GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — This house might not look like much, says Kimber Fountain, as she stands in front of a faded white Victorian home with sunken corners and battered shutters, but it's a perfect example of this part of Galveston's history.
"Welcome to The Line," she says to a group of about 20 people, who have followed her here, to this stretch of mostly bulldozed space lining Post Office Street.
The Houston Chronicle reports it was nearly sunset on a recent breezy Wednesday night, and Fountain was leading her new walking tour around what used to be the island city's Red Light District — a place that, according to Fountain's research for her recent book on the topic, was once home to more than 55 houses that offered prostitution and 569 taverns, and flourished for nearly 70 years.
The house she stands in front of looks as massive as it looks tired — and lonely, as it more leans than stands without a next-door neighbor on what was once a bustling street.
"Obviously, there's not much left. And there's even less left than you think there is," she says. "Because unlike the new construction that has space between the houses, if you've ever been on the East End, you know how closely together the houses were built back then."
She points to the empty stretch of lawns nearby, where you're more likely to hear cricket chirps than whispers.
"So think of the four blocks in front of you, and the alleyways going down each side, and all of the side streets," she said. "All of these were just cram-packed with houses of brothel after brothel after brothel."
During her research for the book, "Galveston's Red Light District: A History of the Line," she met a family member of this house's former owners, and was assured that the white house with the teal shutters was never one of the dozens of brothels that used to buzz with business on this block.
"However, someone on my tour insisted they were in denial," she told her audience, who laughed.
Over the stretch of an hour-and-a-half long walking tour that covers about a dozen blocks or so, Fountain injects her history of the city's seedy side with a bit of humor. But mostly, she goes deep into the facts and the context for what made Galveston, in her words, "The original Sin City."
Houses like this one were the perfect spot for a brothel, often labeled on the outside as a boarding house, during the high-time of Galveston's red light district, which ran free from the 1890s through 1957. Once a grand home, built for wealthy Texas families who would spend their summers on the island, these houses had eight to 10 bedrooms upstairs, and formal parlors as well as other side rooms on the bottom.
And there were plenty of them, free for the taking after the city was built up of massive homes around the Civil War, many of which fell empty as the city's boundaries bent and reshaped.
"The west side of downtown became industrialized, and they started to build warehouses and factories," Fountain explains to her assembled crowd. "And the homes that had remained there were now practically worthless — except to one very enterprising kind of woman. And it only took one very savvy madam from New Orleans to survey what was going on in the west side of downtown, and see that it was the perfect situation. These were huge homes, and they were very, very cheap."
From there, Fountain corrals her crowd onto a sidewalk and begins walking to the next stop on the tour, where she discusses the piety of the Victorian era, and how that helped fuel the city's underside.
"Basically, Galveston was Vegas before Vegas even thought about being Vegas," she tells her visitors.
Some of the people on the tour already know this. Jennifer Perry, who owns the antique shop Twice Around Treasures on Market Street, specializes in knowing the city's history. And she often regales customers with the tall tales that have sprung up on the island.
"But some of these stories, I'd never heard before," she says when the tour wraps up. This was the perfect opportunity to scrape up more factoids for shoppers who often peruse her place with the hopes of both buying interesting pieces and learning about the city's history.
It's not just locals that dive into Fountain's stories on the tour. On that Wednesday night, Samantha Stephens, visiting from Sulphur, Oklahoma, also tagged along on the tour, so she could learn something about the island that she wouldn't hear about on The Strand, or while she and her children lounge on the beach.
"When we go somewhere we like getting to really learn about the place, and I thought this would be interesting, with the speakeasies, and the brothels. So I found it Google, and we came," she says.
Plus, it gave her the opportunity to leave the kids behind for a while.
"This is an adults-only tour," Fountain says, her eyes bright and voice winking.
And pearl-clutchers need not sign up. But if you're interested in this kind of history, Fountain hopes to see you there.
"The whole story of this district is fascinating," she says. "And I love having the opportunity to share it with people."
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com