In the early days of Houston, the shallow draft of Buffalo Bayou to the foot of Main Street was sufficient. Cargo from larger ships was offloaded near Galveston onto barges for the long and winding trip from the Gulf of Mexico. It was a costly compromise for Houston’s lack of a deep-water port.
Local Houston business leaders sent a steady stream of information to their representatives in Washington to prove the financial necessity for a ship channel. They pointed to the many international customers who depended on Texas cotton. But it was not until the combination of Mother Nature’s fury, the discovery of oil, and a young congressman’s dedication that Houston’s maritime destiny was fulfilled.
During the 1890s, U.S. Representative Tom Ball, for which the community north of Houston is named, spent countless hours trying to convince his congressional colleagues to support a deep-water port for Houston. Then in September 1900, a devastating hurricane slammed into Galveston and created one of the worst disasters in American history. More than 8,000 lost their lives and much of the island city and its businesses were swept away by the waves.
Ball’s arguments for a protected port 52 miles upstream from Galveston’s exposed position took on greater meaning. 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.
Tom Ball proposed a revolutionary concept. He suggested that Houston share the cost with the federal government for dredging a deep-water channel to Houston. Congressional Rivers and Harbors Committee chairman D.S. Alexander and the other congressional committee members were amazed by the bold proposal from Houston. The congressmen voted unanimously to accept the idea, which became known as the Houston Plan.
The Harris County Houston Ship Channel Navigation District was formed, and a campaign was launched to persuade voters to approve $1.25 million in bonds to pay for the District’s share of the waterway. No campaign to date had ever been conducted more passionately, and the voters carried the measure by a majority of 16 to one.
Despite voter enthusiasm, the bonds needed to be sold. Unlike today, such financial instruments were little known then by prospective buyers, and the banks and brokers weren’t interested because of the small commissions they could earn.
Jesse H. Jones, who would be a major force in the port’s destiny, took it upon himself to ask each Houston bank to accept the bonds. In just 24 hours, he persuaded each bank to buy its share. It was an investment that has paid off many times over.
Work on the deep channel commenced in 1912. The laborers took a keen interest in similar precedent-setting maritime projects of the time such as the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, and the 51-mile long Panama Canal. On the morning of September 7, 1914, the dredge Texas signaled by whistle the completion of the channel.
A celebration to match this long-sought accomplishment was planned. A parade was held in downtown and 40 blocks were strung with a new invention: incandescent lights. A ceremony to open the channel was held Tuesday morning, November 10, 1914. Dignitaries gathered at the Turning Basin in great anticipation.
Thousands of people attended the ceremony, which was marked by a 21-gun salute. From his office in Washington, D.C., President Woodrow Wilson fired a cannon via remote control to officially mark the channel as open for operation.
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.
Since then, the growth of Houston’s port has been phenomenal. The Houston Ship Channel is recognized as a feat of civil engineering. More importantly, it connects Houston to the world and the port remains the nation’s leading port in terms of foreign tonnage, and 2nd in overall tonnage.
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