The Houston Ship Channel is, no doubt, a fire-breathing force to be reckoned with. The leading U.S. port in foreign tonnage, and second only to the Port of South Louisiana in total tonnage, it’s the core of the petrochemical industry and a hotbed of international trade.
But the Port of Houston hasn’t always been the sixth-largest port in the world. While it can boast about the more than 6,300 ships that passed through its waters last year, the Port of Houston started out as a mere loading point for cotton on the way to the Port of Galveston, which according to the Handbook of Texas was widely considered the “best natural port in Texas.” The cotton would travel from Houston down the fifty or so miles of the channel on riverboats or barges; when the cotton arrived in Galveston Bay, it would be transferred to seafaring ships and thus enter the international market. Galveston, which was declared a port of entry by the Congress of Mexico in 1825, is the second-oldest U.S. port in the Gulf of Mexico (the Port of New Orleans holds the top honors). By 1900, Galveston was number one in the U.S. in exporting cotton, and third in the country for exporting wheat.
That same year, Galveston’s momentum as an international port was halted by a storm that hit the afternoon of September 8. The Great Hurricane, as it came to be called, wreaked utter mayhem on the island, killing between six thousand and eight thousand residents. At the time, the city’s highest point of elevation was 8.7 feet, so the 15.7-foot storm surge left much of Galveston underwater. Winds between 130 miles per hour and 140 miles per hour pummeled Galveston, and with no seawalls to protect against damage to structural foundations, more than 3,600 buildings were ruined. The Great Hurricane remains the deadliest natural disaster in national history.
In the years after the storm, as Galveston struggled to regain lost ground in the trade industry, the Port of Houston thrived. The idea for the Houston Ship Channel was conceived years earlier, in the 1850s, by unhappy Houston merchants who disliked the Galveston Wharf Company, which ran the Port of Galveston. The businessmen envisioned a route that would bypass Galveston, and after the Civil War, they created the Buffalo Bayou Ship Channel Company and then convinced Congress to declare Houston a port. Responsibility for the channel passed through multiple hands throughout the course of its development, but it was under Charles Morgan’s direction when a channel from Galveston Bay to Houston was dredged. The federal government bought the channel in 1890 and has since been responsible for its maintenance. The Houston Ship Channel was officially completed in 1914, and five years later the Merry Mount brought the first direct shipment of cotton from Houston to the international market. Within ten years, Houston became the number one port for cotton in the U.S., taking the title from Galveston, fifty miles southeast.
Today, the Houston Ship Channel hosts a proliferation of commodities that are a little more malevolent than fluffy cotton. Its top import and export is petroleum, and it also traffics petroleum products, crude fertilizers and minerals, and organic chemicals. With up to 190 million tons of goods coming in annually, such as in 2003, the Houston Ship Channel is a high-octane super highway. The channel’s considerable size and concentration of hazardous chemicals make it vulnerable, but the fear is that the attack won’t come from Mother Nature.