Houston Ship Channel
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Houston Ship Channel
The Buffalo Bayou portion of the Houston Ship Channel

The Houston Ship Channel, in Houston, Texas, is part of the Port of Houston, one of the US's busiest seaports.[1] The channel is the conduit for ocean-going vessels between Houston-area terminals and the Gulf of Mexico, and it serves an increasing volume of inland barge traffic.


San Jacinto River in Channel - inset (white line top left) magnified as bottom photo showing the Texas and San Jacinto Monument

The channel is a widened and deepened natural watercourse created by dredging Buffalo Bayou and Galveston Bay.[2] 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.[3]

The channel has numerous terminals and berthing locations along Buffalo Bayou and Galveston Bay. The major public terminals include Turning Basin, Barbours Cut, and Bayport. Many private docks are there, as well, including the ExxonMobil Baytown Complex and the Deer Park Complex.[4][5]

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.[1] 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.[1]

The channel has five vehicle crossings: Washburn Tunnel, Sidney Sherman Bridge, Sam Houston Ship Channel Bridge, popularly known as the Beltway 8 Bridge; Fred Hartman Bridge connecting La Porte and Baytown, Texas; and Lynchburg Ferry.


Photo of the Houston Ship Channel in 1913

The channel has been used to move goods to the sea since at least 1836. Buffalo Bayou and Galveston Bay were dredged during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to accommodate larger ships. In the wake of the 1900 Galveston hurricane, the inland Port of Houston was seen as a safer long-term option, and planning for a larger ship channel began.[6] By the mid 1900s the Port of Houston had established itself as the leading port in Texas, eclipsing the natural harbors at Galveston and Texas City.[7] The Turning Basin terminal in Harrisburg (now part of Houston) became the port's largest shipping point.

On January 10, 1910, residents of Harris County voted 16 to 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 deepwater ship, steamship Satilla, arrived at the port of Houston, establishing steamboat service between New York City and Houston. On November 10, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson opened the Houston Ship Channel, part of the Port of Houston.[8] The onset of World War I and the first mechanized war's thirst for oil greatly increased use of the ship channel.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers increased the depth of the channel from 25 to 30 feet in 1922.[9]

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 to 34 feet and widen the Galveston Bay section from 250 to 400 feet. The Public Works Administration provided $2,800,000 dollars for the project, which was completed in late 1935.[10]

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.[11]

While much of the Houston 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.[12] The nearby San Jacinto Monument commemorates the Battle of San Jacinto (1836) in which Texas won its independence from Mexico.

The US Army's San Jacinto Ordnance Depot was located on the channel from 1941-1964.[13]

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.[11]

The "Texas chicken" maneuver [14] is known to mariners who regularly navigate large vessels on the Houston Ship Channel. As two vessels approach from opposite directions, both normally turn to starboard to allow water displaced by their bows to move the ships away from each other and from the channel's centerline. After they pass, the suction of the displaced water flowing in behind the ships naturally pulls them back toward the center of the waterway.


Lone Star Flag, flying on the Houston Ship Channel tour boat, on April 2, 2016.

On December 25, 2007, the Houston Ship Channel was featured on the CNN Special, Planet in Peril, as a potential polluter of nearby neighborhoods. That year, the University of Texas released a study suggesting that children living within 2 miles (3.2 km) of the Houston Ship Channel were 56% more likely to become sick with leukemia than the national average.[15]

On March 22, 2014, a barge carrying nearly a million gallons of marine fuel oil collided with another ship in the Houston Ship Channel, causing the contents of one of the barge's 168,000-gallon tanks to leak into Galveston Bay.[16]


See also


  1. ^ a b c "Welcome to the Houston-Galveston Navigation Channel Project Online Resource Center" (description), USACE, December 2005, webpage: USACE-HGNC Archived 2009-01-09 at the Wayback Machine..
  2. ^ "The Houston Ship Channel A History". The Port of Houston Authority. Archived from the original on 13 June 2008. Retrieved 2009. 
  3. ^ "Turning Basin". Port of Houston Authority. Retrieved 2010. 
  4. ^ "DHR05: HRD for Competitive Advantage: Assignment I". All India Management Association. Retrieved 2010. 
  5. ^ Aslam, Abid (7 Jan 2008). "ENVIRONMENT: U.S. Groups Sue Shell Over Refinery Pollution". Inter Press Service News Agency. Archived from the original on 2008-05-31. 
  6. ^ Manny Fernandez and Richard Fausset, "A Storm Forces Houston, the Limitless City, to Consider Its Limits", The New York Times, 30 August 2017. Accessed 31 August 2017.
  7. ^ Diana J. Kleiner, "GALVESTON COUNTY," Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 30, 2014. Uploaded on September 19, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  8. ^ Houston History: INDUSTRY FOR WAR AND PEACE (1910-1920).
  9. ^ Report of the Chief of Engineers U.S. Army 1922
  10. ^ "A Detailed Description of the Port". Houston Port Book. May, 1935, pg 19.
  11. ^ a b Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks Index - Listed by States. American Society of Civil Engineers. Accessed August 30, 2014.
  12. ^ Battleship Texas State Historic Site. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Accessed August 30, 2014.
  13. ^ Carter Barcus, "SAN JACINTO ORDNANCE DEPOT," Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 30, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  14. ^ NTSB, "Collision of the Tankship Elka Apollon With the Containership MSC Nederland Houston Ship Channel, Upper Galveston Bay, Texas October 29, 2011" page 20
  15. ^ "Possible Link Between Ship Channel Air Pollutants, Cancer Risks". University of Texas School of Public Health. Archived from the original on 2009-09-09. Retrieved . 
  16. ^ The Associated Press (March 23, 2014). "Oil Spill Cleanup Impedes Major Texas Ship Channel". NPR. 

External links

Coordinates: 29°42?30?N 95°00?18?W / 29.70833°N 95.00500°W / 29.70833; -95.00500

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