By Rod Evans
For those of us who call the Gulf Coast home, it seems as if the Houston Ship Channel has always been there. The serpentine, 52-mile industrial waterway, which includes the 25-mile long Port of Houston, has been a source of pride and a prime economic generator for the region for generations, but a century ago, only the boldest dreamers could have imagined the existence of such a vast engineering and construction marvel.
In the early days of Houston, before the ship channel was carved out of the muddy, murky upper Texas coast, the shallow draft of Buffalo Bayou was sufficient to support the fledgling maritime trade industry of the region. But because larger, heavier vessels had to be off loaded onto barges near Galveston for the trek from the Gulf, Houston was at a decided disadvantage when it came to being able to handle large amounts of cargo and ship traffic.
With the Houston Ship Channel celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Port of Houston (POH) officials are planning to commemorate the work of visionaries like then-Houston Mayor Horace Baldwin Rice and U.S. Congressman Tom Ball, two of the driving forces behind the funding and construction of the channel, and the men and women who labored tirelessly to make the channel a reality, with a host of events and public awareness and educational campaigns throughout the year.
“We formed the non-profit Promote Port of Houston 2014 board last year to focus on putting together events for the centennial celebration and we currently have three events scheduled: the Port of Houston Port Day Festival, the Re-Dedication Ceremony and the Chairman’s Gala,” said Gilda Ramirez, the managing director of community outreach for the Port of Houston.
Innovation has been at the heart of the channel from its inception. From the revolutionary funding mechanism proposed by Congressman Ball, after whom the city of Tomball is named, that called for Houston to share the cost of constructing the channel with the federal government, to countless technological concepts developed to improve the dredging process, the facility has relied upon creativity, engineering acumen and industrial vision throughout its history. Ramirez says all of the events and initiatives scheduled in the coming months to celebrate the ship channel’s founding are focused on showing the public what an enormous amount of effort it took to build the channel and highlight its position as the prime economic driver for the region.
“After opening in 1914, by 1930 the Houston Ship Channel ranked third in foreign exports in the U.S., and by 1937, the channel was second only to New York’s port in tonnage and national importance,” Ramirez said. “When the Barbours Cut Terminal opened in 1977, followed by the Bayport Terminal 30 years later, the Port of Houston helped to usher in the era of containerization. Today, the ship channel handles 70 percent of containerized cargo in the U.S. Overall, the port ranks first in the U.S. in numerous categories, including waterborne tonnage and imports.”
Port Day Festival
While public awareness and educational initiatives developed by the Promote Port of Houston 2014 board will be rolled out in the coming weeks, the first official port centennial celebration on the docket is the Port Day Festival, set for Sept. 6 at the Bayport Cruise Terminal. The outdoor fair will be combined with the fourth annual Maritime Youth Expo, a program intended to inform and educate students enrolled in the Maritime Academy at area schools.
During the festival, Ramirez says activities will include booths set up by shipping lines, stevedoring companies and other major stakeholders, in addition to interactive games, rides aboard the M/V Sam Houston tour boat, and much more.
“We wanted to give the public an opportunity to come to the port and be able to see the various types of jobs available and learn what the port is really all about. Visitors will also get a glimpse into what types of equipment are used and take a look inside an actual cargo container,” Ramirez said. “We’ll also have high school bands and other entertainers performing and we’ll be giving away memorabilia. We’re looking to partner with an area grocery store to show how products make it from the port to store shelves. It’s all designed to help people become more familiar with the port and how it impacts the economy and industry.”
Ramirez says officials estimate 2,000 to 5,000 visitors will attend the all-day festival, which is open to the public. A ticketed RSVP with online registration is required.
To mark the 1914 opening of the ship channel, a massive celebration, including a gigantic parade through downtown Houston and a party attended by numerous dignitaries was held at the Turning Basin. The highlight of the event took place when President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button from the Oval Office to fire a cannon via remote control to officially signal that the channel was open for business. Ramirez says officials hope to re-create at least a portion of those festivities during the 100th Year Re-Dedication, scheduled for Nov. 10.
“We’re hoping to get President Obama to attend the event or do a video presentation and we’re working with area city officials to declare it Port of Houston Day around the area. We’ve invited elected officials and dignitaries, including Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, former Secretary of State James Baker, Governor Rick Perry and Houston Mayor Annise Parker,” Ramirez said.
The ceremony coincides with the American Association of Port Authorities annual convention being held in Houston, giving officials from ports around the country the opportunity to participate in the celebration. Ramirez says invitations will be extended to 200 to 300 officials to attend the re-dedication, scheduled to be held at the Sam Houston Pavilion at the Turning Basin Terminal. A new historical marker is also set to be unveiled at the pavilion during the ceremony.
The Chairman’s Gala, an elegant reception and dinner, is scheduled for Nov. 15 at a yet to be determined venue. The invitation-only gala will include dinner and dancing and remarks by Port of Houston Chairman Janiece Longoria, with invitations extended to Honorary Chairman James Baker, President George W. Bush and other VIPs.
“We will donate a portion of the proceeds from the gala to maritime education programs and the Maritime Museum. This will be the culmination of our public celebration, so we’re looking to bring together key figures in the community, as well as local, state and federal officials. There’s also a fireworks display planned to bring the evening to a close,” Ramirez says.
The list of official centennial events and programs is still being developed, Ramirez says, and the POH is also working on a variety of public awareness and educational campaigns. She says officials are in discussion with the Houston Arts Alliance to develop a special port exhibit that would be on display at the Downtown Houston Public Library branch.
They are working with the Texas Foundation for the Arts to produce a documentary for the Public Broadcasting System focused on the history and impact of the Port, and the organization is planning an educational component that includes developing a maritime curriculum guide with local school districts.
Volunteers are needed to help at the various events on the schedule. If you’re interested in donating your time and services, contact Ramirez’s office at 713-670-2590.