Tuesday, December 27, 2016

William Houston

William Houston

     The Houstons of Rockbridge County had been part of the mass migration of the Scotch-Irish from Great Britain, primarily to Pennsylvania, beginning about 1718. Within 20 years, land values in western Pennsylvania had risen to the point that these immigrants began looking for cheaper land further south up the Shenandoah Valley. When Benjamin Borden received a land grant for 92,000 acres in 1739 in what would become Rockbridge County, the Houstons and many others came there in great numbers and settled permanently.
     The Houston family that gave rise to the future hero of Texas, Samuel Houston, found a home at Timber Ridge. A related family of Houstons bought land on Hays Creek. This place was named "Level Loop," for the loop-shaped portion of the property formed by the creek.
Level Loop (Rockbridge County Courthouse)

     In this plat of Level Loop attached to an 1898 deed, the loop in Hays Creek is clearly visible. "Dwelling" refers to the house built for William Houston about 1819-1822.

Houston home at Level Loop (Virginia Department of Historic Resources)

     William, son of James and Elizabeth Weir Houston, was born in the original house on this property in 1786. After the death of his father in about 1810, William Houston became the owner of his family's estate, located on State Route 724 one mile west of the village of Brownsburg.

Modern plat of Level Loop (Virginia Department of Historic Resources)

     William Houston's first wife was Elizabeth Finley (1794-1832), whom he married before 1814. One of Elizabeth's brothers, John Finley, moved to Richmond, Indiana. There he became mayor, publisher of the town newspaper and a writer still remembered for a phrase he coined that remains in common use. He will be the subject of a future article for Rockbridge Memory.
     Like most of the Scotch-Irish in Rockbridge County, the Houstons were devout Presbyterians. William and his family worshiped at New Providence Presbyterian Church, and his descendants remained devoted members well into the 20th century.
     William and Elizabeth had three children that I know of. Ann Eliza, born in 1814, married Lexington merchant, William George White, who will also be featured in a future post here. John Finley Houston, born in 1844, died the following year. George Washington Houston was born in 1820. He and his family will be a major focus of Rockbridge Memory.

Grave of Elizabeth Houston (Carl Weaver, Findagrave)

     Elizabeth Houston died on January 23, 1823. She is buried in the cemetery at New Providence. Three years later, William married his second wife, Susan Weir (1803-1889). William and Susan had four daughters--Elvira, Mary, Jane and Martha--none of whom ever married. William and Susan's younger son, John Franklin, did not survive infancy.
     Their older son, William Howard Houston, was born on March 28, 1836. I have yet to come across a photograph of him. His Civil War prison record described him as being 5'10" tall, of fair complexion and having gray eyes and brown hair. William married Elizabeth Ervine of Rockingham County on May 22, 1857. Elizabeth was the daughter of Francis Milton and Margaret Campbell Ervine (Francis Ervine had another daughter, Mary Frances, by his second wife, Hester Bear. We will be hearing much more about Mary Frances in future posts on this blog).

Elizabeth Ervine Houston

     On the eve of the Civil War, William H. and Elizabeth were living on a farm in Rockbridge County with their first two children, Charles F. (1858-1890) and Margaret Campbell (1859-1913), who was known to friends and family as "Cammie." Two more children were born during the war, William E. (1862-1885) and Susan "Sue" Weir (1865-1936). Like many of William Houston's descendants, none of these children ever married.

William E. Houston

Elizabeth Ervine Houston with daughters Sue and Cammie

     William Houston was a slave owner; the 1860 census shows that there were nine enslaved people living on his property. As for his son William H., I do not find his name listed as a slave owner on the same census.
     On May 14, 1861, William H. Houston joined Company H of the 14th Virginia Cavalry at Brownsburg. He was enlisted by a neighbor of his father, Captain John Rice McNutt (in 1898 McNutt's son, William Morton, married George Washington Houston's daughter, Ann Eliza). After his initial one year enlistment expired, Sergeant Houston re-enlisted in 1862. On November 26, 1862, he was captured in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. He was taken prisoner by Colonel John C. Paxton of the 2nd West Virginia Cavalry. Houston was taken to he Atheneum Prison at Wheeling on December 4. Two days later, Sergeant Houston was transferred to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio. Three weeks later, he was taken to the military prison in Alton, Illinois, where he remained until he was exchanged at City Point, Virginia on April 1, 1863.
     William Howard Houston was fortunate to have survived his winter confinement at Alton. In the Confederate cemetery at Alton are buried 1, 354 prisoners who died during the course of the war. Houston rejoined his regiment and served for another year and a half, when his luck finally ran out. On November 12, 1864, he "died near Front Royal from the effects of a gunshot wound." He is buried in New Providence Presbyterian Church.

Grave of William Howard Houston (Carl Weaver, Findagrave)

     During the course of the war, the elderly William Houston did what he could to support the Confederate cause by selling supplies to various quartermaster officers. Typical of the receipts for such transactions is the one shown below, for 300 pounds of hay purchased in December 1864.

Receipt for hay signed by William Houston (fold3.com)

     Three months earlier, a desperate Confederate Commissary found it necessary to impress provisions from southern farmers. The document below shows that Confederate authorities took 25 bushels of wheat from William Houston. Later, he would be subjected to the added indignity of having authorities quibble over how much he should be compensated.

Impressment of wheat from William Houston (fold3.com)

     William wrote his last will and testament in August 1867. Among other things, he stipulated that his grandchildren were to be given "a neat copy of the Holy Scripture" if they did not already have one. Those grandchildren named after him were to be each given $50. He named as his executors his surviving son, George Washington Houston, George's brother-in-law William George White, and John Weir.
     George Houston hired Lexington stone cutter John J. Hilesman to make a headstone for his father:

John J. Hilesman's receipt for headstone, 1874 (Library of Virginia)

     William Houston died on June 14, 1868. He is buried at New Providence Presbyterian Church.

Grave of William Houston (Carl Weaver, Findagrave)


Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers (fold3.com)

Confederate Citizens File (fold3.com)

Library of Virginia


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"You Are Endangering Life": Finley Houston and the Valley Railroad

Finley Willson Houston (1852-1926)

     Like some other railroads built in Virginia after the Civil War, the Valley Railroad was bedeviled by weak financing, bad luck and overly optimistic assumptions of financial success. Although this stretch of railroad was never completed to its originally planned length, it did get built, and it survived in one form or another until the 1940s.
     The Valley Railroad had its origins in the competition between the Baltimore & Ohio and the Pennsylvania Railroad companies to build a link to the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad in Salem, Virginia. Philadelphia and Baltimore, the home cities of these two corporations, were also major seaports. After the Civil War, they vied with each other to build links to southern markets, including the coal-rich mountain regions of the South.
     The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was chartered in 1827. In 1858, John Work Garrett was named president of the railroad, a position he held until his death in 1884.

John Work Garrett (B & O Railroad Museum)

     The B & O planned to build a 113-mile span of track from Harrisonburg to Salem. To accomplish this ambitious feat, at a projected cost of five million dollars, the Valley Railroad was chartered by the Virginia General Assembly on February 23, 1866. The first president of the Valley RR was Colonel Michael Garber Harman (his son, Asher Waterman Harman, Jr., would one day become the State Treasurer of Virginia).
     From its earliest days, the Valley RR was plagued by inadequate financing. A discouraged Colonel Harman stepped down from the presidency in July 1870. Harman convinced Robert E. Lee, then president of Washington College in Lexington, to take his place. It was thought that the Valley RR would benefit from Lee's administrative abilities, and his name would likely attract additional investors. Unfortunately for the Valley RR, Lee's tenure with the company was cut short by his death in October 1870. Lee was replaced by Robert Garrett, son of the president of the B & O.
      Surveys and engineering work got underway, rights of way were purchased and financing was arranged. But time and circumstance were already conspiring against the Valley RR. The Pennsylvania RR built a competing track roughly parallel to the Valley RR, and ultimately won the race to successfully link up with the Virginia and Tennessee RR. In addition, like many businesses in America at the time, the Valley RR was crippled by the financial panic of 1873. The Valley RR would get no further south than Lexington.

Map detail of Rockbridge County, c. 1863 (Library of Congress)

     In the map detail of Rockbridge shown above, the red line running obliquely from upper right to lower left is the Valley Turnpike, modern Route 11. The fainter line running parallel to the Turnpike just above it is the proposed route of the Valley Railroad. Below the Turnpike can be seen the village of Fairfield. Directly across the road is the property of George Washington Houston, indicated as "G. W. Houston." This was Mt. Pleasant, the farm established by the Willson family in 1756, and purchased by George Houston after his marriage to Annette Louise Willson in 1850. In December 1873, George Houston conveyed by deed to the Valley RR a right of way through his property. Later, another acre would be condemned by the railroad for the construction of the Fairfield depot.
     Due to the problems outlined above, progress on the railroad from Staunton to Lexington proceeded slowly. Work commenced at Mount Pleasant in 1882. George Houston would not live to see much accomplished on his land, however; he died on February 18, 1882.

Red House

     Upon his father's death, Finley Houston became the de facto head of the Houston family. Finley had married Grace Alexander at Red House in 1875. Known as "Veranda" to the Alexander family, this place is marked on the map above as "Dr. Alexander" on the Turnpike south of Fairfield. Finley and Grace lived at Red House with the Alexander family. By the autumn of 1882, Finley and Grace were looking forward to the birth of their fourth daughter (their third daughter, Grace Agnes, had died the previous year).
     Still living at Mt. Pleasant after the death of George Houston were his widow, Annette, her teen-aged children Ann Eliza and Will, and two servants, James and Malinda McClung. By October 1882, progress on the rail bed had reached a section behind the Houston house. That is when the trouble began.
Courtroom sketch of Mount Pleasant (Library of Virginia)
     A section gang of 10-15 workmen, employed by Baltimore & Ohio contractors Hardin & Young, were preparing the rail bed and laying track through Mt. Pleasant. As they neared the area at the rear of the Houston house, about 150 yards distant, they encountered a long stretch of rock just beneath the surface of the soil. Hardin & Young were then obliged to use dynamite to blast the rock out of the way.
     In the course of blasting, rocks of various sizes were thrown into the yard in the rear and sides of the house. A number of these rocks were dangerously hefty, some estimated to weigh as much as 35 pounds. Rocks also sailed over the house and landed in the front yard, Inevitably, the house itself was struck.
     Rocks smashed through at least two windows, "and in one particular instance, a rock was thrown from where the defendants were blasting. . .through the window of the house which smashed the  window panes, shattered the blinds into many fragments and narrowly escaped striking one of the servants." The farm's fencing was also much damaged, and fruit and limbs had been knocked off the trees in the orchard.
     The Houstons pleaded with Hardin & Young to exercise greater care in the conduct of their business so as not to endanger the Houstons and their servants, "but so far from receiving a civil or an ordinary courteous answer they were rebuffed and trifled with and their grievance. . .laughed at and made sport of."
     Finley drove over to Mt. Pleasant to see what he could do for his beleaguered family. Finley approached Mr. Young personally and explained the dangers the blasting posed to his family, their servants, the livestock and their property. In an exasperated tone, Mr. Young said, "The Baltimore & Ohio will pay for all damage done." "You wound me, sir," Finley replied. "Mr. Young that won't do. You are endangering life." At that Young thundered, "By God, sir, The Baltimore & Ohio will pay all damage."
     After Finley's conversation with Mr. Young, things got worse for the Houstons. The railroaders stopped giving the family any warning when blasting was about to take place. The rocks rained down on the house and outbuildings and in the yard with increased ferocity, and in one instance a railroad tie was spitefully launched in the direction of the house with what seemed to be a deliberate attempt to do further harm, Finley thought.
     This time, Finley did not bother speaking with Mr. Young. Instead, he drove to the law office of Colonel Edmund Pendleton, counsel for the Valley Railroad. After hearing Finley out, Colonel Pendleton exclaimed that the behavior of the contractors was outrageous. He gave Finley a letter to take to one of the engineers overseeing the project. Finley hoped that this would have the desired effect of having the work at Mt. Pleasant carried on in a manner to ensure the safety of the Houstons, their employees and their property.
     Instead, the letter had quite the opposite effect. Now the dynamiting of the rock was carried on at a furious pace, "like cannonading." Livestock had to be kept sheltered, field hands could not do their work and the Houstons were compelled to remain inside the house, although there was no guarantee of safety there, either. Finley had had enough.

Order to Sheriff to summon Hardin & Young to appear in court (Library of Virginia)

     Finley retained the services of Lexington attorneys W. A. Anderson and W. T. Shields. A complaint was filed in the circuit court. Named as plaintiffs were Finley, his mother, his sister Annie and brother Will who were living at Mt. Pleasant, and his sister Mary Elizabeth "Lizzie" Houston Row and her husband, George Washington Estes Row, who lived in Spotsylvania County. Although Hardin & Young were not prohibited from carrying on with their work, the court issued an injunction on October 12th, 1882, commanding the railroaders to do their job without endangering the Houstons. The court ordered the Sheriff to issue a summons to Hardin & Young to appear in court on the first Monday in November. Deputy Sheriff David A. Ott personally delivered the writ on October 13.
      Lexington attorney Francis William Henderson was appointed by the court to act as special commissioner and to take depositions in his office. The attorney who would represent the interests of Hardin & Young was 25 year old Ephraim Morgan Pendleton, the son of Colonel Pendleton.

Ephraim Morgan Pendleton (1857-1919)

     What with the usual routine of delays and continuances, the process of taking depositions took many weeks. By the time the case was concluded, Hardin & Young had finished their work on the Houston property and had continued south toward Lexington. During all this turmoil, Finley's youngest daughter, Mary, was born at Red House on December 16, 1882.
     The Houstons did not seek monetary damages, and they were awarded none. The court ordered that the defendants pay the Houstons their costs and attorney fees, which came to $40.91. The case was finally concluded on February 28, 1883.


Barringer, Paul; Garnett, James; and Page, Roswell. University of Virginia--Its History, Influence, Equipment and Characteristics, vol. 2 (New York: Lewis Publishing Company, 1904)

Stover, John. History of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1987)

Library of Virginia, Rockbridge County Chancery Causes. Index number 1883-015 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/chancery/full_case_detail.asp?CFN=163-1883-015#img)