houston ship channel

A 1915 postcard captures the Houston Ship Channel one year after President Woodrow Wilson officially opened the newly dredged waterway. Photo courtesy Fort Bend Museum, Richmond, Texas.

houston ship channel

The Houston Ship Channel on Buffalo Bayou leads upstream to Houston – where downtown can be seen at top right. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library.

Dredged 25 feet deep, the Houston Ship Channel 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.

The waterway – originally known as Buffalo Bayou – was “swampy, marshy and overgrown with dense vegetation,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). It 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, now part of the part of the Port of Houston.

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. The Houston Ship Channel today is 45 feet deep and 530 feet wide. It supports refineries and the largest petrochemical complex in the world.

houston ship channel

A “Bird’s Eye” view of Houston in 1891. Today’s Port of Houston is ranked first in foreign cargo and among the largest ports in the world. Map image courtesy Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

“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.

houston ship channel

A museum in Beaumont, Texas, includes refinery exhibits for educating young people about the Port of Houston. Photo courtesy The Texas Energy Museum.

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 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 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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