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The Galveston Bay of today looks radically different than it did when it first formed 5,000 years ago. As the last Ice Age came to an end over 18,000 years ago, the Earth warmed, the Pleistocene mammals that roamed the area became extinct, ice sheets withdrew, sea levels rose, and the shoreline moved to near-present locations. The longshore currents along the new shoreline deposited sediments, eventually creating the sandbar we now know as Galveston Island about 5,000 years ago and Bolivar Peninsula about 2,500 years ago. Behind these barriers, Galveston Bay was formed.
Fossilized bone and stone artifacts uncovered in the area date back to Paleo-Indian residents between 14,000 and 8,000 years ago. These nomadic peoples used the Bay area as a hunting ground for life’s necessities. Galveston Bay’s earliest known named inhabitants, the Akokisa (or Orcoquisa) tribes, lived here beatween 7,000 and 5,000 years ago. Other Native American tribes that seasonally frequented the area included the Karankawa, Coco, and Tonkaw tribes. The first European account of the Texas coast natives occurred with Cabeza de Vaca getting stranded here in 1528, and later writing about his experiences with the natives when back in Spain in 1542.
Though Spain laid claim to the Western Hemisphere by right of Columbus’s’ voyages, it was not long before it had to defend its claimed territories from other Europeans, namely the French, in the 1600s and 1700s. Both Spanish and French explorers made efforts to map the Bay. The earliest known map of Galveston Bay is the French map produced by La Harpe in 1721. In 1783, the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Galvez, commissioned Jose Antonio Evia to survey the entire Gulf coast.
Evia named both a bay and an island on the upper Texas coast for his patron, Galvez. The 1799 map produced as a result of Evia’s surveys and notes show for the first time the label of “Galveston Bay.”
It was around this time in history that the use of the newly named Galveston Bay began to transition from that of a food source to that of a place of settlement and colonization.
With the arrival of European and Anglo American privateers, adventurers, and filibusters in the early 1800s, the annual visits by native, nomadic tribes greatly declined. The privateer Jean Lafitte arrived in Galveston from New Orleans around 1817 and set up a settlement called Campeachy. The hurricane of 1818 destroyed this settlement, and Lafitte was gone by 1820. In 1822, Galveston Bay was a focus for Anglo American settlement under colonies established by Stephen F. Austin. For the first time, the Bay became a main conduit for water transportation to trade goods as steamboats began to serve Galveston Bay. New colonists established settlements such as that of Harrisburg, landings such as that at Morgan’s Point, and Lynch’s ferry. The convenient locations of Houston and Galveston led them to rise to prominence as important Texas cities in 1836 and 1837.
The Galveston Bay area played an integral part in Texas’s independence from Mexico. The deciding battle was fought at the confluence of the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou, at what is now known as the San Jacinto Battleground. Nine years after winning its independence from Mexico, Texas was annexed to the United States in 1845. This was a prosperous time for the Bay area, with the importance of the maritime industry reflected in Galveston being identified by the 1850 U.S. Census as the largest town in Texas with 4,177 people. Galveston Bay’s main function at this time was that of a transportation system, and many navigational improvements were made to the Bay, including updated charts, the deepening and straightening of Buffalo Bayou, a lightship, lighted beacons, and eventually the Bolivar Point lighthouse.
Though a rivalry for dominance had formed between Houston and Galveston, the onset of the Civil War briefly united residents of these two cities in support of the Confederacy. Union vessels began a blockade of Galveston in July 1861 and continued through the end of the war in 1865. For most of this time, the Confederates maintained control over Galveston, and blockade runners were successful in bypassing Union ships in getting supplies in and out of Galveston. Following the war, the commercial rivalry between the port cities of Houston and Galveston resumed, and exploitation of the Galveston Bay area’s resources sharply increased. Deep water channel dredging to Houston occupied the decades to follow. The Corps of Engineers initiated a series of channel dredging projects as well as construction of a pair of jetties into the Gulf of Mexico—a project which changed the Bay forever. The jetties were eventually completed in 1897, with the south jetty extending 6.5 miles and the north jetty 5 miles into the Gulf. The jetties lived up to their intended purpose; the channel into the Bay reached 26 feet deep, and the City of Galveston benefited immensely.
Railroad building in other parts of Texas elevated the populations of Dallas and San Antonio, which soon bypassed Galveston. Plans for a Houston Ship Channel were in play, however, which would soon prove to end any commercial rivalry that existed between Houston and Galveston and solidify Houston’s fate as a major port city and the state’s most populous city.
The great hurricane of 1900, which devastated Galveston and killed an estimated 6,000 people, resulted in many Galveston businesses relocating inland. The Houston Ship Channel project created an 18-foot channel and a turning basin by 1908, but the ever-present need for bigger and deeper won out, and by 1914, the Houston Ship Channel was deepened to 25 feet deep. Concurrently, Texas City created a 25-foot channel into its new port and an extensive dike into the Bay to protect its new channel. The Texas City dike would later prove to have significant impacts to the ecology of West Bay. In fact, this was the theme of the era—manipulation of the natural features of Galveston Bay to rapidly develop and protect transportation channels to benefit the economy.
In the early 1900s, the petroleum era in Galveston Bay was born on the shores of Tabbs Bay. The first oil refinery was constructed on Goose Creek in 1919, by the Humble Oil Company (later Exxon). They named the landing Baytown, and built the refinery and a town for employees west of Goose Creek. Industrialization continued in the Galveston Bay area, with various oil and chemical companies attracted to the area for its deep water channels and ports, wide open spaces, underground sources of fresh water, and general lack of regulations. Demand for more and larger barge access resulted in the deepening (and widening) of the Houston Ship Channel to 34 feet in the 1930s, to 36 feet in the 1940s, and to 40 feet in the 1950s. Presently, the Houston Ship Channel is a 52-mile long channel dredged to 45 feet deep.
Beginning in about 1910, the public began to be aware of a “polluted” Galveston Bay. They noted oily water and declines in fishing and began to blame the industries. Two major projects that had the potential to have massive impacts to the Bay began their planning stages in the 1950s and 1960s. The first was the Wallisville Lake Project, a plan to dam the lower Trinity River south of Wallisville, and the second was the next phase of deepening and widening the Houston Ship Channel. Both projects were subject to the new review processes put in place by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. In accordance with the new policy, the Corps of Engineers had to put together environmental impact statements (EIS) for these projects. Both projects met much opposition from the public, including fishermen and shrimpers, landowners, and other citizens of the Bay area. In fact, it was from the gathering and discussions of such concerned citizens that the Galveston Bay Foundation was born. In 1987, forty individuals became the charter members and incorporators of the Galveston Bay Foundation, a new environmental nonprofit corporation focused on the interests of Galveston Bay.
This is an excerpt of an article written by Galveston Bay Foundation’s Vice President of Operations that appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Houston History magazine. To view the full article with references, please visit the Houston History Magazine’s website.