Navasota, Texas – Train Town USA

Navasota, Texas Business District by Kathy Alexander.

Navasota, Texas Business District by Kathy Alexander.

Navasota, Texas, located on a bend of the Navasota River in southeastern Grimes County, started in 1822 when Francis Holland bought land there. The community was first named Hollandale.

Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

Before this time, the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, came through the area in 1687 while trying to locate the Mississippi River and find his way back to French-held lands near the Great Lakes. However, while here, he was murdered by one of his men. This was after numerous voyages, explorations of the Mississippi River Valley, trading ventures, and mutinies. La Salle’s remains are believed to have been found at their resting place in the Navasota Valley.

More settlers followed Francis Holland to the area. In 1831, a Georgia planter, Daniel Arnold, applied for and received a land grant along the Navasota River. Soon after, Daniel Tyler received a land grant in the same vicinity. Navasota was built on sections of these two Montgomery County land grants. The county was divided in 1846, and Navasota became part of Grimes County.

In 1848, James Nolan set up some tents nearby, and by 1852, he had built a log cabin that became a stage stop. Located where the La Bahía Road crossed the Navasota River and about halfway between Anderson and Washington-on-the-Brazos, the site was a natural crossroads. At that time, the settlement was called Nolensville.

Navasota River, Texas by Kathy Alexander.

Navasota River, Texas, by Kathy Alexander.

By the mid-1850s, four stage lines had established several nearby stops. The settlement name was changed to Navasota for the river in 1854 when a post office was established. The Navasota River is thought to have been named for the Native American word nabatoto, meaning “muddy water.”

After September 1859, when the Houston and Texas Central Railway was built into the town, Navasota became even more important as a shipping and marketing center for the surrounding area. In the meantime, when the nearby historic town of Washington-on-the-Brazos resisted railways, it forfeited its geographic advantage. It began to decline after many of its businesses and residents migrated to the new railhead seven miles northeast across the Brazos River at Navasota.

Railroad Tower in Navasota, Texas.

Railroad Tower in Navasota, Texas.

Slavery was integral to the local economy as planters depended on enslaved African Americans to labor for their large plantations. The slaves were brought to the city and sold in the domestic slave trade. They worked primarily in the cotton fields, a major commodity crop.

In 1860, the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret organization, wanted to establish a slave empire in the Southern United States, Mexico, and parts of Central America. Founder George Bickley came to Hollandale in November to establish a “castle” and enlisted seven men from Navasota. He noted that these men constituted a “class of citizens on whom the public can rely in any emergency.” He delivered many public addresses to persuade people to join this new country.

After the Civil War erupted, the Grimes County Greys regiment was organized in Anderson in July 1861. The regiment walked to Houston and caught a train to New Orleans, Louisiana, and Richmond, Virginia. The regiment was placed in Hood’s Brigade and fought in many critical battles of the Civil War.

Grimes County Greys statue in Anderson, Texas.

Grimes County Greys statue in Anderson, Texas.

Cotton, guns, gunpowder, and shoes were made, processed, and stored in nearby Anderson for the Confederacy during the Civil War. During this time, all marketable goods produced in the region were brought to Navasota, Texas’ furthest inland railhead. Such goods were shipped south by rail to Galveston, where they could be transported by steamboat along the Texas coast and up the Mississippi River to the war effort or exported to Mexico or overseas to Europe.

In January 1865, an enclosed 2-3 acre lot housed a penitentiary near Navasota. Several brick buildings were surrounded by a wall 20-30 feet tall. It housed 170 convicts who worked in large and well-ventilated workshops run by a low-pressure steam engine. The men made cloth and shoes, and all various trades were represented here.

Navasota suffered a series of disasters in the mid-1860s that severely depleted its population. On June 29, 1865, a warehouse filled with cotton and gunpowder exploded after it was torched by returning Confederate soldiers. It was believed that 6,100 pounds of gunpowder were used to reduce 20 buildings in the original downtown. Eight lives were lost, and several were missing. The large warehouses of Messrs. Thomas and Co. were gone with all their contents, valued at $20,000. The presses and fixtures of the newspaper’s printing office were included, valued at $5000. Nolan’s Hotel and the entire block on the north side of Main Street were gone. The total loss was over $100,000.

In August 1865, Hollandale’s post office’s name was changed to Navasota. On the Hempstead to Waco route, the mail was delivered three times a week in a four-horse coach. That same year, the population of Navasota was about 2,700.

In October 1866, Navasota was incorporated. A few months later, the town was struck by a deadly cholera epidemic in December. This epidemic caused the death of about 30 people, mostly black citizens.

This was followed by an even more dangerous epidemic of yellow fever in August 1867. The fever claimed the lives of 178 people, primarily white. Many Navasota citizens, including the mayor, fled to escape the disease. The population of Navasota went from 3,000 to 400. The first frost ended the epidemic.

In the late 1860s, the Klu Klux Klan moved into Navasota, prompting a tense confrontation between federal soldiers and a crowd of local whites on one occasion.

On December 30, 1870, another destructive fire broke out in Navasota, which destroyed 16 buildings. Yet another fire occurred on June 15, 1873, in the business district. Originating in the rear of Smith’s saloon, it swept Washington Avenue, resulting in an estimated loss of $200,000.

In 1877, the Schumacher Oil Mill in Navasota shipped 1700 barrels of cottonseed oil and nearly 2 million pounds of cottonseed oil cake, worth $623,000. The seed cost them $100,000 per year.

Exodusters En Route to Kansas by Harper's Weekly, 1879

Exodusters En Route to Kansas by Harper’s Weekly, 1879

In 1879, African Americans from Washington, Brazos, Grimes, Nacogdoches, Walker, and Waller Counties, who were tired of the harsh realities of sharecropping and limited political and economic influence under the black codes, left for Kansas, which was considered the promised land for the newly freed blacks. They became known as Exodusters, and as many as 12,000 left this region of Texas.

By 1884, about 2,500 people were living in Navasota. In addition to the oil mill, the town had five churches, two flour mills, several steam-powered cotton gins, a bank, an opera house that could seat 1,000, and a newspaper, the Navasota Tablet. A telephone company began operating in 1885; that same year, the town gained another railroad connection when the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe Railroad was built. In the late 1880s, the town contracted for its first water system and electrical lights. By 1896, four weekly newspapers were being published, and the town had grown to a population of about 3,500.

At one point, Navasota was considered a “wild and woolly” and dangerous place where women and children were discouraged from going downtown, even in broad daylight. The downtown buildings were overrun with lawless ruffians, gamblers, prostitutes, and drunks. Lawmen had to hide and watch and often were afraid of the streets at night. Many saloons and gaming halls were ready to entertain the cowboys, railroad men, and others. Every Sunday morning, the undertaker hitched up a buggy and went downtown to collect the bodies he expected to find after another wild Saturday night.

Vintage Navasota, Texas.

Vintage Navasota, Texas.

In April 1895, the first telephone office was established above the 1st National Bank.

The International-Great Northern became the town’s third railroad in 1900. At that time, its population was 3,857. Navasota grew as a shipping and marketing center for the next three decades for cotton, livestock, lumber, and produce.

Frank Hamer, Texas Ranger and Navasota Marshal.

Frank Hamer, Texas Ranger, and Navasota Marshal.

In 1908, Navasota was still a Wild West boomtown, and “shootouts on the main street were so frequent that in two years at least 100 men had died.” Famed lawman Frank Hamer, then 24 years old, was hired away from the Texas Rangers to become the City Marshal. Hamer moved in and imposed law and order, prosecuting Navasota criminals until the town became safe again. He served as marshal until 1911. Hamer became more widely known in 1934 as a posse leader who hunted down and fatally shot Bonnie and Clyde.

In 1930, Navasota was called home to 5,128 people, and there were 175 businesses in the town.

Though the number of businesses in Navasota declined slightly during the Great Depression, by 1940, its population had grown to 6,138. During the 1940s, the town declined as the farms surrounding it were mechanized and consolidated. By 1950, only 4,976 residents remained. Hoping to reverse this trend,  local businessmen began to organize the Navasota Industrial Foundation in 1952. The foundation, which later drew tax dollars for its support, worked with some success to attract new industries to the area.

The town population stabilized and grew from 4,937 in 1960 to 5,026 by 1970. By the mid-1970s, Navasota had 18 manufacturers producing mobile homes, furniture, cheese, steel tubing, and oilfield machinery.

Cotton Compress in Navasota, Texas.

Cotton Compress in Navasota, Texas.

Navasota, Texas City Hall by Kathy Alexander.

Navasota, Texas City Hall by Kathy Alexander.

The population was 5,971 by 1980. Residents also organized to revitalize the downtown area. In 1980, Navasota was one of five Texas cities selected for the National Main Street program sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. During the mid-1980s, the Texas Department of Corrections built the minimum-security Wallace Pack Prison outside town. Though many in Navasota had opposed the prison, the facility produced hundreds of new jobs. Many businesses suffered during the late 1980s when the oil industry collapsed; one employer laid off more than 650 workers. Though the prison’s new jobs helped offset some of the worst effects of the economic downturn, city officials again became concerned that young people would have to move elsewhere for employment.

In 1990, there were 6,296 people in Navasota. The population grew to 6,789 in 2000.

1880s Old First National Bank building by Kathy Alexander.

1880s Old First National Bank building by Kathy Alexander.

In 2005, the Texas Legislature designated Navasota as the “Blues Capital of Texas” in honor of the late Mance Lipscomb, a Navasota native and blues musician.

In 2009, Navasota was selected as a “Visionaries in Preservation” city by the Texas Historical Commission to protect the numerous historic structures in the city. A new municipal building was completed in 2011 and continued downtown improvements remain under construction.

In 2012, Navasota Municipal Airport completed an expansion of its runway to 5,000 feet long by 75 feet wide and can now accommodate jets on the runway. That year, Navasota was named by the Union Pacific Railroad as “Train Town USA.”

In 2020, Navasota’s population was 7,643. The industrial sector of the community boasts 23 companies and over 1,200 jobs.

Today, Navasota has many shops and artisans in its historic downtown district, including antique, gift, and boutique stores and art galleries housed in old classic stone and brick structures. Live plays are performed regularly at the Sunny Furman Theatre. The city also has golfing facilities and parks, as well as wineries. The community also retains several historic Victorian homes on Washington Avenue, the town’s foremost residential and commercial thoroughfare. Each spring, Navasota is a popular destination for its bluebonnet fields, the state flower of Texas.

Navasota is 71 miles northwest of Houston.

Railroad Street in Navasota, Texas by Kathy Alexander.

Railroad Street in Navasota, Texas, by Kathy Alexander.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated October 2023.

Presbyterian Church in Navasota, Texas.

Presbyterian Church in Navasota, Texas.

Also See:

Texas Fun Facts & Trivia

Texas – The Lone Star State

Texas Photo Galleries

Washington-on-the-Brazos – Declaring Independence


Navasota, Texas
Texas Almanac
Texas State Historical Association