The city we call Baytown today was established under the charter approved by voters in 1948 and derives its name from the myriad bays which form the southern boundary on the Houston Ship Channel.
From east to west, they are San Jacinto Bay located at the mouth of the San Jacinto River where it empties into Galveston Bay. Next is Tabb’s Bay which used to be a real bay until Gaillard’s peninsula forming the southern boundary sank into the river due to oil extraction between 1916 to 1921. Black Duck Bay is located between the mainland and Blackwell Peninsula, just south of Missouri Street; you fly over it when you cross over the Fred Hartman Bridge. Then comes Mitchell Bay where the ExxonMobil docks are located, Scott’s Bay which is south of Bayway Drive, Crystal Bay and Burnet’s Bay west of Lakewood subdivision. Subsidence in the 1960s rendered most of these bodies of water unrecognizable but you can clearly see them on maps produced before 1960.
But Baytown is actually much older. The first time the name shows up in the historical record was in 1859 when the Baytown Post Office was established. The postmaster was Simon Hagerman and the post office was located at his steam boat landing on the west side of Blackwell peninsula. The unincorporated town which had no defined boundary was named for its location along the north shore of Black Duck Bay and extended east to Goose Creek stream.
Two years earlier, Houston dentist John L. Bryan had purchased 500 acres on the west bank of Goose Creek. Being a charter member of the Methodist Church in Houston and finding no church nearby, he built a chapel called Harmony Grove on his property. This chapel would become the main church for the Harmony Grove circuit, covering all of east Harris and west Chambers Counties from 1860 to 1866. The first preacher for this circuit, James Rice, lived right next door to Ashbel Smith on San Jacinto Bay. A school taught by Mr. and Mrs. Kemp was established in 1859 at Harmony Grove and the following year the school was important enough that the students participated in a school celebration with six other schools in Houston. The beginning of the Civil War was initially fairly benign in this area although the United States post office was shut down.
In 1861, Harris County Commissioners Court called for a road “from Lynchburg through the settlement on Goose Creek near Baytown to Parmersville” (the name of the community at Cedar Bayou at the time before it was called Shearn) and used the Harmony Grove school house as a landmark. From 1863 to 1866, Rev. C. C. Preston, who would incorporate the Bayland Orphan Home in 1866, taught school for local children at the Harmony Grove school house and was principal of the Baytown High School, a boarding school for boys. By 1865, the school had been renamed Bayland High School.
With the end of the Civil War and the increasing importance of the town of Shearn, Baytown and Goose Creek’s influence began to wane. A yellow fever epidemic had swept the area in 1867 and when the Cedar Bayou Post Office opened in the town of Shearn in 1871 that town became known as Cedar Bayou. With the continuing loss of population, the Goose Creek Justice Precinct No 9 was absorbed into the Cedar Bayou precinct in 1873.
A powerful hurricane and storm surge devastated the area along the San Jacinto River in 1875 and the Bayland Orphan Home was moved to Houston in 1887. In 1897, the Goose Creek school became a colored school leaving Cedar Bayou as the only school holding classes for white children in School District 15.
By 1900, not much was left of the population, but a town of sorts still existed on Black Duck Bay. Only about 50 people lived in Baytown; almost all were farmers, although there were sailors and fishermen in the mix, along with Dr. Alfred Leger.
That would change when Humble Oil & Refining Company purchased land to build the Baytown refinery in May 1919. With the development of the Goose Creek oil field nearby and with a deep-water port on the Houston Ship Channel, Baytown was an excellent location for a refinery.
The construction of the new facility prompted rapid growth in the area and the Humble Oil & Refining Company built a company town on its property, complete with housing, a community center, a hospital, a school, and even a golf course.
Other developments soon sprang up around the refinery; East Baytown was the first, platted in 1925. Building lots were sold with the stipulation that the buyer must be an Humble employee and must either retain the property for a year or sell to another Humble employee, else it would be forfeited. Other subdivisions would be opened over the years and although it would never be incorporated, Baytown retained the attitude of a prominent city. It even had its own Post Office, opened in 1936.
When the area was forcefully annexed by the city of Pelly in 1945, the residents filed a lawsuit to prevent the annexation, but to no avail. For three years, the previously unincorporated area was part of Pelly. But Baytown had the last laugh when the new charter for the former Tri-Cities was adopted on January 24, 1948.
A popular vote was held and the overwhelming choice for the new name of the city was BAYTOWN.