Houston 101

How 10 Cities in Greater Houston Got Their Names

Like most large cities, Houston is more than just one single incorporated area. We are made up of lots of small communities, some of which date back to before Houston existed. Many names are fairly obvious. Jacinto City, for example, is named for the nearby San Jacinto Monument and battleground. Baytown is on the water, and The Woodlands is in a forest. And despite our connection to oil, we owe some of the more interesting names to industries like lumber, railroads and, as you probably might guess, sugar.

For the purposes of this list, we stuck with actual cities rather than neighborhoods because they had a more concrete history. If you have any other suggestions, feel free to pass them along.


Time often destroys the truth of history, like how things actually came to be. But when it's as simple as Alief, located southwest of downtown, it is worth remembering. The place was originally called Dairy, Texas, by the surveyors who inspected the land, but the name was ultimately changed to Alief after Alief Ozelda Magee, the wife of Dr. John Magee, the town's first two actual settlers. In fact, Mrs. Magee opened the first post office, and it was thought her name would help avoid confusion with Daisy, Texas, for the postal service.


It's hard to imagine a wealthy community like Bellaire as farmland, but that is exactly how it got its start and its name. Founded in the early 1900s on a parcel of a nearly 10,000-acre ranch by William Wright Baldwin, a railroad man, it may have been named after a town in Ohio, but it certainly was based on the fact that the name means "Good Air" for the farming community.


Montgomery, the seat of Montgomery County, and Conroe are not exactly bastions of liberal thought, which makes it somewhat interesting that Conroe is named after a Union cavalryman who opened a sawmill in the community north of Houston in 1881. Ironically, Montgomery was named after a county in Alabama, which, in turn, was named for a military officer who died in the Battle of Horshoe Creek fighting Native Americans in the War of 1812.


The original name for this east Houston town, Lick Skillet, is far more interesting. Frankly, we wish we could say we needed to take the Lick Skillet/Lynchburg Ferry on our way work, but, alas, the town's informal name was changed to Crosby after a railroad engineer, which isn't all that surprising considering the town's roots with the Southern Pacific Railroad.


Pronounced "UHM-bull" by those in the know, Humble was named after Pleasant Smith "Plez" Humble, one of the original settlers who opened the post office — he who opened the post office apparently got first dibs on naming rights back then — and was the area's first justice of the peace.


The west Houston home of the Katy Prairie and Katy Mills mall (notable for different reasons, obviously) was originally called Cane Island after a stand of sugar cane that was smack dab in the middle of the wide open prairie. But, as with so many other nearby locales, the name was changed, in this case to Katy, just before the turn of the last century in honor of the MKT Railroad (nicknamed "the Katy"), which ran through Cane Island.


This southeast Houston neighborhood is known more for its chemical refineries and distinct odor (it's nicknamed "Stinkadena") than for pretty much anything else, which is what makes where its name came from pretty hilarious. John H. Burnett founded the city in 1893, and was impressed with the lush vegetation, which reminded him of another Pasadena, in California. No one would confuse the Los Angeles suburb with our version today.


Most people, when they hear this name, wonder where the hell all the pears are. Surprisingly, it was a grove of pear trees that inspired Witold von Zychlinski, a Polish nobleman no less, to change the name from Mark Belt, which sounds like a new line of menswear from Urban Outfitters, to Pearland.

Sugar Land

As some might suspect, Sugar Land (and, yes, it is two words, thank you very much) derives its name from the sugar mill that began processing cane in the 1800s and would ultimately be named Imperial Sugar. Originally, the town was called Oakland Plantation — which, oddly, sounds like a master planned community from the 1980s — because of the wide varieties of oak trees on the land. In 2013, Sugar Land turned down half a million dollars to rename the town SugarDaddie.com, USA. Color us disappointed.


This rather charming and rapidly growing northside town was originally called Peck, after a railroad engineer who brought rail lines to the farming and ranching community. But, in 1907, it was officially renamed Tomball, an abbreviated version of "Thomas Henry Ball," the name of the state legislator and attorney who, among other things, was general counsel for the Port of Houston and mayor of Huntsville. He also helped bring the original rail lines to Tomball.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke