Looking Back

Looking Back: Exploring the First Era of the Greater Houston Port Bureau 1919 to 1939

Richfield ship at dock in the Houston Ship Channel (1920).

Charting the early days of the Port Bureau is a little like navigating the waters of the Houston Ship Channel itself: complex and full of turns. If there was a newspaper announcement of the new offices or photographs of the first staff, these seem to be lost in time. However, from the records that remain, one thing is clear – leaders were eager to build business for Houston’s port, and the Greater Houston Port Bureau was established from that goal.

Determined to make the inland Port of Houston a prominent player in the global shipping community, port director Colonel B.C. Allin visited other ports to review their operations. He became convinced that port promotion was a neglected activity. The general outlook among port authorities seemed to be that if a port was there, it would be utilized, but Allin and Houston’s business leaders refused to fall victim to this mindset. There was too much potential and too much at stake to let the value of Houston’s port go unnoticed.

The Port Commission, Houston Merchant’s Exchange, Houston Cotton Exchange, Houston Chamber of Commerce, City of Houston, and Maritime Committee of the Houston Cotton Exchange sponsored the creation of the Houston Port Bureau, the original name of the organization.

According to Marilyn McAdams Sibley, in her book “The Port of Houston: A History”, the Port Bureau began operations on June 1, 1929, by establishing offices in Houston, New York, Kansas City, and Dallas. Its purpose? Promote the Port of Houston, solicit tonnage on its behalf, and provide services to shippers.

Our records show Edmund Pincoffs, president of Maurice Pincoffs Company, was the first chairman of the Port Bureau. “Houston Port and City: The Houston Port Bureau”, authored by T.L. Evans in November 1930, names an extensive list of businessmen and officials as comprising the first board:

  • Colonel B.C. Allin, representing the Port Commission
  • W.N. Blanton, representing the Houston Chamber of Commerce
  • J.M. Lykes, representing the Maritime Committee of the Houston Cotton Exchange & Board of Trade
  • Raymond C. Stone, representing the Houston Merchants Exchange
  • H.M. Crosswell, representing private terminals
  • Thomas Kehoe, representing the Houston Cotton Exchange & Board of Trade
  • Col. R.C. Kuldell, representing the Houston Chamber of Commerce
  • George Pruter, representing the City of Houston
  • Sigmond Rothschild, representing the Houston Foreign Trade Club
  • A.D. Simpson, representing Houston banks

Completing this picture of the exciting, broad commitment to building port business were the offices inland and at home in Houston:

  • Kansas City: Thomas P. Bartle, 433 Board of Trade Building
  • New York City: John C. Mayfield, 1512 Whitehall Building, 17 Battery Place
  • Dallas: F.C. Dezendorf, Jr., 1113 Cotton Exchange Building
  • Houston: T.L. Evans, General Manager; H.S. Crawford, Assistant; Houston Chamber of Commerce Building

Evans wrote in the same 1930 article: “All of these gentlemen entered the work of the Port Bureau with an excellent background, gained through their many years connection with companies, which actively engaged in shipping, or handling merchandise through the Port of Houston.”

The fledgling organization set quickly to work. An early endeavor included publishing the “Houston Port Register”, a weekly magazine offering articles pertinent to Houston’s tonnage, and most importantly, a sailing schedule.

The first few months of operations must have been heady days for the Houston Port Bureau as they pursued the goal pushing the cargoes to Houston. The U.S. stock market crash in October 1929 surely created more than a few devastating moments for these maritime commerce pioneers, but the strength of their commitment remained strong. In spite of such a tremendous setback to the economy, Evans records that “the Houston Port Bureau has grown to be a most important adjunct to the port and its business.”

Houston was slower than other cities to initially feel the effects of the Great Depression, and some industries took several years before seeing the full impact. By 1933, tonnage sank to pre-Depression levels as fewer ships called on Houston. The port’s much-celebrated grain elevator, which handled nearly 3 million bushels in 1932, sat largely empty between 1933 and 1935. Longshoreman ranks shrank to skeleton crews.

Even when tonnage began to slowly rebound, the value of cargoes had dropped considerably. Countless individuals and organizations worked hard to keep commerce flowing. It was the refining industry, however, that was a lifeline for the Houston Ship Channel. Fuel was still needed to operate machines and vehicles, and the country needed petroleum byproducts for industrial use.

Technology worked in Houston’s favor during the Depression, and by extension, eventually brought a major change to the Houston Port Bureau. Long-haul trucking took hold in the 1930s. Their ability to reach more places made truckers more flexible than railroads, giving truckers a successful competitive edge. Men displaced by the Depression could set up their own trucking company with little capital, and regulation was non-existent.

The Port of Houston’s position 50 miles inland was a distinct advantage over shoreline ports. Commodities such as cotton that once chugged by rail to Galveston or New Orleans began to flow to Houston’s port. In response, New Orleans revived barge traffic on the Mississippi River basin and joined with the railroads to provide rail-barge service.

These and other competitive moves created rate structure inequities in the logistics chain. Sibley records that the barge-rail rate gave New Orleans an advantageous rate that included areas into the New Mexico. “For example,” she wrote, “the all-rail rate from Tucumcari, New Mexico, to Houston was $2.42; to New Orleans, $2.76; and to Memphis, $2.26. But the rail-barge rate from Tucumcari through Memphis to New Orleans was $2.41.”

The rate disparities and intense competition prompted a reorganization of the Houston Port Bureau. On June 1, 1936, the organization became a part of the Houston Port and Traffic Bureau, with Harold B. Cummins as general manager. Sibley quotes J. Russel Wait, general manager of the Port of Houston, in describing the Port Bureau’s expanded role. “Its prime function is to keep informed on rate adjustments initiated by hostile transportation agencies”, explained Wait in his report of 1936. “These continual efforts to divert tonnage to and from the interior and heretofore there has been so single agency responsible for combating such activities.”

Cummins, leading the Houston Port and Traffic Bureau, Wait, and C.E. Holloman, manager of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, hounded regulatory agencies, including the Interstate Commerce Commission, to alleviate the inequities in the rate structure. The inequities, however, went largely unresolved. In the meantime, progress in other areas continued. The Houston Ship Channel was deepened and widened twice and navigation lights were installed for night navigation.

By the end of the 1930s, the Port of Houston was ranked as the number one port in the South and the fourth largest port in the nation. David Falloure, in his book “Sheer Will”, puts tonnage near 30 million and cites paper goods, the resumption of grain exports, coffee imports, and automobile imports/exports as the leading cargoes. He also notes the rise of scrap metal exports – salvageable metal from old cars, appliances, etc., – with the bulk of it headed for Japan. An ominous omen, perhaps, for the time was to follow that would change the world and the Port Bureau along with.

From its first decade to the present, the Greater Houston Port Bureau was been noted for its ability to support the needs of Houston’s maritime community. Sibley includes a quote from the “Houston Port and City” in describing the Port Bureau’s work: “… the bureau proved a flexible agency that was reorganized from time to time during the following decades to meet the special needs of the times.”

Editor Note: Historical data has been collected from the Greater Houston Port Bureau’s archives, online digital archives of newspapers and journals, and the books “The Port of Houston” by Mark Lardas; “Sheer Will” by David H. Falloure; and “The Port of Houston: A History” by Marilyn McAdams Sibley.

  • Date March 19, 2019
  • Tags 2019 February