Echoes of the Past: 1428 Avenue K

Home Holds Memories from Britain to Confederacy

By Kathleen Maca
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A British Confederate? It wasn’t unheard of, as an unknown number (estimated in the hundreds) of British and other European citizens enlisted in the Confederate Navy during the Civil War. One British teenage boy who ran away to enlist eventually became a respected citizen of Galveston, and his home on the island still exists. 

 The house itself looks similar to many other two-story, wood Victorian homes in the historic neighborhoods of Galveston. It was built as a boarding house in June 1895 by Mrs. Mary Freeman (1853-1928), a widow with three sons and a daughter to support. Her husband David passed away in 1893. 

 The attractive, two-story Southern townhouse was built on two-foot brick piers and had 12-foot ceilings on the ground floor and ten and half foot ceilings upstairs. The exterior featured double galleries with cypress porch posts, scroll-sawn details on the brackets and balustrades, and a fashionable slate roof.

 The home’s entrance led to a side hall floorplan that included two plastered hallways, two fireplaces, a kitchen with a stove and zinc sink, a dining room and parlor with pocket doors, a storeroom, and three bedrooms. Over-sized transoms allowed coastal breezes to cool the rooms and gas lighting provided illumination. 

 The floors were constructed of long-leaf pine, and a wooden cistern and garage were situated at the rear of the lot.

 An interesting array of people lived in the home during its first few years. Freeman’s first tenants were Frank E. Harby, a clerk at Moore, McKinney & Company wholesale grocers; Jacob Frank, a bookkeeper with Heidenheimer Brothers cotton products; and George W. Beers, chief clerk to the general freight agent at the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe railyard. 

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 By 1899 however, a single family of Polish immigrants had taken up residence in the home. Aaron Pimstein (1857-1916) worked as a clerk at Miguel’s Loan Office. He and his wife Rosa (1858-1905) lived in the home with their daughter Melanie, a teacher at the Rosenberg School; son Leon, a clerk at J. J. Schott pharmacy; and teenage daughter Sadie. 

 Sadie would eventually marry Robert I. Cohen Jr., the retail magnate who, along with his father, purchased the famous Foley Brothers stores in Texas. 

 Their time in the home was unfortunately short-lived, as the 1900 Storm inflicted severe damage on the structure, leaving 50 percent of the home uninhabitable. Repairs were completed by 1901, maintaining the original footprint of the house. 

 For two years following the repairs Charles E. Young, a cable operator for the Mexican Telegraph Company, was the sole boarder. The telegraph offices where he worked were on the second floor of 2123 Strand, which is now part of the Galveston Arts Center. 

 Other tenants during the next few years included Italian immigrant David Rossi, an agent of the Houston Ice & Brewing Company, and his wife Eugenia; Emilio Rossi, a driver with Schlitz Brewing; Gavino Figari, a shipping clerk with Houston Ice & Brewing; Frank J. Randol, a clerk in the telegraph manager’s office at G. C. & S. F. Railyard; and George W. Taylor, secretary and treasurer of O.K. Laundry Company. 

 In 1906, Freeman updated the home’s original gas fixtures to electric. 

 After she returned to her hometown of New Orleans, Freeman sold the property to John Maunder Murch (1845-1940), a native of England, in 1916. The Murch family became the longest residents of the home. 

 When he was seventeen, Murch left his home in Exeter, England, and enlisted in the Confederate Navy, boarding the CSS Rappahannock in 1863. 

 The steam sloop-of-war, originally named Victor, had been built in the Thames River six years earlier. She was purchased by an agent of the Confederate States government under the pretense of sailing to China, but the British government suspected the true intention of the new owners was to use the sloop as a raiding ship in the Civil War. 

 The crew was detained, but they later escaped and eventually boarded the ship in the English Channel. 

 During her time in the area, local citizens enlisted in the Confederate Navy to form the crew of 180 men and 32 officers that manned the ship. Their motives ranged from support of the Southern cotton industry to a thirst for adventure. Murch was one of these men. 

 While passing out of the estuary, the ship bearings caught fire, and the Rappahannock was taken to Calais for repairs. The ship remained there, with the Confederate flag hoisted, for over a year while detained by France on various counts. 

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 Any members of the crew who were seeking excitement must have been sorely disappointed that the Rappahannock never crossed the ocean until it was turned over to the United States government at the end of the war. 

 Murch did make it to America, however, and took full advantage of his status as a war veteran regardless of the fact that he never saw action, even claiming the position of an officer. 

 Murch married Susan “Susie” Johnson (1849-1928) in 1873. They had two children, John Allen (1877-1947) and Lucy (1880-1962). 

 While serving as a chief deputy in the Internal Revenue Department office in Austin from 1885-1889, he was said to have been instrumental in reorganizing the finances of the Texas Penitentiary System. He also worked as a bookkeeper with several railways. 

 Murch moved his family to Galveston in 1889 and served as county auditor from 1905, when the office was first established, until 1928. His name appears as county commissioner along with other county officials on the seawall and grade-raising marker at Seawall Boulevard and 23rd Street near Murdoch’s.

 In addition to his government responsibilities, the naturalized citizen acted as a bookkeeper at Gus Lewy & Company, and as director secretary of the Texas Coal, Coking and Oil Company. By 1915, he was financially comfortable enough to move into their house on Avenue K with his wife and daughter. His son had married several years earlier. 

 After his wife Susan passed away in 1928, Murch remained in the home with his daughter Lucy, and they began renting out part of the home to boarders. 

 The pair still resided in the home when Murch died on March 4, 1940. His funeral was held in the front parlor. 

 He was recognized as the oldest active member of the Grand Commandery, Knights Templar of Texas, and one of the last living members of Camp Magruder of the United Confederate Veterans organization. 

 Lucy remained in the house, which had been divided into a duplex, and listed it for sale in 1949. It was purchased by Will J. Tullos, of the Galveston Cooks & Bakers School, and his wife Mary Elizabeth in 1950. Lucy passed away at the Letitia Rosenberg Home for Women in 1962. 

 Tullos soon resold the house to Adolf J. “Ditch” van den Akker, a native of Holland who worked as a machinist’s helper at Todd Shipyards. He and his wife moved in in April 1953. 

 Ownership passed to Edwin Johnson in August 1961. The home has changed hands at least twice since that time but continues to stand proudly on the corner lot. It retains the memories of the numerous lives that have passed through its doors, including the unique experiences of a British member of the Confederacy who never quite went to war.