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Houston celebrates centennial of ditch that changed history

A century ago, Houston dug a ditch that changed its destiny.
A century ago, Houston dug a ditch that changed its destiny.

HOUSTON -- A century ago, Houston dug a ditch that changed its destiny.

And yet, few Houstonians today realize the role that the Houston Ship Channel played in the city's history and still plays in the city's economy. Indeed, some of the port's leaders today argue that virtually everything in Houston is somehow linked to the ship channel.

"I grew up in Cypress, just on the west side of town, and I had no idea what was going on out here," said Ryan Mariacher, who manages the Bayport containerized cargo operations along the channel. "But there is a lot of activity. A lot of what drives Houston and the state of Texas happens here at the container terminals at the Port of Houston."

Today, the 52-mile ship channel is home not only to the nation's largest petrochemical complex and 150 different companies, but also the nation's leading port for importing foreign goods. Every year, more than 200-million tons of cargo flow through the ship channel to the Port of Houston.

So it's hard to imagine a time when the state's busiest port and biggest center of commerce wasn't Houston, but Galveston.

"In the beginning, Galveston actually laughed at Houston because we wanted to be a deep water port," said Tom Kornegay, a former executive director of the Port of Houston. "They were the deep water port at one time."

But three powerful storms changed the history of the Texas Gulf Coast. In 1875 and 1886, the port city of Indianola was struck by two hurricanes that effectively turned it into a ghost town and made Galveston the most important port on the Texas coast. Then the devastating 1900 hurricane killed an estimated 8,000 people in Galveston, ending its reign as the banking and shipping center of the state.

After the 1900 hurricane, Houston civic leaders redoubled their efforts to widen and deepen Buffalo Bayou to handle deepwater vessels. In 1909, Houston Mayor Horace Rice and U.S. Congressman Tom Ball engineered a deal under which the city and federal governments shared the expense of dredging out the channel, an innovative funding model that's become standard for federal projects ever since.

On November 10. 1914, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in Washington DC that triggered a cannon at the Houston Ship Channel's turning basin, officially opening the channel for operations. The ship channel, coupled with the network of railroads feeding into Houston, transformed it into the Texas city where civic leaders bragged "the city where 17 railroads meet the sea."

A series of events scheduled for this fall are celebrating the centennial of the ship channel, including a family festival scheduled for Saturday, September 6. Click here for more details.