The Houston ship Channels Texas project is the largest collection of beneficial uses sites under one project scope in Galveston Bay, Texas as well as one of the largest in the U.S. and world. But how does a project with such an enormous scope get constructed and what lessons have been learned in the nearly 100 years since construction was authorized by the U.S. Congress? The genesis for the project came from the need to understand the concept behind the construction of Houston ship channel and if the same channel to be built now what all measures in construction will be changed. The channel with the most vessel usage of the two authorized for construction, the Houston Ship Channel, allows for continued economic growth in the Port of Houston. However, at the time construction was to begin, there were many problems like placement of the material dredged to widen and deepen the Houston Ship Channel was to be placed in existing underwater placement areas along the channel. This practice of placing dredged material in the open bay was no longer acceptable to local environmental groups. This report focuses on history of Houston Ship Channel and its various aspects like the culture prevalent at that time, how it was built and the story behind its construction. It also gives scenario of real life that if we wanted to make the same channel again now, then what all things we should take care of while constructing it.
Introduction: About Houston Ship Channel
“Houston is the town that built the port that built the city,” people around the Houston Ship Channel like to say.
The Houston Ship Channel, in Houston, Texas, is the conduit for ocean-going vessels between Houston-area terminals and the Gulf of Mexico, and serves an increasing volume of inland barge traffic. It is part of the Port of Houston—one of the United States busiest seaports.
The channel is a widened and deepened natural watercourse created by dredging the Buffalo Bayou and the Galveston Bay. The major public terminals include Turning Basin, Barbour’s Cut, and Bayport. There are many private docks as well, including the ExxonMobil Baytown Complex and the Deer Park Complex. Major products, such as petrochemicals and Midwestern grain, are transported in bulk together with general cargo. The original watercourse for the channel, Buffalo Bayou, has its headwaters 30 miles (48 km) to the west of the city of Houston. The navigational head of the channel, the most upstream point to which general cargo ships can travel, is at Turning Basin in east Houston.
Size of Channel: The channel, periodically widened and deepened to accommodate ever-larger ships, is 530 feet (160 m) wide by 45 feet (14 m) deep by 50 miles (80 km) long. The islands in the ship channel are part of the ongoing widening and deepening project. The islands are formed from soil pulled up by dredging, and the salt marshes and bird islands are part of the Houston Port Authority’s beneficial use and environmental mitigation responsibilities.
The channel has five vehicular crossings. They are the Washburn Tunnel, the Sidney Sherman Bridge, the Sam Houston Ship Channel Bridge, popularly known as the Beltway 8 Bridge; the Fred Hartman Bridge connecting La Porte and Baytown, Texas; and the Lynchburg Ferry.
While much of the Ship Channel is associated with heavy industry, two icons of Texas history are also located along its length. The USS Texas (BB-35) saw service during both World Wars, and is the oldest remaining example of a dreadnought-era battleship in existence. The nearby San Jacinto Monument commemorates the Battle of San Jacinto (1836) in which Texas won its independence from Mexico.
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.
Pre-built Story: 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.
When and where it was built?
On January 10, 1910, residents of Harris County voted 16-1 to fund dredging the Houston ship channel to a depth of 25 feet for the amount of $1,250,000, which was then matched by federal funds. On June 14, 1914 the first deep water ship, steamship Satilla arrived at the port of Houston, establishing steamboat service between New York City and Houston. On the morning of September 7, 1914, the dredge Texas signaled by whistle the completion of the channel. A celebration to match this long-sought accomplishment was planned. A parade was held in downtown and 40 blocks were strung with a new invention: incandescent lights. A ceremony to open the channel was held Tuesday morning, November 10, 1914. Dignitaries gathered at the Turning Basin in great anticipation. 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. The onset of World War I and the first mechanized war’s thirst for oil greatly increased use of the ship channel. Throughout its history, whenever the Houston Ship Channel has grown, Houston has grown. The Houston Ship Channel is an economic engine that produces jobs and economic prosperity for the local and state economy.
Boom times followed early days along the Ship Channel
Renovations of Channel:
The United States Army Corps of Engineers increased the depth of the channel from 25 feet to 30 feet in 1922.
In 1933, the United States Department of War and the United States House Committee on Rivers and Harbors approved a plan to increase the depth of the channel from 30 feet to 34 feet and widen the Galveston Bay section from 250 feet to 400 feet. The Public Works Administration provided $2,800,000 dollars for the project, which completed in late 1935.
The proximity to Texas oilfields led to the establishment of numerous petrochemical refineries along the waterway, such as the ExxonMobil Baytown installation on the eastern bank of the San Jacinto River. Now the channel and surrounding area support the second largest petrochemical complex in the world.
The US Army’s San Jacinto Ordnance Depot was located on the channel from 1941–1964.
Currently, the channel is dredged to a depth of 43–45 feet. The channel was designated a National Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 1987.
Facts about Channel:
⦁ The Houston Ship Channel was the first federal project to have a local funding match, now commonplace;
⦁ The first direct shipment of cotton to Europe left from the Houston Ship Channel;
⦁ Synthetic rubber was mass produced for the first time at Houston Ship Channel-area plants and shipped through the port for use in World War II;
⦁ The world’s first container ship was unloaded for the first time at the Houston Ship Channel;
⦁ NASA selected Houston as first choice for its new headquarters in part because of the waterway’s ability to transport bulky space vehicles; and the list goes on.
⦁ In 2012, ship-channel related businesses provided over one million jobs throughout the state of Texas, generating $178.5 billion and $4.5 billion in state and local taxes.
At night, the buildings lining the terminus of the Houston Ship Channel exhibit a strangely beautiful glow. The imposing post-agrarian matrix of large industrial structures emits an aura of an impenetrable alien city, which is too bad, because some amazing views of downtown Houston can be had from the water.
During the day, the area resembles an ant colony, with bountiful movement that is heavily orchestrated even though it appears random. But to get close to the action is rare. After Sept. 11, 2001, the port and the portion of the channel running through it was closed to the public.
Materials come in; materials go out. Sometimes raw materials go out to another country and return as finished products. Sometimes raw materials come in, get refined and are shipped out. Metals, chemicals, furniture, cars, clothes, electronics and food arrive. Those same things depart.
Nothing about the docks looks gentle, but they boast an appealing efficiency in design and execution. As is typical along the water, some buildings are in rougher states than others.
Building of Channel:
David Casebeer, Port of Houston Authority project manager once pointed out that the idea of bending a body of water to humankind’s will isn’t new; ancient Egyptians dredged the Nile with baskets. Portions of the Houston Ship Channel must be re-dredged every two to three years to keep them viable.
Dredging technology was used in building Houston Ship Channel. Dredging is an excavation activity or operation usually carried out at least partly underwater, in shallow seas or fresh water areas with the purpose of gathering up bottom sediments and disposing of them at a different location. This technique is often used to keep waterways navigable. However, at the time construction was to begin, placement of the material dredged to widen and deepen the Houston Ship Channel was to be placed in existing underwater placement areas along the channel. This practice of placing dredged material in the open bay was no longer acceptable to local environmental groups. As a result of this project, a team of eight agencies was brought together to develop a plan to beneficially use dredge material to solve placement area capacity problems, develop a scope of work to address these concerns and all agree on the path forward for the project.
The project team of the Port of Houston Authority and the US Army Corps of Engineers, Galveston District along with 6 local state and federal agencies developed an innovative plan to contain the material dredged from the channel by constructing 1,720 hectares (4,250 acres) of intertidal marsh and addition islands that supported vegetation and bird habitats. Existing upland placement areas are also being utilized for dredge material placement and have become part of the dredge material capacity requirement, but by beneficially using the dredge material to create marshes and islands the required capacity for the project was realized
To build Channel a dedicated team to manage and oversee the construction and environmental elements is required.
At Harrisburg, two miles below the turning basin, extensive improvements are being made in the way of warehouses and cotton compresses which are now in use and capable of handling a large volume of business. In straightening of the channel a number of cut-offs were made, and the bed of old channel will form at such points valuable storage basins.
Deep draft pilots were forced to maneuver around the many barge tows as they proceeded through the channel and then also pass deep draft vessels with very little margin to spare. To help solve this issue, the project team designed barge lanes on each side of the ship channel at a depth of 3.7 meters (12 feet) which were located along the full distance of the ship channel in the bay. These shallow channels allowed the barges to travel on the sides of the deeper channel while the deep draft vessels could travel in the center of the channel without having to make as many passing maneuvers thus increasing the safety and efficiency of the channel.
In the past, prior to the widening and deepening, the Corps was able to side-cast dredge material (open bay placement) in Galveston Bay, but that practice was no longer approved by the local environmental resource agencies predicating the need for a new method of placing dredge material in the bay. In the upper parts of the channel (landlocked reach), upland sites near the channel have historically been used and could continue to be used, but because of the extensive development along the channel, land for additional placement areas has become increasing difficult and expensive to find.
Due to the silt and clay that exists in the bottom of the Houston Ship Channel the dredge material exiting the discharge dredge pipe from large dredges (76.2 centimeters (30 inches) flowed fairly well and usually formed an elevation with only a slight slope across a 200 to 300 acres marsh cell. However, when smaller dredges were used (< 61 centimeters (<24inches)) the material had a tendency to stack up at the end of the discharge pipe since there was not sufficient power to push the dredge material across the site. To help in the filling process, later contracts included several dredge discharge locations to allow for flexibility in material placement. This allowed the size and power of dredge to vary and the resulting elevation in the cell was not impacted. Once the project team was able to control the dredge material placement the difficult prediction was to decide what elevation to fill a cell to so the material would settle to intertidal elevations conducive to marsh grass growth.
From the foot of Main to the Turning Basin
Today’s building technology and Analysis
“If you look at equipment from 100 years ago, it’s instantly identifiable as a dredge,” said Mark Vincent, who oversees channel development for the Port of Houston Authority. He said a dredge used during construction between 1912 and 1914 was still being used in the channel 50 years later.
Today the goal is to keep ships – more than 8,300 of them each year, carrying more than 2 million containers – going in and out.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the Port of Houston Authority’s request for dredging on the Bayport and Barbours Cut channels, deepening them from 40 to 45 feet. Today, the Houston Ship Channel is 45 feet deep and 530 feet wide. It extends from the Gulf through Galveston Bay and up the San Jacinto River, ending four miles east of downtown
“We had to do an archaeological investigation with Bayport,” Vincent said. “You don’t want to run into buried pirate ships or anything like that.
“You don’t want to disturb anything unnecessarily that isn’t supposed to be disturbed.”
Following steps should be taken while building Houston Ship Chanel today:
1. Engage environmental agencies and other stakeholders early in the process and keep them informed through all stages, Safety concerns are equally important and should be promoted alongside economic reasons, Get project input from all stakeholders.
2. Large scale dredges (24-30 inches or 61-76 cm) can fill a marsh site to a desired elevation but may need several discharge locations.
3. Detailed geotech analyses are needed to accurately place the marsh sites (particularly the levees).
4. Thorough hydrographic surveying of proposed marsh sites is vital to accurate site placement.
5. Aim on the high side for levee erosion protection (rock vs. geotube).
6. Marshes can be planted with seed and does not require manually sprigging.
7. Aim for the lower limit of marsh creation elevation and allow tidal movement to form creeks/channels.
8. Establish a wind barrier early on bird island habitats to help inner vegetation grow.
With no sign of that trend reversing, a better alternative needed to be developed to side-cast dredge material if we built the channel today. We should involve many citizens and stakeholders in the process of deciding how to manage all the dredge material. One of the plan can be: It included a mixture of upland placement where it was feasible and in the bay, where upland placement was not feasible, 1,720 hectares (4,250 acres) of intertidal marsh cells are planned to contain the dredge material. The plan also included the creation of a 2.4 hectare (6-acre) bird island constructed with dredge material, the restoration of Goat Island and the restoration of Redfish Island.
Also now we can use Innovative dredging Technology which is defined as improved dredging equipment, methodologies and operations that do not require research and development. These are off the shelf products.
Labor Force Perspective on Channel:
With a charcoal suit, a powder-blue tie and wire-frame glasses, the white-haired Clyde Fitzgerald, 70, vaguely resembles U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. But his handshake – strong enough to loosen joints, with big calloused hands – is that of a man who has done physical labor in making of Houston Channel.
“It was common for families to get into that kind of work,” he said. “You could make a decent living. It’s still a generational thing. We have a guy here now whose family goes four generations back.”
The longshoremen shared trade secrets that would enable a small man to lift a heavy load with less strain than a larger man. “Whether it’s on the water or on the docks, everything you do in this industry is about technique,” Fitzgerald said.
Like all port professions, the longshoremen’s has evolved. The biggest development was the advent of container shipping. Fitzgerald remembers a ship sailing from New Jersey to Houston in 1956 with 56 containers. Today, ships can haul 9,400 stacked containers. The longshoremen’s role is now mechanized: To facilitate the volume of goods moving through the port, they operate a variety of cranes.
Present: Houston Ship Channel
⦁ Research paper on HOUSTON SHIP CHANNEL BENEFICIAL USE PROJECT: LESSONS LEARNED IN BUILDING THOUSANDS OF ACRES OF HABITAT WITH DREDGE MATERIAL by Scott Aspelin and Dalton Krueger
⦁ R. M. Farrar, The Story of Buffalo Bayou and the Houston Ship Channel (Houston Chamber of Commerce, 1926).
⦁ Marilyn M. Sibley, The Port of Houston (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968). Texas Monthly, July 1978, May 1979. A. L. Weinberger, The Houston Ship Channel (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1940).
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