In the early days of Houston, barges carried cargo to and from the city, served by the shallow draft of Buffalo Bayou, from the foot of Main Street along a long and winding distance to the Gulf of Mexico. Once in Galveston, these barges met the seagoing vessels that brought cargo to and from the rest of the nation and overseas. But as cargo volumes grew, along with the city, Houston’s lack of a deep-water port became increasingly problematic.
As the 19th century came to a close, Houston civic and business leaders shared a steady stream of information with Congress to prove the need for a deep-water ship channel, pointing to the many international customers who depended on Texas cotton and other goods. But it was not until Mother Nature’s fury, the discovery of oil and a young congressman’s dedication all came together that Houston’s maritime destiny was fulfilled.
During the 1890s, U.S. Representative Tom Ball spent countless hours trying to convince his colleagues to support a deep-water port for Houston. Then, in September 1900, a devastating hurricane slammed into Galveston, leaving behind one of the worst natural disasters in American history. More than 8,000 people lost their lives.
Arguments for a protected port 52 miles upstream from Galveston’s exposed position took on greater urgency. With the discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901 and crops such as rice beginning to rival cotton exports, the growth of Texas commerce was accelerating and Houston’s lack of a deep-water ship channel denied it the means to handle newer and larger vessels to support that commerce.
Tom Ball proposed a revolutionary concept. He suggested that Houston and the federal government share the cost of dredging a deep-water channel to Houston. The Congressional Rivers and Harbors Committee voted unanimously to accept the idea, which became known as the Houston Plan – and a nearby Texas city, Tomball, later was named after the congressman.
In 1911, a campaign was launched to persuade voters to approve $1.25 million in bonds to pay for the local share to dredge the waterway. Voters approved the measure by a margin of 16 to one, and with it the formation of the Harris County Houston Ship Channel Navigation District (today’s Port Houston) to issue those bonds.
Despite voter enthusiasm, the bonds still had to be sold. Such financial instruments were little known by prospective buyers, and the banks and brokers were not interested because of the small commissions they could earn.
Enter Jesse H. Jones, who would be a major force in the future of Houston and the port, who took it upon himself to ask each Houston bank to accept the bonds. In just 24 hours, he persuaded each to buy its share. It was an investment that has paid off many times over for the city, state and nation.
Work on the deep channel commenced in 1912. Workers took a keen interest in the progress of similar precedent-setting maritime projects of the time, the 51-mile-long Panama Canal and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, and on the morning of September 7, 1914, the dredge TEXAS whistled completion of the channel.
A big celebration followed, with a parade held downtown. A ceremony to open the channel was held November 10, 1914, at the Turning Basin. Thousands of people attended the event, 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 operations.
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.