The Chaffey residence in Muldura, Victoria The Chaffey residence in Muldura, Victoria

The Canadian Chaffey brothers, George and William followed their father as engineers. During the 1870s they, like him, built bridges and steamships. Then their parents moved to California where George joined them. He was soon chief engineer of the new Los Angeles Electric Company. And he and his brother William moved into the California desert where they built a modern irrigation system and created an 8,000-acre fruit-farming community. George also made Los Angeles the world's first all-electrically-lit city.

Australian settlers faced similar problems of watering a dry land. So, in 1884, officials from the state of Victoria went to California for ideas. They found the young Chaffeys and convinced them to come to Australia. There they scouted possible sites for an irrigation project and found the Mildura sheep station, far up the Murray River from Adelaide. The aboriginal name Mildura meant either Red Sand or Sore Eyes.

William Chaffey People in Victoria began looking upon the Chaffeys as two Yankee con men. But then the neighboring state of South Australia invited them to their land, further down the Murray River. So Victoria swallowed its distrust. The Chaffeys finally went to work building two irrigated farm communities along the river.

They moved 3000 emigrants into the region. First they ran their irrigation pumps with discarded steamboat engines. Then they designed a complex system powered by a triple expansion steam engine. The engine maker so distrusted their fancy design that he wouldn't put his own name on it. Today, that fine old engine is on display in Mildura; but it's labeled as a Chaffey engine.

Chaffey's system was a clear success, and the first crop was spectacular. Then outside troubles came and distrust arose again. First, the produce transport system broke down. Fruit rotted. There was depression. Banks failed. By 1896 Australia had laid full blame for disaster on the Chaffeys. George went bankrupt and returned to California. Back home he created a huge irrigation project in the Imperial Valley and he died a wealthy man.

But younger brother William stuck it out in Mildura. For years he worked to rebuild the town along with his life. A new town was incorporated in 1887 and by 1920 it was a stable city, supplied by rail. That year her citizens elected William as mayor. This engineer had stayed the course; he'd built a new world; and he'd made it into his own home.

Today, William Chaffey's statue stands in Mildura. He is, after all, the city's father, and trusted at last. But I wonder if trust was ever harder earned. And the city that he created is now home to over 30,000. It's called Victoria's Fruit Bowl — no longer the town of Sore Eyes.

That might well sound like an isolated event. But many other cities have been founded just that way. So let's look at one more such city, created just as suddenly a half century earlier. That city is Houston, Texas.

The City of Houston city sealHouston's Great Seal may not seem surprising at first glance. It shows an early locomotive, which makes perfect sense. Houston is America's second largest port, and rail carries much of the freight — coming and going. But that seal was adopted in 1840. Rail was scarcely ten years old in America and no locomotive had yet been anywhere near Houston. Nor was Houston yet a seaport. Its fifty miles inland from the deep-water port of Galveston.

Douglas Weiskopf begins his book, Rails Around Houston, with this strange state of affairs. He suggests that the seal reflected masterful hucksterism — along with vision. Houston came into being when the Allen brothers, John and Augustus, came to the new Republic of Texas in 1836. They bought up ten square miles of land adjacent to Harrisburg, Texas, and quite consciously set out to form a major city on Buffalo Bayou.

A year later, it became the temporary capital of the Republic, it took the name of its hero Sam Houston, and the riverboat Laura made the first trip up the Bayou from Galveston. The Allens had meant to make Houston the region's "great commercial emporium," and that process had already begun. Buffalo Bayou would now serve as the waterway for Galveston's goods.

But how to take goods beyond Houston? Rail would have to be answer and rail was hardly invented; so we're back to that strange Houston seal with its remarkably modern locomotive, called a 4-4-0. That meant four small idler wheels in front to steer it around bends, four large wheels driven by the steam engine, and no idler wheels behind.

The 4-4-0 was a distinctly American design, patented just four years earlier and still in development. Once honed, it would dominate 19th century rail service and last well into the 20th century. It became known as the American type of locomotive.

A 4-2-0 locomotive, identical to the first one use in Houston, TX

Houston had no locomotive at all until twelve years after that seal design. In 1852 the embryonic Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railway bought a second-hand 4-2-0 engine, much more primitive than the one on the seal. (The president of the railroad made the very shaky boast that it could do 35 miles-an-hour.) Another two years passed before a 4-4-0 was added as the third engine. The railway finally had a locomotive like the one that dreamers had put on the city seal 14 years before it, and the Allen brothers' dream was in motion.

But what about them? John died even before the seal was designed, and Augustus died just after the Civil War. Neither lived to see Buffalo Bayou dredged to form a ship channel all the way into Houston. Neither saw six thousand miles of track being laid in Texas during the 1880s. Or did they? Maybe those two brothers, still in their twenties, somehow saw it all, way back in 1836 — saw a great city where there was nothing but flat, hot, inhospitable expanse, stretching off to infinity in every direction.

These, then, were two of the many consciously-created cities. There are many more; Brigham Young and his lieutenants created Salt Lake City where there was only open land. And what about recreating an existing city? That might be even harder that creating a city out of thin air. Next, Andy Boyd introduces us to a man who set out — very calculated and very deliberate — to make an old, city new again.


B. Carroll, The Engineers: 200 years at Work for Australia. Barton, Australia: The Institution of Engineers, Australia, 1988, pp. 83-86.

Wikipedia entry for Mildura:,_Victoria.

Biography of George Chaffee.

D. L. Weiskopf, Images of Rail: Rails Around Houston. (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2009). See also the Wikipedia articles on 4-4-0 and 4-2-0 locomotives and web articles on the history of Houston, on the history of Harrisburg, on Augustus Chapman Allen, and on John Kirby Allen.

Harrisburg, TX, was the original Buffalo Bayou port town. Houston gradually engulfed it and, in 1926, its 1460 population was annexed by Houston. Today it still exists as a community on the east side of the city.

See Episodes 594 and 2515.

Images: Locomotive photo, and image of William Chaffey courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Chaffey residence photo courtesy of Victoria State Library.

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