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The Texas Coast: Ship Channel Network of the Petroleum Age

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Abstract:  This article provides an overview of the Texas Gulf Coast as a port city region dedicated above all to oil and gas. By the late 1800s, the same trends in transportation and industry that encouraged ship channel construction around the world drew attention to schemes to transform the Gulf Coast’s shallow bays and estuaries into inland deep-water harbors. An added factor in Texas was the vulnerability of Galveston and other coastal locations to hurricanes. Between 1902, when construction began on the 52-mile Houston Ship Channel, and the 1950s–60s, when a deep-water channel opened at Matagorda Bay along the mid-Texas coast, various levels of government—local, state, and national—combined to engineer one of the world’s most elaborate navigation networks. Six deep-water channels were woven together by Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which connected Texas to the Mississippi and beyond. During the years when these ports were taking shape, the Texas oil industry had begun to burgeon. In a reflection of the pre-Spindletop origins of Texas’s deep-water movement, policy and planning continued to assume, until oil’s dominance had become clear, that even the massive ship channels at Houston and Corpus Christi would serve mainly as outlets for agricultural commodities. It was the organizers of the state’s petroleum sector who came to understand the Texas ship channels as exemplary locations for aggregating their diverse operations. This interplay between civil engineering and the energy sector made coastal Texas into a dynamic urban port region. Petroleum and petrochemicals, however, so thoroughly imprinted themselves on the landscape, economy, and life of Texas’s oil port region that the region’s post-oil future remained difficult to envision.

Keywords:  Beaumont; climate change; Corpus Christi; Houston; petroleum industry; Port Arthur; port cities; ship channels; Texas cities

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/up.v8i3.6783


© Alan Lessoff. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.