Cotton Exchange, postmarked 1907
The old Cotton Exchange Building, the center of area cotton trade, was completed in 1884 and still stands at the corner of Travis Street and Franklin Avenue. Its architect was Eugene T. Heiner, the local master of the Victorian style; the building remains one of the premier examples of high Victorian design in the city.
There were many who doubted that Buffalo Bayou, with a depth of only six feet, was a viable waterway. To demonstrate that steamships could navigate the stream to the landing place at the foot of Main Street, the determined entrepreneurs hired the 85-foot Laura, the smallest steamer they could find, to travel the five and one-half miles from Harrisburg to Houston. Because the waterway was so narrow and overgrown, the journey took three days. This success, albeit a tenuous one, marked the beginning of a vigorous never-ending campaign that would occupy the next eight decades and would ultimately produce a deepwater port. The town's future was assured in 1841 when the Port of Houston was established and boats began plying the bayou on a regular schedule.
1850s-1900Throughout the 1850s, navigation on the bayou was dominated by the Houston Navigation Company and later by the Houston Direct Navigation Company, an organization of Houston merchants and steamboat captains. By 1856, business was booming and steamboats operated regularly between Houston and Galveston, carrying both passengers and cargo. Steamers such as the Diana, the Bayou City and the Neptune charged $3 for cabin passage on the eight-hour journey. The Diana, described as a "floating palace," was widely acclaimed for being as fine as any steamboat on the Mississippi River.
Cotton was the primary cargo transported on these ships. The tariff for a bale of cotton was 50 cents. Timber became the No. 2 commodity shipped down the bayou. The most unusual cargo on the bayou during this time was a boatload of camels bound for a ranch on Sims Bayou.
Improvements to the waterway remained foremost in the minds of Houston's leaders. Since only shallow-draft vessels could navigate to the Main Street landing, port authorities began laying plans to enlarge the waterway. This movement received added support in 1870 when Houston was designated as a port of entry by the United States government. Over the next two decades, as Houston became the rail crossroads of Texas, port traffic increased as goods were transferred from rail cars to ships on their journey to distant points. Cargo still had to be transferred, however, onto larger ships at the Port of Galveston before entering the Gulf of Mexico. Houston's business leaders dreamed of their city becoming a true deepwater port and competing with Galveston, which by 1896 had constructed a channel 25 feet deep.
Binz Building decorated for No-Tsu-Oh, 1907 - A Houston November carnival and festival began in the mid-1880s as the Fruit, Flower and Vegetable Festival. It faltered, but was revived in 1899 as No-Tsu-Oh ("Houston" spelled backward). Here, the Binz Building, Houston's first skyscraper, is decorated with an electric light display for the festival. Chicago native Jacob Binz built the six-story building at Main Street and Texas Avenue in 1894.
That same year, U.S. Congressman Joseph C. Hutcheson introduced a bill in Congress requesting a survey for a 25-foot channel in Houston. The congressional Rivers & Harbors Committee visited the city, and after touring a rain-swollen Buffalo Bayou endorsed the project. Ironically, only a few days before, the bayou had been a muddy trickle due to a severe drought. With the assurance of $1 million in funding, Houston's leaders laid plans for achieving their longtime goal. These plans included moving the longtime landing from the foot of Main Street to a location six miles downstream. This new docking area was named the Turning Basin.
Dredging operations commenced on the bayou, but funding ran out before the required depth was reached. At that point, Mayor H. Baldwin Rice and other business leaders devised a plan whereby local interests would pay one-half the cost of completing the channel — $1,250,000 — if Congress would appropriate the other half. The "Houston Plan" set a precedent for federal-local cooperation and would be replicated across the country in the years ahead.
1914-1925November 10, 1914, was a day of pomp and circumstance for the Port of Houston. Thousands of persons gathered on the banks of the waterway as President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button at the White House to fire a cannon at the site in Houston. As the cannon boomed, Sue Campbell, the mayor's daughter, dropped white rose petals into the water and proclaimed: "I christen thee Port of Houston and hither the boats of all nations may come and receive a hearty welcome."
Traffic on the channel was sluggish for the first few months. Community leaders were so eager to establish regular service between North Atlantic ports and Houston that a group of 100 Houstonians offered to pay $1,000 each to steamship companies if they suffered any losses in instituting these routes. Impressed by this gesture, the Southern Steamship Company refused the offer and inaugurated service with the arrival of the Satilla, a 312-foot vessel, on August 22, 1915. The Satilla had actually been scheduled to arrive four days earlier. Those plans were scrapped when a hurricane ravaged the area, leaving more than $50 million worth of damage. This incident, however, served as a reminder of the protection afforded by an inland port.
By 1919, ships departed from the Port of Houston for ports not only on the eastern seaboard, but also those across the Atlantic Ocean. The Merry Mount transported the first direct shipment of cotton — 23,719 bales — to Liverpool, England.
This success led to yet another campaign to increase the depth of the ship channel to accommodate the increased number of oil tankers as Houston became an important center of the petroleum industry. An Army Corps of Engineers survey recommended a 30-foot-deep channel. Work was completed on the project in 1925.
1940s-presentThe 1940s were years of extraordinary progress along the Houston Ship Channel. World War II provided the impetus for increased industrial development. The port's secure harbor and favorable climate were ideal for defense facilities that contributed significantly to the nation's war efforts. Oil refineries responded to war needs by developing new products, such as synthetic rubber. As a result, a vast petrochemical complex sprang up along the channel. By 1948, the Port of Houston was second only to New York in total tonnage.
The era of containerized shipping began in Houston in 1956 with a shipment of 58 loaded containers on the Ideal X from New York. With Houston as the terminus of this history-making voyage, port officials realized that the local port was now competing with worldwide ports and that facilities, once again, much be enlarged. Thus, in 1958 Congress authorized increasing the channel depth to 40 feet.
The port's superior water system was a strong selling point in 1961 when the federal government began the selection process for a site for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Manned Spacecraft Center. Houston was chosen over 20 coastal cities, among them New Orleans, Los Angeles and Boston. The combined waterways of the Port of Houston and the Intracoastal Waterway were considered to be excellent means of transporting bulky space vehicles.
Progress has never slowed at the Port of Houston. In 2005, another expansion was completed, resulting in a channel 45 feet deep and 520 feet wide. Approximately 7,000 deep-draft ships call at the port each year, representing service to more than 150 countries worldwide. The entire industrial complex is valued at $17 billion. And it all started when two brothers conceived the idea of founding a town on the banks of a small, overgrown bayou. Through visionary planning, unflagging optimism and hard work, the Allens' dream for Houston to become the great interior commercial emporium of Texas became a reality. As the legendary Will Rogers said, "Houston dared to dig a ditch, and bring the sea to its door." Today that "ditch" ranks as the sixth largest port in the world.