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First Public Monument in Houston,
Turns 100 Years Old on St. Patrick’s Day

Houston, Texas

by Edward T. Cotham, Jr.

The Dick Dowling statue has been removed from Hermann Park on June 17, 2020 ahead of Juneteenth celebration

Dick Dowling Monument in Hermann Park, Houston, Texas
The Dick Dowling Monument in Hermann Park.
Dedicated on St. Patrick’s Day in 1905

Photo courtesy Edward T. Cotham, Jr.

On March 17, 2005, the Dick Dowling Statue in Hermann Park will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its unveiling on St. Patrick’s Day in 1905. It was Houston’s first public monument, coming even before the statue of Sam Houston for whom the city was named. Standing today on a triangle near the intersection of Hermann Park Loop, Holcombe, and North MacGregor, the monument consists of an eight-foot statue made of Italian marble sitting atop a twenty-foot granite base. The creator of the monument was German sculptor Frank Teich, who sculpted the statue at his studio near Llano.

Richard “Dick” Dowling
was one of the most interesting figures in Houston and Texas history. Dowling Street was named in his honor, as was Tuam Avenue, the place in County Galway, Ireland, near which he was born in 1837. Because of the Great Famine in Ireland, Dowling and his family came to America some time after 1846 and eventually settled in Houston. Dowling made his name and fortune in a number of saloon businesses. The most notable of these establishments was the “Bank of Bacchus,” which he shrewdly located across the street from Houston’s courthouse. “The Bank,” as Dowling’s bar was fondly known, became an immediate success, making its owner one of the most prominent Irishmen in Houston.

Dowling was a man of great compassion and vision. He was the first person in Houston to install gas lighting at his business. He also became one of the founding members of Houston Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, the predecessor of Houston’s fire department. Finally, Dowling and his associates bought some of the earliest oil and gas leases in Texas, foreseeing the great oil boom that would eventually begin to change the world at the turn of the century.

Although his business and civic accomplishments are impressive, Dowling is remembered today primarily for his role in leading a group of unruly Irish dockworkers to one of the greatest upsets in military history at the Civil War Battle of Sabine Pass. Dick Dowling was the 26-year-old lieutenant in charge of a Confederate fort (Fort Griffin) at Sabine Pass on September 8, 1863, when a Union invasion fleet of 27 ships and almost 6,000 men attempted to capture the fort as part of a planned invasion of Texas. In a battle that took less than an hour, Dowling and his fewer than fifty men repelled the invasion, capturing two Union gunboats and winning a victory that Jefferson Davis later called the most amazing feat in military history. The names of Dowling’s small artillery company (the Davis Guard) are inscribed on the side of the Dowling monument.

Not long after Dowling’s death in 1867 from yellow fever, the Dick Dowling Camp of the United Confederate Veterans decided to begin raising money to build a statue of Dowling in Houston . A number of Irish societies such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians wanted to participate in the project so the Dowling Monument Association was created to coordinate and lead the effort. After a lengthy period of planning, design, and construction the statue was finally finished in early 1905. It was placed originally at City Hall on Market Square. In 1939, it was moved to Sam Houston Park. In 1958 the Dowling monument was relocated to its present location near Hermann Park.
Dick Dowling statue in Hermann Park, Houston, Texas
Dick Dowling Statue
Photo courtesy Edward T. Cotham, Jr.
The Dowling statue shows the mustached lieutenant with his binoculars in one hand and a sword in the other. The sword has caused problems though the years. By 1958, a Houston newspaper reported that “Dick Dowling’s sword is missing again. [Nobody] has the faintest idea where it went. Five times now swords have vanished from the cupped left hand of Dowling’s statue.” Speculating that leprechauns might have a stash of the rusted swords somewhere in Ireland, the reporter noted that in some ways the missing sword was an improvement since Dowling did not actually own a sword at the time of his famous battle.

Because of the Irish heritage of Dowling and most of his men it was decided to formally dedicate the statue on St. Patrick’s Day, 1905. One of the largest crowds in Houston history participated in a parade and a large ceremony to dedicate the monument. When the parade finally reached the statue about 3 p.m., bands played “God Save Ireland” and “Dixie.” After a series of speeches, Mrs. W. F. “Annie” Robertson, Dowling’s daughter, pulled the silken cord to remove the canvas from the statue of her father amid deafening cheers from the massive crowd of dignitaries, Confederate veterans, school children, and interested citizens.

Edward T. Cotham, Jr., author of Sabine Pass; The Confederacy’s Thermopylae, a book recently published about Dowling and his famous battle, explained the reason that the people of Houston found it appropriate to so enthusiastically dedicate such a large monument to Dowling and his men. “The Union invasion thwarted at Sabine Pass was not actually aimed at that part of Texas. Sabine Pass was merely planned to be the initial landing point for a Union invasion that would have rapidly marched west with the intention of capturing Houston and Galveston. The people of Houston knew that by stopping that invasion before it even landed Dowling and his men had saved their city from occupation and possible destruction. To express their gratitude, Houstonians shortly after the battle raised funds to issue a special silver medal for Dowling and each of his men. This medal (extremely rare today) is sometimes said to have been the Confederate equivalent of the Medal of Honor that was awarded to Union heroes. After the war, the people of Houston banded together to build a statue of Dick Dowling and thus permanently honor a man who had meant so much to the city and its early history.”

Edward T. Cotham, Jr., former President of the Houston Civil War Round Table, is the author of Sabine Pass: The Confederacy’s Thermopylae (University of Texas Press, 2004).
March 1, 2005

Related Articles:

Dick Dowling by Archie McDonald ("All Things Historical" column)

Sabine Pass
Houston, Texas
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