History Creates Fascinating Possibilities

Monorail, Inc. placed this demo line at Arrowhead Park in Houston in 1956.

While surf-sifting for new sources of information on local history last night, I came across this wonderful new site called “The Houstorian.”  In the little time I’ve had with it, it seems to me that it does a pretty fair job of pulling together some pretty interesting patches of Houston area history, the kind of information that’s important to all of us who care about make sense of our past for what it may also teach us about our future.

Here’s a link to the Houstorian’s WordPress website:

http://houstorian.wordpress.com/old-houston-maps/

More pointedly to my subject this morning, here’s a link to the Houstorian’s treatment of how a four-year period of legalized parimutuel betting (1933-37) during the Great Depression led to the opening of Epsom Downs and to horse racing in Houston and an attempt to revitalize betting and liquor-gy-the-drink in the 1950s. Their summary of how that whole scenario played out it is the best I’ve ever found. Here’s the specific link to it:

http://houstorian.wordpress.com/2008/07/25/epsom-downs-and-arrowhead-park/

My point is rather simple about two matters. Both are clearly only my retrospectives on what happened as a result of how things played out: (1) Because parimutuel betting was not returned to legal status, the new track complex built at OST and Main could not succeed as a horse-racing- for-the-fun-of-it attraction. “Arrowhead Park,” as it came to be called, converted in purpose to midget stock car racing, becoming the place where a young hot wheels Houstonian named A.J. Foyt, among others, first cut his teeth on the way to racing fame and fortune. (2) The park also became a place where a Houston company named Monorail, Inc. installed a brief demo line of their new silent and speedy product that they hoped might be the answer to Houston’s burgeoning mass transit needs.

Here’s how I see the unintended consequences of these two actions:

(1) Had parimutuel gambling been approved and the OST/Main Street track succeeded, my guess is that we never would have seen the Astrodome go up where it did. That adjacent land would have already found some other commercial commitment from R.E. “Bob” Smith to other purposes ancillary to the the successful betting track. If not, it’s possible that the success of gambling in Houston might have steered Major League Baseball away from jumping on Houston as a site for one of their first two expansion clubs in the National League. Or they would have at least found another site. It’s doubtful that MLB would have looked favorably upon plans for a new ballpark just two blocks away from a heavy gambling enterprise. (2) Monorail could have worked beautifully for mass transit in Houston, but it had no chance, not from the git-go. By the 1950s, the vested interests in freeway construction already were about to fully commit by their political and financial actions to the building of the Eastex, North, Katy, and Southwest freeways to go with their already-on-the-ground-and-stalling Gulf Freeway and their plans for all the new upscale suburbs they were also building in the distant hinterlands. And why not? Gas was cheap back then and probably would remain so forever. Right?

Progress would not be allowed to interfere with profit. Not in mid-20th century Houston.

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