James Baldwin once wrote, "Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition." Whether that sounds positive or negative depends on how you feel about the place you live. Baldwin's insight came to mind one recent afternoon on the Sam Houston Boat Tour, a free trip around the Houston Ship Channel. As sort of a new project, we're seeking out some interesting getaways within the city, places that may feel a little foreign, either because they're largely uncharted by or simply unknown to those of us who live here.
While we waited in 90-degree heat for a Wednesday afternoon tour, it seemed we might have caught on to a good idea. A Facebook announcement about our impending adventure garnered its share of "Never knew about this!" and "Tell us how it goes!" responses. In conversation, one of our two-dozen tour mates told us she was a Michigan transplant who still lamented never seeing Ford Museum while she was living there. You can't really call it contempt, but the familiarity of places within one's own city sometimes makes them afterthoughts.
This Port of Houston tour isn't entirely unknown to Houstonians. After all, it has operated since 1958. It's free but requires riders to make reservations. We made ours and waited four weeks to take our trip. As of this writing, the next open seat isn't available until September 27. The people we shared our tour with seemed happy to have waited their turn. A pair of housewives peacefully chatted together while their kids excitedly explored the boat – a true win-win. Vacationing families clustered along the boat’s railings to see the sights. Some earnest photographers clicked away the entire tour. Everyone aboard was grateful to get a free, cold beverage during the summertime excursion.
Once your tour date arrives, you'll travel past an array of industrial complexes to the boat's launch site at 7300 Clinton in the far East End. You'll show ID to a guard at Entrance Gate 8, who will send you down a long road lined with palm trees. There's a pavilion near visitor parking with art commissioned for the tour and historical plaques to read.
Houston has had a port of some sort since its earliest days; the original was located at Allen's Landing. In those days, Galveston served as the area's primary stop for seagoing commerce, but the devastation of the 1900 hurricane suggested the area needed a modern, inland sea hub. Harris County voters approved funding for one within the decade, and President Woodrow Wilson officially opened the Port of Houston to traffic in 1914. As the country grew, so did its prominence. It was critical to the U.S.'s military campaigns in both World Wars, and its stature grew as Houston's petrochemical industry boomed.
However, we didn't learn any of this from the tour, but rather Wikipedia. A review of the port's article there, or practically any other reference on the Web, is advised if you want some context before spending your 90 minutes on the boat. That's because you're not going to hear much on the guided tour about the Port's origins or history. A Port of Houston Authority staffer spoke in real time on the tour, but never said how the Port came to be, what struggles it endured as it grew or even anything about the very boat that was moving us around the waterway.
We never learned how many people have taken the tour, though a framed certificate on the vessel suggests the millionth tour-taker was Patricia Flynn — who stepped aboard way back in 1979. The tour heads down Buffalo Bayou toward the Gulf of Mexico but boomerangs back just before you get to the Washburn Tunnel. Our tour guide had hung up his mike before we ever made the halfway point, so there was a lot of dead air that might have been used to cover this sort of ground.
That's not to say the crew isn't helpful or is not armed with answers. Once the vessel revved to a steady pace, we asked one crew member how fast the thing could go and he told us ten knots (that's 11 miles per hour to you, landlubber). The captain was dressed spiffily, but he never welcomed us aboard or spurred a romantic connection like Captain Stubing; he just walked past us and went right to work. The crew is friendly, but they weren't tripping over each other to look after us, either.
You don’t really need them to make the trip interesting if you’re adventurous enough. After all, you're on a free boat ride. That’s plenty to work with. A light rain started falling on our way back. We were allowed to stand on the deck and feel the sprinkles hit our faces like sea spray. With no one telling us otherwise, we daydreamed of being Ahab-like explorers on the open sea. U.S. and Texas flags ruffled audibly to feed our naval fantasies.
So, it takes a little effort to romanticize the tour, if that’s what you’re looking for. What you’re witnessing otherwise is reality, complete with people hard at work in a challenging industry, just yards away from the quaint boat on which you're standing. There's nothing plush about the vessel itself, but it's comfortable. There's A/C in the boat cabin, cushioned bench seating and a pair of working toilets. Like everything surrounding it, the boat is working hard, so it's loud and lets off an unpleasant exhaust.
We were told the Port annually exports more than it imports. We learned it is a major hub for Volkswagens coming into the States. The tour guide pointed out specific ships, which countries they were registered to and whether they were carrying blackstrap molasses or automobiles or some other cargo. We were directed to view the Houston Cement Company domes along the bayou in the way an airline pilot asks passengers to peek out a window for a glimpse of the Grand Canyon. We were told to look ahead for the Sidney Sherman Bridge, which stands, at its peak, 135 feet above the surface water. That water must keep a 36-foot depth and is dredged every four or five years for maintenance.
They were actually dredging the channel the day of our trip, which helped put the tour into perspective. This is behind-the-scenes stuff, akin to tramming through set design on a Hollywood backlot to learn how the magic happens. Private vessels aren’t allowed on the ship channel, so this is the only way to witness these occurrences that are so vital to the city’s financial health.
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That’s the tour's takeaway. You’re seeing Houston's irrevocable condition as a living, breathing, economic powerhouse. The tour doesn't tell the story of Houston as something of a bygone era, but proudly boasts what it’s up to today, in the here and now. The Port is one of the world's busiest, facilitating more than $50 billion worth of trade this year alone. If your spirit is dampened by seeing the scrap metal recycling plant on the bayou’s banks or hearing the tour guide talk about the Valero refinery during your excursion, you're sort of missing the point.
The Sam Houston Boat Tour launches 10 a.m. & 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m. Thursdays; and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. See about reservations at this link.