A Brief History Of The Houston Ship Channel

December 28th, 2013 | by JRO
A Brief History Of The Houston Ship Channel

The Houston Ship Channel is the waterway that connects the Port of Houston with the Gulf of Mexico. It is one of the busiest waterways in the United States. The Port of Houston is the nation’s leading port in terms of foreign tonnage, second in overall tonnage, and is the thirteenth busiest port in the world. How the Houston Ship Channel grew from a backwater bayou to the conduit to one of the world’s largest ports is a remarkable story of federal and local collaboration.


Buffalo Bayou begins on the prairie 30 miles west of Houston, continues southeast 50 miles to the San Jacinto River, and then empties into Galveston Bay. In 1836, brothers John and Augustus Allen founded the town of Houston at the head of Buffalo Bayou, recognizing its potential as a navigable passage. In January of 1837 the first steamboat, the Laura, arrived at Houston. Planters began bringing their cotton to Houston, where it was sent by barge or riverboat to Galveston, a natural seaport. Goods from national and international markets were offloaded in Galveston and sent upstream via the waterway and from Houston, transported into the interior of the country.

In 1842, Houston’s fathers officially established the Port of Houston. After the Civil War, Houston merchants established the Buffalo Bayou Ship Channel Company to improve the channel. In 1874, Charles Morgan bought the company and within two years managed to dredge a channel from Galveston Bay to Clinton, near Houston. In 1876, the first ocean vessel arrived there.

Deep Water Channel

In 1890, the U.S. government bought the improvements Morgan had made and accepted responsibility for the channel. In the late 1890s, Congressman Thomas Ball worked tirelessly on getting appropriations for the project. A devastating hurricane hit Galveston in 1900, and then oil was discovered at Spindletop in 1901; amidst these events, the need for the ship channel to handle much larger vessels became apparent. Dredging progress was still slow, however, until Congressman Ball negotiated an agreement for local interests to share the cost of dredging and improving the waterway with the federal government. The United States government contributed $1.25 million, and another $1.25 million was raised locally through bank bonds.

In 1912, work began on the channel, and it was completed in November of 1914. During World War I further development was delayed, but in 1919 the first ocean-going vessel took cotton from Houston directly to a foreign market. By World War II, the Port of Houston was the third largest in the nation in tonnage shipped. In ensuing years, the channel was widened to 300 feet and deepened to 40 feet.

Industry and Trade

By 1930, nine oil refineries operated along the ship channel. During the Second World War, two synthetic rubber plants operated nearby. After the war, the area became the center of the petrochemical industry. In 1961, due to the complex network of industry and transportation nearby, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration chose a site near the channel as headquarters for the U.S. space program.

Environmental Concerns

As early as 1955, environmentalists decried the lack of protection from potential accidents along the waterway. In the 1980s and 1990s a series of oil spills, explosions, collisions, and other accidents prompted lawsuits for billions of dollars in damages.

Plans to widen the channel further and build new industrial tracts nearby have been proposed but not yet implemented.

Hubert Bryant writes on international business, transportation, the shipping industry, sea travel, air travel, trade & commerce and other topics as well. Hubert recommends that those looking to learn more about shipping in Houston click here for additional information from Hawthorne Global.

Image credit goes to braniffelectra.