Burial crypt in downtown Houston tells part of Houston's history

Saturday, October 25, 2014
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It's not a ghost story, but it's just as good. A 150-year-old family burial vault in downtown Houston is gaining attention for its memories

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- It's not a ghost story, but it's just as good.

For more than 150 years, a family burial vault has weathered time and development on Buffalo Bayou in downtown Houston. It's known as the Donnellan crypt, not the survivor of a churchyard cemetery, but built in its namesake family's backyard before the Civil War.

The first burial was that of the family patriarch in the 1850s. The next burials are more memorable.

History has it that in 1867, son Henry Donnellan, a tin merchant, and his business partner found a live cannonball mired in the mud of the bayou. Civil war cannonballs were common after the war. Bayou historian Louis Aulbach says the Confederate armory was headquartered at what is now Old Market Square. Rather than let bullets and cannonballs fall into Union hands, they were dumped in the bayou.

Donnellan and his friend tried to refuse the detonator cap, but with a disastrous result. The cannonball exploded, killing both men. The remains that could be found were put in the family vault.

It is not a marble tomb, but simple red brick. And it was well known to early Houstonians.

Over time, the city grew. The city bought what was the family land to build a bridge. The remains in the crypt were moved to Glenwood Cemetery.

As time went on, the crypt was encased in concrete supporting a more modern Franklin Street bridge. Now it's a small unmarked niche on a concrete embankment. A small brick arch is the only hint of what it once was.

An increasing interest in the history of a city where relics of the past are rare is making the crypt a highlight of boat tours offered by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. Aulbach is the tour guide.

"When you tell people if they look to the side of the bayou to see a crypt, it gets their attention," Aulbach said.

As improvements are made to a new bike trail, the only way for now to view the vault is by water. Eventually you'll be able to walk beneath it.

Not a ghost story, as we said, but that of a burial crypt, now encased in a concrete embankment, but still there to see for those who care to look.