In 1855, Dr. Rufus W. Bailey, a Dartmouth educated minister and attorney, moved to Huntsville, Texas, to serve as a language professor at Austin College. After acquiring an eight acre tract of land in Huntsville, he commissioned a large home to be built in 1858. According to popular legend, Bailey intended to present the new structure, which he named Buena Vista, to his son and daughter-in-law as a wedding present. Upon first sight, however, the young couple refused to live in the eccentrically designed building, which featured twin front turrets and riverboat side galleries on two lengthy floors.

By 1862, Bailey’s well-intentioned wedding gift -- now known the “Steamboat House” -- had sat empty for many months. This situation made it possible for Sam Houston, the recently deposed Governor of Texas, to rent the building from Bailey upon his return to Huntsville. Wartime pressures and health problems constantly plagued Sam Houston during the last year of his life. As his persistent cough turned into pneumonia, Houston’s strength declined. On June 26, 1863, the old general passed away in the front room of the Steamboat House. The next day family and friends held funeral services in the upstairs parlor of the house, followed by a burial in nearby Oakwood Cemetery.

With the passing of Sam Houston, his family moved out of the home. Rufus Bailey, who had died three months previously, left the Steamboat House to his son, Frank. Once again confronted with ownership of the unusually shaped house, Frank Bailey quickly put the structure up for auction. For the next sixty years the house would pass from one family to another, and it deteriorated over time. In 1936, J.E. Josey donated the Steamboat House to the Sam Houston Memorial Museum. The building was dismantled, moved to the museum grounds, and extensively refurbished. On March 2, 1937 the newly remodeled Steamboat House was opened to the public as part of the Texas Centennial.

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