Willard Richardson from at least 1868 to the last days of his life had advocated in the pages of The Daily News for the deepening of the Galveston Harbor, portraying it as the island’s passage to its future.
By then, with the Civil War past and Reconstruction underway, railroad companies had begun rapidly extending their physical and economic reach, and Houston was challenging Galveston’s primacy as the principal Gulf Coast port in the vast sweep between New Orleans and Veracruz, Mexico.
Seaborne arrivals to Galveston at the time had to be offloaded onto so-called lighters to bring their wares ashore, even as shipyards were cranking out larger and heavier ships with ever deeper drafts.
Even Mother Nature wasn’t helping matters. While the Houston shipping channel, scrubbed by the current, remained passable to the largest of ships, sand had begun to shoal inside and out of Galveston’s harbor, reducing its depth in places to 8 feet.
The city, led by the island’s great benefactor Henry Rosenberg, formed a Board of Harbor Improvements, which raised $15,000 and embraced a plan calling for a series of cedar pilings to be driven off the island’s east end.
The plan worked, concentrating the current to scour the seabed — but the harbor remained inaccessible to the heaviest ships.
What was needed was a harbor 26 or more feet deep, a first-class harbor, experts in the matter agreed. The Daily News joined in, avowing that nothing less than Galveston’s economic survival was at stake.
Delegations lobbied Congress, given that only federal coffers were sufficiently endowed to finance such a project; it required an estimated sum of $7 million — $184 million in today’s dollars.
They got nowhere, until, finally, Congress relented in 1890, 22 years after Richardson, then the publisher and co-owner of The Daily News, had first pushed for deepening Galveston’s harbor — and 15 years after his death.
The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1890 committed the U.S. Treasury to spending $6.2 million for Galveston’s harbor.
President Benjamin Harrison on Sept. 19 signed the bill into law, and The Daily News’ headlines the following morning — Sept. 20, 1890 — exulted: TIME TO REJOICE.
“Galveston Has Many Reasons to Shout and Be Happy.
“After Patient Watching, Disappointments and Suffering the Bill Which Makes Galveston a Great City Becomes a Law.”
An unnamed correspondent, filing his report from Washington, D.C., noted that the bill had passed despite opposition from others along the Texas coast.
“The news which came in this morning about 11 o’clock from Cresson Springs, where the president is adjourning, stated that he had signed the river and harbor bill. …
“Texas gets about $7,000,000 under it, an amount which ought to satisfy the most voracious of her citizens. The great bulk of this appropriation, however, goes to Galveston. …
“There were several points on the Texas coast which worked against the Galveston idea because they thought that the appropriation of such a great amount to the Galveston harbor meant little or no appropriation for them. Then there were private schemes of different kinds which opposed the Galveston appropriation. It is unnecessary to go over the whole story here. It is an interesting but lengthy one. …
“Senator [Richard] Coke is entitled to the great credit of having passed the first bill appropriating $6,200,000 direct both in the senate commerce committee and the senate, without a dissenting voice against it. …
“Now that the bill has become a law, the matter of preparing to commence the work on the harbor will be entered actively into. Mr. [Walter] Gresham will call at the war department to-morrow to have a conference with the engineers to draw plans and specifications for the completion of the work, as now authorized by law, on which advertisement for bids will be made.”
The Daily News — then owned and published by Alfred Belo, who, in 1885, had launched a sister publication, today known as The Dallas Morning News — applauded the paper’s dogged shepherding of the legislation.
“For almost a quarter of a century, The News, first as a single publication at Galveston and next as a joint publication at Galveston and Dallas, has contended for the establishment of a deepwater entrance to Galveston harbor,” Belo wrote in an editorial. “For almost a quarter of a century it has waged a continuous campaign for this cause without wearying or wavering, without relaxing or relenting, sometimes with the aid of and encouragement of outside influence, sometimes alone and unencouraged, and occasionally even in the face of strong opposition from antagonized and antagonizing interests; but always and under all circumstances in view the best interests of Texas and the Southwest. … The struggle has been long and severe, but at length The News has the proud satisfaction that its efforts have been crowned with final success.”
Soon enough, the Port of Galveston would accommodate the largest of cargo ships, including the Algoa, a British steamer with a previously unheard of 21-foot draft.
By 1896, the historian David McComb noted in his seminal history of Galveston, “[t]he size of vessels using the port jumped by 24 percent. In the next few years Galveston exports increased by 55 percent, and imports by 37 percent.”
Today, the Port of Galveston, with a depth of 45 feet, ranks as the nation’s fourth-busiest port for cruise ships, the anchorage’s principal source of revenue.