Big Business at Houston's Port
Houston's Port has, in the past century, developed from a small, inefficent backwater into one of the largest ports in the entire world. This growth was driven by government action to widen and dredge Buffalo Bayou, developing the 30 foot deep Houston Ship Channel. The development of the Ship Channel was supported and occurred concurrently with the growth of the Houston Yacht Club, which lobbied for the growth of the ship channel, not only for commerce, but also for tourism.
Thinking Big: 1897-1913
In 1897, the United States government began appropriating funds for enlarging the future ship channel in Houston. Many of Houston's leading businessmen and politcians were involved in the effort bring deep water and global commerce into Houston in the late 1890s and early 1900s.
Congressman Thomas H. Ball is known as the "Father of the Port of Houston" for his early efforts to develop business and trade in Houston by championing the port's possibilites. Ball's predecessor, Congressman J.C. Hutcheson, had a bill passed in the 54th Congress providing for a federal survey of Buffalo Bayou that looked at the possibility of dredging a 25-foot channel in the Bayou.
A few of the many other leaders in the effort to make Houston a major deep water port included Houston mayors John T. Browne and Baldwin Rice; Capt. James A. Baker (attorney); H.M. Garwood of Houston Cotton Exchange; W.D. Cleveland Sr., Joseph S. Rice, O.T. Holt, John T. Scott (banker), H.F. MacGregor, F.A. Heitmann, Jesse Jones, J.E. McAshan, J.S. Rice, Joseph F. Meyer, Sr., E.A. Peden, John Wortham (father of Gus Wortham), F.B. Pettibone, R.S. Sterling, Charles Dillingham, C.G. Pillot.
Lumber kings who supported the development of the port included John H. Kirby, William M. Rice, B.F. Bonner, J.W. Rockwell, Eugene Bender, S.F. Carter.
Oil magnates; R.L. Blaffer (Humble Oil and Refining), J.S. Cullinan (Texas Company), R.M. Farrar (member of first harbor board), Underwood Nazro (Gulf Company) Judge D.E. Greer (Gulf Company) all also supported this development.
The Houston Yacht Club was founded in that same year, 1897. Even from these earliest days, this single moment reflected how both entities evolved together, both in size and geography. For example, C.G. Pillot, active supporter of the Port of Houston, also served as Commodore for the Houston Yacht Club from 1914-1916. Lumber king John H. Kirby presented the yacht "Lawrence" to the Houston Yacht Club in 1905, for the purpose of building the fleet to support business tours of the area. These two examples of just two of the many ways that the Houston Yacht Club and the Port of Houston developed together.
Thinking Big: 1897-1913
Houston’s port, long before it became a principal international seaport, was initially a small, inefficient locale at Buffalo Bayou, just off Main Street in, what is today, downtown Houston.
It struggled merely to survive amidst the more robust and easily accessible ports at Galveston. However, the confluence of railways, oil, cotton & lumber trade in Houston would soon turn the tides. In addition, Galveston's ability to serve as a major port was highly damaged by the Great Storm of 1900.
A large Turning Basin, first dredged in 1908, was included in the federal funding for the Buffalo Bayou project, which signaled the port’s ability to cater to large ships.
One of the Houston Yacht Club’s large yachts, Zeeland, was used to demonstrate the Basin’s effectiveness.
Thinking Big: 1897-1913
Although the U.S. government had long expressed interest in expanding the Houston Ship Channel, the progress by 1909 was still slow.
In 1909, the voters of Harris County approved the port as the Harris County Houston Ship Channel Navigation District. Local Houston interests and U.S. Congressman Tom Ball, however, petitioned Congress and offered to put up more than $1 million for the extensive expansion project.
Many in the Houston community had desired to widen the Buffalo Bayou to a navigable and useful channel.
In 1911, leaders in both the Houston business community and the Houston Yacht Club had insisted that the Bayou be transformed into a deep-water body to promote the city and its access to the sea. This was a challenging proposition considering Houston’s relatively inland location, as well as nearby Galveston’s easy access to the Gulf of Mexico.
That year, Texas governor O. B. Colquitt established the first Board of Pilot Commissioners to prepare for ocean-going vessels traveling up the Houston Ship Channel. The petition was successful and efforts were underway to expand the Channel into Buffalo Bayou.
Seaport Giant: 1914 & Forward
Finally, in 1914, the Port of Houston opened officially and regular steamship service up and down the ship channel commenced.
Just one year prior, in 1913, members of the Houston Yacht Club led a naval parade, which included state and federal government parties, celebrating the opening of the local portion of the Intracoastal Waterway. The stage was set for increasing opportunities in business and pleasure along the area waterways.
The celebrations in 1914 surrounding the Port’s grand opening reflected the Club’s long-standing goals and desires dating to its founding in 1897. In addition, the festivites reflected the excitement in Houston's business community, which made up a large percentage of the Houston Yacht Club.
Partly because they shared the same territory, the Houston Yacht Club greatly championed the Port’s expansion. Many of the Club’s officers endorsed the deep-water movement as a way to highlight Houston’s capability and serious intent to be a significant port city. According to historian Dora F. Akkerman, “The leaders [of the Club] had strived to promote Houston both as a deep-water port and as recreational boating and yacht racing center.”
Seaport Giant: 1914 & Forward
Houston quickly became the nation’s second-largest seaport as well as the leading cotton port by the 1920s.
The rise of Houston was not only a reflection of its increasing economic importance, but also a viewpoint of the fall of other southern ports, namely Galveston and New Orleans. By 1925, as part of the port’s expansion, the Houston Ship Channel had been dredged to a depth of 30 feet.
In July 1927, the Texas Legislature authorized The Port of Houston Authority to act as an autonomous governmental entity.
Concurrently that year, the Houston Yacht Club moved into the new clubhouse on Galveston Bay, at Shoreacres, in part, at least, to get away from the rapidly developing and industrializing Houston Ship Channel.
The exponetial growth of a petroluem industry throughout the Texas Gulf Coast led rapidly to the industrialization of the waterfront.
Business boomed and the Port of Houston went on to become a true international shipping giant, which it remains to this day.
As of 2011, "the port is ranked first in the United States in foreign waterborne tonnage (14 consecutive years); first in U.S. imports (19 consecutive years); second in U.S. export tonnage and second in the U.S. in total tonnage (19 consecutive years)." (Source: Port of Houston Authority, accessed June 17, 2020).
Black and white image of a barge in Buffalo Bayou. The name Beach is in the lower left corner. Caption at the bottom: "'2222 Loading Cotton Barge on Buffalo Bayou. Houston, Texas.'" There is an illegible handwritten note below that. In the middle of the image is the postmark from St. Louis, MO.
Typescript copy of the Texas Senate Bill 43 legislation authorizing the formation of Navigation Districts in order to improve waterways for the purpose of navigation, 1909