Perhaps the Forest Trail Region’s most memorable citizen (and maybe the state’s as well) is Sam Houston. Leader of victorious troops at the Battle of San Jacinto, Republic of Texas’ first elected President, then Senator, and finally Governor, Houston makes most overachievers seem like mere lay-abouts. Toward the end of his life, Houston served as target for the discontent expressed by Texas secessionists’ during the Civil War years, but he managed to make the best of his short retirement, choosing to live in exile in Huntsville, renting the odd but unique Steamboat House. The house, said to resemble a steamboat (its galleries running down each side recall a riverboat but the twin turrets in front add an unusual detail), served as Houston’s final home where he moved his wife (the third) and family after being wounded badly at the Battle of Shiloh.
It wouldn’t have been Houston’s first home in the region, however. During his prime, Houston set up a law practice in Nacogdoches in 1833 and, as his political career progressed, he created Raven Hill Plantation near Huntsville, where he had originally planned to retire. By the time Houston arrived at Steamboat House he had already suffered a string of battle wounds before Shiloh, including a gunshot wound at the Battle of San Jacinto that would require the removal of twenty pieces of shattered bone. Houston no doubt suffered long-term effects from a wound of that severity and may have sought out relief in the waters of Sour Lake, a nearby community known for its supposed “healing” waters. The mineral springs near the lake were particularly sulphurous due to the presence of crude oil nearby (a factor that would spawn the discovery of the oil industry’s jackpot – the Spindletop salt dome, a 1903 oil field that continues to produce black gold today). High mineral content and sulphurous characteristics were often thought to create the “healing” powers of spring water, a concept largely unsupported by science but nonetheless a major attraction for Texans suffering from an assortment of illnesses. Houston visited the springs after arriving at Steamboat House, not necessarily the best selling point considering he succumbed to pneumonia within the year on July 26, 1863 at the age of seventy and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery. Although nothing remains of Raven Hill Plantation (other than a historical marker), visitors trek to the memorial statue and grave at Oakwood, and the Steamboat House survives as part of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum complex on the campus of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.