Three Top Ports in the US, Part II: Houston and New York/New Jersey
Houston is easily the largest port along the Gulf of Mexico, contributing roughly two-thirds of the Gulf Coast’s total container traffic.
The waters of the Gulf don’t slosh against the shoes of anyone standing within the City of Houston. The shallow Buffalo Bayou passes through the city, though, on its way to Galveston Bay. Most of that bay is separated from the saltwaters by the Bolivar peninsula. In the late 19th century, Galveston was where the seagoing vessels met barges, so those barges could take cargo into Houston, unloading the imports there before taking the export cargo back out to the ships.
In 1900, a disastrous hurricane hit Galveston, killing thousands and highlighted the need for a protected port further upstream. Around this time, Texan rice was becoming an increasingly important crop and there was oil to get to market. For all these reasons, Thomas (Tom) Ball, who served in the House of Representatives for Texas’ 1st District for three terms (1897 - 1903) suggested legislation providing that the federal government share with Texas and Harris County the costs of dredging a deep-water channel to an inland port.
The port was created, originally under the name, Harris County Houston Ship Channel Navigation District. For its share, Harris County sold $1.25 million in bonds for the creation of what is now known as the Port of Houston Authority. Representative Ball, who started the process to create the port, was immortalized in the name of a Houston city, Tomball, Texas.
Construction took years. But on November 10, 1914, all was in readiness, and the port was opened for business amidst a proper ceremony, at which the daughter of the then Houston’s mayor sprinkled white roses into the water from the deck of the US Revenue Cutter WINDOM.
New York /New Jersey
The sheltered harbor at the mouth of the Hudson has been a commercial port since the founding of the Dutch West India Company in 1621. Our discussion will not include the history of the port since then. However, we will highlight that the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 made New York harbor a door to the interior of the continent, and this, in turn, made the city a focal point for the whole North American economy.
In 1899, the US treasury provided funds for the deepening of the Ambrose Channel, between Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and Breezy Point, Queens, and that channel has since been the primary avenue for shipping between the great harbor and the Atlantic.
There are multiple maritime facilities throughout the harbor within a 25-mile radius of the Statue of Liberty, all coming under the purview of the bistate Port Authority. Four of these are container terminals: Howland Hook (on Staten Island), Port Jersey (Bayonne and Jersey City), Port Newark-Elizabeth (Newark Bay), and Red Hook (Brooklyn).
A Fitting Connection
Fittingly, one of the great turning-points in the history of maritime commerce happens to involve both of the aforementioned ports. On April 26, 1956, the Ideal-X, the prototype of container ships, left Newark on a five days’ journey to Houston with 58 containers, each 35’ long, 8’ wide and 8’ high. The 35’ unit represented the standard truck size in the US (one of the great conveniences of these containers is that they can be lifted off trucks by crane and placed onto ships, then likewise loaded onto a truck on the other end of the trip).
In 2018 the Port of New York and New Jersey handled more than 4 million containers, representing 32.8% of the market share on the East Coast.