Points of Interest
The Romance of Old Sylvan Beach by Erna B. Foxworth
During the 1800s, the Old Sylvan Beach Park on the inner edge of Galveston Bay can begin to bask in its one-hundred glorious years of giving pleasure to millions of fun-seekers from everywhere.It reached its heyday of popularity during the 1920s and the 1930s when the romantic sounds of the big bands wafted through the huge dance pavilion and 22-acre park. Located in one of the most historic areas of the state, it cane to be known as the playground of South Texas, and especially of Houston, 25 miles away.
Newcomers to the Texas coastal area are always enthralled at hearing the colorful stories of the once famous place, and old-timers go into reveries recalling the great times they had there. That’s when the summer seasons brought music makes like Paul Whitman, Guy Lombardo, Wayne King, Jan Garber, Phil Harris, Jack Teagarden, Herbie Kay, the Dorsey Brothers, Ted Lewis waving his top hat and cane, and others of those years. Some were from Houston’s own talent line-up, while many were major radio personalities who came in from New York and elsewhere to do several weeks of engagements at the Rice Hotel in Houston, the Hollywood Club in Galveston and Sylvan Beach at La Porte.
The beach on the bay with the largest dance pavilions in the South was “a thing apart” that left lifelong memories, a family oriented place where all ages felt welcome. On special holidays sometimes as many as 35,000 people passed through the gates for dancing, swimming, boating, picnicking, fishing or taking in the boardwalk amusement rides. There was excitement, yet it retained a tone of tranquility, enhanced by the soaring of seagulls and the dipping of dolphins.
News columnists were always writing about the place with personal feelings in the Houston papers and smaller ones throughout the state.Morris Frank of the Houston Chronicle titled one early feature “Sylvan Beach and Moonlight.” Paul Hochuli of the now extinct Houston Press wrote one called “Hoc Swims in Dreams of Old Sylvan Beach,” and Sigmund Byrdalso of that paper wrote several stories about it, because there was always another angle from which to see it. Laura Seammen, reporter for the Houston Post and mother of this author, collaborated with her on a long article for their Parade Magazine in 1950 entitled “remember? Old Sylvan Beach was Houston’s Coney Island.” In 1958 martin Dreyer wrote one “Remember When?” for the Chronicle’s Texas Magazine.” Most of those writers are gone now.
In 1978 this author did a page layout for the Houston Post called “Sylvan Beach: Those Were the Days.” Feature writer Betty Ewing, who came to Houston in the ‘40s, had read and heard so much about the resort that she refers to it in many special stories as staff person with the Chronicle. Their Fine Arts Editor, Ann Holmes, has called La Porte a treasured resort are that blends culture and nature. The occasion was a Houston Summer Symphony concert at Sylvan.
It is a place that will never be simply relegated to the past and forgotten, because it was a Shangri La that added many dimensions to the lives of millions of people, especially during its halcyon years.
Native Houstonian Walter Cronkite of CBS news fame recalls selling hamburgers there when he was a student at Old San Jacinto High School more than 50 years ago.
Another native Houstonian, novelist –newsman Davis Westheimer, now a Hollywood writer and a Houston Post columnist, wrote one of his first books to the sound of the waves in the bay area, entitling it “Summer on the Water.” Sylvan Beach is a never-to-be-forgotten land all its own, but for true appreciation it needs looking at through the binoculars of time.
These pages give a picture of how parents, grandparents, or even great-grands got their ‘kicks” when they were growing up. If present generations were unable to hear the treasured tales first hand from their lives can serve to fire their imaginations and add to what they have heard by bits and piece. Each person has his own memories and experiences.Never could everybody’s stories be captured, therefore the author has combined a part of her own life at Sylvan with that of others to bring you a look through the telescope.
It is a composite of the lives of those who thrilled to the music, magic and merriment of the amusement part; a representative cross-section.
Meanwhile, for Texas newcomers, here’s a gull’s eye view of the location of Sylvan and surroundings:
It’s within ear shot of the spot where Texas won her independence in the Battle of San Jacinto, up the road a piece, roughly eight miles, on Highway 225 leading into La Porte.
It’s within whistling distance of the Houston Ship Channel and its huge Porte Authority Container Terminal at the town of Mogan’s Point, adjoining La Porte.
It’s just around the crescent –shaped bend of Trinity Bay from the Governor Sterling mansion on Bay Ridge, patterned after the White House.
It’s within echo sound of Mickey Gilley’s not nationally know nightclub on Spencer Highway, another route on the bay.I
t’s a stone’s throw from Clear Lake where the National Aeronautics Space Administration spread is, and where marinas about, beginning with the Houston Yacht Club founded before 1900 as the Houston Launch Club.
It’s a hoot and a holler from the new Armand Bayou Nature Preservation Center on Bay Area Boulevard, where the restored Martyn farm place is, and where boats can be taken for touring the marshes and spotting the bird rookeries and rare species.
It’s a straight shoot from he Gulf Freeway via Fairmont Parkway to Sylvan Beach Avenue where the old depot has been restored by the La Porte Bay Area Heritage Society.
It’s breezes can be felt before you’re halfway there from Houston, and it invites you take your family fishing tackle, crab lines, picnic lunch and boat to launch from the ramp. Dancing comes later.
It makes you think of the line of Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever” . . . “I must go down to the sea again.”