The Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest waterways in the United States, achieved its earliest significance as a link between interior Texas and the sea. It traces its origin to early trade on Buffalo Bayou, which heads on the prairie thirty miles west of Houston in the extreme northeastern corner of Fort Bend County and runs southeast for fifty miles to the San Jacinto River and then into Galveston Bay. Recognizing the potential of the stream, the brothers John Kirby and Augustus Chapman Allen laid out the town of Houston at the head of navigation on Buffalo Bayou in 1836. The first steamboat, the Laura, arrived there on January 22, 1837. As the waterway proved to be the only one in Texas that was dependably navigable, planters over a large area brought their cotton to Houston to be shipped by barge or riverboat to Galveston, the best natural port in Texas. At Galveston cargoes were transferred to seagoing vessels and thence to market. Goods destined for the interior came upstream, and visitors and immigrants made the route one of the most traveled in Texas in the prerailroad era. Even after railroads and later automobiles diverted traffic, the route remained an important transportation artery for bulky goods. Initially, citizens of Houston took responsibility for clearing and maintaining the winding route to the sea. The city fathers established the Port of Houston on January 29, 1842, and the following year the Congress of the Republic of Texas granted the city the right to remove obstructions and otherwise improve the bayou. After Texas entered the Union, free wharfage was given to boat owners who contracted to keep the channel clean.
In the late 1850s Houston merchants chafed at the policies of the Galveston Wharf Company, which controlled Galveston harbor, and attempted to reach the sea without going through Galveston. After the interim of the Civil War, they renewed their efforts. In 1869 they organized the Buffalo Bayou Ship Channel Company to improve the channel, and in 1870 they persuaded Congress to make Houston a port of delivery. The United States Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the channel and recommended a width of 100 feet and a depth of six. Still, because of inadequate appropriations, this effort brought few improvements. At this point the Houstonians found an ally in Charles Morgan, a pioneer in Gulf Coast shipping who had also run athwart the Galveston Wharf Company. Desiring to bypass Galveston, Morgan bought the Bayou Ship Channel Company in 1874 and within two years dredged a channel from Galveston Bay to the site of present Clinton near Houston. The first ocean vessel arrived there September 22, 1876. Although Morgan is sometimes called "the Father of the Houston Ship Channel," he soon shifted his attention from ships to railroads, and his line abandoned the route in 1883. The United States government purchased his improvements in 1890 and thereafter accepted primary responsibility for the channel.
Houston Congressman Thomas H. Ball, after becoming a member of the Rivers and Harbors Committee in 1897, won increased appropriations for the project. Congress also approved a depth of twenty-five feet and the location of the terminus at Long Reach, now the Turning Basin. Yet, by 1909 the channel had been dredged to only 18½ feet. Impatient at the slow progress, Mayor Horace Baldwin Rice led a delegation to Washington to present the "Houston Plan," which offered to pay one-half of the cost of dredging the channel to twenty-five feet. After receiving assurances that the facilities would be publicly owned, Congress accepted the offer. Prior to Houston's offer, no substantial contributions had ever been made by local interests, but since then no project has been adopted by the national government without local contributions. The Texas legislature passed a bill enabling Harris County to establish a navigation district. The citizens then approved a bond issue of $1,250,000. Jesse H. Jones arranged for the sale of the bonds, and the dredging began. It was completed on September 7, 1914, and celebrated with great fanfare in the city. Because of shipping conditions during World War I, its deep water development was delayed until after the war. In 1919 an ocean-going vessel, the Merry Mount, took the first shipment of cotton directly from Houston to a foreign market, thus inaugurating a trade that made Houston the leading cotton port in the United States within a decade. Oil, which had been discovered in Texas early in the twentieth century, increasingly rivaled cotton as the most important cargo on the channel. Petroleum also led to the industrialization of the waterfront, for the long, protected channel with its nearby crude oil supplies proved an attractive location for oil refineries. By 1930 nine oil refineries operating along the channel contributed to the channel tonnage. Although the Great Depression briefly interrupted the progress, the Port of Houston ranked third in the nation in the amount of tonnage carried on the eve of World War II.
The war suspended normal shipping activities, but gave further impetus to the industrialization of the waterway. In addition to increasing the demand for customary petroleum products, the war inspired the development of synthetic rubber based on a byproduct of petroleum. Two synthetic rubber plants were located near the channel while the war was in progress, and after the war the channel became a center of the petrochemical industry. In the postwar years the port also became a major shipping point for midwestern grain. Growing foreign trade and new industry boosted the port to second in tonnage in the nation in 1948, and from then until 1964 it customarily ranked second or third. Thecombination of industry and transportation facilities, including a network of railroads, trucklines, and interstate highways, influenced the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (see LYNDON B. JOHNSON SPACE CENTER) to select a site convenient to the channel as headquarters for the nation's space program in 1961.
Congress approved a project to widen the channel to 300 feet from Fidelity Island to the turning basin in 1945, and in 1957 army engineers recommended that the entire channel be deepened to forty feet. By 1964, the fiftieth anniversaryof the deepwater channel, the federal government had expended $64 million for channel improvement and maintenance, and the local government had invested $28 million in port facilities. In return, economic activities related to the channel yielded $148 million annually in taxes. The channel-side industrial complex, valued at $3 billion, and shipping activities gave employment to 55,000 persons who received $314 million in wages annually. The Port of Houston was the first in the nation to introduce container shipping. By the 1970s 4,500 ships flying the flags of sixty-one nations passed through the channel annually.
The heavy traffic alarmed environmentalists who noted growing pollution in the area and others who believed the Channel Industries Mutual Aid, formed in 1955, offered insufficient protection in case of accidents along the waterway. Between 1969 and 1972 some 700 vessel casualties were recorded, and in the 1980s and 1990s the channel received increasing attention from a series of oil spills, explosions, and collisions between tankers, freighters, and barges. At the time 90 percent of all poisonous cargo traveling by water passed through the channel, which remained only 200 feet wide and forty feet deep at its maximum. A single lawsuit sought recovery of $500 billion for damages. New plans to widen the channel were proposed, along with further new industrial tracts and petrochemical projects, but remained to be implemented.