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HomeNL-2012-02 Buffalo Bayou 2

A Winter trip on Buffalo Bayou: 

Discovering the Remains of the 1895 Shepherd’s Dam
January 22nd, 2012
Linda Gorski and Louis Aulbach


On Sunday, January 22, 2012, eleven members of the Houston Canoe Club paddled Buffalo Bayou from Woodway to Allen’s Landing.  It was a gorgeous 70+ degree day…Begging the question…who would want to live anywhere else but Houston in the middle of winter?

Ken Anderson

negotiating the put-in

Despite the recent heavy rains, the put in at Woodway was accessible and fairly easy.  The stairs were covered with mud and sand but were still negotiable.  We learned to slide our boats down the muddy slope to the left side of the stairs and enter the boats (carefully) by stepping on the stone pad at the bottom of the steps.  And we were off!

The group consisted of HCC members Louis Aulbach, our trip leader, Linda Gorski, Frank Ohrt, Katie O’Neill, Ken Anderson, Tom Anderson, Dave Kitson, Honey Leveen, Paul Woodcock, Cassidy Johnson and John Rich. 


I think that right from the beginning of the trip, all of us were stunned at the amount of trash and debris along both sides of the bayou left by the recent 6 - 8 inch rains upstream.  Sand and silt reached several feet up each bank, marking the height of the waters as they traveled down the bayou carrying along and depositing  what looked like tons of plastic bags hanging from trees, styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, household trash and construction debris.  If you look carefully at this photo of Louis leading the trip, you’ll note plastic bags hanging from every tree on both sides of the Bayou.  And here’s a photo of John Rich watching a train pass over the railroad bridge… note the amount of debris stacked against the bridge supports.




Group departing

the put-in


Trip leader,

Louis Aulbach


John Rich

watches train

Lunch break
We stopped for lunch at the sand bar in Memorial Park.  During lunch we were treated to constant entertainment from a wide variety of birds that were flying up and down the bayou including the biggest blue herons I’ve ever seen!   We also commented on how many airplanes flew overhead in the short time we sat on the bank… evidently this portion of the Bayou is right on the Hobby Airport flight path!

Historic dam photo
As we continued down the bayou and approached the Shepherd Drive  bridge, Louis and I started looking for remains of the old dam that was built here in 1895.  We’d heard about this dam for years, but recently came across this historic photo of the dam.


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.

As the rest of the group paddled ahead Louis and I searched both banks for evidence of the pilings and bricks that David Shepherd used to build his dam.  Here are a few photos of what we found that prove Shepherd’s dam was indeed just downstream from the Shepherd bridge.  You’ll note in these photos old timbers that remain embedded in the north bank of the bayou and a brick scatter from the dam just below.  The long shot from the Bayou shows the exact location of the remains of the dam, immediately downstream of today’s Shepherd Drive bridge and on the north bank.



Timbers embedded

in bank 






under bridge

We continued to the take-out at Allen’s Landing after a terrific day of paddling (8.9 miles) and a successful day of research.  One caution to groups planning to paddle the bayou in future weeks.  Due to the recent storms preceded by the severe drought, there are many trees hanging precariously over the Bayou, their roots totally exposed. These huge trees seem ready to fall across the bayou in the next good rainstorm causing massive logjams. Bring your portable bow saw!


The authors,

Louis Aulbach


Linda Gorski