On a recent afternoon, almost 100 years to the day after the Ship Channel’s grand opening, around a hundred people waited in line to board the Sam Houston tour boat for a 90-minute tour, many with cameras around their necks. The mix of locals and out-of-towners included a group of Nigerians in matching shirts clamoring to take photos on the ship’s deck, smiling wide as we sailed along. On another part of the boat, a young woman with a young man who appeared to be her date told us they’d made the trek after Googling “free stuff to do in Houston.”
As it turns out, tens of thousands of people board the Sam Houston every year, a fact that seemed—we’ll admit it—a little surprising to us, as we stood on deck shielding our eyes from the sun, watching pelicans and seagulls soar past enormous container ships flying international flags, refineries, piles of steel, warehouses full of God knows what. Down below, we saw the occasional plastic bag float by underwater, ghostlike.
“It’s so ugly,” said a woman in a Texas A&M T-shirt to her companion. “Houston is just not a pretty city.” Even as we sailed it, however, the Channel felt unknowable, strange, and foreign—and thus oddly beautiful in its way, especially on a clear day. We passed a few other vessels and a couple of workers in orange uniforms, but overall there was a sense of quiet, and so we were moved to contemplate our particular universe, this corner of Houstonia that shouldn’t exist, and wouldn’t if not for a disastrous hurricane, the discovery of oil, and the vision of long-dead city leaders, who created an inland port 52 miles from the sea that now handles nearly 240 million tons of cargo each year, most of it shielded from view.
Where would Houston be, we wondered, without the Ship Channel? We sailed back under the bridge, toward the dock, enjoying the breeze. Our 90 minutes was almost up.