buffalo Bayou
was a shallow, narrow stream with minimal tidal action which resulted
in circulating water temperatures in the cooling system that did not
allow the generators to operate economically.
Although the major reconstruction of the power plant had been completed
by 1924, the plant was unable to provide service to the whole Houston
area. In August, 1924, the first unit of Houston Lighting and Power's
Deepwater plant in Pasadena went online to share the load.
The physical plant and facilities at Gable Street, by 1924, began to
take on the appearance of a modern industrial site. The area south of
the railroad tracks, the south half of the Gabel tract, was almost
completely occupied by the electric company facilities. The plant's
main building contained the engine and dynamo room. Off to the
northwest corner of the building there was a steel water tank on the
ground, next to two oil tanks in underground concrete vaults. A water
tank on a fifty foot tower stood adjacent to the west side of the main
building, near the north corner.
Various outbuildings to the
south of the main building included a supply warehouse, a bath house
and general storage. The Houston Gas and Fuel Company had constructed a
steel gasometer tank on Gable Street, south of the plant, where gas was
stored near at normal pressure and temperature. The Settlement House,
the former Settegast home, which had been moved to the far southern
boundary of the Gabel property prior to the construction of the new
Rusk School in 1912, seemed dangerously close to the volatile fuels and
solvents of the plant.
In a similar pattern that mixed industrial fuel storage in close
proximity to homes and residences, two large, steel oil storage tanks
were located on the ground in the area north of the railroad tracks and
adjacent to the homes along Kapner Street.
The residential development in the north half of the Gabel tract
continued from 1907 to 1924. Isaac Kapner, a Polish immigrant from
Austria, began buying properties in the Frost Town area about 1900 and
by 1924, he had subdivided a large part of the part of the tract north
of the railroad tracks into lots and small dwellings, most likely
Kapner and his wife Sophia, both in their early twenties, had come to
the United States about 1880 and lived for about five years in Arkansas
before coming to Texas in 1885 or 1886. Kapner, who listed his
occupation as a merchant, lived in 1900 on the south side of Lyle
Street in the Moody Addition, next to the GH&H Railroad tracks. He
knew the neighborhood and the potential for providing low cost housing
for the steady flow of immigrants to the city. In addition to the
houses that existed in 1907, twenty-one new homes lined Kapner Street
that branched west off Gable Street, north of Race Street.
Kapner continued to live in the area, and in 1920, he and his wife
Sophia lived at 1902 Franklin Avenue, at the corner with Hamilton
Street. By this time, at age 63, he considered himself retired. Sophia
passed away in 1921, and by 1930, Isaac Kapner had remarried and lived
with his wife Augusta, a German immigrant, at 1405 McGowen Street.
Kapner died in 1945 at age 88 and his son Charles filed his will for
probate on October 8, 1945.
Additional construction and development of the Houston Lighting and
Power Gable Street Plant occurred in 1939. And, by 1951, the main plant
consisted of the boiler room, the engine room, the dynamo room and
associated facilities. A separate oil pump house adjacent to Gable
Street was built in 1950.
The complex extended across both sides of the GH&H tracks. The
residential area along Kapner Street was removed and no houses remained
on the north side of the railroad tracks by 1951. Instead, the HL&P
facilities there include two cooling tower units, an oil storage
facility with two tanks, a tile locker house on the south bank of the
bayou, and other small buildings.
Security concerns related to the declaration of war with Germany
prompted HL&P to erect a fence around the Gabel Street plant. In
particular, the fence separated the plant yard from the Settlement
House on the far southern boundary of the property. The Settlement
House was eventually razed in the mid-1950's for the construction of
The Gabel Street plant was
finally decommissioned in 1983 as other, more efficient energy
generation facilities became operational. The property has not,
however, been abandoned. Recent additions and improvements to the
electrical substation on the north part of the tract to provide service
to the development of the east side of downtown.
In 1993, the Gable Street Power Plant was considered for the site
of a proposed energy museum, but that idea has yet to mature. The hull
the once prominent electrical generating facility stands remote and
mysterious to passers-by on McKee Street, the new name of Gable Street.
Seen from the bayou, the plant looks much as it did when it was
functioning. Yet, the dock and bulkhead structures at water level along
the bank are in disrepair. Large ceramic pipes of the cooling system
lie in place among the scaffolds although many of the segments are
broken and disconnected. Below the mowed lawn on the top of the bank,
bayou vegetation and the indigenous undergrowth hides much of the
former wharf structures that remind us of the time when boats and
barges plied the waters of Buffalo Bayou this far into town.