President Wilson opens an extraordinary maritime project to support petrochemical facilities.
The Houston Ship Channel, the “port that built a city,” opened for ocean-going vessels on November 10, 1914, making Texas home to a world-class commercial port. President Woodrow Wilson saluted the occasion from his desk in the White House by pushing an ivory button wired to a cannon in Houston.
A band played the National Anthem from a barge in the center of the Turning Basin while Sue Campbell, daughter of Houston Mayor Ben Campbell, sprinkled white roses into the water from the top deck of the U.S. Revenue Cutter WINDOM. “I christen thee Port of Houston; hither the boats of all nations may come and receive hearty welcome,” she said. — Port of Houston history website.
The original waterway — known as Buffalo Bayou — was “swampy, marshy and overgrown with dense vegetation,” explains the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The bayou had been used to ship goods to the Gulf of Mexico as early as the 1830s.
“Steamboats and shallow draft boats were the only vessels able to navigate its complicated channel,” ASCE adds about the waterway. In 1837, the steamship Laura traveled from Galveston Bay up Buffalo Bayou to what is now Houston, according to 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.
“In 1909, Harris County citizens formed a navigation district (an autonomous governmental body charged with supervising the port) and issued bonds to fund half the cost of dredging the channel,” the ASCE website notes.
Under continuous development since its original construction, the 50-mile-long Houston Ship Channel today is 45 feet deep and up to 530 feet wide. The waterway supports Texas oil refineries and among the largest petrochemical facilities in 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,” explains the Port Authority, which administers the channel.
Harris County voters in January 1910 overwhelming approved dredging their ship channel to a depth of 25 feet for $1.25 million. The U.S. Congress provided 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 deep water 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.
The modern Houston Ship Channel has been extended 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 has remained when President Wilson remotely fired his Texas cannon on November 10.
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Citation Information: Article Title – “Houston Ship Channel of 1914.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/houston-ship-channel. Last Updated: November 9, 2020. Original Published Date: November 25, 2014.