YEARS OF CONSOLIDATION (1955-1960)
After the death of Jesse H. Jones, long-time Houston leader and former U. S. Secretary of Commerce, the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce on June 12, 1956, said, in part: "Perhaps no other man in the first half of the 20th Century so nearly symbolized the ideal of the great builder as did Jesse H. Jones. More than any other individual, he was the builder of Houston, the largest city in the South. . . . In times of grave national and international crises, he was given and used historically unprecedented authority over the economy of this nation to restore its depression-depleted strength and to prepare it for pre-war defense demands, thereby becoming probably the most powerful person in the nation excepting the President. Then, during World War II, he masterfully meshed the gears so that the economy could roll forward with accelerating pace toward victory. In these heroic achievements as financier-statesman, he not only did not permit this nation’s free enterprise system to be impaired but he so conscientiously applied the authority granted him that the economy functioned with maximum freedom. He administered these public trusts scrupulously in the public interest."
During the year, the Highway Committee of the Chamber of Commerce continued efforts it had initiated two years earlier to make it possible for Harris County to finance the essential purchase of right-of-way for freeway construction. The feasibility of a wheel tax had been determined and public support had been marshaled for necessary legislative authorization. However, in a friendly suit to determine its legal base, the Texas Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Emergency action had to be taken, and although the public had voted down an earlier proposal for right-of-way bonds, a $15,000,000 issue was approved by a four-to-one vote on September 8, 1956.
The Chamber of Commerce at its annual meeting in December characterized 1956 as one of Houston’s best years. Jobs had been increased by about 27,000. Public and private construction had gone forward in impressive volumes. The citizens of Houston had indicated their support of progress by approving bond issues for city, county and school district. For the first time in history, the number of passengers moving through the Houston International Airport surpassed the population of metropolitan Houston, well in excess of one million. New interest had been developed in cultural activities. Palms Center and the Gulfgate Shopping Center were opened as additional major units in the new pattern of dispersed retailing activity in metropolitan Houston. The Houston Independent School District formalized a policy on segregation in line with a recent ruling of the United States Supreme Court.
While 1957 was a rather uneventful year nationally and internationally, it was a transitional year for Houston and recorded a number of significant developments. On the broader scene, the Space Age was ushered in when the Russians on October 4th launched into orbit their first Sputnik, a man-made satellite 23 inches in diameter and weighing 183 pounds. A military rocket was used as the launch vehicle, and the orbital speed of the satellite was indicated as about 18,000 miles per hour. This came about three months after the opening of the International Geophysical Year, a major development in international cooperation in scientific adventures.
Completing his record third year as president of the Chamber of Commerce in December, 1957, Ben C. Belt looked back upon the year as follows: "Some time in the future, when the history of this period is written, it is entirely possible that 1957 will be cited as a transitional year for this city. The evidence of this is not found so much in general trends as in a series of special developments. "Included among these significant mileposts were: announcement of a Federal Interstate Freeway program, with the Texas Highway Department assuming a part of the responsibility for right-of-way purchasing; an air-pollution survey; a successful bond issue for the Port of Houston; some tangible steps toward a long-range water supply; culmination of a two-year effort for direct air service to Europe; the report of the Harris County Home Rule Commission; and a precedent-setting informal conference of a group of prominent Houstonians with the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington.
When 1957 opened, the economic outlook was bright, but recessional tendencies began to make themselves felt within a few months. However, for the year, the growth trends maintained about the same rate of increase that had been experienced in the Houston area since the close of World War II. While there were some troubled spots in the economic picture, with at least a temporary period of readjustment in evidence near the end of the year, business conditions in the main during the year were good and employment held to high levels.
Early in the year, the Chamber of Commerce spearheaded a successful bond issue campaign for the Port of Houston that marked the beginning of a new era of progress and development for the Port. Prior to this effort, controversy within the Port Commission and other factors had resulted in the defeat of a series of proposals which the Navigation District had submitted to the people. After endorsing the Port’s $7,000,000 bond proposal, to be supplemented by $5,000,000 in revenue bonds, for improvement of Port facilities, the Chamber of Commerce organized a county-wide Citizens Committee headed by the veteran banker and civic leader, F. M. Law, to campaign for approval of the bonds.
President Belt declared that the hour of decision would come for the Port on January 31st when the bond election would be held. "The simple truth is that we have not built facilities to accommodate and encourage a greater flow of commerce over our wharves," he said. "This port business is highly competitive and unless we do those things which we know must be done right now, we shall continue to lose position, having already dropped from second place among the ports of the nation in tonnage to fourth place." With 56,086 votes cast in the election, the port bonds received the necessary two-thirds majority by a margin of 1,089 votes.
During the three years prior to these bond authorizations, customs collections by the Federal Government at the Port of Houston reached a total of $39,000,000. Contrary to the claims of some critics of the port elsewhere, for the entire 63-year-period during which the Federal Government had made investments in the Port of Houston, its cumulative outlays for all purposes had been but $38,000,000.
Jerry Turner, general manager of the Port, in May, 1957, made a 40-year forecast for the Port, saying: "I picture a Houston with additional ship channels reaching inland from Galveston Bay and lined with industries supplying the needs of the world from its own surrounding territory and from the greater hinterlands available to it. I see ships from all the world vying with each other for the cargoes from the bountiful industries created by the influx of chemical plants, steel plants, and other manufacturers, which will be located on and adjacent to the ship channels. It will not be just the Pittsburgh of the South, but the steel capital of the country and chemical capital as well. It will be the leading port for the import of iron ore and the export of steel—the top port in the export of fertilizer and grain, the top port still for the handling and exportation of petroleum and petroleum products and cotton."
Earlier in the year, "Houston Magazine" had said: "Houston is in a favored position to become, in time, one of the world’s major steel-producing centers. Dynamic growth creating growing markets for steel, availability of iron ore in East Texas, availability of limestone, a Southwestern supply of coking coal, an abundant supply of economical natural gas, a tidewater location, and a large supply of scrap iron are a combination of factors that will lead to the development of the Houston area as a primary producing area for iron and steel and their products."
The air-pollution survey, conducted by the Southwest Research Institute, under sponsorship of the Chamber of Commerce, was completed during 1957 to provide the first body of authoritative information on air pollution in the Houston area. In general, it was very reassuring. The report found that: (1) air conditions in Houston are favorable to rapid dispersion and dilution of pollutants, and no evidence was found to indicate the occurrence of complete air-mass stagnation for any extended periods of time, such as had caused air-pollution disasters in other areas; (2) the problems of temporary air pollution were localized rather than being community-wide problems; (3) no similarity was found with conditions in the Los Angeles area; (4) measured concentrations of sulfur dioxide were not excessive; (5) hydrogen sulphide generally was found to be in low amounts; (6) only traces of chlorine and sulfate were recorded; (7) the most unfavorable pollution pattern resulted when the wind was from the east or northeast, which allowed mixing of pollutants from several sources; (8) on a community-wide basis, the average dust-content of the atmosphere was in the same range as volumes reported in other major cities; (9) little damage was found to foliage; and (10) no eye irritants were identified.
President Belt said: "We consider the findings of the survey to be so important to the community that the Executive Committee has authorized additional work to supplement certain phases of the study to be carried on next year. The first year’s survey was done at a cost of some $125,000, to the Houston Chamber of Commerce. The second year’s work will cost about $35,000, and will be in the nature of a confirmation survey.
"Houston is an industrial community, with the nation’s greatest concentration of oil refineries and chemical plants, and so long as we are, we shall continue to have some pollution in the atmosphere, despite the genuine efforts being made by industry and control authorities to eliminate or substantially control the emissions of pollutants from their plants."
"The only way to have no air pollution at all is to have no industry at all, or no city at all; so all of our considerations are relative. We must compare the findings of the Houston survey with conditions which prevail in other industrial cities. From the standpoint of pollutants and dust in the atmosphere, we compare very favorably, or better, especially when it is considered that our problems are not community-wide. The report established a benchmark against which trends in the air pollution may be measured in the future. In this regard, we trust the report will be useful and helpful to our control authorities, who have not had the budget funds, personnel or equipment to undertake such a comprehensive survey. Our control authorities have performed a fine service to the public in the past, and we are pleased to make this contribution to their efforts."