A Stroll Down Rat Row

“That sad story . . . came upon me with the poignant force that the association of locality alone can give.” 

Michael Monahan, Adventures in Life and Letters (1912)

In my post on the Bryan lynching, I mentioned that the three lynched men had frequented a block of Bryan’s Main Street called Rat Row.  Every city has a Rat Row, although it is not always called it by that name.  It is the rundown section where toughs and deadbeats go to have fun.  The drinks are cheap, the food is crude, and the amusements are often shady.  On Saturday night, things can get a little bit wild.  Rat Row is a “seedy” district, by which I mean both déclassé and disreputable.  It has come down in the world and is a dirty, crooked place.

We can trace the name Rat Row to the fourteenth-century.  In northern England and lowland Scotland, where it took such forms as Rattenraw, Raten Rawe, and Ratonraw, it denoted a line of cottages or tenements so poor and dilapidated that they appeared to have been surrendered to the rats (1).  If the name was not reinvented in the new world, it therefore likely came with the people we call Scotts Irish.

The most infamous Rat Row was in Cincinnati, Ohio.  It was a line of old buildings on Water Street, directly on the levee above the Ohio River, between Walnut and Vine.  This was the oldest part of Cincinnati, not to mention the roughest, the poorest, and the most frequently flooded.  Its old buildings were a warren of cheap lodgings and shady enterprises, and the name was usually connected with murder, assault, or an inundation by the Ohio River (2).  Well into the twentieth century, Cincinnati’s Rat Row was “occupied chiefly by negroes and low whites, and was continually under police and sanitary surveillance” (3).

From Cincinnati, the name spread to other rough waterfront districts along the Mississippi and its tributaries.  There was certainly a Rat Row in Keokuk, in Kansas City, and in Vicksburg, and the name was very likely used elsewhere.  It was said that the word rat referred to the humans as well as the rodents (4).

The first business district of Waco, Texas, was a line of gimcrack wooden structures running back from the ferry landing on the Brazos River (now Bridge Street).  This was called Rat Row after the respectable business moved up the hill towards the courthouse, and the old business district by the river became a string of dance-halls, saloons, gambling parlors, and bawdy houses (5).

The name Rat Row spread from Waco to a number of nearby towns in central Texas. As in Cincinnati and Waco, these rat rows were blocks on Main Street with the oldest buildings and lowest rents.  Rough saloons and cheap eateries faced the street, and there was often gambling in the back room and prostitution upstairs.  Rat Row was the working man’s entertainment district, so business on the Row waxed and waned with the fortunes of working men.  In late nineteenth century Texas, it bloomed in the fall after the cotton crop had been sold, and then straggled until working men once again had money in their pockets (6).

* * * * *

The city of Bryan came into being in 1867, when the Houston and Texas Central Railroad opened a new section of track and a desolate clearing in the post oaks became a rough and rowdy railhead town.  The Houston and Texas Central was pressing north from the Gulf of Mexico, and was the only railroad in the state.  Thus, for a couple of years, until the next section of track was opened, the entire trade of north Texas ran through the Bryan railhead.

Teamsters who drove wagons to the railhead were natural patrons of dance-halls, saloons, gambling parlors, and bawdy houses.  So were men on the railroad construction gang.  So were some of the freedmen who, upon their release from slavery, left nearby plantations and took up residence in Bryan.  So were the many drifters, immigrants and traveling men who stepped off the train and, after a short sojourn in Bryan, boarded a stagecoach for some destination farther north.

I have found no detailed report of the social life of Bryan in those first years, but there is no reason to believe that it differed from any other Texas railhead.  Here’s a description of Big Springs, Texas, when it was the railhead on the road to California.

“The place consists of a few shanties and many tents, two-thirds being made up of saloons, bawdy and gambling houses, and low, vile smelling places where the motley crowd gets meals and lodging” (7).

In all likelihood, Bryan was just like that, for as this same author goes on to say,

“Every permanent and many of the temporary railroad camps have been troubled with these movable dens of whisky-sellers, gamblers and bawds.”

That Bryan was, indeed, just like that, is suggested by this line from the Bryan newspaper in 1869, two years after the town came into being.

“Bryan is infested with more bawdy women and of a lower class than any town of its size in the United States” (8).

* * * * *

The first businesses of this rough and rowdy railhead were not located in what would become the center of downtown Bryan.  The most desirable lots near the courthouse and railroad depot were held by speculators who anticipated higher returns from future sales, so the first businesses at the railhead collected in a low hollow around a deep gully, about a thousand feet north of the depot.  (For local readers, this was between what are now 24thand 23rdStreets, and the gully, 12 feet deep, was filled in 1912 and 1916. [9])

As the population of the surrounding area grew, Bryan changed from a rough and rowdy railhead into a respectable market town, and substantial brick business blocks were built on the more desirable high ground near the courthouse and railroad depot. This became south Main Street, and is today what most people recognize as the heart of old Bryan.  But the really old town was for many years a row of decayed wooden structures around the gully at the bottom of the hill.

When respectable people and businesses moved uphill, the “rats” moved into this old town and made it Rat Row.

Here is the 1877 map of Rat Row from the Sanborn Map Company.  The Sanborn company produced these maps so that fire insurance policies could be sold without viewing a property, and the maps therefore indicate each building’s use and construction material.  Rat Row is the block in the lower left hand corner, and the yellow color indicates wooden construction.  Pink indicates brick.

As you can see, most of these buildings are listed as groceries, but this does not mean what you may think it means.  Well into the nineteenth century, an establishment exclusively devoted to the sale of spirituous liquor by the glass was called a dram shop, a grog shop, or a groggery.  Because selling spirituous liquor by the glass was disreputable, many grog shop owners styled themselves grocers. A grocer (originally a grosser) was a merchant who sold goods like sugar, flour, tea and spirits in gross, which is to say in more than single servings.  So, a man whose stock ran very largely to bottles of brandy and casks of whiskey was a grocer of sorts, and there was nothing to prevent him from selling his stock by the glass to those who asked.

Thus, grocery was very often a euphemism for groggery.  As a writer of the 1870s explained,

“the word grocery as commonly used is synonymous with the word groggery, nearly all groceries selling liquors, and finding their largest profits in doing so” (10).

We can see that there was very little practical difference between a grocery and a grog shop in this letter, written to the newspaper in Columbia, Texas, in 1837.  A citizens’ patrol had been established to suppress midnight carousing, but the correspondent opined:

“I rather incline to believe that if the grocery-keepers and grog-shop proprietors, do not shut up their houses at the proper hour (say 10 o’clock), much good will not result from the services of our patrol.”  (11)

As late as 1917, a respectable storeowner on Bryan’s Rat Row sought to set himself apart from the neighboring “groceries” with this advertisement.

“Remember this: there is but one real Dry Goods Store on Rat Row” (12).

The word saloon appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century as another euphemism.  It is actually an abridgement of “drinking saloon,” saloon being the French word for a large room for public gatherings.  A drinking saloon was a large room equipped for the purpose of public drinking, usually embellished with amenities like a piano with player, mirrors, and perhaps a tasteful painting of a reclining odalisque over the bar.  The French name and tasteful amenities were meant to attract (or at least suggest) a genteel clientele, but few words have become déclassé more quickly than saloon.

Not a Mere Grog Shop, Upper Main Street, Bryan

You will recall that Cincinnati’s Rat Row was described as the haunt of negroes and low whites. Bryan’s Rat Row was, likewise, at the Black end of Main Street.  Like many other towns in the South, Bryan had a “freedman’s town” or Negro quarter, and the freedmen at first occupied the cheapest land, which naturally lay in the hollow beside the gully that I mentioned earlier.  The difference in elevation between upper and lower Main Street is less than twenty feet, but this simple topographic fact was sufficient to determine the basic pattern of Bryan’s racial segregation right down to this day.

A Relic of Freedmanstown, Two Blocks from Rat Row

Bryan’s wooden Rat Row was destroyed in an 1884 fire, but Rat Row quickly reappeared as a line of cheap single-story brick buildings, many of which survive to this day (13).

Rat Row Today

* * * * *

One hundred years ago, Rat Row was what we would call the vibrant stretch of Main Street.  At the top of the hill, a visitor to Bryan would have found the banks, the opera house, the courthouse, the Carnegie library, and the best hotels.  At the bottom of the hill, he would have found stumbling drunks, bloody brawls, games of chance, and women who were no better than they absolutely had to be.  Here are some vignettes from Rat Row.

“Bryan—City officers raided a gambling den on Rat Row Saturday night and caught ten persons who were indulging in the seductive delights of gaming.”  Galveston Daily News (Oct. 17, 1893), p. 6.

“Bryan, Tex., March 24—A shooting scrape between two negroes occurred last night about 12 o’clock on Rat Row.  Amos Hawkins shot twice at Albert Grace . . .”Galveston Daily News(Mar. 25, 1895), p. 2.

“George Whitehead, colored, was stabbed in the left breast late yesterday afternoon at the negro saloon on north Main Street . . . . Dennis Watson, another negro, was lodged in jail charged with the crime.” Bryan Daily Eagle (June 15, 1902), p. 3.

“A free for all fight took place on ‘Rat Row’ . . . among a lot of negroes, which had a bloody and fatal termination . . .” Bryan Daily Eagle (Dec. 20, 1909), p. 1.

“Another negro slashing took place on ‘Bloody Rat Row’ late yesterday afternoon, in which two colored damsels were the participants . . . . The row, as usual, was over some colored gentleman and the fight was fast and furious . . .” Bryan Daily Eagle (July 12, 1910), p. 3.

“A negro fight started on Rat Row, and Sheriff Conlee hauled ‘Dude Dan’ for lacerating the anatomy of a negress.  Dude is a well-known negro sport . . .” Bryan Daily Eagle (Nov. 28, 1910), p. 6.

“In a difficulty on ‘Rat Row’ early this morning John Cortemelia, an Italian farmer, stabbed Cal O’Neal, colored, inflicting several serious knife wounds about the head, neck and shoulder . . .”  Bryan Daily Eagle (May 13, 1912), p. 4.

“Early Sunday Morning Carlos Trebino, a Mexican employed in a restaurant on Rat Row was seriously stabbed by J. W. Ledbetter, a white brickmason.”  Bryan Daily Eagle (Nov. 7, 1912), p. 8.

“Two negroes were arrested . . . Saturday night . . . . They had been in a drunken fight on Rat Row in which both were cut . . .”  Bryan Daily Eagle(June 1, 1914), p. 3.

“City Marshal Conlee arrested a Mexican Saturday evening . . . on Rat Row, who was flashing a gun.”  Bryan Daily Eagle(Dec. 4, 1916), p. 8.

Rat Row North of 23rd Street

(1) Alen Mawer, The Place Names of Northumberland and Durham (Cambridge: The University Press, 1920), pp. 162-16.  London’s fashionable “Rotten Row” takes its name for an entirely different reason.

2) “Levee Life/Haunts and Pastimes of the Roustabouts: Their Original Songs and Peculiar Dances,” Cincinnati Commercial (March 17, 1876), 2.

3) Lawrence Veiller, Housing Conditions and Tenement Laws in Leading American Cities (New York: Evening Post Job Printing House, 1900), p. 25.

4) Mildred L. Hartsough, From Canoe to Steel Barge on the Upper Mississippi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1934), p. 86.

5) Julien C. Hyer, The Land of Beginning Again: The Romance of the Brazos (Atlanta: Tupper and Love, c. 1952), p. 371.  John Sleeper and J. C. Hutchins, Waco and McLennan County, Texas (Waco, Texas: J. W. Golledge, 1876), p. 19.

6) George Sessions Perry, Texas: A World in Itself (c. 1942), pp. 44-45.  J. B. Cranfill, Dr. J. B. Cranfill’s Chronicle: A Story of Life in Texas (New York: Fleming H. Revell, c. 1916), p. 292.

7) Wilburn Hill King, Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Texas (1882)

8) The line first appeared in the Bryan Newsletter,of which no copies survive.  It was reprinted in The Texas Countryman (Jan 22, 1869)

9) The ravine under Rat Row, was twelve feet deep, and only filled in 1912.  Bryan Daily Eagle (Sep. 6, 1912), p. 3; Bryan Daily Eagle (May 12, 1916), p. 2. Bryan Daily Eagle (Aug. 29, 1916), p. 2.  Bryan Daily Eagle (Aug. 31, 1916), p. 2.

10) The Drinker’s Dictionary, (Detroit: Silas Farmer and Co, 1883), p. 20

11) Telegraph and Texas Register(March 7, 1837), p. 2.

12) Emphasis in original.  Bryan Daily Eagle(Feb. 3, 1917), p. 4.

13) “This morning another conflagration occurred which destroyed the entire block of old buildings in Bryan known as ‘Rat Row,’ and which were the first buildings erected in Bryan when it was the terminus of the Central Railroad.” Galveston Daily News (Feb. 22, 1884), p. 1.

11 thoughts on “A Stroll Down Rat Row

    • I know what you mean. A dude was was more or less the same as a dandy, insofar as he was overdressed, but I think it also implies a flirt and a “ladies man.” Cowboys called the clients of a “dude ranch” dudes because they wore more cowboy gear than a real cowboy did. So the word carried some of the same meaning that we now express with the word larping. Are people who engage in larping “larpers”?

  1. Pingback: A Stroll Down Rat Row | Reaction Times

  2. It’s sad that my city has spread the verminous name throughout the West and South. My father was from the West End, which was rough in his youth, but not nearly as rough as the Bottoms (near the river). It seems as though the Bottoms also had a Sausage Row, which, I gather, was named literally in Porkopolis and not a euphemism for the Love that Dare Not Stop Celebrating Itself today (despite the street’s and neighborhood’s names). It did become well known for brothels, though — so, who knows?! Anyway, the city planners used the interstate to wreck our neighborhoods, and the vermin from Rat Row scurried north and continue to infest community after community to this day. Rat and Sausage Rows, however, have become lovely park and amusement districts. The cycle of urban life . . .

    • It is interesting that you are familiar with the most infamous Rat Row. But there are rat rows everywhere. Your image of the rats scurrying north will be especially poignant to anyone who has seen the demolition of a rat-infested building.

  3. Can it ever be said that Rats Row can grow and become more the main feature of a city than the respectable hilltop district? A certain high-profile commentary about Baltimore, MD, comes to mind.

    If Rats Row can refer to those parts of a city which are least desirable and most trouble, could it by metaphor be extended to the denizens? It feels sometimes as if society has gone to the rats. The news has gone from the Rats Row Report being a sad footnote to the actual news, and now the RRR seems to be the main event with occasional smatterings of useful information.

    • Rat row is a normal part of every city. Urban planners can move it, but they cannot destroy it. Rat row will also grow, so long as the city grows, and this should not be alarming so long as it does not grow out of proportion to the city. The alarm should go off when Rat row grows faster than the city it is a part of. It is difficult to say for certain that this has happened, but observant people will notice small signs of spreading degeneracy. Drug paraphernalia in convenience stores are one sign that rat row has come to your neighborhood. Another is the sale of very small plastic bottles of nasty vodka, raw or horribly flavored. The only purpose of those bottles is to sustain alcoholics while they drive or work. Increased litter is always a harbinger of rat row.

  4. Pingback: Sights and Smells on a Postmodern Rat Row – The Orthosphere

  5. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 08/25/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

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