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  • Stories of a Workforce
  • A Brief History
  • Communities
  • Generations
  • Know-How
  • Struggles
  • Transformations
 

Stories of a Workforce

CELEBRATING THE CENTENNIAL OF THE HOUSTON SHIP CHANNEL

An online exhibition curated by
Houston Arts Alliance's Folklife + Civic Engagement program​

Publication Page Down Arrow

Dr. John Biggers, narrative mural (detail), tempera on masonite. Courtesy of International Longshoreman's Association Local #24. Photo: Loriana Espinel

Stories of a Workforce: Celebrating the Centennial of the Houston Ship Channel is an exhibition mounted for the 100th anniversary of the official opening of the Houston Ship Channel. It was housed in the marvelous gallery of the beautiful and historic Julia Ideson Building, the city’s first public library, between September 1, 2014 and January 31, 2015. Then, as now, the exhibition is an effort to make the Port of Houston better seen, better known and, especially, better heard. In relying on the voices of the men and women who work there, Stories of a Workforce sought out the greatest ground-level experts—the workers themselves—to tell us their stories, to recount their experiences, and to share their recollections regarding an occupational setting that has been, like many other American workplaces, drastically transformed over the last several decades.

Father Rivers Patout
Dana Blume
Captain Harjit Singh Bains
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Father Rivers Patout, Chaplain International Seafarer's Center. Interviewed by Pat Jasper on 7.26.2010

Houston Chronicle/Nick de la Torre.  Used with permission.

Dana Blume, Environmental Affairs Department at the Port of Houston Authority. Interviewed by Pat Jasper on 8.6.2012

Photo: Louis Vest

Captain Harjit Singh Bains, Owner HS Marine LLC. Interviewed by Harold Dodd on 3.23.2013

Photo: Jack Potts

» For a full list of interviewees and interviewers, click here.

Stories of a Workforce literally allows us to listen to the memories of these working people. And in their descriptions of work life, we found many surprising commonalities. In their words, the Ship Channel workforce repeatedly discussed their connections to community, relayed accounts of family tradition, stressed the importance of new knowledge and old know-how in the workplace, and reported the struggles they have seen on the job and the transformations they have all experienced as workers. In a sense, Stories of a Workforce is something of a collective autobiography of the Ship Channel from the very workers that this project had the honor to document. 

The content of the exhibition has largely been drawn from interviews conducted in the last three years with more than seventy individuals working in a wide range of occupations associated with the Houston Ship Channel – from ship to shore, from blue collar to white, from the docks to the board rooms. Thus, the exhibition is not a history but rather a group portrait of life and work on the Port over the last fifty or so years. Stories of a Workforce commemorates the centennial of the Ship Channel by sharing and amplifying these combined voices and their enduring insights.

Cotton bales moved by handtruck on the Houston docks.
Cotton bales moved by handtruck on the Houston docks.

In the early days on the docks almost all work was piece work, though a lot of leverage and a sturdy cotton truck could allow a man to move hundreds of pounds of cotton. 

Image courtesy of Houston Public Library's (HPL) Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC) – Harvey Breed Collection 

Cars are still a part of the break bulk cargo that come into the Port of Houston.
Cars are still a part of the break bulk cargo that come into the Port of Houston.

As time went on, more elaborate winches facilitated the movement of bigger items such as cars, off and on ships. 

Image courtesy of Houston Public Library's (HPL) Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC) – Harvey Breed Collection 

Stacked containers reduced the manpower necessary to move cargo off and on a ship.
Stacked containers reduced the manpower necessary to move cargo off and on a ship.

Cargo ships revolutionized the character of dock work, specifically by moving materials in containers that could be interlocked and stacked, both  across and up. All of their movements were accomplished by cranes rather than direct human labor.

Photo: Louis Vest

  Section Title 2

On August 30, 1836, the city of Houston was established when two entrepreneurial brothers from New York, Augustus Chapman Allen and John Kirby Allen, ran an advertisement in the Telegraph and Texas Register for the "Town of Houston." The town, which featured a mixture of timber and grassland, lay on the level Coastal Plain. The brothers claimed that the town would become "the great interior commercial emporium of Texas," that ships from New York and New Orleans could sail up Buffalo Bayou to its door. See a copy of this bold advertisement below. 

Ad announcing the availability of land sales in early Houston.
Ad announcing the availability of land sales in early Houston.

First advertisement run by the Allen Brothers promoting land sales in a new, young, barely viable Houston.

By the 1860s representations of the growing port, as seen here in the engraving, show activity looking north across Buffalo Bayou with boats and barges loaded with cotton. A side-wheel paddle boat, and barges towed by boats, are all loaded with cotton. A major concern at this time was cotton, (the port’s largest export at this time was cotton). The Ziegler Warehouse, stands in the top right of the illustration. 

A rendering of what Houston imagined itself to be in 1846.
A rendering of what Houston imagined itself to be in 1846.

"Ziegler and Allen’s Landing.”

Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries

As the dream of an inland port became more of a reality, dredges like the Big Dredge Washington, were put to use to clear and expand the channel for true commerce.

A dredge working on clearing the ship channel in preparation for the official opening of the Port.
A dredge working on clearing the ship channel in preparation for the official opening of the Port.

Big Dredge Washington HMRC-MSS0118” used to remove tons of soil from the bottom of the channel. 

Image courtesy of the HPL, HMRC

In 1914, this dream was fully realized when state and federal authorities officially opened the Port of Houston and the Houston Ship Channel. Today, the Port of Houston is the main port in the state of Texas and the world’s tenth largest port. 

Official opening ceremony for the Port of Houston. November 1914.
Official opening ceremony for the Port of Houston. November 1914.

Houston Mayor Ben Campbell, family and officials at the channel’s opening, held November 10, 1914 "Opening Port " Black & White HMRC-MSS0283. 

Image courtesy of the HPL, HMRC

The growth of the Port of Houston during its first century has been incomparable, and the Houston Ship Channel is a testimony to the hard work and perseverance of its founding fathers and the diligence of its workforce. Now, one of the busiest waterways in the United States, the Houston Ship Channel has truly achieved its early promise to become the preeminent link between Texas and the sea.

  Section Title 3

Although it is known around the world as the Port of Houston, the urban complex that lines the Ship Channel represents a constellation of communities with separate identities, roles and histories. The map below names several that have been and continue to be important.

A map of the Houston Ship Channel with many of the communities and neighborhoods that line it.
A map of the Houston Ship Channel with many of the communities and neighborhoods that line it.

Communities along the Houston Ship Channel. 

Image courtesy of Cregan Design

Magnolia Park is an excellent example of one of the communities that started out as its own incorporated township, but was absorbed into Houston as it grew. From the early real estate brochure to the still standing bungalows that populate the area, the neighborhood continues to thrive at the edge of the Port's turning basin. 

Advertisement for lots in Magnolia Park, residing along Buffalo Bayou
Cottage in Magnolia Park Neighborhood
Cottage in Magnolia Park Neighborhood
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Sales brochure marketing lots in Magnolia Park, after the small town had been absorbed by the growing city of Houston.

Photo courtesy of HPL, HMRC

Typical Magnolia Park home example.

Photo courtesy of Neiman Catley. 

Typical Magnolia Park home example. 

Photo courtesy of Neiman Catley.

From the community’s beginning, the Port and Ship Channel provided jobs for its residents and, to this day, remains an economic lifeline for many.

Gilda Ramirez:

Gilda Ramirez:"Magnolia Park: Jobs on the Port"

Photo: Lori Espinel

The impact of the Ship Channel’s growth on these communities has been varied – often creating and sustaining some as flourishing neighborhoods, or providing new opportunities to their historically marginalized residents – like Magnolia Park -- but sometimes diminishing others through industrialization – like Old Harrisburg. Whatever their fortunes, these communities have figured strongly in the life of the Port and the words of its workers. 

Historical marker for the once thriving and now disappeared town of Harrisburg, Texas
Historical marker for the once thriving and now disappeared town of Harrisburg, Texas

Historical marker for the once thriving and now disappeared town of Harrisburg, Texas.

African American workers built discreet neighborhoods themselves and despite the day-to-day difficulties of segregation, Port jobs fueled a determination to build stable communities and to invest in and buy land and homes. And the closeness of the communities could be counted on to ensure a measure of power and prestige for Black workers employed on the ship channel.

Van Chatman:

Van Chatman: "Clinton Park Community"

Photo: Louis Vest
Guillory+Kinch:

Guillory+Kinch: "African Americans along the Waterfront"

Photo: Jack Potts
  Section Title 4

It is not unusual for occupations to be passed down from parent to child to grandchild on the Houston Ship Channel. There was a time when open docks and ready access to the waterway allowed family members to meet up at the worksite and actually see the places where their parents, mostly their fathers, worked. 

Steve Bennett

Any number of family businesses were formed and continued to thrive over generations, though this is less common now than it used to be. 

Image A
Image A

Buffalo Marine, a family-owned business, expresses its continuing legacy by naming its vessels after second and third generation family members.  The San Brooklyn tug is named after the founder’s great grand-daughter.

Image courtesy of Buffalo Marine

Families take great pride in the fact that they have worked on the Ship Channel in many different kinds of jobs over many generations. 

Tom Tellepsen:

Tom Tellepsen: "Thriving for Generations"

Photo: Lori Espinel
Richard Bludworth: “A Boatbuilding Legacy”
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Richard Bludworth: “A Boatbuilding Legacy”

Photo: Lori Espinel
Matthew Glass:

Matthew Glass: "A Family of Pilots"

Photo: Louis Vest
  Section Title 5

At the Port of Houston and along the Houston Ship Channel, for all of their one hundred years, knowing how to get the job done—whatever the job—has always been the priority. But completing or undertaking any task successfully means learning how to do it and applying that information.

Jobs on the Port
Jobs on the Port

A listing of types of jobs supported by the Ship Channel.

Image courtesy of Cregan Design

As the poster above outlines, there are scores of jobs that make the Ship channel an efficient and productive workplace. Over time, however, the knowledge and skills associated with those jobs have changed significantly.

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Early mechanical winches made work on the docks somewhat less rigorous but it was the kind of skill that laborers taught each other. 

Image courtesy of HPL, HMRC – Harvey Breed Collection

Lou Vest
Lou Vest

Containerization eliminated some jobs (especially on the docks) and consequently certain skills were no longer relevant or necessary.

Photo: Louis Vest

Yet there continues to be a surprising reliance on combined forms of knowledge—gained through both direct experience and highly professionalized training—as is the case with the Houston Pilots who, day in and day out, guide all the major vessels down the channel.

Video 1

So, even in the face of change and modernization, the age-old practices of peer-to-peer learning and the development of local knowledge remain as important today as the newer kinds of schooling that a worker aquires in a classrooom or at a computer terminal.

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Nowadays, most ships are entirely equipped with sophisticated technology but it still takes experience and awareness gained through shared know-how to captain a vessel of any size. 

Photo: Louis Vest

Older, experienced hands and younger, active maritime educators agree, local knowledge and extensive, sophisticated training go hand-in-hand throughout the Port.

Gordie Keenan:

Gordie Keenan: "Peer-to-Peer Learning"

Photo: Louis Vest
Tom Lightsey:

Tom Lightsey: "Local Knowledge"

Photo: Nick de la Torre
  Section Title 6

In the past fifty years, the American workplace has been dramatically altered by mechanization, technology and pressing social issues. The Port of Houston and the Houston Ship Channel are no exception. These transformations and struggles have played out since the middle of the last century and continue to be felt to the current day. Strikes and other forms of struggle were put to use, even at the Port of Houston, to combat some of these changes.

Strikers
Strikers

Strikes are an important strategy for unionized labor everywhere, even on the Port of Houston. International Longshoremen Association Union #1351

Images courtesy of Harvey Breed Collection, HPL, HMRC

Many workers believed, with justification, that growing social parity and middle class prosperity could be the dream of the many and not just the few.  Women, for example, had to face many obstacles that were considered a simple part of the status quo.

Vidal Knight:

Vidal Knight: "Women Entering the Workplace"

Photo: Lori Espinel

The Port and the Ship Channel shared these experiences with much of the rest of the United States. Dock workers, especially, were concerned with job security, However, after a devastating strike in the late 1960s, labor and management on the Ship Channel agreed to work as closely together as possible to accommodate these changes, and to mitigate the negative effects on both workers and the industries they served.

Benny Holland:

Benny Holland: "From Hot-Body Labor to a Skilled Worker"

Photo: Louis Vest

In the past fifty years, the American workplace has been dramatically altered by mechanization, technology and pressing social issues. The Port of Houston and the Houston Ship Channel are no exception.

Image 1
Image 1

The first container ship to deliver cargo anywhere in the world docked in Houston – signaling both the city’s pioneering spirit as well as the local job loss that would ensue.

Image courtesy of HPL, HMRC R61362-183

Interestingly, though the unions made a certain peace with their employers, they themselves remained segregated until the 1980’s. The struggle to change that system, opposed for decades by almost all Longshoreman locals in Houston, finally came to a good outcome through negotiation and acceptance. Some of this process is described in the video below. 

Video 1

The Port of Houston and the Houston Ship Channel are an amazing demonstration of how innovation has transformed the nature and quality of work there, reduced the number of people and the time necessary to accomplish that work, and reshaped the kinds of knowledge that must be deployed to perform it. 

William Hennessey:

William Hennessey: "The Shrinking Workforce"

Photo: Louis Vest

Daily documentation of work activity was revolutionized alongside the work itself. In the simple course of a career, workers have seen communications change from daily handwritten records to immediately accessible digital information.

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Image 2

This is an example of a handwritten logbook from a lineman or boatman. This was the mode used to document ship traffic.

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Image 3

This display from the computerized Harbor Lights program is just one example of the ways in which technology streamlined the transfer of information on the Ship Channel.

Overall, Ship Channel workers, young and old, now accept change as inevitable, yet continue to appreciate the resourcefulness and rigor of earlier workers who faced the same challenging tasks with simpler tools. 

Full Mural

The narrative mural "History of International Longshoreman’s Local 872" is a graphic retelling of change and transformation on the docks. It details the evolution from piecework to containerization and the role of African American longshoremen in that process.

Detail of a mural by Dr. John Biggers.  Courtesy International Longshoreman's Association Local #24, Tempera on masonite.

Day Video

Night Video

Day and night stop animations by Lou Vest

Stories of a Workforce involved hundreds of people. To culminate a project that not only was acurate and informed by the stories of the people who work along the Houston Ship Channel, the projected started as interviews now archived at the Library of Congress. The result of this fieldwork was a major exhibition whicih took place at the Houston Public Library in the beautiful Julia B. Ideson Gallery. The venture also culminated in a 128 page, full-color hardcover catalogy which can be purchased here and two school curriculums: one created by the Houston Arts Alliance Folklife program  which can be found here; and one by the Port of Houston Authority which can be found here.

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