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FreightWaves Classics: Port Houston generates Texas-sized results


Houston was named after former General Sam Houston, who served as president of the Republic of Texas. He led the drive for independence from Mexico at the Battle of San Jacinto, which took place about 25 miles east of what is now the city.

Today, the city’s Port of Houston (or Port Houston) encompasses a 25-mile-long diversified complex of nearly 200 private and public industrial terminals along the Houston Ship Channel, which is 52 miles long. The port’s eight public terminals are owned, operated, managed or leased by the Port of Houston Authority.

The port’s location is a few hours sailing time from the Gulf of Mexico. According to the port’s website, in 2019 “the port achieved the number 1 ranking in total waterborne tonnage in the United States.” It “ranks first in the U.S. in foreign waterborne tonnage; first in imports; first in export tonnage and first in total vessel transits. It is also the nation’s leading breakbulk port, handling 52% of project cargo at Gulf Coast ports.”

Early history

The original Port of Houston was located where Buffalo Bayou and White Oak Bayou came together in downtown Houston. This area is now a park named Allen’s Landing and it is considered the birthplace of the City of Houston. 

In the 1800s, barges carried cargo to and from Houston through shallow Buffalo Bayou  to the Gulf of Mexico. Once the barges reached Galveston, the barges met ships and transferred the cargo. As the city and its cargo volume grew, the lack of a deep-water port in Houston became a bigger issue. 

By 1900 Buffalo Bayou had become a major shipping channel with traffic beginning to rival Galveston, which is on the Gulf of Mexico.

An aerial view of a dredge widening the Houston Ship Canal. (Photo: Port Houston)
An aerial view of a dredge widening the Houston Ship Canal. (Photo: Port Houston)

As business at its “port” grew, Houston’s civic and business elite lobbied Congress to convince them of the need for a deep-water ship channel. The selling point was the international sale of Texas goods – particularly cotton. While headway was made, it was a combination of a hurricane that devastated Galveston, the discovery of major oil deposits and one member of Congress who worked on his colleagues that were the deciding factors.

U.S. Representative Tom Ball of Houston was the Congressional proponent of a deep-water port in Houston. While he made progress in the decade leading up to 1900, it was the September 1900 hurricane that hit Galveston that convinced many of his colleagues. The hurricane killed more than 8,000 people and devastated the city and its port.  

A helpful infographic that gives Port Houston statistics at a glance. (Image: Port Houston)
A helpful infographic that gives Port Houston statistics at a glance. (Image: Port Houston)

The proposal for a protected port upstream from Galveston gained strength in the wake of the hurricane. Then in 1901 the first of the major Texas oil discoveries took place at the now legendary Spindletop field. In addition, Texas rice joined cotton as key export crops. But without a deep-water ship channel, Houston (and Texas) did not have the ability to handle the newer and larger vessels of the day.

Then Rep. Ball proposed that the federal government and Houston share the costs associated with dredging a deep-water channel. The Congressional Rivers and Harbors Committee voted unanimously to accept Ball’s concept. 

Harris County encompasses Houston, and its voters approved the creation of a modern port to serve the region in 1909. In 1911, there was a political campaign to convince voters to approve a $1.25 million (nearly $33 million today) bond to raise money for dredging the waterway. The campaign was successful (by a margin of 16-1!); voters approved the bond and the creation of the Harris County Houston Ship Channel Navigation District. Today, the district is known as the Port of Houston Authority (POHA).

As seen above, 74% of the cargo exported at Port Houston is liquid bulk. (Image: Port Houston)
As seen above, 74% of the cargo exported at Port Houston is liquid bulk. (Image: Port Houston)

Work on the channel began in 1912. Concurrently, similar projects were underway – the Panama Canal and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (which the ship channel intersects). On September 7, 1914, the dredge TEXAS signaled that the channel had been completed.

The “World Port of Houston and Buffalo Bayou” was officially opened to shipping traffic on November 10, 1914. President Woodrow Wilson fired a cannon via remote control from the White House to signal the channel was open.

Those who supported the Port of Houston in the late 1890s and early 1900s were right to have faith in it; the port has become one of the world’s largest/busiest.

This graphic shows where Port Houston's cargo comes from and goes to. (Image: Port Houston)
This graphic shows where Port Houston’s cargo comes from and goes to. (Image: Port Houston)

The modern port

The port opened the Barbours Cut Terminal in 1977. It was the first cargo container terminal in Texas, and rapidly became the most important terminal of the port. 

Nearly 250 million tons of cargo move through the greater Port of Houston annually, on more than 8,200 vessels and 215,000 barges. 

Containers account for 18% of total cargo at Port Houston. (Image: Port Houston)
Containers account for 18% of total cargo at Port Houston. (Image: Port Houston)

As the largest port on the Gulf Coast and the biggest port in Texas, Port Houston is critical to Houston’s role in international trade. The port’s multi-billion dollar petrochemical complex is the largest in the U.S. and the second-largest in the world. 

Because of its central location on the Gulf Coast, Houston is a key gateway for ship cargo that either originates in or is headed to cities in the U.S. West and Midwest. There are more than 150 million American consumers within 1,000 miles of Houston. Key highway, rail and air corridors are located in and around Post Houston.

Economic impact

Over the past 100 years the Houston Ship Channel/Port Houston have become vital to the local, regional and state economies. According to a Martin Associates study in 2018, Houston Ship Channel-related businesses contribute over 1.35 million jobs across Texas, which is 15% more than the number calculated in a 2014 study. Activity at Port Houston/Houston Ship Channel generated more than $339 billion in economic value for Texas, which is nearly 28% more than in 2014. That is 20.6% of the state’s total gross domestic product. The port also generates $801.9 billion in economic impact across the nation. Port/channel business activities generated almost $5.7 billion in state and local taxes, which was 12.7% higher as well. 

Multiple container ships at Port Houston can be seen in this photo. (Photo: Port Houston)
Multiple container ships at Port Houston can be seen in this photo. (Photo: Port Houston)

A list of “firsts”

Compared to many ports in the U.S. and around the world, Port Houston is fairly young, at just over 100 years old. Nonetheless, it has generated a list of “firsts” that is “Texas-sized”:

  • First port to be built with federal funds and local matching funds, thus guaranteeing local support (since 1930 this has been the model for every U.S. port)
  • First direct shipment of cotton to Europe (November 1919) 
  • First double-stack container train (1981)
  • The Baytown Tunnel was removed in 1997 so the Houston Ship Channel could be deepened/widened. It was the largest tunnel removed (35-feet in diameter by 1,041-feet long) without closing the channel, losing time due to accidents or impacting the navigational safety of the port.
  • First port to conduct air emissions testing of its off-road equipment (2000)
  • First port to meet ISO 14001 standards for environmental excellence (2002) 
  • First port to be recertified to ISO 14001 standards (2004)

The future

At the first Port Commission meeting of 2021, Port Chairman Ric Campo announced that Project 11 (the Houston Ship Channel Improvement program) had reached two significant milestones. Earlier in January, Project 11 received a “new start” designation, and $19.5 million in federal funds were included in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 2021 program to support its work to widen and deepen the Houston Ship Channel. This appropriation followed authorization of Project 11 in the Water Resources and Development Act of 2020, which was part of a larger legislative package passed by Congress in December 2020.

“The significance of this appropriation is tremendous, as it paves the way to a clearer and smoother path to the start of construction,” Campo said. He explained the importance of the designation, stating that “there is only one new start designation for a major deep-water channel in the U.S. each year.”

Executive Director Roger Guenther then highlighted achievements and accomplishments made in 2020, stating that despite the challenges of the pandemic, Port Houston handled 2.99 million twenty-foot equivalent container units (TEU) in 2020. This was only 828 TEU fewer than the record achieved in 2019.

Guenther also shared a photo of the first ship to use six cranes that had the second-largest lift count (cranes moving containers from ships) on a vessel operation at Port Houston’s public facilities.

One of Port Houston's cranes is shown in this photo, along with hundreds of containers. (Photo: Port Houston)
One of Port Houston’s cranes is shown in this photo, along with hundreds of containers. (Photo: Port Houston)

The author thanks and acknowledges that much of the information, as well as the images and photos in this article came from the Port Houston website ( If you want to know more about the port, please visit its website.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.