Thinking Big: 1897-1913

Port of Houston Early Leaders Portraits

In 1897, the United States government began appropriating funds for enlarging the future ship channel in Houston. Many of Houston's leading businessmen and politcians were involved in the effort bring deep water and global commerce into Houston in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

Congressman Thomas H. Ball is known as the "Father of the Port of Houston" for his early efforts to develop business and trade in Houston by championing the port's possibilites. Ball's predecessor, Congressman J.C. Hutcheson, had a bill passed in the 54th Congress providing for a federal survey of Buffalo Bayou that looked at the possibility of dredging a 25-foot channel in the Bayou.

A few of the many other leaders in the effort to make Houston a major deep water port included Houston mayors John T. Browne and Baldwin Rice; Capt. James A. Baker (attorney); H.M. Garwood of Houston Cotton Exchange; W.D. Cleveland Sr., Joseph S. Rice, O.T. Holt, John T. Scott (banker), H.F. MacGregor, F.A. Heitmann, Jesse Jones, J.E. McAshan, J.S. Rice, Joseph F. Meyer, Sr., E.A. Peden, John Wortham (father of Gus Wortham), F.B. Pettibone, R.S. Sterling, Charles Dillingham, C.G. Pillot.

Lumber kings who supported the development of the port included John H. Kirby, William M. Rice, B.F. Bonner, J.W. Rockwell, Eugene Bender, S.F. Carter.

Oil magnates; R.L. Blaffer (Humble Oil and Refining), J.S. Cullinan (Texas Company), R.M. Farrar (member of first harbor board), Underwood Nazro (Gulf Company) Judge D.E. Greer (Gulf Company) all also supported this development.

The Houston Yacht Club was founded in that same year, 1897. Even from these earliest days, this single moment reflected how both entities evolved together, both in size and geography. For example, C.G. Pillot, active supporter of the Port of Houston, also served as Commodore for the Houston Yacht Club from 1914-1916. Lumber king John H. Kirby presented the yacht "Lawrence" to the Houston Yacht Club in 1905, for the purpose of building the fleet to support business tours of the area. These two examples of just two of the many ways that the Houston Yacht Club and the Port of Houston developed together.

Loading Cotton Barge on Buffalo Bayou

Houston’s port, long before it became a principal international seaport, was initially a small, inefficient locale at Buffalo Bayou, just off Main Street in, what is today, downtown Houston.

It struggled merely to survive amidst the more robust and easily accessible ports at Galveston. However, the confluence of railways, oil, cotton & lumber trade in Houston would soon turn the tides. In addition, Galveston's ability to serve as a major port was highly damaged by the Great Storm of 1900.

Turning Basin, Buffalo River, Postcard

A large Turning Basin, first dredged in 1908, was included in the federal funding for the Buffalo Bayou project, which signaled the port’s ability to cater to large ships.

One of the Houston Yacht Club’s large yachts, Zeeland, was used to demonstrate the Basin’s effectiveness.

Ship in Houston Ship Channel, 1919

Although the U.S. government had long expressed interest in expanding the Houston Ship Channel, the progress by 1909 was still slow.

In 1909, the voters of Harris County approved the port as the Harris County Houston Ship Channel Navigation District. Local Houston interests and U.S. Congressman Tom Ball, however, petitioned Congress and offered to put up more than $1 million for the extensive expansion project.

Ship in the Houston Ship Channel, 1910

Many in the Houston community had desired to widen the Buffalo Bayou to a navigable and useful channel.

In 1911, leaders in both the Houston business community and the Houston Yacht Club had insisted that the Bayou be transformed into a deep-water body to promote the city and its access to the sea. This was a challenging proposition considering Houston’s relatively inland location, as well as nearby Galveston’s easy access to the Gulf of Mexico.

That year, Texas governor O. B. Colquitt established the first Board of Pilot Commissioners to prepare for ocean-going vessels traveling up the Houston Ship Channel. The petition was successful and efforts were underway to expand the Channel into Buffalo Bayou.