Looking Back

A Peek into the Postbellum Years of the Greater Houston Port Bureau 1947-1960

Turning Basin in the Houston Ship Channel.

As the end of World War II appeared on the horizon in 1945, thankful Americans began to look toward a happier future. At home in Houston’s port region, the return of the victorious troops to civilian life meant a return of the Port of Houston to commercial shipping. Thoughts turned to new opportunities, and perspicacious leaders urged preparation projects.

J. Virgil Scott, vice president at the Second National Bank in Houston, was one such leader. At a meeting of the Foreign Trade Association in March 1945, Scott proposed establishing an export-import corporation to secure two-way trade for the port, and to offer financial assistance, should it be required.

An article recapping the meeting in the March 13, 1945, Houston Post captures the adamant spirit of the effort:

After the war there will be a battle royal among the Gulf ports for maritime business. Most of the ports are busily planning and training for it now. The war has upset Houston’s port apple cart, and New Orleans has managed to cut under Houston for war shipping. If we do not hustle for all we’re worth, we may be left behind in the postbellum race, except for oil and some cotton. And any businessman who may doubt the value of the port to his interests would quickly learn its importance by reverse English if our shipping should not snap back from its present dormancy with the return of peace.

A sick port would mean an economically anemic Houston. We need to develop import as well as export business; get some of our port eggs in other baskets than oil and cotton. A top-notch export and import concern could be the means of achieving a resurgence of shipping through the port of Houston; of building up an unprecedented volume and variety of cargo tonnage. The project merits the support of all businessmen who want Houston to grow.

Scott was subsequently elected chairman of the port commission, and hustle they did! While the war had suspended Houston’s usual shipping activities, it had provided a new stimulus to the industrialization of the Houston Ship Channel. Not only had demand for petroleum products increased during war time, but American military needs had inspired the development of synthetic rubber that was a byproduct of petroleum.

The Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) notes that two synthetic rubber plants were located near the Houston Ship Channel during war time, and in the post-war years the Houston Ship Channel soon emerged as a center of the petrochemical industry. The Port of Houston rapidly became a major shipping point for midwestern grain. TSHA notes that growing foreign trade and new industry boosted the port to second in tonnage in the nation in 1948. From then until 1964, it regularly ranked second or third in the nation’s tonnage.

In 1947, the Port Bureau – operating as the Houston Port and Traffic Bureau – expanded to form an information division to publicize the Port of Houston throughout the U.S. and abroad. Publication of a semi-monthly magazine, the Port of Houston Bulletin, was initiated. The Kansas City office was reopened in 1947, the New York City office in 1949, and a traffic department to guard the Port of Houston rate structure was established.

As the Houston Port and Traffic Bureau, the organization engaged in traffic solicitation, promotion, advertising, and public relations for the port region – then known as the Harris County Houston Ship Channel Navigation District (Navigation District). The chairman of the board of port commissioners also served as the chairman of the Traffic Bureau’s board of directors and of its executive committee in order to provide the necessary liaison with the Navigation District. Likewise, the executive assistant to the general manager of the Navigation District served as the executive secretary and treasurer of the Traffic Bureau.

Financial support for the organization was derived from contributions by the Navigation District and by private business and transportation firms. The Navigation District supplied about one half of the annual budget in the form of loaning employees to the Traffic Bureau. The remaining half of the budget (or about $54,000 per year) was advanced by the private members. The Traffic Bureau’s board of directors consisted of 21 business leaders representing port industrial and labor interests.

This group met frequently, but the day-to-day management of the Traffic Bureau was handled by an executive committee of five members and headed by a director in charge of administration. The Journal of the Senate, Legislature of the State of California, 1951, records the following description of the Houston Port and Traffic Bureau’s activities:

SS Sue Lykes: 5,000 Reels Galvanized Barbed Wire unloading in the Houston Ship Channel

Freight solicitation is based on routing business generally through the Port of Houston, not on contracting trade for any one terminal or steamship line. To aid the solicitors working out of Houston, the Bureau keeps a branch office in Kansas City.

Public relations are under contract with a publicity agency. The agency furnishes the press with releases and photographs. It arranges for publication of interviews but does not engage in advertising because of the limited budget ($10,000 annually). It also edits the Houston Port Bulletin, a bi-monthly magazine issued in English and Spanish for distribution in the United States and in Latin America. The most valuable feature of the magazine is a list of arrivals and departures from the Port of Houston.

The Traffic Bureau furnishes editorial services and copy for the Houston Port Bulletin but the publisher solicits advertising and arranges the makeup. The publisher is compensated only by his receipts from advertising. A similar arrangement is made for the Houston Port Book published twice a year for the Navigation District.

The May 1950 Houston Port Book notes the Houston Port and Traffic Bureau staff as:

G.K. Reeder, General Manager; Cotton Exchange Building
H.B. Cummins, Manager Traffic Department; Cotton Exchange Building
Max H. Jacobs, Director of Information; City National Bank Building
W.W. Richards, Eastern Representative; New York City
Lloyd L. Leonard, Southwestern Representative; Kansas City, Missouri

Harold Cummins

This sample of the Port Bureau’s staff in 1950 is a good reflection of the organization’s work during this important era of change and growth. For example, H.B. (Harold) Cummins joined the Port Bureau in 1936, assisting in organizing and leading the initial Houston Port and Traffic Bureau. He served as the traffic manager until his untimely death in 1952. In a tribute from the Port of Houston in the Houston Port Bulletin in the fall of 1952, he was described as “a distinguished figure in traffic and rate matters” and an “ardent leader in the field of traffic education”. Cummins helped to establish the transportation department at the University of Houston, was a member of the National Industrial Traffic League, the Association of Interstate Commerce Commission Practitioners, the Houston Traffic Club and the Traffic Committee of the Houston Chamber of Commerce. He served as a director of both the Texas Industrial Traffic League and the Southwestern Industrial Traffic League. His work and contributions are just one example of the fine legacy of the Port Bureau and its support in advancing the port region.

On March 25, 1954, the Traffic Bureau’s name was changed to Houston Port Bureau. Although the official press release announcing the name change seems lost to the sands of time, the Spring 1955 edition of the Houston Port Book announces expansion plans for the Houston Port Bureau through the opening of offices in both Chicago and Dallas, with John R. Weiler as the Dallas representative, for freight solicitation. The same article also indicates consideration was underway for the enlarging the traffic department in Houston. These and other activities were all named as part of the Port Bureau’s program to increase general cargo movements.

The same edition of the Houston Port Book also notes “a major change in the composition” of the Port Bureau’s board structure due to amended by-laws that reduced port commission representation on the board. Previously, all five port commission members and the port director had served on the board. Now, the port commission chairman, one additional port commissioner, and the port director would serve in positions on the Port Bureau’s board of directors. According to the article, the change was intended to “broaden the influence of private business in Bureau operations.”

As the port region grew and evolved in this era of progress, the Port Bureau reinvented itself, sharpening its focus to keep pace with the fast-moving times on behalf of regional maritime interests. By 1959, cargo solicitation was consolidated under the auspices of the Port of Houston and the Port Bureau was “devoted entirely to the improvement of rates and conditions on cargo moving through the Port of Houston”, as described by John C. Mayfield, president. Greg Perry was the new general manager. “All Gulf of Mexico ports face stern competition, particularly from the St. Lawrence Seaway,” said Mayfield in an announcement in the June 1959 edition of newly introduced Port of Houston Magazine. “It will be Mr. Perry’s duty to protect and improve the rate structure of the Port of Houston to assure the free flow of cargo through our port.”

Mayfield’s emphatic declaration echoes strongly down through the years to the Port Bureau today. Assuring the free flow of cargo through the port region to the benefit of all remains an enduring goal of the Greater Houston Port Bureau from decade to decade.

Judith Schultz
  • Date July 9, 2019
  • Tags 2019 June