Opening the Houston Ship Channel
Dredged 25 feet deep, the Houston Ship Channel opens for ocean-going vessels on November 10, 1914, making Texas home to a world-class commercial port.
President Woodrow Wilson salutes the occasion from his desk in the White House – reportedly by pushing an ivory button wired to a cannon in Houston.
The waterway – originally known as Buffalo Bayou – was “swampy, marshy and overgrown with dense vegetation,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
“Steamboats and shallow draft boats were the only vessels able to navigate its complicated channel,” ASCE adds.
In 1837, the steamship Laura traveled from Galveston Bay up Buffalo Bayou to what is now Houston, explains the Port of Houston Authority of Harris County.
The trip, in water no deeper than six feet, proved the bayou was navigable by sizable vessels and established a commercial link between Houston and the rest of the world.
“With the discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901 and crops such as rice beginning to rival the dominant export crop of cotton, Houston’s ship channel needed the capacity to handle newer and larger vessels,” adds the Port Authority, which administers the channel.
According to ASCE, Harris County citizens in 1909 formed a navigation district (an autonomous governmental body supervising the port) and issued bonds to fund half the cost of dredging the channel. The U.S. Congress providing matching funds.
As work began in 1912, similar extraordinary maritime projects of the time included the Panama Canal and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
By 1930 eight refineries are operating along the deepwater channel, ASCE notes. The area eventually will support one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world. Now along the shores are petrochemical facilities and oil refineries, including ExxonMobil’s Baytown Refinery, among the largest in the United States.
Today, the Houston Ship Channel is 45 feet deep and 530 feet wide. It extends from the Gulf through Galveston Bay and up the San Jacinto River, ending four miles east of downtown. Although the dredging vessel Texas first signaled (by whistle) completion on September 7, 1914, the official opening date remains when President Wilson remotely fired his Texas cannon on November 10.
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